How to Buy a Used Bicycle
Ideally, you will buy one from us, but for a myriad of reasons, you may decide that you would rather go it alone. Perhaps, you don't live in Los Angeles. Or, you are a super handy person and would like to have the experience of building something more personal. Maybe the siren song of the wild and your natural sense of adventure leads you Whittier to buy a bike from a guy with a stained t-shirt and 6 beagles in the backyard.
Another possibility, as is too often the case, we don't have the right bike for you at the right time - that happens a lot. Our incoming inventory selections are pretty much out of our control and our refurbs take significant time to build.
Having bought well over a thousand bicycles, I can share a few things I have learned. At this point, I am a pretty experienced buyer, but I still get stung from time to time. When I was just starting, we probably ended up scrapping/parting out 25% of the bikes I bought. Now, I would say we end up getting stung 10% of the time.
My views on bicycle buying are quite resolute, candid and my own. This document could be seen as self-serving but I can assure you my advice is clear-eyed, heartfelt and free. I urge cynics to stop reading now.
It took many hours for me to write this document and I am afraid that we can not offer further clarifications via email, evaluate bikes that you are considering buying or field phone calls about the finer points of used bicycle purchase.
We do not do appraisals or provide any estimate of bicycle value. We do offer free (in person) estimates for repairs.
The information herein is hardly new, unique or proprietary. If you are not in Los Angeles, we would suggest you buy lots of stuff from your local bike store, build a relationship and rely on them for their generous and hard earned advice. They know all this stuff.
If you are new to bikes, GET HELP!
This is the absolute best advice in this whole document. If there isn't a local, trusted store that sells used bikes, you probably know somebody that is 'into' cycling. They may be a blowhard pedant, but you have got to suck it up, listen to what they have to say and bake them cookies afterward. If they have been riding for any time and have ridden more than two different bikes, they will have very valuable advice about size. If they know tons about different techniques for laying down carbon, just keep bringing the conversation back to size.
Also, this biking friend may have used tires, saddles, etc. that will help greatly.
Only buy a bike that you can ride.
If you know lots, have ridden lots and are willing to gamble, then by all means, buy that forgotten champion and rebuild it for another chance of glory. If you don't know lots, haven't ridden in awhile and don't know your size, only buy a bike that you can take around the block.
Besides actually having a sense of how it rides and whether it fits your ambition and comfort, it will also probably end up being cheaper in the long run. The $40 dollars spent on a thrift store bike is but a rounding error in the total cost of ownership. I buy $40 bikes all the time, but I know that is a starting point for a hundreds of dollars project.
Whatever bicycle you buy, it has to fit.
Bicycle size is the one thing you can't change and unfortunately for the newb, fit is pretty complicated. Reading on the internet, based on inseam, that you are a 53CM is not very productive. There are different ways to measure a bicycle and two 53CM bikes can have wildly different geometry. That internet sourced size refers to the height of the frame - which is a great starting point - but the more important dimension is the length of the frame. A bike that has a 53CM tall frame might have a 52CM or 56CM top tube. This means that the "same size bike" will could feel just right, really cramped or dangerously stretched out.
A cheap bike that fits is better, quicker and safer
than an expensive bike that doesn't fit.
Besides the length of the top tube, there are a ton of other considerations like do you want a stable, long bike or a twitchy, short race bike, sloping top tube vs. non-sloping, stem length and angle, saddle height and setback, ability to carry parcels, etc.
If you can't get help or work with a trusted shop, ride a ton of bikes. Make sure, at a safety minimum, that you can stand over the top tube and have an inch of clearance between you and the bicycle.
Assume it will need work.
Even a used bike in great, original condition will likely need work. And most aren't in great condition. Mercifully, there are a number of excellent bike co-ops in LA that will assist you in getting it back in shape. It will not be without costs, as you will need to buy parts/consumables and donate some money for "stand time" to keep the operation going.
Get the right style of bike.
Many people say they want a road bike, but after riding a vintage downtube shifter road bike on 23c tires around the block, they reconsider. You may be better served by a touring bike with rack mounts and bar ends or an 80's/90's rigid mountain bike with an upright stem and slick tires.
Do like we do and steer clear of big box store and internet bikes.
An overwhelming majority of the bicycles sold in big box stores are made by Pacific Cycles. They bought many legendary brands like Schwinn, Mongoose and Huffy but any connection to those brands is only sticker deep. The other common Walmart/Amazon bike is the Denali/Cadillac/Any GM branded bike.
I am not a "I Hate Walmart!" fist on the desk pounder. Our reasons for not buying or selling these bikes is purely practical. They are very cheaply made, often with non-standard components. For example, the Denali road bikes use a shifter and handle bar set-up that is OEM unique to them. If they break or wear out, that's it.
It is complicated, the Schwinn brand has two tiers, the big box brand and a bike store brand. We will buy the later, but not the former. Motobecanes are beautiful, classic French road bikes, but the name has been licensed to Bikes Direct to market mountain bikes.
You have determined the correct size and style of bike, we will take a detailed look at specific components.
Frame and Fork - Steel
Bent or Straight?
Looks good! But, it is bent. After you look at enough of these, even from this photo, a saavy enthusiast will see that the fork is at a funny angle. The fork is actually fine, but the headtube - the portion of the frame that holds the fork - is pushed back. It is subtle. I often see bent bikes on craigslist or eBay that look like this and, at least half the time, I suspect the sellers don't know it's bent.
There it is. You can barely see it on the down tube, but the steel will often buckle when pushed back leaving a little 'bubble' or ridge of folded steel.
Often times, there will be telltale hairline cracks in the paint on the top side of the tubes. Harder to catch on dirty bikes. Also, these sorts of surface paint cracks are more difficult to see on modern powder coated bikes. For one thing, the powder is thicker but it is also more elastic. Before changing topics from bent frames at the headtube, a last example of a very subtle and heartbreaking bent Trek that we were not able to build, stripped for parts and sold the carcass on eBay. (We disclosed it was bent. Why would some one buy it? Maybe they need fork, frame to repair another or want to try their hand at repairing frames.)
Bummer. Bent Trek.
The headtube is not the only place that it can be bent. The whole frame needs an eagle-eye going over. Sometimes the rear stays are bent or the dropouts (more on that later.)
Bent forks are also common. I don't have a photo of a bent fork right now, but I will update later. Seeing fork damage often requires a semi-pro to look at, as it can be pretty subtle. Sometimes, a third of the way down the fork, there will be paint cracks on the leading edge of the fork but sometimes, there aren't. Also, the fork blades can be bent unevenly such as one is twisted outward. That is a more common occurrence than you might think - generally from something hitting the wheel hard from the side.
An experienced rider will often be able to tell if a frame or fork is bent by riding it. The geometry may feel funny, like the front wheel is extra twitchy responsive or it will pull to one side. That said, I have ridden some cheap, poorly designed bicycles that felt like they were bent but weren't.
Question: The frame or fork are bent, can they be fixed?
Answer: Yes, but often not economically.
Frame - if the headtube is bent back, it needs to go to frame repair and that is not cheap.
Fork - if the fork is bent back, probably cheapest to replace it with a new, chrome 'replacement grade' fork for $30-50 plus labor.
Fork blades bent inward or outward - may be able to be fixed. If the fork isn't too badly bent, a mechanic can use Park 'candlesticks' to align the fork ends.
Why is Angel so happy? For one thing, the catastrophic failure was not his catastrophic failure.
Question: Why do I care if the frame or fork are bent?
Answer: Dangerous, with risk of catastrophic failure. The danger may derive from the fact that it doesn't track true or it steers funny. The more harrowing danger is a catastrophic failure. Once it is bent, the structural integrity of the tube is compromised. Sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. In the case above, it was not that bad of a bend, but it got worse from subsequent small impacts until it gave way. Concerned readers will be happy to note that the rider was not injured and the break happened in slow motion. He thought he had a flat tire - "it just felt weird and wiggly!"
Of course, there will be cyclists that will say that I am over-estimating the danger. I know enough to know that I don't know enough. I am not a metallurgist or frame builder. Coco's doesn't sell bent bikes - though we will (extremely frugally) buy them to strip for parts.
Drop-Outs and Derailleur Hanger
The drop-outs are the points of the frame that contact the hub axle. On better bikes, they will be forged steel. On cheaper bikes, they will be flat plate with a discreet component to hold the derailleur. Pictured, a nice set of Japanese, chrome plated, finished brazed-in dropouts. Issues to watch for:
Missing, broken off or bent adjustment screws - not a huge deal as you don't NEED them
Malformed, crushed or bent in any way
Missing that little derailleur stop tab on the bottom
Derailleur mounting boss has stripped threads
Derailleur hanger bent too far inbound or outbound
Derailleur hanger ground off - fixie casualty
Rear drop-out too wide open or too close - meaning that the right facing slot of the hanger is bent too far down or up
You are mostly looking for damage. Harder to see with the wheels and derailleur mounted. Steel is pretty flexible, so we can often bend the drop-out or hanger back into shape, but not always. Sometimes they have been bent too far or have been bent and straightened too many time and the hanger snaps off.
Old "gas pipe" Austrian tandem looks super rusty, but gives me no pause.
Super thick steel and not crusty rusty.
As anybody that has every bought a classic car knows, sellers have a more optimistic definition of "surface rust" than buyers. Surface rust is just that, discoloration of the metal at the surface. It is finding no purchase, meaning that it is not digging into the metal. If it is flakey/crusty or if you can chip off pieces with your fingernails, that is no longer surface rusty. It is into the metal.
Again, experience counts and don't take my few words to be a guide on this subject. Metallurgy and corrosion is a big world of knowledge. If there is any question, walk away!
Way too far gone!
Totally unacceptable - aesthetically and structurally
True story, picture above related. Guy sells a bike, has seller's regret. Did he sell it too cheap? He Googles and sees that we had a similar make and model, albeit totally refurbished, on our website. Emails us pictures of his bike with "it had some surface rust (see pictures above) and a few chips in the paint... I sold it for $75. Did i blow it?"
Somewhere in the US, the new owner brought this to the local bike shop and the mechanic is shaking his head, "you paid what?"
French bikes super cool but can be frustratingly non-standard. In general, bicycles are amazingly standardized. Around the early 1980's, even Peugeot moved to the common "English standard" but before that, the French bicycle standard was unique to the French. Thanks to Velo Orange and eBay, you can find the parts, but they are always more expensive. You can get a standard 27.2 seatpost from our $5 bin, but for a French 24.0 you will pay $50+ on eBay.
The other issue is French components like plastic Mafac brake levers, derailleurs and shifters. They are very brittle and almost always need replacement. Sheldon Brown has written extensively about the French way, so if you are committed to that particular headache, I refer you there. I love French bikes, have two French bikes but would never recommend a French bike to anybody. It's like recommending an old Jag as a daily driver. Just plain mean.
Stuck Seatposts and Stems
Steel seatposts and stems can get stuck in steel frames and forks, but the bigger problem is aluminum components in steel frames. Galvanic corrosion is a chemical reaction between two dissimilar metals. The tolerances of seat post to frame are quite tight, so there isn't a lot of room for rust or corrosion.
When buying a bike, make sure you can move the seat post up and down.
We have had countless people buy a bike with a saddle slammed down or too tall only to discover the seatpost is stuck. It is a surprisingly vexing problem. We have scrapped more frames than I care to count. There are a million internet theories on dealing stuck seat post removal and, someday, if I ever get this beast of a document done, I will write up what we find works the best. Short version - Kroil, tap seat post with a medium hard plastic mallet every time you walk by the bike over the course of a week, more Kroil, hot cycles of big pan of near boiling water, then a cold cycle hosing off with cool garden hose.
This concludes Part I. I was planning to write the whole thing in one big chunk, but this has already taken me 3x longer than expected. More soon!
Where to Buy - Bike Stores vs. Non-Bike Stores
This is extremely important in the current used bicycle market. There is somewhat of a gold rush going on. It doesn't take much craigslist looking to find incredibly blown out K-Mart bikes selling for astonishing craigslist prices as race bikes.
As we are a brick and mortar bike store, we conform to certain legal and industry standards. For example, bicycle distributors will not sell to a guy in a garage. It is not mere snobbery, it is a practical insurance issue. As a bike store, we carry a robust liability policy, worker's comp insurance and a separate bicycle rental insurance policy. The distributor's insurance requires that they sell only to insured bike stores. And the manufacturer's only sell to distributors that sell to insured bike stores. It is a chain of insurance issue - for all parties, they want to be certain that everybody in the chain is insured to share liability.
Non-bike stores can't buy Shimano, Campagnolo, Avid, Planet Bike, etc. and they buy their components from alternate sources. Though there are bright spots from these non-mainline distributors - we buy a few things from them ourselves - most of the components are swap meet grade. Swap meet grade in price and quality.
When we see these components, we know that the bicycle was flipped or repaired with swap meet grade parts. Be extra vigilant when you see components like Endzone saddles, shiny plastic bar tape, Duro tires, unlined housing and galvanized cables.
Even on our most basic bikes, we use Jagwire lined housing, pre-stretched stainless brake cables, Cane Creek brake pads, name brand saddles, KMC or SRAM chains, VP pedals, and Kenda tires and tubes.