Tips and tricks for buying your first used bike

Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.

Jump To Comments

Between the rise in bike commuting, the hipster trend of riding vintage steel bikes and the re-use and recycle movement, there is a huge market for used bikes. Just take a gander at sites like Craigslist and eBay and you’ll find thousands upon thousands of bikes for sale. There are also second-hand bike and sporting goods stores in just about every city, and we all know a friend or two looking to sell their old steed because they’re lusting after a new one.

If you’re just getting into cycling or a discipline within it, buying a new-to-you bike can be a great way to get started. But it’s not for everyone and there are some things one should know before buying a used bike.

Kathleen Emry is one of Seattle’s first female bike mechanics, and the proud owner of FreeRange Cycles, a quaint neighborhood bike shop she’s owned for nearly 20 years now. When starting out in 1997, the business was mostly a bicycle repair shop and used bike retailer. Today, FreeRange Cycles specialized in commuter and touring bikes, and rarely sells used bikes.

“As a shop owner, there’s a liability in selling used-bikes. You rarely truly know the bike’s history, whether it’s been crashed, how many miles it’s got on it or even if it was stolen. You just don’t know where it has been,” said Emry. “With that said, there is a huge market for them and when you’re new to riding or have a small budget,  it’s better to go with a quality used bike than a cheap factory made bike.”

We talked to Emry and her shop mechanic, Travis Morgan, about used bikes, what to look for and their tips and tricks to ensure you’re getting the right bike for you.

Tips and tricks for buying your first used bike:

Know what you want.

Before you start shopping around, educate yourself and know what you want. Emry encourages to ask yourself the follow questions:

  • What kind of riding will you do?
    Commuting, racing, mountain biking, bike touring, etc? In that same vein, what’s the purpose of this bike –will it be a pick-up truck or a sportscar?
  • How much are you willing to spend?
    “When you start shopping, have a price range in mind and then add a little bit of flexibility for that “perfect” bike,” said Emry. “Test ride bikes even outside your price range. If you truly love a bike, it’s better to save up and buy that bike than one that fits your budget right now. You’ll likely end up regretting not buying that nicer bike .”

Do your research.

  • Visit sites like to know how much a certain make and model should cost.
  • Talk to people know a thing or two about bikes.

Things to look for:

  • A bike that fits.
    “Fit is sooo important. If it doesn’t fit you right, you’re not going to get turned on to biking,” said Emry.
  • A bike that is aesthetically pleasing to you.
    “Again, you have to like it or you won’t ride it,” said Emry.
  • A bike that’s going to work right off the bat.
    Are the components working? Are the wheels true? Buying a bike that needs work will add in costs.
  • Compatibility and serviceability
    “Find a bike that is as complete as possible and as close to the original as possible. Especially with vintage steel bikes, compatibility can be tough these days and you’ll end up spending a lot of money and time in sourcing (and importing) parts,” said bike mechanic Travis Morgan.
  • The frame material:

    • Steel: “Steel has better ride quality and will last longer. There is less chance of damage and they’ll often bend back after a crash,” said Morgan. “But the paint needs to be in good shape. No rust. If there is rust, it will rust through and can crack. Mid-to-late 80’s Japanese road bikes are the best value for your buck. A vintage Miyata touring bike is as good as a brand new Soma. But watch out for low quality French bikes from the 70s and 80s.”

    • Aluminium and carbon: “Personally, I stay away from buying a used carbon or aluminium bike. Aluminum and carbon has a shelf life and will depreciate. A good steel bike lasts a lifetime. Plus, even if the owner says it’s never been crashed, it’s hard to tell if the frame is cracked somewhere,” said Morgan. “But if you are looking, look for obvious cracks, especially around the bonding points, and listen for sounds.”

Must dos:

    • Test ride.
      “This is critical. Test ride so you know it fits right and it works,” said Morgan.
    • Always ask for the bike history.
      “Always ask where it has been, who it was ridden buy and how much? Was it raced? Is he/she the first owner?” said Emry. “Also ask for the serial number and make sure it hasn’t been stolen.”
    • Feel down the tubes for dents and bends.
      There shouldn’t be any. These may indicate a crash.
    • Pick up the bike and bounce it.
      Do you hear any rattles?
    • Give the wheels a spin
      “Although it would be a simple fix, it’s always good to check if the wheels are true,” said Morgan.
    • Bring an Allen wrench.
      “Bring an Allen wrench and make sure you can move the seatpost and stem and make sure it isn’t seized,” said Morgan.
    • Bring a magnet.
      “If the crank and rims are steel, it’s a cheap bike and you won’t want it,” warned Morgan. “To test, bring a magnet with you.”
    • Take it to a bike shop.
      “Before buying, take the bike to a bike shop if possible. A mechanic can look it over for you before buying. If I have a relationship with the customer, I’m always happy to give my opinion,” said Emry.
    • Safety first.
      Bring someone with you, and meet in a public place.
    • Golden rule: If the bike is not in a good enough shape to test ride it, don’t buy it.
      (Unless you’re an avid collector and know your bikes)

Editors' Picks