Buying used has risks. You need to investigate a lot of moving and stationary parts of a road bike and know what is important as opposed to what is more superficial. If you’ve done some serious research and know the risks, it can also make sense whether you are just getting started in road biking, upgrading, replacing or adding to your stable.
Buying new can be expensive, even buying low end with just the basics, you’ll probably spend about $700 – that’s figuring you’ll need to also buy the pedals and a few accessories such as a bottle cage, helmet, repair kit or gloves. You also may end up switching the saddle for an upgrade in comfort. But buying new also means you can deal with experts who can help find the best fit, and you may find any extra cost is worth it in the long run. Buying something that works well for you translates to more enjoyment when you use your new investment.
If you have friends who are into road biking, ask to borrow one of their bikes, or see if the local bike shop rents bikes - this allows you to see what works best for you before you buy - new or used.
If you believe you can buy a new one cheaper at your local department or toy store – you need to recognize that most of those are made by the same parent company, though they use dozens of brand names, they are made of cheap parts, poor construction, and are heavy. Those bikes are more likely to break down or be in an accident, and will be more difficult to ride – making you hate your time on a bike. Don’t do it. If the bike has a one-piece crank or simple caliper brakes – keep looking. Beyond that, know the names of quality brands and models and look for those when buying new or used.
Depending on what is most important to you – going fast, comfort, distances, going off-road sometimes, hauling stuff, climbing hills, etc. – will make a difference, but that’s a topic for another article. Let’s stick with basic requirements.
Also, consider taking the bike to a bike repair shop to get professional eyes on it. You’ll pay for the service - usually between $40-$65 per hour with a minimum fee of $5-$10 for their help. An advantage with this is, if you end up buying the bike, you know about how much will be charged by them to do work if you can’t do it yourself - remember, their prices don’t usually include the cost of replacement parts.
Gears: You want gears, and unless you are a “fixie” (single speed bike) enthusiast, look for three big gears in the front attached to the crank. If the gears are covered, it quite possibly is NOT a road bike, but if you are still considering it, know that you’ll have fewer problems with dirt, grime, weather-related rust and such, but those bikes are more expensive to buy and repair, are heavier, and the lowest gear won’t be as low as on an uncovered gear option. If you have hills involved, you want those low gears.
Check the rings for any missing teeth or excessive wear. Since the middle ring gets the most use, pay particular attention to it. Take a portable bike stand with you so you can do a full rotation shifting through all the gears. Check to make sure the transitions are smooth. You’ll want to look for this again during a test drive of the bike.
Crank, Chain, and Chainstay: Invest in a chain checker and take it with you. Use it to see if the chain is stretched or will need to be replaced soon. If the chain is muddy or greasy, it can be cleaned. If it is rusty or the links don’t move easily, it will need to be replaced. For the Crank, make sure the bearings are good and if you can find a compact and lightweight crank set up, that’s probably the best option for general purpose.
Wheels and Brakes: Using that portable bike stand, check the wheels while on the bike. Stand so you are looking directly down at the top of the wheel and spin it. Is it going straight and true, or is there a wobble? If there’s a wobble, there’s a problem. You’ll want to do this with the wheels taken off the bike as well. Check for loose spokes or nipples. For the brakes, check the brake pads for wear and tear and that they can be replaced easily. Make sure they work and are smooth and easy to use. You can replace the brake system on most bikes, but it’s expensive. Look for damage or scratches to the brake hoods, brake lever ends, and handlebar ends, which would indicate the bike had been in a crash. If brake pads are triangular, it’s possible this is a department store bike, and you should keep looking.
Shift and brake cables - this gets tricky. There have been a lot of changes to handlebar designs of late and that means there is no rule of thumb to follow when it comes to the shift and brake cables. If the brakes are not installed correctly and the cables placed properly, even the most expensive ones aren’t going to do the job the way you want. Alternatively, if they are well-placed, even cheaper brands offer good returns. This is an area you really want a seasoned pro or top-level repair person to check for you.
Everything Else: For most everything else on the bike, check for cracks, dents, wrinkles, and dings to structure. If the damage is at joints, there may only be a small amount of life left in the bike without costly repairs.
Fork blade – check for any grinding in the bearings, push up and down on it from the bottom to check for any play in the fork head.
Scratches on the rear derailleur body – mean there’s been a crash so check the derailleur hanger for damage. For carbon and aluminum bikes, this can be replaced. For steel ones – it’s all one part – so it can’t be replaced and is also indicative of that dreaded department store bike.
Down tube and bottom – is there damage from rocks or flying debris? Small stuff is normal, but the more wear and tear, the less time you’ll get from the bike before replacing it or parts.
Check for any damage to the axle skewer ends, sides of pedals, sides of saddle, and rear derailer – all signs of a crash.
For carbon parts – chips in the paint are normal, but if you see cracks in the paint radiating out from the chips, there has probably been structural damage to the frame or part. Stay tuned for a full-feature article about choosing and inspecting a carbon-frame bike.
General advice: Some of the places to check for used bikes would be Craigslist, classifieds, or if you have a Penny Saver type weekly magazine. Check online for replacement or upgrade parts – a site like Bike Nashbar has a good selection and decent prices. You’ll get a general idea of options as well as pricing online. Finally, if you are buying used, be ready to jump at a moment’s notice. That includes having cash on hand for purchasing or possibly driving some distance to check out the bike.
We’ll have more information soon on making sure you and your bike are the right fit as well as all things biking. If you need information on something, in particular, leave a comment, and we’ll get working on it.