Guide to Buying a Used Bike

This is from a link that was posted to [TheThinkTank] mailing list. As mentioned there, it's currently Montreal-specific, but I think with some tweaking it could do good service on our website.

There are so many bikes molding away in people’s basements, rusting in alleys and taking up space in non-cyclists homes that it is a wonder that anyone buys a new bike at all. However, buying a used bike can be pretty intimidating. The following guide should help you with choosing your next bike!

1. Decide what kind of bike you want:
Bikes come in many flavors, decide what kind of bike you want before you start looking.
Road Bike: A road bike is the most efficient type of bike. A road bike often has gears (though single speeds and fixed gears are currently also in style), drop handlebars (which look like rams horns) and a straight top tube. You ride a road bike in an ‘aggressive’ position, with your back almost parallel to the road which can be uncomfortable for some people, however this is more aerodynamic, so if speed is your goal, this is for you!

Mixte/ step-through frame (often erroneously referred to as a ‘ladies’ frame): these are very quick to mount, as you don’t have to step over the top tube and are great for people with restricted agility. They can be a little heavier, but can be safer as they are easier to step off. Great if you wear loose clothing (e.g. skirts)
Single speed: Means you only have one gear, which can make it hard to get up hill, get started from a stop, or to get to higher speed when going down hill. However, you don’t need a derailleur (the part which allows you to change gears) which is one of the parts of a bike which is likely to break, especially in winter.

Fixed Gear: a fixed gear bike cannot coast, so you have to pedal at all times when the bike is moving. As there are fewer moving parts, they supposedly require less maintenance. When going down steep inclines, you need to pedal extremely fast. Don’t buy a fixed gear bike before having ridden one, as they require a very different riding style. These might be a little more expensive than their geared or single-speed cousins as your bike will also come with some ‘hipster-cool’.
Mountain Bike: Designed for off-road cycling, these have much larger tires (which increase rolling resistance on the road, decreasing your efficiency). Mountain bikes often have a less aggressive and more upright riding position, and are very comfortable on bumpy montreal roads. Suspension can add some comfort, but at the price of added weight and more moving parts that can seize in the winter.

Utility Bike / City bike: These are designed for practical transportation over speed or weight issues. Parts are often stronger, and more durable and feature an upright riding position.
Bikes are made of many different materials, each of which have pros and cons.
Steel: What most older bikes are made of. Steel can be a little heavier, however is more flexible and gives a more comfortable ride.
Aluminium: What a lot of newer bikes are made of. They often have larger tubes and are sometimes lighter than their steel counterparts.
Carbon: Expensive bikes are made of carbon fibre. Not recommended for a first-time-buy, or a get-around-town bike.
Bamboo: Oh yeah!
2. Price range / How much time you want to spend fixing it.
When buying a used bike you often have to make a trade off on how much time you want to spend fixing the bike and how much money you want to spend. You can find bikes for free in the garbage, but these will require a lot more work to get into working condition. A good used bike should set you back around $80-150, but this varies with the time of year, the type of bike and the condition. Set your price range before you start looking for a bike, and it will be easier to say no to a bike which seems too expensive.
3. Start Looking!
Ask your friends if they have any bikes which they don’t need, look for a good deal on moving days, check in dumpsters or… look online at the following links:
Use your discretion and common sense when looking at online postings. There are a lot of stolen bikes which are sold online, and a lot of people who are trying to make a quick buck on crappy bikes. However, there are also a lot of legitimate postings!
Some things you want to look for:
• Bikes with the brand / decals still visible: Bike thieves will often paint bikes so that they are no longer recognizable by their rightful owners.
• A description of the size, type, condition and material of the bike.
• Sometimes a ‘reason for sale’ is good piece-of-mind
If the posting is in French, do your best to reply in French, the poster will appreciate it, and will be more likely to get back to you.
4. Go see the bike!
Once you have identified a bike which fits your criteria, go see it! Remember, by going to see the bike never commits you to actually buying it, and there are some basic things that you want to check before you lay down your cash:
0. Size / Seatpost.
Make sure the bike fits you. Sit on it. A little bit of discomfort can quickly become a lot of discomfort if you are riding for a long time.
Check to see if you can move the seatpost, if it is at the wrong height and you can’t move it because it is rusted in place, consider passing the bike up. Stuck seatposts can often be really hard to unstick.
1. Frame (Rust + dents etc) + Fork (straight)
The frame is the hardest part to fix. Check for any damage from crashes: dings, cracks or bent parts (which don’t look like they should be bent). On a steel frame, small dents are OK, while on aluminium frames, dents can lead to fracture. On a steel frame, check for rust. Some surface rust is OK, but excessive rust can mean that the bike has not been treated too well in the past, which can lead to a lot more maintenance for you.
Look at the fork, and make sure that they are parallel. On steel forks, it is possible to bend them back (a little!), but not on aluminium forks. Make sure the fork doesn’t move forwards and backwards in the frame, if it does, the headset needs tightening (come to The Flat, and we will show you how!).
Buying a frame with problems is not a good idea.
2. Bottom Bracket (the part which connects the cranks together).
Grab both cranks (the part the pedals are attached to) and try and move them from side to side. There should be no play. If there is, you will need to tighten the bottom bracket.
3. Wheels (true) + tires
Lift the bike off the ground and spin the wheels. When looking at them from behind, the wheels should be round. Compare the rim of the wheel to a fixed point on the bike (e.g. the brakes) and see whether there are points in the rim which are closer or further away. If there are, it means the wheel is out of ‘true’ and can effect the efficacy of the brakes.
Check the wear on the tires. If there are frayed parts, or if the thread is extremely worn, you will need a new set.
4. Brakes
Check that the brakes are able to stop the bike! Sometimes they just need minor adjustments, but sometimes brakes can be rusted in place. Check that the brake cables and housing (the plastic sheath around the cables) are not rusty or frayed. If they are, you should change them.
5. Gears / drivetrain.
Check that the cables that go to the gear shifters aren’t rusty. Check for rust on the chain. When pedalling, make sure that the chain doesn’t ‘skip’ at any point, if it does your chain might have a bad link. A chain that sags too much is worn, and will need to be replaced. If the bike you are looking at has gears, check that both the front and back shift smoothly and into all of the gears.
6. Take the bike for a test ride.
You will often find more problems by riding a bike than simply inspecting it. If at anytime you don’t feel safe, stop riding. Make sure you take note of any problems, as these will be good bargaining points with the vendor.
5. Come see us!
If you have just bought a used bike you should get it checked out by a professional mechanic, or come to The Flat, when we are open and we can help you do a safety check. Feel free to come talk to any of our volunteer mechanics before you buy a bike and ask them about any of the checks mentioned above.
6. Ride!