A Guide to Buying a Used Bicycle

A Pile of Used Bikes

So you're looking for a used bike probably to save some money. That's as good a reason as any, but there are a few things to consider to make sure you get your money's worth.

Where To Find A Used Bike

There are many places to look. Start with your local newspapers; local bike shops which may even offer a limited warranty; and, of course, web sites such as eBay, Craigslist, and, in Canada, Kijiji. There is also police auctions which sell turned in bicycles that no one has claimed. And don't discount the value of your own connections on social media — people often have bikes around that they've forgotten about.

Primary Purpose

As with buying a brand new bike, you should first decide what you will be using it for. You wouldn't buy a new road bike if you plan on riding on trails so the same logic should apply for a used bike. Don't let a seemingly great deal “trick” you into buying something that won't suit your needs.

Overall Fit

Sit on the bike and make sure it is an appropriate size and that it is comfortable. There should not be any discomfort at all, as this will translate to a lot of discomfort after several minutes of riding. Ask to take it for a short test ride. If the seat or handlebars are too high/low adjust them on the spot before you try it out. Also make note of your body position. Are you leaning too far forward or are you forced to keep your back uncomfortably upright?

Thoroughly Test Components

Prospective buyers are often gentle when they are evaluating a bicycle e.g. they test the brakes but not nearly aggressively enough. All components should be tested with enough force to mimic actual riding and stopping conditions. Don't be afraid of damaging anything, because if it does break during the test imagine what would happen to you if failed during a real ride. So, test the brakes, gears, steering, bounce the bike a bit off the ground, and stand on the pedals.

Damaged and Worn Out Parts

Check the bike thoroughly, part by part, because any damage will mean extra cost to you down the road.

Frame: Scratches are a normal part of buying a used bike. However, dents or gouge marks may be an indication of a fall or an accident. On a steel frame this may not be a big deal, but on an aluminum, carbon fiber, or titanium bike the material will eventually suffer ‘material fatigue'. This means there is a limit to how much impact it can absorb (accumulative) until it fails, most times without warning. Also check all joints for damage.

Wheels: Lift them up and test them for trueness. Gently squeeze all the spokes (2 at a time) to check for even tension. Check the spoke where it bends and connects onto the hub, as this is a stress area. Check the rim for areas worn out and for cracks where the spoke holes are located, usually caused by over tightened spokes.

Tires: Look for worn out areas or cracks, both are indications that they will need replacing.

Brakes: Check the brake pads for wear. Spin the wheels and test the levers. Also test the brakes while the bike is being pushed on the ground. Look at the exposed parts of the cables for any damage or rust, which is a big failure warning. However, replacing the brake cables is something you may choose to do either way, just for safety.

Gears: Test the full range of both the front and the back gears. Check to see if they change clean and smoothly. If the cables look frayed or rusted they will need replacing. There's often chain rub that becomes apparent only when actually pedaling on the bike and not when the pedals are being spun by hand.

Chain Rings: Needing to replace the chain rings can be a significant expense. Overly worn teeth will look sharp or concave. Avoid them.

Chain: If it looks old it probably needs replacing, especially if the chain rings need replacing. Take with you a chain measuring tool and check the chain. A grimy chain may look old, but it could be that it was never cleaned.

Greased Moving Parts: Test the wheels, bottom bracket, and steering tube. Spin them, put pressure on them and feel for smoothness. Apply pressure to the bottom bracket with your foot while the bike is on the ground. For the steering tube lift up the bike and see if the fork spins smoothly.

Lastly, before riding the bike, take a few minutes and make sure all screws and bolts are tight.

Make Sure You Are Not Buying a Stolen Bike

Before making payment, make sure that the bike isn't stolen. The law is quite clear on this. If the bike is stolen, it doesn't belong to you even if you paid for it. Not only might it be confiscated by the authorities, but you may be on the hook to explain why you are in possession of a stolen bike. A warning bell should go off if the price is too good to be true. This indicates that the seller simply wants to get rid of it and they don't care how much they get because what they get is pure profit.

Three things to check for to make sure you don't fall victim to this:

  1. Ask for the bill of sale from the person selling the bike.
  2. Check to make sure the serial numbers, usually located under the bottom bracket, have not been erased or altered.
  3. Take the serial numbers and check with the local police to see if the bike has been reported as stolen.

On a similar note, ask the person you are buying it from for something in writing stating that you have purchased this bike from them e.g. a receipt. This way they cannot claim that you stole it from them.

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