How to choose a used bike!

Well, it looks like our early spring has stuck, so there are lots of riders out searching for bikes. It has already been difficult to  keep up with the demand, but we are trying!

I will be posting on the blog whenever I put a freshly tuned bike on the floor, so if you are on the hunt, it might be helpful to subscribe to the twitter or RSS feed for quick updates.

All that being said, I understand that there is no way for Bikehounds to single-handedly fulfill the used bike needs of our city, so I have put together a quick guide for anyone who is resorting to garage sale/thrift store hunting. By following a few (very) easy rules, you’ll be sure to pick up a bike that is worth what you paid, and worth putting a bit of effort (and/or cash) into.

The very first thing you need to decide, even before you start hunting, is decide what style of bike you will pick up, and what size you need. Then you can hunt for candidates and evaluate them based on a few simple criteria.

Sizing

Sizing a bike sight-unseen is tough. You should get a rough idea of what sizes might fit numerically, so that you can shop in the right ballpark. A good overall guide can be found here.  Some great info about measuring “pubic bone height” (aka inseam), plus some sizing guidance that I personally believe in can be found at Rivendell Bicycle Works. Take some measurements and read these guides in order to get a rough idea for what size bike fits your riding style. The final word on sizing comes from your own body when you test ride a bike – if it is not comfortable, you won’t ride it. As discussed in the links above, riding style and bike style will affect size decisions. A comfortable fit should be your number one concern!

Bike Style

Since my primary interest is in city and utility cycling, I am going to rule out off-road bikes, high end road bikes and any obscure special cases, and focus on the most common used bikes you’ll find to be suitable for city riding: 1980′s or earlier road bikes, 1970′s or older ‘cruiser’ bikes and 1990′s or older mountain bikes. If you already know what type of bike you want, you can jump ahead to the appropriate section:


1980′s or earlier road bikes

After a huge decline in the 1990′s, popularity of road (racing) bikes is on the rise. Why? They are simple, light, nimble, fast, and can be very inexpensive. Because this style of bike fell out of favour when the mountain bike craze took hold, the demand (and price) for used road bikes fell sharply. Be aware however that older racing bikes are becoming stylish again, so prices are on the rise, especially for higher quality stock from the late 70′s and early 80′s.

Choosing a road bike generally means choosing speed over comfort and utility. Many road bikes lack the means to install fenders and luggage racks (although older road bikes tend to be fairly friendly to such accessories). A road bike generally puts you in a more aggressive riding position which may not be comfortable for long leisurely rides. They are built for sprinting but not for cruising.

One problem with buying an older road bike is that the “bike boom” generated millions of bicycles that were of average (and sometimes poor) quality. So how can you tell which used road bike is worth the time and money to bring back to service?

1. Brand. Most recognizable brands made quality bikes, even in the lower end models. Bianchi, Miele, Peugeot, Raleigh, Fuji, Nishiki, etc. Any bike with a recognizable name is at least worth a second glance. Google can be your friend here.

2. Frame Material. If the bike has a sticker touting its frame construction, it will give you an even better idea of the quality of the bike. Tange, Columbus, Reynolds, 4130 are all good signs. High-Tensile (Hi-Ten) or 1020 steel is a basic frame material that lower end bikes were constructed with (Hi-Ten is not necessarily bad, it just does not say much about the overall quality of the bike).

3. Parts. Generally, the more parts that are aluminum alloy, the higher the bike would have been in its original model-year lineup. Alloy wheels are a good sign, as are handlebars, brake calipers and crank (pedal) arms. Alloy tends to be a dull silver where steel tends to be a more polished chrome colour, or painted.

4. Brakes. I have higher regard for bikes with centre pull brakes because they tend to stop better (however quality alloy side pull brakes are great too). Brake levers without “suicide levers” are a good sign as well. These levers were placed only for convenience on lower end bikes. They do not work well, and few high end bikes had them.

If you can find a reasonably priced road bike with any or all of the above characteristics, pick it up – it will very likely be worth getting back on the road even if you have to put a bit of work or money into it.

Bikes to avoid would be of average quality – standard hi-ten frame with steel wheels, steel caliper brakes, and older cottered cranks (and especially if the bike is overly rusty or otherwise needs work). To justify purchase of such a bike, it would have to be in very good rideable condition, at a very good price – or be a known collectible.

A final note about road bikes. Older bikes tended to have 27″ X 1-1/4″ wheels. These work fine, but the selection of tires and replacement wheels is smaller – so straight wheels are especially important on these bikes. If you can find a bike with 700c (sometimes printed as 28″) wheels, it will likely be a better bike, and will definitely allow for greater tire selection.

1970′s or older ‘cruiser’ bikes

When road racing became stylish in the late 70′s and into the 80′s, the laid back cruiser bike fell out of use. Unfortunately, this likely led to a decline in daily cycling. People bought into the racing craze and then only used their new toys as recreational vehicles, since they were expensive and relatively uncomfortable for “grocery getting”. Fortunately there were millions and millions of cruiser style bikes produced before this style change, and they were built to last – meaning they can still be found regularly at decent prices.

Choosing a cruiser bike generally means choosing comfort and style over speed and efficiency. Most cruisers were made before the lighter alloy steels were used in bicycle tubing manufacturing. This means they are heavy and tough, which translates to a robust bike which provides a sturdy yet slower ride. Their metal fenders mean they are ready to tackle wet city streets out of the box, but it also means they will likely have idiosyncratic rattles. Often they come already equipped with a basket or rack, and if not, generally allow you to easily add them.

So how can you be sure you are choosing a good cruiser bike?

1. Wheels. Most cruisers take very odd wheel sizes that are very hard to replace for a reasonable cost. For this reason it is very important that the bike you choose have straight, true wheels with minimal wobbles. Major wobbles and broken spokes are a warning sign of expensive repairs to come. Tires can be replaced at a very reasonable price, but broken wheels cannot. So check the wheels first!

2. Looks. Let’s be honest – at least half of the joy of cruisers is in their style. So pick one that suits the look you are after, and that looks like it has been well cared for (bikes that look like they’ve been sitting in a basement for 30 years are a good bet). Just don’t forget that the size is more important than the colour! Choosing a pretty bike with minimal rust (and straight wheels) is an excellent starting point.

3. Gears. Most cruisers will have very similar parts. Steel frame, steel fenders, steel side-pull caliper brakes and steel wheels. The one major difference will be the rear hub and gearing system. Generally, cruisers can fall into 3 categories. None are better than the others, so the decision should be made based on your needs:

  1. Single Speed Coaster: One gear, no shifter, no hand brakes. Pedal forward to go, pedal backward to stop. The simplicity of these bikes makes them very low maintenance after the first tune up. Having one gear can be a bit of a limitation in hilly areas or for longer trips. Coaster brakes also take some getting used to if you haven’t ridden one in a while!
  2. Three Speed: Three gears which are fully enclosed in the rear hub (meaning only one rear sprocket and no derailer). These bikes are also low maintenance as far as gearing is concerned, but their hand brakes will need to be properly tuned. Bikes with a Sturmey Archer hub are best (the SA has a small chain that comes out of the axle) because parts are readily available. Other off brand hubs (such as those with a lever on the axle) might be harder to repair if they are not working correctly.
  3. Five or more speeds: These have a derailer in the back with a 5 or 6 speed gear cluster. They occasionally have a front derailer with two gears. These bikes need more maintenance and have smaller chain guards than the other two options. Their shifter is usually mounted on the stem instead of the handlebar which is less convenient. But they offer a much greater gearing range, which makes hill climbing easier and descending faster.

4. Brand. While most cruisers share similar construction characteristics and quality, there is something to be said about sticking with the big brands – they became big because they were doing things right. Raleigh, CCM and Schwinn come to mind, plus some regional players – Road King, Apollo, etc. When in doubt, a simple Google query will give you a bit of background about that mystery brand that you stumbled across.

1990′s or older mountain bikes

In the 90′s, the mountain biking craze kicked into gear. Luckily, the result was a huge influx of high quality, strong yet light bicycles into the garages of North America. Perhaps the best option for North American city bikes is a repurposed mid 90′s mountain bike.

Choosing a mountain bike generally means choosing utility and moderate comfort over style and speed. While they can be lighter and sportier than cruisers, they won’t encroach on speed bike territory. And though they offer a less aggressive position than road bikes, they won’t match cruisers in laid back comfort.

Unfortunately, the success of the mountain bike resulted in a flood of very low quality MTBs to department stores across the continent. Since this happened at the same time as overseas manufacturing was taking off, the effect was even more pronounced than with the racing bike boom in the 80′s. You can weed out the most pitiful contenders by following these guidelines:

1. Suspension. For city riding, suspension is, at best, unnecessary. At worst, it is heavy, inefficient, and becomes a detriment when you find out that it barely functions, and also prevents you from adding fenders, racks, and other necessities to the bike. The success of full suspension bikes in the off road world has unfortunately filtered into the department stores, and these are perhaps the worst choice for city riding. It is true that there are some very high end, lightweight suspension bikes out there, but they are the exception on the used market, and fetch prices to match their performance. I absolutely advise against full suspension for city riding, and I do not recommend even front suspension except in very special cases. For utility cycling, you will save yourself a lot of agony if you avoid suspension altogether.

2. Brand/Age. Mid to late 90′s mountain bikes from major manufacturers are almost always a great bet, especially if they are constructed of 4130 (cro-moly) steel. These bikes tend to be very sturdy and not overly heavy. They also provide adequate clearance and mounting holes for fenders and racks. Specialized, Trek, Gary Fisher, Norco, Nishiki and even supercycle and CCM can be good bets. Beware of newer models however – some brands drastically reduced their quality in later years. Supercycle, CCM, Raleigh and many other brands slowly turned to department-store-grade bikes, and their latest offerings do not live up to their original standards.

3. Brakes. Without exception, I advise passing on any mountain bike with caliper brakes. Caliper brakes are finicky and can be weak. On anything but road bikes, caliper brakes passed their prime in the 80′s, and any mountain bike with caliper brakes was very likely a bottom-of-the line bike to begin with. Additionally, caliper brakes cannot be upgraded to the much more powerful cantilever and V brakes because the bike frames are not compatible with these newer brake styles.

With few exceptions, I almost always support the purchase of a  bike with cantilever brakes. The reasoning here is threefold. First, cantilever brakes are powerful. Second, bikes equipped with cantilever brakes can be upgraded to V brakes if desired (though this is rarely necessary). And third, cantilever brakes were put on mid-to-high range bikes in their heyday. Cantilevers were always an upgrade and never found their way into the entry level market.  In other words, it is difficult to find a low quality bike on the used market that was originally spec’d with cantilever brakes. In this case, the “Y” shaped cable stands for YES.

Linear Pull (or “V”) brakes came after cantilever brakes, and are easier to install, tune and maintain than cantilevers – with stopping power that is as good, or often better. Finding a bike with V brakes can be a good thing – but beware! V brakes have become very popular on low grade department store bikes, so the presence of V brakes does not necessarily mean that a bike is worthwhile. Beware of V brakes that are plastic coated steel. Even worse, I have seen V brakes that have arms made entirely of plastic! Would you put plastic brakes on your car? Can you imagine the other corners that were cut when building a bike that has plastic brakes? Another warning sign is a set of cheap stamped steel V brakes – these generally are painted black, but sometimes chrome, and the brake arms have holes cut out to save weight. A bike equipped with these should also be avoided. Alloy V brakes are a better sign, but are still not the perfect indicator that cantilevers are. If you do come across a bike with alloy V brakes, you may have a winner, but you should check out some other features before deciding.

4. Frame. I generally prefer steel frames over aluminum, but aluminum bikes can give you a quicker ride for the dollar. Beware of bikes with very large diameter frame tubing. Thick tubes are often put on lower end bikes as a marketing gimmick. You might say they are compensating for something. Bikes that tout cro-moly (chromoly, cromo, 4130, etc) are, almost without fail, a good bet.

5. Wheels. As with most bikes, the quality of the wheels can be a good indicator of the quality of the bike. Steel wheels on a new bike are a bad sign, but steel wheels can be acceptable on an older mountain bike if the rest of the bicycle is in decent shape and meets other standards (especially the cantilever brake standard!). Alloy wheels (usually dull silver) can be a good sign, but even these have made their way into the lower end mountain bikes in recent years. As always, straight,  true wheels are a definite plus. With mountain bikes, however, one can find decent quality replacement wheels at a reasonable price, so don’t let wheels be the deal breaker on an otherwise great find.

6. Shifters. Mountain bike shifters come in three basic styles – thumb (above bar) shifters, rapidfire (trigger) shifters and grip shifters. Shifter choice is largely based on personal preference, but I tend to advise against grip shifters since they are more prone to failure and are often difficult to perform simple maintenance tasks upon – even a simple cable change is difficult. Triggers are convenient but they can become prone to failure when they age. Thumb shifters are less convenient but are probably the longest lasting and most reliable of the bunch. Thumb shifters come in two flavours: indexed and non-indexed (friction). Indexed shifters click into each gear while friction shifters do not. Indexed shifters are more convenient but require a bit moire maintenance. Friction shifters require more skill to operate, but are less prone to failure.

Summary

First, choose what style of bike will suit your needs. Be sure to have an idea of what size ranges will suit you, and be sure to test the bike for comfort before considering it.

Make sure that the wheels are true whenever possible, as these can be the most expensive and time consuming parts to replace or repair. This is especially true of bikes with odd wheel sizes such as 27″ road bike wheels and most old cruisers.

For road bikes, look for a recognizable name, quality tubing (tange, columbus, reynolds, cro-mo, 4130) and alloy parts (handlebars, cranks, wheels, brakes).

For cruisers, look for a bike in good cosmetic condition with wheels that run true, and a rear hub/gear system that suits your needs.

For mountain bikes, avoid suspension and oversized frame tubes and avoid caliper brakes and plastic or steel v brakes. Say YES to cantilever brake equipped bikes. Bikes with alloy V brakes should be checked for other quality parts before purchasing – alloy cranks and bars are a good sign. Most MTBs constructed of cro-mo tubes (4130) are of reasonable-to-high quality.

If you choose a bike that meets these guidelines, and is priced within your budget, it will almost always turn out to be a worthwhile investment even if it needs a bit of work and replacements of consumable parts (tires, brake pads, chain, etc).

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3 comments on “How to choose a used bike!
  1. Anglo says:

    what are your views on mechanical disk brakes

    • bikehounds says:

      I personally prefer them to hydraulic – but beware of no name brands which are hard to tune, hard to service, and hard to find replacement pads for. My favourite are Avid BB7. Failing that, I would consider Avid BB5, Shimano or Tektro.

  2. Rita says:

    I'm looking for a ladies used step through bike for running errands around town. One that's a joy to ride.

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