I’m a pragmatic guy. I like to save money wherever I can and when I buy something, I squeeze every last bit of use I can out of it. I buy used cars, sometimes used clothes, and I sometimes buy used bikes. I don’t mean collectable bikes here, I mean high end, everyday riders.
Over the past several years, bikes have started to become astronomically expensive. You get a lot for your money, but I can’t possibly justify spending $5,000 – $10,000 on a bike and to be honest, I can’t really understand why anyone who doesn’t race for a living can. I came up during the era when you could buy a handmade Campy or Dura Ace equipped bike for between $1200 and $1500. That was a lot of money in the early 80’s, but I doubt that even with inflation, that translates to anywhere near 5000 of today’s dollars.
One of the things that I love about the old steel bikes is that they really were made by hand. Someone clamped a handful of tubes into a jig, brazed them together with a torch, cleaned up the joints, and then sent the frame off to the painter. A lot of the great names in bike building were literally a few people working in a small shop, making a few hundred bikes a year. It doesn’t get much more hands on that that.
Steel frames can be repaired. In the worse case, a damaged frame tube can be removed and replaced with a new one. A minor dent can be filled in with brazing material. A tweaked frame can be realigned. A carbon frame can only bend so far, then it explodes in a shower of carbon fiber strands. A well built steel frame can last forever as long as it doesn’t rust out. Carbon fiber, while it doesn’t rust will break down, or at least the adhesives that hold it together will.
So, to get back to the original question – should you buy a used bike? Absolutely. There have always been a lot of people out there who have to have a new bike every two or three years. There are also a lot of people who decide that they want to be cyclist. They run out and buy the most expensive bike they can afford, and then realize that it doesn’t matter if your bike cost $1500 or $5500, in the end it’s you that has to turn the pedals. Riding a bike is hard work, and a lot of people run out and buy a bike that ends up being an expensive laundry rack in a corner of the garage.
The want ads are full of really good bikes that have hardly any miles on them, priced for a fraction of the new price, especially if you’re of average height. Unlike cars, bikes are pretty simple machines and it’s easy to figure out if a bike is in good condition or not. If you don’t have a lot of experience with bikes, take someone who does with you to check out a used bike. Check the bike over carefully for crash damage. Look for scuffs on the pedals and brake levers because they’ll show if the bike has been laid down. If the bike has a steel or aluminum frame, you can easily check to see if the frame is out of alignment with a piece of string (there are videos on YouTube that show how to do this). I always like to take a chain check tool with me when I look at a used bike. If the seller says he only rode it 4 or 5 times, but the chain checker shows a heavily worn chain, he’s probably being less than honest. If there’s a computer on the bike, see if you can find the total mileage. Not a guaranteed test of course, but if it shows 10,000 km, it could mean that the bike has been used a lot more than the seller lets on. Check the chainrings and cogs for signs of wear. If the bike has been ridden a lot, the teeth on the chainrings could be worn to points, and the teeth on the cogs, especially the first, second, and third largest could have a little hook worn into the trailing edge. Check the rear derailleur hanger to make sure it hasn’t been bent during a crash.
Check the frame carefully for any signs of cracks, especially around the bottom bracket. There’s a lot of stress and flexing there. On steel or aluminum frames, look for wrinkled paint, especially where the fork legs join the crown and where the down tube meets the head tube. In a front end crash, like when someone runs into a parked car, the paint often cracks or wrinkles at these spots. Rotate the handlebars and make sure that there’s no sign of slop, or brinelling which is caused when the bearing races in the headset get indents in them and it feels like the steering is on autopilot. Old style headsets are easy to replace, but many new frames have integrated headsets that can be tricky to replace. If there’s any sign of headset trouble, do some research to find out if the headset on the particular bike you are looking at can be replaced, or get the bike checked out by someone who knows how to service them. Component manufacturer Chris King explains his concerns about integrated headsets in an article posted on his website.
Spin the wheels and check for wobbles and especially flat spots that can be caused by running into a curb. Wobbles are easy to fix, flat spots – not so much. The wheels on high end bikes can be easily worth $1500+ so you want to make sure that they are in good shape.
Finally, the ride of truth. Make sure you take a set of Allen wrenches with you so you can adjust the seat height. It’s hard to tell if you like a bike if it’s not adjusted properly. Of course, make sure the bike is the right size for you to begin with. Take it for a spin and if you’re confident in your riding abilities, ride with no hands. If the frame isn’t straight, it’s going to pull to one side. Make sure that you are comfortable on the bike and it feels “right.” Different bikes have different geometries and ergonomics, and they all have their own feel. Does the bike feel lively or does it feel dead – all bikes aren’t created equal and just because a frame is made out of carbon fiber doesn’t mean it’s well made. When you stand up and pedal hard, does the chain rub on the front derailleur cage, possibly indicating an overly flexible frame?
So, if it’s time for a new bike, but the bike you really want is out of reach, if you’re patient and do your homework, you can find a great bike for a fraction of what it cost brand new. Just do your due diligence, check a used bike over carefully and if it looks good, don’t be afraid to take a chance and potentially save yourself thousands of dollars.