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How to Buy a Used
This is a short primer on how to
buy an inexpensive used bicycle for basic commuting or
transportation (no more than about 10 miles a day). It's not
for people biking longer distances, or who want a
high-quality bike, or who will be doing mountain biking,
racing, or touring.
Where to buy
We have a list of some online
resources for getting bikes nationwide. Most bike
shops don't sell used bikes, but some do, and a bike
shop is the best place to buy a used bike, because it
should already be adjusted to run correctly. Buy a used
bike anywhere else and then you're faced with the unknown
cost of having a bike shop tune it up and replace any
(Of course, if you know how to fix up a bike yourself,
then you can get a better deal if you buy your bike from
a thrift store or from classified ads, but if you knew
how to fix up a bike you probably wouldn't be reading
most important part of buying a used bike is getting one
that fits you. A bike that's uncomfortable will make cycling
a chore. Even if it's a little bit uncomfortable, it'll be a
LOT uncomfortable after being on it for half an hour. The
most important things are to make sure that the handlebars
are higher than the seat so you're not hunched over them,
and that there's at least at least a couple of inches
between the top tube and your crotch when you're standing on
the ground, straddling the bike. Check out our detailed
guide to bike fit for more.
I'm sure I'll catch flak for saying this, but
there's nothing wrong with riding a cheap,
department-store bike for getting around town. Sure, I
ride a $600 bike now, but I rode a $73 Huffy from Target
all through college, ten miles a day, and it lasted me
fine for a few years. Sure, it only lasted a few years,
but that's less than $25/yr.
But you should at least know what makes a
department-store (DS) bike lesser quality.
- Weight. DS bikes are made entirely from
steel, so they're a little heavier. Brand-name bikes
are often made with aluminum or lighter alloys.
- Strength. The frame on DS bikes (especially
older ones) is typically crimped together instead of
welded. This may only be a problem if you carry a lot
of weight or bounce down curbs a lot, in which case it
could come apart. (It came apart on my old bike
because I was routinely hauling lots of groceries, but
I was able to fix it by drilling a hole through the
pieces and securing them with a bolt.) See
the photos for crimped frames vs. welded
- Assembly. Bike-store bikes are assembled by
trained professionals who know what they're doing. DS
bikes are put together by some toy department employee
who makes minimum wage and has no professional
training. Sure, it's not too hard to put a bike
together, but if you're getting a DS bike you'll
probably want to get it checked out by a professional
to make sure the wheels aren't about to come off and
that the brakes work right. Safety matters.
- Components. The brakes and derailleurs
(gear-shifters) are generally lower quality on DS
bikes and may need to be replaced sooner. But this is
no big deal -- on any used bike you're probably going
to have to replace them eventually, and you can always
replace them with good parts when you do. Do make sure
that the bike you're looking at hasn't been subject to
a recall, or if it has,
that you get a bike shop to fix the problem.
Here are some popular brands of DS bikes vs. bike-shop
Department Store Bikes
Bike Shop Bikes
Huffy, Murray, Next, Roadmaster, Free
Spirit, Pacific Cycle
Diamondback, Cannondale, Giant, Jamis,
Raleigh, Schwinn, Specialized, Trek,
If the terrain where you'll be riding is relatively flat
then a one-speed bike may work fine for you, as long as
that one speed is a comfortable speed. But if you have
any hills, you'll want at least three speeds, though 10
is better. Most modern bikes have 18 or 21 speeds, but
it's kind of overkill, since most people don't even use
all 10 speeds on a 10-speed bike. There's nothing wrong
with a bike with 15, 18, or 21 speeds, it's just not that
big an advantage over 10.
This looks like a
great used bike at first glance. But if you look
carefully, you will notice that it doesn't have
Most bikes have gears in front and gears in back. If
you have three in front and five in back, then that's 15
speeds total (3x5). Some bikes have a hub inside the rear
wheel where you can't see it, but you'll know it's a hub
because a cable runs from it to the handlebar where the
shifters are. Hubs are either 3 or 7 speeds.
Most bikes have hand brakes, with brake levers
on the handlebars, one for each wheel. You want both
brakes to be working, because if you have only one brake,
and you're going down a hill, and your one good brake
snaps, then you're toast. If the bike you're looking at
has only one working hand brake, a bike shop can fix one
or add another one for you.
There are three main kinds of brakes. V-brakes
give excellent braking power and are easy to adjust, and
they're worth looking for. Center-pull brakes are
the next best. In last place are side-pull brakes
which are often lower quality and harder to adjust.
(There are some high-quality side-pull brakes out there,
but if you're looking at cheap bikes you're unlikely to
run across them.) Side-pull aren't used very much on
consumer bikes any more, but ALL bikes used to have them,
so if you're looking at used bikes you're liable to run
Most single-speed bikes have a coaster brake, meaning
you pedal backwards to brake. This is fine, though you'll
probably want one hand brake as well.
By law, all new bikes have to have front and
rear reflectors, but they may be missing from used bikes.
If your bike doesn't have them, make sure you get them
from a bike shop. If you're riding at night, you'll also
want front and rear lights.
Old bikes which have been neglected can give a
very harsh ride, but there are four things you can do
which can go a long way to improving the ride.
Air up the tires. If the tires are soft, it'll
be twice as hard to pedal. I can't overemphasize this
point enough. Make sure your tires are properly inflated
unless you want biking to be a real chore. Pump them up
until you can just barely make the slightest dent in the
tire by pressing it with your thumb.
Oil the chain. You can buy proper bike lube at
a bike shop, but cheap mineral oil or baby oil will work
in a pinch. (Don't use vegetable oil, which turns sticky
and will gum everything up.) Use a toothbrush or rag to
apply oil to every part of the chain.
Make sure the brakes aren't rubbing. If the
brake pads are rubbing against the wheel rim, it'll slow
you down. Adjust the brakes so they're not rubbing, if
you need to.
Replace knobby tires with slick tires.
Mountain-bike tires with large, coarse knobs are great
for off-road riding, but they slow you down on pavement.
Replacing knobby tires with smooth tires will make you go
faster for less effort.
If the bike doesn't ride the way you want it to, or
anything's broken, or it's missing parts, it can be worth
having a bike shop give it a tune-up. Be careful to ask the
shop for the maximum cost for anything they're going to do
to the bike beforehand, or ask them to call you before they
replace any parts, because if the bike is in really bad
shape, replacing all the parts on it could wind up costing
you more than a new bike.
This appears to be
an excellent used bike, until you notice that it is
in fact a lawnmower.
One thing that old bikes often need is to have the wheels
trued, meaning tightening & loosening various spokes so
that the wheel spins straight. A wheel that wobbles left and
right will run into your brakes every revolution and slow
If you can store the bike out of the rain it
won't need much maintenance. Here are the basics.
Thanks for reading. Good luck
finding a bike! :)
Tires. Check the air pressure a couple of times
a month, and add air as necessary.
Brakes. Check the brakes once a month to make
sure they're not rubbing.
Chain. Oil the chain every couple of
Outside of these things, just take your bike in to a
shop about once a year for a tune-up. They'll oil the
chain properly, adjust the brakes as necessary, and check
the shifting. They'll also examine the hubs (the centers
of the wheels), the bottom bracket (where the pedal crank
arms turn), and the headset (where the handlebars meet
the bike) to see if they need adjustment or
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