Lately I’ve been asked by several people about what to look for in when purchasing a used bicycle. This is a good question, because, like buying a used car, you need to make sure that what you get isn’t going to break as soon as you get it home. Buying a bicycle is supposed to be fun and exciting, something that you look forward to doing because you want to get out riding as soon as you can, and buying a lemon can really ruin your day.
The first thing I look at is the general shape of the bike. Is it clean? Is the paint chipped more than normal use would create? Is there an excessive amount of rust or corrosion on the bike? What kind of components are there, are you paying for top of the line derailleurs, but getting something much less? Chains are so often neglected, is this one rusted and looking like it needs to be replaced? How about the tires, do they need to be replaced, are they of a quality that you need? And what condition are the cables and brakes in? Inspecting the bike really quickly can let you know if this is a piece of machinery that you should be serious about. Now that the intitial quick inspection is done, it’s time to take a look at the bike a bit closer.
First off let’s take a closer look at the frame. This is the most important part of the bike, for obvious reasons. If the frame is bad, it doesn’t matter what kind of cool gadgets and gizmos you have, the bike just isn’t going to roll. Check the areas where all the frame tubes come together, the head tube, the bottom bracket, the upper seat tube, and the chain and set stays, for signs of cracking. Chipped paint, minute cracks, signs of corrosion could all be indications that the frame has problems that could lead to the bike being trashed. Check the major frame tubes for dents or bending. These are signs that something serious happened to the frame at one point and therefore you should pass on buying this bike. If the paint is scuffed or scratched it usually isn’t a big deal. Regular riding can create those minor scuffs and scratches. What you want to be on the lookout for are the really deep marks that show that maybe something bigger than the usual riding mishaps occurred.
Next take a look at the handlebars and controls. Are they showing signs of crashing? Are the grips torn? Are the handlebars bent? You need to remember that this is the control center of you cockpit. If things are broken, seized, or otherwise not functional, then you need to question how the bike has been maintained. Anyone that lets the controls fall apart, when they are your connection to the bike, will let the rest get worse. If the controls are good, then you are ready to move on to the next
Lift the front and rear of the bike and give the wheels a spin. Hopefully the wheels are fairly true. A bike with disc brakes can tolerate rims that are out of true (as long as it’s not too severe), but a bike with rim brakes needs to have fairly true wheels. The wheels can be trued if it isn’t too bad and the rims aren’t bent. But it is something to take into account. If you aren’t too good at truing wheels, then that will be an extra cost at the bike shop. It also indicates that the bike has been ridden fairly hard….While the wheels are spinning take a look at the brakes. Regular caliper or V-brakes should have enough pad wear left to not need replacing right away. They should be adjusted so that they make complete contact with the rim and don’t rub when the wheel is spun. Now this is really a minor point, but if they rub or don’t make good contact, then they need to be adjusted. Disc brakes are fairly easy. You are looking for pad wear and if the rotor is bent. Spin the wheel and if you hear the brakes rubbing, look and see if it is because the rotor is bent. A minor wobble is tolerable, but if you can see a real drastic wobble, the rotor is probably bent and needs to be replaced…this is added cost. Also check out the tires that are on the bike. What kind of tires are they? Will they work for your style of riding? Are they rotting? Are they pumped up and ready for a test ride? If you need to replace them its another added cost to take into consideration….
Next are the derailleurs and cables. Visually inspect both derailleurs and the cables leading to them. The derailleurs should be clean, or not too crusty, and the cables should not be too corroded or frayed. Since you already checked the tires, hop on the bike and go for a quick test ride. The derailleurs should change gears quickly and smoothly. Shifting that is sticky could be bad cables or weak derailleur springs.
Lastly, you need to look at the front chain rings and crankset. The chain rings should not be showing excessive wear from the chain. To replace the chain rings can be fairly costly, especially on a bike that you are just buying. Check that the cranks are not loose and that there is no freeplay in the bottom bracket. If the cranks are loose on the bottom bracket it is a simple matter of tightening things up. If there is freeplay in the bottom bracket, it needs to be replaced.
Remember that if you really like that bike, and the frame is good, all the other stuff can be replaced or repaired. Sometimes just the personal value, the enjoyment you get from a certain model or type of bike, makes all the other stuff you have to do to make it rideable worth it. I’ve purchased bikes that needed so much work that they really weren’t worth what I paid for them, but just the enjoyment of working on a bicycle that I personally liked made it a labor of love and worth every second and penny…In the long run, the bike that gets you out and riding, is the perfect bike!