I got to thinking about buying a used bike and figured I would throw some information out there in case you decide to check out some used gear. Here are some tips I would follow when buying a used cycle.
Sizing- Generally there are two types of frames, road and mountain. Road bikes either take 27″ or 700c wheels and mountain bikes would use 26″ wheels. I won’t get into the benefits and advantages of either but you should be aware those are the primary differences. Also, older road bikes used to come with 27″ wheels but now primarily come with 700c wheels. Some replacement parts are still available for 27″ wheels like tires and tubes and the like but there is less of a variety of options available for these than the more common 700c. Not a big deal but if you are going to have to replace the tires on a used road bike (a common replacement when buying a used bike) be aware there may be less options available in the 27″ wheel/tire department.
Following the decision on whether road or MTB is your choice the most important aspect to your new (used) cycle is that it fits you. There is a lot of information on the web about sizing a bicycle but generally you want about 1/2-1″ between your pubic bone and the top tube of the frame. I would say even more than this when trying out a bike make sure to take it out for a spin for a while. If your planned commute takes 25 mins I would test the bike on a ride at least that long. The seller should have no problem with this but if they do walk away as there are plenty of other people out there who would love to make some money off you for something they probably aren’t using anyway. When buying used you don’t have the luxury of the bike shop sizing you correctly for the bicycle so be sure to make sure that comfort levels are appropriate for your riding. If you have back problems you probably won’t be in the market for a road bike with drop bars. Remember, if it isn’t comfortable you probably aren’t going to get out and ride so I would say this is one of the more important aspects of your decision.
Frames are generally made from a couple different materials. Traditionally most bikes have been constructed of steel and with good reason. Steel lasts a long time, is rugged, and is easy for fabricators to work with. On the down side it is heavier than other materials (although marginally so in most cases). Additionally, think about automobile suspension. The springs are made of steel. The properties of steel make this possible and this is also reflected in steel bicycles as well. There will be some give in a steel frame that, when on long journeys, will translate to more comfort just like a car spring. Something to consider.
Next along the line would be aluminum. More and more bikes are being constructed of the material due to its light weight. While this weight savings has its own advantages there are some downsides as well. Most people describe aluminum as being “stiff” to ride which translates to less comfortable for you on longer rides. I have had more aluminum bikes than probably any other material and I can say they are “stiff” but each one to varying degrees. Whether you will like this or not is a matter of personal preference. There is more to a bike than just the frame that will determine your comfort when you ride and in fact I rode an aluminum framed mountain bike several hundred miles over a couple days and did not consider the stiff ride to be an issue probably due to the fact that the tires were wide enough to absorb much of the road vibration. When navigating city traffic the stiffness of the ride was nice because stiff also translates into responsive and when you want to hammer the pedals down the bike feels like it is taking off which can be a good thing when having to navigate through traffic.
Other materials include titanium and carbon fiber. These two are mainly reserved for high-end bicycles so I will avoid discussing them in detail here. I will say that more and more components are being fabricated out of carbon fiber now to reduce weight. People who employ these products are known through bike circles as “weight weenies” affectionately. When choosing to use carbon components on your bike (handlebars, seatposts, forks, etc) it is important to remember some of the differences in performance of the materials and your style of riding when choosing to use these materials. Some people claim the carbon dampens the road vibrations you will feel and having ridden a bike with carbon handlebars (the aluminum MTB mentioned earlier) I would agree. I also had a road bike with a carbon fork but that entire bike was so stiff and rigid I don’t know if the carbon in that application made any difference. As a rule, I would say for the beginner it is advisable to avoid these materials for several reasons. Primarily cost, as cheaply made carbon fiber (and expensive to) is not something you want to use due to the potential for catastrophic failure and most beginners or intermediate riders and certainly persons simply commuting have no need for this material as it simply doesn’t yet have a track record of being able to sustain long-term abusive riding which is what commuting primarily is. I have no experience with Titanium so I won’t even discuss but there are resources out there for you if you want to know more…..but be prepared to drop tons of cash on a titanium bike if that is what you are looking for.
Final point about frame selection. Many cheap MTB’s now come with suspension of the front or rear variety. I would avoid any suspension whatsoever. In the rear it make absolutely no sense for commuting as it adds weight to the design of the bicycle, probably provides little dampening effect being that anything that is in the beginners price range is probably not very good, and requires you to exert additional energy to travel as you are not only battling the road but also the suspension as it attempts to dampen you with every pedal stroke. You will pedal more efficiently and with less effort on a bike with no suspension. Many MTB’s (my recommendation for a commuter bike simply due to their ruggedness and gearing) since the late 90’s have come with front suspension. This is ok I guess but best bet would be to get something with a front suspension fork that can “lock out” i.e. operate as a rigid fork, or no suspension at all for commuting purposes. “But RVABC, I want to ride the buttermilk trail with my new MTB after I get back into biking.” That’s cool and a good ambition but I would still say suspension is not necessary for that endeavor and will slow you down in your commute and require more energy in every day if you are primarily using your bike for commuting. If you don’t commute, go ahead and get a dedicated MTB and that will more than likely include suspension as the forks are so ubiquitous now but don’t be afraid to look at a bike without one.
The majority of a bicycle has much more to do with the components than the frame. While the frame is an important consideration the components are easily equally as important in my eyes. Look at the wheels on a used bicycle. In general avoid steel wheels. How can you tell, bring a small magnet with you and if it sticks it’s steel. While steel is advisable for the frame it is not so much for the wheels. Braking distances are much greater on steel wheels and do not operate as well in poor weather conditions as alloy wheels do. Good news is that unless the bike you’re looking at is pretty old (before the mid 80’s) it probably will have alloy wheels. Second what condition are they in? You want to make sure there are no bends, hops, or dents in the rim and no broken spokes. I would argue that a good set of wheels will have much more to do with your ride quality than the frame itself in may instances. Make sure they are in good condition. A second point about wheels is the spoke count. Back in the day most bikes came with 36 spoke wheels. As racing became more and more popular more and more wheels with lower spoke counts were introduced. The problem with this is most people don’t race and the hazards presented by commuting really require a tough wheel. On my road bike I intentionally decided to use hubs (the center of the wheel) from the 70’s because they accommodated 36 spoke wheels and I had a set built around this one part. The additional weight doesn’t bother me because all too often there will be oncoming traffic behind you and you are stuck having to roll over the pothole directly in front of you to stay out-of-the-way of cars. A super low spoke race wheel will have improved aerodynamic properties but for a 200lb rider like myself will probably have constant maintainance issues for commuting purposes. For commuting, low maintainance and stronger are better.
Gears are the second consideration that needs to be made and this is the primary reason I recommend a mountain over a road bike for a new bike commuter. Simply put a mountain bike will have more usable gears for a new rider than a road bike will. Again road bikes are designed for racing and meet specific needs, unfortunately those are not in line with the needs of most commuters. You don’t want to be stuck having to get up out of the seat to pedal when going up minor hills and pedaling harder is worse on your knees. Most of the time it is better to switch to a lower gear and pedal a higher cadence (the number of revolutions of the crank per min.) than to have to push hard on the pedals to keep going. I like Shimano products simply because they work. Even on some projects I have worked on recently I have used cheap shimano deralliuers (the funny cage looking thing that changes gears) on bikes I own. These have always worked fine for me although will probably require replacement at some point due to some plastic gears in the one I recently installed. Since I know how to do the work it is not a big deal for me and it will probably work fine for several years anyway, pretty good if you ask me. Take a look at the components of the bike, you can usually tell is it is a cheap “box store” bike by the quality of these parts. Avoid bikes with shoddy plastic components and cheaply made parts. Ultimately they will fail and leave you stranded. This includes shifters, brakes, drivetrain, and pedals. Some plastic pedals will work ok for a while but may need replacement down the road. When buying a used bike look for something that was sold in a bike shop originally. Generally even cheap bike shop bikes will have Shimano components and will probably work well for commuting purposes. Most bike shops put their sticker on the frame near where the tubes meet at the bottom bracket. Simply look for a sticker and you will know it didn’t come from a box store and if you know the brand you can usually search the internet to determine if the bike was manufactured and sold at a bike shop or was a cheap knock off bike. Beware though, some brands had been sold in bike shops and are now sold by these retailers. Sad to say but even brands known to be quality in the past have migrated to box store sales not that all of their models are bad but be careful. Schwinn is a good example of this. While not all models of Schwinns were great beck in the day they were generally all very sturdy. Now you can get a Schwinn at most box stores and they are lesser quality than years gone by. My primary commuter right now is another good example. I ride a Mongoose IBOC mountain bike. Mongoose sells in box stores these days but the model I have was one of the top of the line mountain bikes in the early 90’s. Do some reasearch before you make your purchase.
Finally, if you live in the Richmond area and you are unsure about a bike, reply to this post with a link! I look at bikes on Craigslist frequently and I would be glad to help you make that good purchase. There is so much I haven’t even touched on here like single speed bikes, three speed roadsters, and fixed gears. All of this would take a long time to cover, but in general look for something strong like a steel frame, with no suspension, good components and wheels, and that has a way to attach fenders or a rack for transporting your stuff. In the summer you don’t want a sweaty back from a backpack when you could have a nice rack to hold your stuff (and beer from the store on the weekends).