2020 and likely all of 2021 will be an absolute mess when it comes to finding new bikes in stock so you may be looking at upgrading your bike with a better quality used bike or even buying a bike for the first time ever to try out cycling without breaking the bank. Hopefully this article will help you know what to look for to make sure you get a new to you bike that is in good shape mechanically, fits properly and is fairly priced.
Points we will address:
There are a number of places that you can look at for used bikes, forums, Facebook groups, bike coops, some bike shops.
Locally the best places to look are typically calling local bike shops and asking if they offer used bikes. Not all shops offer used bikes but nearly all of them would be willing to direct you to one that will offer used bikes for sale. If your area has one, a bike coop is another great place to look. These places are ideal because most of the time you will get a bit more buyer protection and if the shop does their job well, the bike will have been checked over and tuned up a bit before being sold.
Two other local resources you can check out is searching Facebook Marketplace for groups like Front Range Bike Trader if you are on the Front Range, if you are not in our region just search marketplace for some version of "bikes for sale, used bikes, bike trader, etc". The other common place people sell used bikes is Craigslist although that seems to be dying off in favor of Facebook groups lately.
If you are open to buying a bike completely online and having it shipped to you the most common places people sell used bikes are Ebay and Pink Bike but if you do a Google search for "used bike for sale" you will likely find a ton of options. You can naturally find a much bigger variety of bikes available online but you typically will pay a bit more as shipping is expensive and you will not be able to inspect the bike as thoroughly but if you are careful you can still find great deals. Typically if you have to have the bike shipped to you, it only makes sense financially with higher end bikes unfortunately as shipping costs can quickly match the cost of a lower end bikes value.
How to make sure the used bike fits?
This is one area where a bike shop that deals in used bikes or a bicycle coop can be extremely helpful. Typically staff at these places are happy to help you make sure the bike fits before you commit to buying it. If you do not have that luxury, keep reading and I will give some tips that may help.
Take measurements off your existing bike if you already have a bike that fits you well and compare them to the bike you are looking to buy. The most critical dimensions here are effective top tube length and head tube length. Top tube length will determine how stretched out you are and head tube length is an important factor in how high or low the handlebars are. They are a bit trickier to measure but they are also more accurate, you can also measure reach and stack measurements. To do this you will need a level and a ruler. An extra set of hands is also quite helpful here. You can look at the chart below for a visual.
Test riding the bike if at all possible will be a HUGE help. There are 1000x opinions on what is "proper" bike fit but at the end of the day, what is most important is that you are comfortable as a rider and not developing any pain related to bike fit. When you get on the bike it should be a Goldilocks moment where the bike doesn't feel too long or too short. Your body should be in a fairly neutral position where you do not feel too stretched out or too cramped. The image below will give you a good starting point but you will naturally adjust these depending on things like flexibility, riding style, previous injuries, preference, etc. This guide is meant to just get you close, if you really want to dial in your bike fit, seeing a bike fit specialist can absolutely be worth it. Just ask around your area to see who is good as not all fitters are good unfortunately.
How to tell what a used bike is worth?
Everyone wants a good deal and naturally the buyer always wants the price lower while the seller wants it higher. The value of a used bike will vary significantly based on the condition of the bike, the region you are located in, the season and if any major update has recently be launched that leave marketing teams calling old stuff "obsolete".
One great starting point is heading over to Bicycle Blue Book, it is like a Kelly's Blue Book but for bicycles. This website may not always hit the real market value of a bike but it gives you a good starting point. Another place to look is other sale postings for the bike you are looking at. If you see 6 different 2018 Giant Trance 2's for $1800 all in a similar condition, its probably a good indicator that the real market value is around that mark. If you see a single outlier that doesn't have an obvious reason to be priced way above that $1800 that buyer may be a bit optimistic in their asking price. Some things like wheel upgrades can justify a higher than average price but sadly for sellers, these things rarely scale in value to the used market like you would hope.
If you are still unsure of what the bike is worth but it is a fairly recent model, a general rule of thumb for pricing used parts is around half of what the suggest retail price was when the bike (or part) was new. This ratio is definitely open to interpretation though and will fluctuate a lot depending on market demand, condition, etc.
How to tell if used bike is in good condition?
This one is what keeps most people hesitant to buy used but checking these key points below will cover you for for most expensive repairs a used bike could need. If after reading this you are still uncomfortable evaluating a used bikes condition, often times you can talk with your local bike shop and ask them if they are willing to look over the used bike you are considering buying. That way you have the seller meet you at the shop and the shop can give you a heads up on any repairs that may be needed. As a bike shop, I was always happy to offer this for free to people as it often lead to the bike being left at the shop for service after they bought it but some shops may want to charge for this. Even if they charge you to check the bike over, it could easily save you money in the long run so it is something to consider.
The most critical places to inspect as they are most expensive to replace are:
This one is relatively simple. You just look carefully over all of the frame looking for cracks, dents, anything that seems off. The most common places you will see failures are near the seat tube, near the bottom bracket, near the dropouts where the wheels attach to the frame and along the seat stay. Hopefully the seller has the bike cleaned well so this inspection is easy. If the bike is covered in dirt or mud it can easily hide these flaws and would likely indicate that the owner didn't take the greatest care of the bike in the first place.
If you are looking at carbon frames, the above is still true but sometimes there will be chips in the paint or clear coat that are hard to differentiate between a crack or a simple cosmetic flaw. One trick that works well, but is not 100%, is to take a coin and tap on the frame in the area of concern. It should be a sharp tapping sound, if the tone becomes more dull sounding the closer you get to the flaw, there is a good chance that flaw may actually be a structural concern and is worth taking into consideration when buying the bike. Even if there is a structural issue in carbon fiber, if the price is right you can more often than not get carbon frames repaired. Typically that ranges in price from $300-$600 depending on the damage. Most carbon repair places will let you send in a picture of the damage and give you a rough quote so you can factor that into deciding if the bike is still worth purchasing if damaged.
This one can be tough to see red flags on, even for more experienced eyes but there are some things you can look for to minimize risk and questions you can ask that will give you a good idea on how meticulous the bikes original owner was with maintenance.
The first thing to do is simply ask the seller when the suspension was last serviced. A general rule of thumb is suspension should be serviced roughly every 100 hours of riding or about once a year for the average rider. That timeline gets shorter the more aggressive the rider is or the nastier the conditions. Ideally the seller will have service records but if they do not but are pretty quick to answer about how recent the bikes last service was, that is a positive sign. If they hesitate and say they do not know how long its been and the bike is a few years old, that would be cause for concern. Not a guarantee there is damage but its definitely something to be aware of.
In visually inspecting suspension you can look for oil leaks near the seals, damage on the stanchions (the part that slides in and out of the fork/shock) and feel for play in the fork bushings. To check busing play, grab the front brake and put one hand between the fork arch and fork stanchions and rock the bike back and forth. You shouldn't feel movement here. If you feel much movement the fork could need expensive repairs.
The other bits on the suspension to check are suspension pivot bearings and bushings. Often times if they are starting to wear out, you can lift the bike up by the saddle and feel for a slight thud or clunk when you lift but before the wheel comes off the ground. Creaking when riding is another sign the pivots may need attention but creaks can definitely come from countless places on the bike as well.
Wheels and Tires:
Wheels are another area you want to pay close attention to as issues here can lead to costly repairs. Wheels can be surprisingly easy to inspect thankfully. The most obvious is to spin the wheel and see if it spins straight. Even if it is not running true, it can likely be a simple repair but definitely shows its worth giving the wheel a closer look. You also want to look over the rim for damage such as denting near the tire and cracking near the spoke holes.
After you checked out the rim, time to inspect the spokes. Spokes will ideally be evenly tensioned (its common and OK for drive side and non drive side tensions to be different though), free from physical damage and tensioned sufficiently. To check how even the tension is, you can simply pluck the spokes and make sure all the spokes going to the same hub flange have a similar tone. If there is a drastic tone difference the wheel likely needs to be at minimum re-tensioned. You also want to try to look behind the cassette the best you can to see if the chain has ever been dropped behind the cassette, cutting the spokes. Another common place for physical damage is closer to the rim, this is typically where rocks and sticks will hit. Damage here isn't the end of the world but it is another thing to be aware of when negotiating price as it will likely need addressed in the future. Spoke replacement typically can run between $30-$40 per wheel.
You will also want to inspect the hubs to make sure the bearings and freehub are in good condition. To check that the freehub is running smooth, pedal the bike with the rear wheel off the ground to get the wheel spinning quick and then stop pedaling while letting go of the cranks. The chain should not continue to spin the cranks. If it does, it is a sign the freehub may need serviced. Typically that is an easy service if needed thankfully.
You also will want to drop the wheels out of the bike and simply spin the axle with your fingers. If it feels tight or rough it is a good sign you will want to service or replace the hub bearings at some point in the near future.
Inspecting tires is pretty simple. Just look the tire over for obvious signs of wear, cuts, bulges and also spin the wheel to make sure the tire does not have a ton of run out. Maxxis tires are especially notorious for tire casing failures causing the tire to wobble significantly.
Road bike tires without tread patterns can be tougher to inspect. If you do not see any wear indicators, typically small pockets in the tires rubber, you can feel the top of the tire. If it feels flattened out, the tire is likely pretty worn and will need to be replaced soon. If it still has a rounded profile it probably still has decent life left.
How to tell if the bikes drivetrain is worn?
Drivetrain issues are another place that could lead to costly repairs if you do not catch them before buying the used bike. Modern 1x12 drivetrains are especially true here as a cassette can easily run $200+.
Drivetrain cleanliness is one indicator that the previous bikes owner took good care of their bike over its life but is not a guarantee everything is good. I've seen spotless drivetrains that were significantly worn and super dirty drivetrains like above that showed virtually no wear. The two best ways to inspect the chain, cassette and chain rings is to measure chain wear and to ride the bike. If you test ride the bike and something feels crunchy through the pedals, it can likely be a sign the drivetrain is very worn out. If you pedal hard to sprint and it skips (careful here as it can hurt!) that is another sign something is badly worn out.
You also want to measure the chain wear. There are tools specifically for this but any high quality ruler can work just as well. With a ruler, you want to measure pin to pin across 12". If the same point on the chain pin falls exactly on 12", the chain should be pretty fresh. If it measures "stretched" to to 12 1/16" the chain is worn but likely the rest of the drivetrain components are OK. If it is anything beyond that then you should expect to have to replace the entire drivetrain or at minimum a chain and cassette.
Beyond chain wear you want to check out shifters, cables, housing and derailleurs.
Shifters usually hold up quite well unless the levers got damaged in a crash but the clicks should be pretty positive and lever action should be smooth with minimal resistance. If there is excessive resistance typically the cables are at fault and should be replaced. The other things to inspect on cables is you want to look for any splitting in the housings and fraying at the cables. If you see these things, plan to replace the cables as they make a huge difference in shift quality. Di2 and etap owners, no need to look smug here....
After checking out shifters and cables you want to turn your attention to the derailleurs. The rear derailleur pulley is probably the most common failure point. You can usually notice any issues here just by looking at the pulley, if it looks excessively worn or cracked they should be replaced. If you grab the pulley and there is a lot of play in the bearing that is another sign you should replace them. Thankfully another easy fix.
Beyond that, check to make sure nothing looks bent on either derailleur and the pivots do not have a ton of movement outside of their intended direction. The two derailleur pulleys should be running in line and parallel to the cogs. If they are sitting at an angle, something may be bent and need further repairs. If all looks good, ride the bike and see how it shifts. Even cheaper components should still shift easily and quickly.
Last on the list is brakes. Brakes are pretty straight forward to inspect most of the times. The most common thing you need to replace here is the brake pads. Rim brake pads typically will have wear indicators you can look at. Disc brake pads are usually worn when the pad material is about twice the thickness of the spring that separates the brake pads.
If you test ride the bike and the brakes are noisy, chances are there is some type of contamination on the pads, especially with disc brakes. If there is contamination, you can often times clean it up with sandpaper and rubbing alcohol but if the contamination is bad you may have to replace the pads.
After checking pads, you will want to look at the brake rotors if the bike has disc brakes. Make sure it spins pretty true, if it wobbles you will likely need to align the rotor with a tool like is pictured above. Slight wobble is pretty common and an easy fix but if the wobble is sharp the rotor may need replaced. To check rotor wear, if you can feel any thickness difference between the braking surface and the rest of the rotor, chances are they are fairly worn and may need replaced soon.
The last thing you will want to check is to make sure there are no oil leaks and the brakes feel firm on hydraulic brakes. If there are visible leaks or the lever feels spongy there is a good chance the brake system needs at minimum a bleed but likely some repairs as well. If the brakes are cable actuated, you want to make sure the lever moves smoothly and the brakes engage positively. If anything feels off on mechanical brakes, chances are they need the cables replaced or at minimum some adjusting.
Now you are ready to buy your new to you, used bike!
I hope that helps give you a good idea on what to look for when buying a used bike. Most of the issues described above are relatively easy fixes and cost between $20-$60 each at a bike shop but if the bike has multiple issues those little fixes can definitely add a lot of expense to the bike before you are able to ride it without worry. The most concerning issue above to me would be damage to a suspension fork, those repairs can get very quickly end up costing hundreds of dollars to fix but if the bike is a good enough deal it may still be worth it.
If you have any questions at all, leave them in the comments below and I will do my best to answer them for you.
Thanks for reading!
Obsession, or passion? Who am I to judge? Either way I simply love building wheels for those who appreciate quality!