Global events have created a massive boom in bicycle sales, resulting in a windfall for the bicycle industry. But as bikes flew out the door, replenishment challenges quickly reinforced the basic economic lesson of how supply and demand drives prices. With fewer new bicycles on shop floors, asking prices for used bikes have spiked. So how do you know if you are getting a good used deal or a lemon before you buy? Let’s find out.
Bicycle Blue Book
Whether you are buying a pre-owned bike from a shop or a private party, the Bicycle Blue Book is your first line of defense. New bicycles are configured to fit into price points defined by frame material and components. The Blue Book allows you to directly compare a bike’s original equipment vs what you have before you. Frame materials don’t change, so focus on the components.
Don’t let me knock you over with a feather, but some people swap out parts prior to resale, especially if they are of quality. Wheels are a primary example and the number one thing to look out for when comparing parts. An extra set of wheels comes in handy, so a good pair is switched out for an old pair that could be on its last legs. Components mean more than just the drivetrain and brakes. Note the stem, seatpost, fork, handlebars and saddle, too.
Bicycles of a certain value rarely come with pedals, so don’t expect them to be included when purchasing used. If they do, all the better, but if your shoes and cleats are of a different brand and style, they won’t do you much good. Bring your pedals and shoes along when visiting any potential contenders for the all important test ride.
Inspect the frame
Always inspect the bicycle frame thoroughly for any dings or cracks. This goes for the underside as well, so don’t be shy about turning the bike over or upright on its rear wheel to scrutinize the down tube, chainstays and bottom bracket shell. You may not be able to see micro cracks in a metal frame, and what looks more serious could just be cosmetic. Your best bet is to take the bike for a ride and put it through its paces and hard braking while listening for suspicious noises and creaks that aren’t drivetrain related.
Damage to carbon is easier to spot, and that goes for repairs too. Inspect for inconsistencies in the finish, rough spots or frayed material. If a carbon bike you are considering has been repaired, I’d move on as you can’t assure the repair was done by a qualified professional.
Check the chain, cassette, and brake pads
If you have a chain checking tool, bring it with you. Ask the owner when the last time they replaced the chain. Check it either way, especially if they can’t give you a concrete answer. If you haven’t done it before, you can learn how to check a chain here.
If it’s past its prime, chances are the cassette is too, as these two components wear together. Chains are inexpensive to change, cassettes more costly. They can also be difficult to source depending on the age of the bike, the drivetrain and number of speeds. If the chain needs to be replaced, move on to your next candidate or haggle down the price to cover replacement costs.
Rim brake pads on most bikes are in full view, making the remaining amount of material easy to see. I say most bikes, but if you are contemplating a super aero model that comes with brakes integrated into the fork or tucked away behind the bottom bracket, get ready for frustration. As a former mechanic, I can tell you that brakes of this style are difficult to work on (pad changes included) and don’t function very well either. The need to replace brake pads shouldn’t be a deal breaker, but make sure you see the forest through the trees.
If the bike has discs, inspect their surface. Shiny discs or those with obvious wear mean it’s probably time for new ones. Brands print width tolerances on them, but you’ll need a digital caliper to check true thickness. In most cases, fresh pads should not be installed on old discs. Hold a piece of white paper under the brake calipers and see if you can get an idea about how much material remains.
And speaking of disc brakes, if the levers are millimeters away from hitting the handlebars when engaged, or they feel mushy, the hydraulic lines probably need a bleed. This is costly if you can’t do it yourself, so another powerful bargaining point for a reasonable reduction in price.
Despite taking care, everyone’s bike has fallen over a few times when they thought it was securely leaned against something. Not great, but it happens. Incidents such as these should be normal “wear and tear” on a bicycle. Check out the points of the bicycle that hit the deck first, such as the saddle, handlebar ends and brake/shifter levers for signs of contact with the ground. If they aren’t too deep, no problem.
If they look fairly severe, ask if the bike has been in any accidents and listen to their story. Most of us have been victims of some sort of light crash or tangle, but one significant head-on collision can mean the end of a bicycle, especially for the headtube and fork. Take the bike for a ride, paying close attention to how it handles in close radius turns and when braking.
Ask for the original receipt
Most of us do not have the original receipts for our bikes. Some do. It never hurts to ask. Along with the Bicycle Blue Book, the receipt is a convenient way to verify the year of the bicycle and where it was purchased.
Sidewalls and spokes
Inspect the sidewalls of the wheels closely for any dings or dents. This is important for aluminum wheels with a rim braking surface. Visible issues on the brake track mean reduced braking power and efficiency. Could the owner be passing off an old set of wheels?
Do the wheels spin true? Is there a “hop” with each rotation? How about spoke tension? Give every two or three spokes an easy pinch between your thumb and forefinger, or check them one at a time for any play. If one or more feel mushy or very different from the others, it may be the sign of a soon-to-be-broken spoke. If the owner has already replaced one or two spokes, the wheels are at their end of life. Negotiate for the bike without the wheels and throw on a pair of your own.
Don’t forget the sidewalls and rolling surface of the tires, too. If the tire is going “square” or the rubber is cracked, looks dried out, or you can easily scrape away some of the material, you need news tires. Like brake pads, tires aren’t a deal breaker, but a safety hazard. Don’t just expect to pump up and go when you get home.
It’s getting better, but compatibility is an issue with bike parts. Shimano and SRAM can be mixed and matched in most cases, but not always. Campagnolo only works with Campagnolo. The same holds true for the tools necessary to work on them. Campy has its own set of tools, so if your home shop is set up for Shimano/SRAM only, none of them will work with Campy.
Manufacturers know what works together, so break out the original component list from the Bicycle Blue Book and go over the bike with a fine-tooth comb. You don’t want to walk away with a smorgasbord of parts that will create a headache for you later.
Why are you selling?
Last, but not least, ask the owner why they are selling and listen to their response. Does it make sense? Is it logical? Does their asking price seem too good to be true? When you inquire about certain parts on the bike or its history, do they seem bike knowledgeable or know the answers?
If they seem clueless, it might be stolen. I’d walk away immediately as you could purchase it, only to be stopped one day by its original owner or the police. If you are suspicious, try to jot down the bike’s serial number and check with your local law enforcement department. You could be doing another member of the bike community a big favour in getting their bike back; that’s worth big Karma points.