If you’re new to bike commuting and not ready to run out and drop $1,000 on a new bike at the local bike shop (and I don’t blame you) you will probably be looking to purchase a used bike. Even if it isn’t your first bike, a used cycle is always a good idea for the budget or retro-minded. This is definitely a good decision.
Now that you’ve decided to to buy used, follow these steps to make sure you are making the right purchasing decision:
1. Find your price range
To avoid overpaying or overextending yourself on your purchase, figure out how much money you want to spend before you even begin looking at bikes. It is easy to let the price creep higher as you decide more and more features are crucial to your cycling needs.
However, the truth is that very little is actually necessary on a bicycle. Most is just convenience. A $50 bicycle can get you around very well, so don’t think you need to spend $500. To get you started, here is a basic look at prices on different types of used bicycles:
Cheap ($50-$200): These road bikes are old frames, often from Schwinn or similar makers. They don’t have as many gears and come with friction shifters and may or may not have been well cared for.
Moderate ($201-$500): This price range can get you a pretty sweet road bike with a few thousand miles on it. They may have the fancier shifters you see on high-end bikes, but the likely have more gears and higher quality components.
Expensive ($500 and up): If you are spending more than $500 on a used commuter, you are getting into expensive territory. However, if you need something solid with the ability to attach panniers and haul big time, it may cost more as you get more specific with your needs. If you are spending this much, make sure the bike is in good shape.
2. Find your fit
Rideability and comfort depends more on fit than on the bicycle itself. Either go to a shop and pay to have yourself fitted or get a rough estimate using your measurements online or from a friend familiar with cycling. In my experience, it is best never to settle for a cycle with an incorrect frame size just to find a deal.
In some cases certain brands will offer a 58cm frame while others will offer a 57cm frame. Use common sense. If you are big on a 58cm frame then don’t go for a 57cm, try to find that maker’s 59cm frame and see if the fit works for you.
Also, leg length is not everything. Make sure you have a good fit for your arm length and shoulder width and that, in general, the bike feels comfortable under you. Remember, you don’t want to feel sore and achy after a 15 mile ride to work in the morning.
3. Understand the frame
Frames come in all shapes, sizes, and materials. They have different features and can accept different accessories and components. Before you buy your bike, become familiar with the specifics of the frame and figure out how that will affect your experience in the future. Here are a few things to look out for:
Material: Steel frames are strong and durable, but they do rust and can be heavy. Typically, however, a steel frame is great for commuting. Aluminum frames aren’t as stiff as steel but are often lighter and are used in many new bicycles. Not my material of choice. Carbon fiber is light and stiff, but expensive. Great for racing but a target for theft and damage in everyday use.
In the end, material choice is a personal preference. I commute on either a lugged steel frame or an older lugger carbon fiber frame, neither of which is very expensive.
Eyelets: While some of us are content to commute with a simple should bag, others of us like to throw some saddlebags on the bicycle for all of our storage needs. However, not all bicycles are prepared to accept rear racks and saddle bags, so if you intend to go that route make sure the bike has eyelets (or better yet, already comes with a rack).
Sizing: As I said above, fit is very important. Make sure you know the size of the bike you’re buying and that it will fit you. Hopefully you’ll be able to give the bike a spin, or at least find all the measurements. But don’t forgetting, fine-tuning can always be done after purchase!
4. Understand the components
Knowing what’s on your future bike isn’t just about bragging about how shiny and expensive your bike schwag is. No matter what bicycle you buy, you will end up needing to replace certain parts on the bike when they wear our or if there is a failure. For example, when I bought my first road bike it came with 5-speed Shimano 600 gear.
Evidently this was great stuff over 20 years ago. But when I needed to do some service involving removing the cassette, not even the local bike shop had the proper tool to get it off. I ended up needing a whole new wheel because it was going to be more trouble removing the cassette than spending $40 on a new wheel.
So, when shopping, try to get components of a current name brand and model so you will be able to purchase and install replacement parts.
5. Anticipate initial and long term costs
As with the above, try to figure out what the components are and how much they will cost. If you want a really simple, cheap set up that’s not going to break and won’t cost much if it does, find something with old-style friction shifters.
However, if you want something finicky that costs a lot to fix, go for the newer shifters that are integrated into the brake levers. All of my gear bikes currently have them, and while they are great as long as they work, they are equally frustrating when the don’t, and can cost upwards of $100 to fix or replace.
6. Shop around
You won’t be shopping around for other models of the same bike, most likely, but when you’re looking at used bikes, there are always more fish in the sea (or wheels on the road, as the case may be). Don’t jump at the first deal you find unless it costs less than a tank of gas, because you don’t want to end up regretting your purchase.
Others may disagree with me, but an old Schwinn Le Tour is not worth $100 bucks unless it has some really fancy stuff on it. Similarly, an 8-speed Specialized Allez Epic isn’t worth $600. They might tempt you at first, but always shop around. Check prices on craigslist, ebay, and wherever you can find bikes for sale to get more perspective.
Craigslist is often a great place for deal on normal goods, but can become quite over-priced when road bikes are concerned because comparison shopping is so difficult.
Bikes are like anything else you buy second-hand: negotiable. Sometimes ever more so. So, negotiate! My first road bike was only $40 bucks after negotiating down from $60, so if a bike is a little above what you want to pay, don’t fret, because that’s a perfect bargaining chip!
8. After-purchase: treat your bike well
Keep your chain oiled, your nuts tight, and your brakes on and you’ll be fine in the long run. In the end, treating what you have well will always save you money over beating it up and having to buy another bike!