With the recent boom in cycling and bike culture, many people are looking for a way to get into the sport without spending a fortune. Buying a used bike is one of the best ways to do this. However, many people are unaware of how to inspect a used bicycle and end up buying one with serious problems. So it’s important that you look at the condition carefully to make sure that it is ride-worthy and will last for years without problems. This post will hopefully help.
So, what should you look for when buying a used bike? Spend some time researching and narrow down exactly the type of bike you’re looking for. This way, you’ll know what you should look for in a used bike and be able to better assess if it fits your needs. Keep in mind that if a bike has been taken care of properly, its mileage is less important when judging its condition. Instead, closely inspect the bike’s condition to ensure the bike is ride-worthy and will last you for years to come.
Discussions about bike mileage and maintenance history are all topics centered around finding a previously used bike and making it your own. Below we talk about how you should go about finding a used bike and how mileage and service history affect the performance of a bike, as well as what I do, and what you can do, to assess the condition of a used bike.
Know What Type Of Bike You’re Looking For First
When you are buying a second hand bike, there are so many different options that it can be hard to figure out what’s best. That is because “used” covers every type of bicycle imaginable and all with varying levels of quality and condition! This means an online search will bring up everything from vintage models right down to the modern ones – some barely ridden at all in fact.
Riding Style and Primary Use
The style of riding you prefer has great impact on which type of bicycle will work best for you. And how you use your bike is also an important aspect of choosing a bike, especially when it comes to gearing and accessories. Here are some categories to describe riding styles to help you decide:
Leisurely – for those looking to cruise around the neighborhood or along a scenic trail and you want to be as comfortable as possible while sitting upright, then your ideal bicycle is the comfort style or a cruiser bike.
Casual – if you’re a casual tourist or commuter looking for comfort during those long rides on trails or roads and still be able to face variable road conditions and terrain, then a hybrid bike is most likely the fit.
Fitness – looking to challenge yourself to increasing ride time, speed, or power over time? Then, a road bike is definitely your match. These bicycles are sturdy, yet lightweight so you will be able to ride comfortably on those long routes.
Off-road – for those looking for the thrill of a roller-coaster experience down the rocky trails while having complete control riding over rugged terrains, then it’s the mountain bike all the way for those off-roaders.
Now that you have an idea of the type of bicycle that matches your riding style and use, the next step is to narrow down to the type of bike you want first, and then search for the rest of the qualifiers such as the frame size, wheel size, brand, etc.
Below are a few popular bike types to give you a general idea.
Road Bikes – Road bikes are designed for fast riding on smooth, paved roads. Road bikes are available with frames made of aluminum, steel, carbon fiber, or titanium. The tires range from medium to skinny tires, depending on whether the bike is designed for touring, commuting, or racing. It also have drop handlebars that allow the rider to ride in an aerodynamic position.
Mountain Bikes – Mountain bikes are designed for riding on rugged terrain, such as dirt trails and gravel. Because of this, they have heavy-duty frame construction to withstand the abuse and wider tires (called fat tires) with heavy or knobby tread so they can better grip uneven surfaces. The bike may have shock-absorbing suspensions to smooth the ride and provide greater control.
Hybrid Bikes – Hybrids are a cross between mountain and road bikes in that they have flat handlebars like a mountain bike and the wheels and tires, however, are narrower and smoother similar to road bikes to make for easier riding on smooth surfaces. They’re made for riding on pavement, but won’t perform as well when riding off-road.
Cruiser Bikes – Cruiser bikes (also known as beach bikes) are for casual riding over sand, gravel and on pavement. This type of bike usually have an upright seating position and features swept back handlebars. It is usually configured so the rider can have both feet flat on the ground while seated.
If we fast-forward through the finding process, we will get to the point where you will go and see what is potentially your new bike.
What Is High Mileage For A Bicycle?
Most people you talk to about bicycle mileage will assure you that mileage isn’t a good indicator of the condition of the bike. Those people are right.
In fact, mileage should not be a factor when judging the condition of the bike because you can have a bike that has gone 2,500 miles and a bike that has gone 250 miles park next to each other and you wouldn’t be able to tell which one has racked up more miles than the other.
That’s because bikes do not have an odometer to measure the distance travelled and it shouldn’t be measured this way.
I wouldn’t have blamed you if you thought mileage is a huge factor to consider on a used bike. Our brain automatically wants to know the mileage for all types of vehicle because, by default, we think if a car or motorcycle has high-mileage it will break down soon.
While this may be true for cars and motorcycles, it isn’t true for bikes. It takes more than just the distance on roads for us to assess whether a bicycle is ride-worthy. There are other factors like the mechanical condition which also come into play.
"250 miles is nothing. 2500 miles is also pretty much nothing -- this is under a year's worth of riding for many people. Many people still ride (and buy) bikes which are ~30 years old, and probably have 25000 miles or more on them (and will ride them for many years to come)." - Batman https://bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/39336/determine-miles-on-a-bike/39337
Mileage is a question often asked by those new to the cycling world or those who are just curious, but as we can see from the above comment, mileage has yet to be a real factor for cyclists because it doesn’t give you a clear picture of the condition of the bike or how well the bike has been maintained.
What To Look For When Buying A Used Bike?
A used bike can still be a quality bike if the previous owner took proper care of it. Sometimes a bike will have a log of all the services done on them throughout their life.
While a record full of maintenance records can be good and often screams good ownership, a long list of repairs in its history may prove that the previous owner were pretty rough on it in the first place.
In addition to reviewing service records, here’s a series of questions you can ask the seller and yourself.
- How old is the bike, and how long have you had it?
- Do you have the original purchase receipt?
- What is the bike’s service history? Have they kept a record?
- When was the last time the bike had maintenance done? Where was it done and what work was done?
- What kind of environment has this bike been stored in?
- Has the frame or any components ever been replaced or repaired?
- How do the wheels look? Are there any cracks on the frame? Is the identification number on the bike visible? Is it scratched off? Make sure it isn’t stolen or illegal!
Even if the previous owners have a log of all the service records and have all the right answers to your questions, you should still perform a visual mechanical inspection of the bike and take it for a test drive.
How To Assess The Condition Of A Used Bicycle?
One of the most important things a second hand bike buyer can do is inspect the bike in person to make sure their purchase hasn’t been neglected and has not suffered from any damage. If you’re new to buying a used bike or aren’t an expert, it can be tricky and daunting if you don’t know what and where to look.
However, let me assure you that buying a used bike is a far simpler process than buying a used car. Below we’ll cover some of the basics to checking component wear and damages that I do to assess the condition of a second hand bike.
Frame and Fork
Similar to the chassis of a car, the frame of a bike forms the basis for the rest of the bike which everything else attaches to. A damaged frame makes the bike literally useless, so going over it with a fine-tooth comb on known stress areas is definitely a must-do.
Here are 7 steps and areas to look out for when inspecting the frame and fork:
- Start at the front of the bike and very thoroughly check it over to make sure that it’s not bent, cracked, dented, or starting to rust.
- Look for signs of bubbling under the paint work that might indicate that it’s become corroded, probably because it was stored outside
- Look for chips and cracks in paint, which can be an indicator of some sort of issues underneath there
- Check the area of the top tube where the handlebar touches it when it’s turned all the way. If the bike had an accident and the handlebar slammed into the top tube, it can cause cracks under there
- Check the seat stay, chain stay, bottom bracket for stress fractures, which is a sign that the bike may have suffered a drop, slammed, or even an accident
- Because the chain is so close to the right rear chainstay, it can slap against it when you hit bumps. This makes a metallic clanking sound and can lead to chipping paint on the chainstay
- Alignment of the bicycle frame is important because it affects many things. For example, if the fork is slightly bent, taking your hands off the handlebar may result in the bike steering off path.
If you’re happy with the frame and forks, then your next stop would be the wheels.
Unless the wheels become damaged, well built wheels don’t need periodic maintenance apart from hub lubrication and regular cleaning. However, you’d still want to check them since the wheels and tires are what’s standing between you and the ground.
Let’s begin with the wheels.
- Suspend the bike or simply pickup the bike a few inches off the ground so the wheels can spin freely.
- Give the wheel a spin and make sure it is straight. A couple of millimeters off is okay as you can easily get that trued up, but anything more would indicate a bigger problem.
Bearings and Spokes
- Check the wheel closely for bends, wobbles, or dents. A wheel can wobble for a number of reasons but the common ones are loose hub bearings and incorrect spoke tension.
- Loose hub bearings – if you push laterally on the wheel and you can feel play, then the hub bearings have loosened.
- Incorrect spoke tension – You should be able to find loose spokes by feel. Generally, loose spokes cause the wheel to go out of true. The repair is often as easy as re-tensioning the loose spokes.
- Next, wiggle each spoke to feel how tight it is and to find loose or broken spokes, which will require attention.
- Give the wheel another spin while keeping your eyes on the gap between the brake pads and the wheel. A slight out of true for a couple of millimeters is okay if it happens gradually and evenly. If it happens intermittently or at different spot on each revolution, then that indicates a bearing wear.
- Check for small dents that widen a rim cause choppy braking action but can be eliminated by a gentle squeeze with a smooth jaw vise. However, larger dents are serious matters and will require expertise.
- Check the wheel brake surface, they should be smooth and flat. If it’s concave, then that suggests the wheel is worn out and will require replacement, which is quite expensive.
While you may be tempted to just check to see if the tires are properly inflated and how much tread is left on the tires, there is actually a bit more you can do to ensure safety in the grip by judging the condition of the rubber structurally.
- Make sure the tires are properly inflated to the correct tire pressure
- Check for cracks in the rubber
- Check for cuts in the tread
- Check for uneven wear or flat spots, which is an indicator that the wheel is misaligned or poor and uneven braking action
The brake system is extremely important and should be treated with care and respect. When other parts stop working, it usually means some inconvenience like the bike goes slower or makes annoying noises. But if your brakes stop working, it may mean you’ll go careening into the next intersection and become a hood ornament.
- Pull on the brake lever a few times and it should feel solid and consistent every time you pull on it
- The brake lever should also return to its original position on every release
- If the lever touches the handlebar, then the brakes need to be tightened (minor adjustment)
- When you pump the brakes, the brake pads should not clamp at different times but should simultaneously clamp the wheel with equal force
- The brake pads should not brush against the rim or obstruct spinning the wheel freely
- Check for rust on the bike cable
- Check the wear indicator lines or groves etched on the brake pads. If they are missing, then that indicates the brake pads need replacement
Brake pads are perishable and even though it might not have reached their wear line, it is suggested to replace the pads after you purchase the bike. They are inexpensive to replace.
Headsets are often overlooked when the time comes for regular maintenance, maybe because it is so inconspicuous. But the fact of a matter is, a headset’s function is so subtle that it often goes unnoticed until something goes drastically wrong.
And unfortunately, when something does go wrong with the headset, handling and steering can become difficult or even impossible.
On the other hand, a well-maintained, properly adjusted headset will yield years of trouble-free service.
The follow symptoms indicate a neglected headset, which requires maintenance or overhaul.
- A loose feeling in the handlebar or rattles and clunks coming from the fork when riding over bumps
- Inability to travel in a straight line when your hands aren’t steering
- The handlebar turns but you feel it catch as if there were notches stopping the turning at various points through the rotation
One quick way to see if the bike has a loose headset is to engage the front brakes while rocking the bike backwards and forwards. If you feel a knocking noise or play, then that means it’s got a loose headset.
Headsets come in a variety of price ranges. They can run from about $20 to well over $100. So before you drop a small fortune on a used bike, be sure to check the headset for problems.
Parts that make up your entire drivetrain wear out at different rates and worn out parts degrade other parts. The chain is most often the one that wears out first and it does start wearing away at the cassette and the chainrings and degrading them faster as well.
So, let’s talk about the chain first.
The chain is all too often mistreated and poorly maintained, largely due to the common misconception that all you need is oiling. This practice then furthers their bad reputation for being dirty things, which no one wants to touch or deal with in any way possible.
A well maintained chain that is kept clean and properly lubricated benefits you and your bike in several ways. It will shift smoothly and last longer. It will inflict less wear and even damages to the derailleurs, chainrings, and cogs.
And best of all, the chain will work more efficiently, which means the energy from each pedal stroke will go towards moving you forward rather than fighting against the chain.
There are three ways to check if the chain is worn out and need to be replaced.
Use a chain checker tool to measure the distance of a handful of links. It’s essentially a piece of metal or plastic that you place on the chain and if the chain is worn out, it will sit flat with the chain.
If you don’t have a chain checker tool, then you can use a ruler to measure the distance of eight complete links. Eight complete links should measure at exactly eight inches. If you measured more than eight inches, then that means the chain is stretched and may need to be replaced. General rule is that if it is a tenth over eight inches, then you will need to start replacing it.
The third way requires no tool at all and is pretty accurate as well. Simply place the chain on the biggest chainring and at the farthest forward facing part, try to lift the chain away from the chainring. If there is not much slack and you can barely see the teeth of the chainring, then the chain is in good condition. But if there is a lot of slack and you can lift it clear of a tooth, then the chain is worn out and it’s time to replace.
Bike chains generally lasts about 2,000 to 3,000 miles, however, it does depend on the condition it was ridden and how well the owner looks after the drivetrain.
Chainring and Cassette
If the chain is changed regularly, then the chainring and cassette should be in good condition. But of course, you should still check since you are buying a second hand bike.
Now, what you’re looking out for is whether the teeth or cogs of the ring look sharp like hooks or shark fins. If you see hook-like teeth, then that is a sign the chainring or cassette is worn and need to be replaced.
While looking at the teeth of the chainring, you may also notice that some teeth are shorter than the others and that is perfectly normal. In fact, it is designed this way to help with shifting.
Hanging out on the right side of your bike is the rear derailleur’s primary vulnerability. A simple contact with a rock on the trail, another rider on the road, or an unfortunate tumble on the sidewalk outside the coffee shop can render the rear derailleur useless.
However, other elements such as dirt, grit, corrosion, and wear also play major roles in hindering the performance of the derailleur.
Corrosion, fraying, and dirt contamination on the cable and housing are common problems that can cause the rear derailleurs to fail, so make sure you check them.
How to check if the derailleur is bent? Bend down behind the bike and take a close look at the derailleur to see if it has been bent. The pulley cage should be parallel to the centerline of the bike. If it’s straight when sighted from behind, you can draw an imaginary line through the cassette cog that bisects the pulley wheels. If the cage tilts in toward the wheel, either the cage, the derailleur body, or the hanger may be bent.
How To Test Ride A Bike?
After you had inspected the bike, the final check would be to see how it rides. You should never buy the bike without first test riding it.
Find an area with minimum traffic, ideally a parking lot if possible and take it slowly in the beginning.
The first thing you should test are the brakes. Although they may look good when you inspected it, they may lack the stopping power due to oil contamination.
Next, run through all the gears to see how it shifts.
Finally, try riding the bike without holding on to the handlebar. If it goes straight and does not lean to one side, then the bike is aligned.
If it tends to lean to one side all the time then there could be some problems with the frame, the wheel alignment, or both.
If it randomly leans to one side or the other, then that could mean a headset bearing problem.
While buying a used bike can save you money and get you on two wheels faster than if you were to buy something new, it also comes with some risks that need to be considered before doing so!
You can avoid most of these risks just by being smart. Test the bike out if you can, look closely at what you are buying, and always do your research before committing to a purchase.
If you are not comfortable inspecting the bike yourself, then bring it to one of the local bike shops to have them inspect to ensure the bicycle is in good working order and ride worthy.