Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Advice on Buying A New (Used) Bike

A treasure trove of used bikes at the Phoenix Bike Co-op in Arlington, Va. Credit: Phoenix Bikes.

Now that we've got our out there, we've been getting lots of mail requesting advice on bike purchases.  I'm always reluctant to get overly specific with bike-buying advice, because bikes preferences are so subjective.  In fact, that's one of the things I love about bikes -- there are so many options.

Here's something that may be surprising: When I respond to these emails (I can't help myself, I love talkin' bikes), I rarely recommend any of the bikes featured on our blog.  The fact is, there are so many used bike bargains out there.  Imagine, for a moment, that you're in the market for a car, you respond to an ad on the cars/trucks section of craigslist, and you have the following conversation with the owner after checking out the car:

Buyer: Wow, your car seems to be in mint condition.  It looks like it's never seen the outside of your garage!

Seller: Actually it's been out a few times, but only for short drives around the block.  But then I got busy with ping pong and other hobbies and lost interest in driving, so it's been sitting in my garage ever since.  At this point, I just want it out of here.  How does $50 sound?

Buyer: I'll take it!

A very improbable scenario for a car purchase, yet in the world of used bicycles, this conversation happens all the time.  I know, because I've been the buyer in that scenario way too many times.

Because these bargains are out there, I often ask people who are in the market for a new bike whether they would consider getting a used one.  Here's a recent email exchange I had with Eric from Indianapolis.  He's given permission to share, and maybe you'd like to chime in with your own wisdom in the comments.



I stumbled across your blog yesterday and have found it very useful and interesting! I could use some help in putting a bike project into action. I have a basic understanding of bike styles but am a little foggy on which direction to go. Here's what I'm after; a commuter bike that will be mostly on pavement, but could go off road on grass, dirt, or possibly even easy trail, something I would have to be afraid of being a little aggressive with. Here's a few parameters...

*My commute to work is 18-20 miles one way

*I want the bike to be as simple as possible in form and function

*The least amount of gears to handle a few moderate hills

*Able to be aggressive (mildly... no drops or jumping of logs!) off the pavement, as in cyclocross?

*Trying to avoid a suspension fork

*29's or 700c?

*Able to bear some weight, ie light touring

*I love flat black or gray! I would love to customize it as much as possible

*I have about $700 on the top end to put towards it, so I'm a little limited
So, If you think you could offer some pointers or stere me in the right direction, I would greatly appreciate your advice!
Kind Regards,
Eric in Indiana
Hi Eric,

Thanks for following our blog!

There are so many directions you could go based on your criteria. The first thing I would need to know is whether you are willing to consider a used bike. If so, you have many more options and your $700 will go a long, long way. For example, and this is just an example, you could get a rigid steel mountain bike from the '80s or '90s like a Stumpjumper or a Bridgestone MB-1. You could put on 26 x 1.50 slicks and it would make an excellent commuter.

Other questions:

What's your handlebar preference? Do you like drops, riser bars, flat bars? Do you want to ride upright or a bit lower?

How fast do you want to go? 18-20 miles is a lot of ground to cover; a sport tourer might be an option for you to consider.

Are you planning to ride in all types of weather?

How "moderate" are those hills? (I know Indiana is mostly flat, but I recall a few immoderate hills in places like Brown Co.)

Are you going to carry stuff on your bike? How much stuff?

I realize I haven't give you any answers, but I hope this helps you narrow in a bit more.

Hey freewheel,

Thanks for the reply! I was hoping we could get a conversation going about this. I open to any option.. whatever will get me the best bike for the most efficient use of my limited cash! I am sure open to a used frame/fork and put a little more money into better components. I looked up the Bridgestone MB-1... that looks great. Now if I can just find one around here reasonably.

I'm thinking riding somewhere between low to upright, but closer to low. I've had drop bars on a bianchi road bike I had recently and I really enjoyed it, though for this one, I'm thinking more upright, but not cruiser up right. Does that make sense? I want to be comfortable but efficient. I'm leaning toward a flat or riser bar. Open to suggestions

As for the hills, I'm in Indianapolis. The hills that I would ride through are not to the level of Brown Co. hills, but a gear or two would be nice! I've been looking at single speeds a lot and I really like the simplicity of it, but I think a 3-5 gears would be prudent.

I'll cary some stuff. I'm a firefighter so when I go to work, it's for 24hrs. I can fit more overnight stuff in a back pack easily enough. I doubt I could fit my turn-out gear in any bag though! Luckily, I don't often have to transport that. I see a rack on the back and that's probably all I'd need. I'm thinking I'd put a milk crate on the rack to put the back pack or a water proof bag in, in case I don't feel like wearing the backpack, or to put a couple bags of groceries in.

Thanks again and talk to you later,


I just found a bridgestone mb5 for $100....good bad or ugly?




Now I'm getting a clearer picture. You want to carry stuff, and you're going 18-20 miles. Based on that, I'd recommend a bike with a rear rack, and maybe a front rack as well. So you'll want to look for a bike that has braze-ons for the rack, or one that already comes with the rack attached (but avoid rear racks that attach to the seatpost). There should also be eyelets in the fork and in the rear for attaching a rack. In fact, the best set-up would be double eyelets front and back -- then you could run fenders and racks.

If it were me, I would invest in waterproof panniers and attach them to the rack. I wouldn't want to ride 18-20 miles carrying stuff on my back. That takes some of the enjoyment out of the ride. Here's a recent post by Tom called Bags for Bikes.

Also, I recommend investing in some lights so that you're visible in Indy traffic.

OK, so if you're looking for a bike that will take fenders and racks, or will come already set-up that way, that should eliminate quite a few bikes right there. A carbon fiber racing bike is lightweight and designed to go fast, but most of them are expensive, won't take fenders, won't allow for fatter, cushier tires, and aren't designed to carry stuff.

There are a lot of older steel road bikes that would work, but again, make sure you can attach a rack. Some of the so-called "entry-level steel bikes of the 70s and 80s don't even have pegs for a water bottle, which is another thing you'll want to carry along on your 18-20 mile commute.

Here's our post on buying a used bike, which was really just an excuse to re-publish Gene Portuesi's excellent article on the subject.

An MB-5 or something like it might work - I can't remember the details of an MB-5 but I'm pretty sure it will take a rack. You can replace the handlebars with whatever you want, including drops. There's some work involved, because you will need to recable the bike once you have the new handlebars in the position you want them.

One final piece of advice - test ride whatever you're thinking of buying and make sure it fits you well. There are a lot of bikes that will work for what you want to do, but a poor-fitting one will take the enjoyment out of riding.

Hope this helps. Let me know what you end up with!


p.s. if you're OK with it, I could put our discussion up on the blog and you'll get a whole lot of free advice in the comments!

Great!  Thanks, and please do put it up.  I'm sponging up info!  Eric


OK, now it's your turn. What would you recommend for Eric?


R.White said...

Nice exchange! I'm in Indy and just started bike commuting last month. I think you led Eric down the right path. Hills are mild in the city, but roads can be rough. A mtn or hybrid is often the answer here. I ride a 2001 Trek hybrid with 700c x 47 tires. Wide and thick to absorb all the seams, potholes, and bumps. Rear rack with trunk bag/panniers. Lights, raincoat, and flexible riding clothing are a must - the weather in the AM and PM can be radically different here. Good work!

Matt said...

I'd lean more toward a cyclocross or "commuter bike" setup. With that mileage I'd want 700c tires rather than anything 26", even slicks.

Something like a Salsa Vaya would be really nice for this, but I don't know what your chances are of finding that used (new it's too expensive).

I have a 2008 Cannondale Bad Boy I use to bike to work (basically a mountain setup, but with 700c tires). I rode 17 miles one-way on it for a while (now only have 6 miles each way), but I think if I still had the longer commute I'd want a more road-oriented setup.

In terms of being able to take something off-road... most of that capability (at least the way you're talking) will rest in the tires. If you get something that can take cyclocross tires, you'll be set.

Freewheel said...

I'll provide a counterpoint to Matt on the 26" (559 mm) wheels.

My commute is 30 miles roundtrip, and I mostly do it with a 1992 Bridgestone XO-2 with 26 x 1.5 slicks. With 26"/559 wheels you can usually go with much fatter tires than with 700c/622 wheels (my xo-2 will take 2.0 tires, a mountain bike usually can go wider than that). Also, the smaller diameter means stronger wheels. In fact, you can get a Surly LHT, any size, with 26" tires for fully loaded touring (another great option for you, Eric, if you can find one for $700)

Another wheel diameter to consider is 650B (584 mm), which is becoming increasingly popular as a middle ground between 26"/559 and 700c/622.

Finally, I realized I never answered Eric's question about 29'ers. Like 700c's, they're also 622mm, but they allow for fat tires. IMO, 29'ers would be overkill in Indiana.

Matt said...

@ Freewheel -

I guess I didn't really see the need for fat tires... even on rough roads, a 700x32-38 should do the trick (38mm is about 1.5"). I recommended 700c for easier rolling, thinking that would be a priority on a longer commute.

In terms of wheel strength - that's not something I'd heard about the tire sizes. In my experience, wheel strength has a lot more to do with quality than size!

I also don't know why 29'er tires would be "overkill" when 26" mountains aren't... and I think Guitar Ted (who bikes/writes from Iowa) would disagree with you about 29'ers! I use a 29'er as my ice/snow commuter bike.

Overall I guess the end point (for Eric and others) is there are obviously a lot of things that will work... and a lot boils down to personal preference. Heck, you can even go touring on Bromptons.

Matt said...

Sorry, one more point:

In the used-bike market, I'd stick with either 700c or 26". There are a lot more available and the prices are more likely to be competitive.

Freewheel said...

Fair points, Matt.

Absolutely, Eric would be fine commuting with a 700c bike, esp if it had 32-38 tires. He also said he would also like to be able to take in some grass/dirt, would like to be able to ride easy trails (which I interpret to mean fire roads rather than single track). I think he could do that fine with 700c x 38 or 26 x 1.5. But I don't see why he would need a 29'er. There would be no point in carrying around the extra weight of those tires on mostly flat terrain.

Eric Moeller said...

Great comments everybody! Thanks for the active input! So, help me out here with this. I'm leaning toward the cyclocross route, which is essentially a road bike with off road tires, correct? I'm still a little concerned about strength of frame on bumps and potholes.

Also about gearing...What do you think about 3-5 speeds on this type of setup? Does it makes any sense? Should I consider an appropriately geared single speed? I really want to keep the bike simple, but efficient and effective.

Tom said...

Unless you're building up from scratch or buying new you'll probably just use whatever is on the bike. A plain old 1 x 9 (only changes gears in the rear) is probably fine. A 3-speed internal hub might not be enough gears for you. A nexus 8 speed internal hub would be a nice choice but pricey to install (you'd have to rebuild the wheel) and even harder to find used.

Matt said...

@ Eric -

Unless you're a really big guy, the strength of the frame isn't going to be an issue for what you're doing (even then, it probably won't be). The thing potholes will affect the most will be your wheels. I'd ride whatever comes with the bike, but keep an eye on the rims and if they start getting beat up consider a beefier set.
Overall I'd also recommend avoiding potholes! :)

Anonymous said...

My cousin too benefits from this assistance and exchanges.(He has almost similar needs for a bike) He's going for 26 X 1.5, first choice (or the 700c if he comes across it earlier).
Thanks. ;)

theboy said...

I have been commuting on a cyclocross bike for a decade. BUT if I were looking for a bike today, I would undoubtedly go with a touring frame.

Touring frames can be had that are nearly as light as cyclocross bikes. They are all more stable. And, heel, fender, and tire clearance issues are all less likely and -- if they occur -- easier to deal with.

I am 6'2" and with a Blackburn Expedition Rack, to avoid bumping my heel against some panniers, I need to push the pannier so far back on the rack that there's a danger of putting it into the spokes. I have fought to get 38 tires onto the rear without removing the fenders. And anything larger than a 38 -- and some 38s rub against the chainstays.

I like a "quick" feeling road bike, but for commuting, I want nothing unexpected and a frame I can get studded tires on or, now and then, huge loads. I think a touring frame does the job.

Freewheel said...

theboy - maybe that's why Surly's LHT has become a popular commuter.

Eric Moeller said...

I agree about a touring bike. I think I found it! I found a 2009 Jamis Aurora, new, online for $659 and free shipping! A bike shop here in Indy has it for $899.... It seems like a good deal and I only have to add rack/fenders to it and it's ready to roll. Any thoughts on the Aurora? I'm really tempted to pull the trigger. I have decided that a touring style is indeed the best option for me.

Freewheel said...

Eric, I think that's a great choice! It's steel and it's versatile, with eyelets for fenders and racks. Once you attach a rack, you should be able to carry all your gear. If you get it, please write back and give us your review!

theboy said...

I don't know the Aurora, but we have a couple Jamis bikes. Nice for the price.

BUT, go to a bike shop and ride the current model (or the old one, if you can find it) first. Fit is important and although most things can be changed, some can't and futzing around with stems and bars etc. gets burdensome.

I'd also check on the paint jobs in the bike shop. One of ours has unusually delicate paint. Look for any places where an undercoat layer might be poking through. Dropouts and chainstays are a good spot to look for nicks.