Online or Local?
Right out of the gate, I strongly discourage anyone from buying an adult bike at any dept. store or big box store. They are not assembled by mechanics, the components are not generally roadworthy (many can’t even be purchased in a bicycle shop, because they do not meet the standards) and you will spend more than the cost of the bicycle on repairs and maintenance inside of a few months of riding, while never being able to get the components quite tuned right. When I worked in a bike shop, I saw at least three bikes from big box stores that had the fork installed backwards. Save money by buying at a bicycle shop, where there are professionally trained salespeople and mechanics who will fit you properly to the bicycle and where new bicycles usually get free life-time basic tune-ups at local shops.
Buying a bike online can be an inexpensive alternative to buying from a local shop, but you miss out on a few things.
- Buying from a local bike shop usually includes free basic tune-ups for the life of the bike.
- Warranties on the bike and equipment.
- Test riding and knowledgeable staff, including being fitted to the bike.
- Many bike shops will switch out parts for the difference in cost and no or little labor charge. This is a huge plus because even a brand new bike often needs a different saddle or stem to fit you correctly; let alone the mismatch you may get with used.
- You know where the bike has been and don’t discover hidden surprises about its history.
- You support your local economy and reduce your carbon foot-print.
With that said, E-bay is okay and Craigslist can yield good results, if you’re patient, quick and/or lucky. “The Definitive Guide to Buying a Bicycle” is a great video about how to select the right bike for you. Check it out!
Choosing a Pre-Owned Bike
Fit to the bike
Fit is the first most important thing for which to look. If you find Lance Armstrong’s bike on Craigslist for $50, but it’s too big for you, its features are worthless for your ride:
- Stand-over height. This is a rough idea, but it is not always a perfect measurement. The distances from your saddle to your handlebars and from your saddle to your pedals are the most important. Not everyone has a typical leg-to-torso ratio, but you don’t want to be right on the top tube when standing over. On road bikes, you want about 1-2 inches of clearance between you and your top tube. On mountain bikes it should be about 3-5 inches at the middle of the top tube. In example, modern woman specific bikes have the geometry adjusted to accommodate longer legs and the shorter torso. Until recently, bikes were almost all designed for male anatomy, making the distance from the saddle to the handlebars too long and too short from the saddle to the pedals, for women.
- Leg extension. Your seat-post has a quick release or hex-wrench fastening it to the frame. If you have a carbon fiber seat-post, be very careful and read your manual! Seat-posts have a limit line. If you set your post out past the limit line marked on it, you void your frame’s warranty and you will likely, eventually break something. Make sure your bolt or quick-release are firmly fastened after adjusting. Raise or lower your seat-post so your leg has a tiny bit of bend, but is almost fully extended, when the ball of your foot is on the center of the pedal and the pedal is in the down-most position. Some folks like to measure by fully extending with the heal on the ball of the pedal. Always ride, though, with the ball of your foot on the center of the pedal.
- Saddle. Your saddle should be level with the ground, except for dual suspension mountain bikes, where the nose should be slightly down, making it level when you sit. It should be positioned fore and aft so the indentation, just under your knee cap is directly above the ball of your foot, with the ball of your foot on the center of the pedal, the pedal forward and level with the ground. Longer distances should be ridden on harder saddles, proportionally and vise versa. The most important part of the type of saddle for you is its fit to your sit-bones. Choose a saddle that allows your sit bones to be firmly, evenly and comfortably on the saddle, supporting your weight. This makes woman specific saddles extremely important for women, who have wider sit bones than men. The saddle can be adjusted with a 6 MM hex wrench under the saddle, or, sometimes, a box wrench on the side of the rails.
- Stem and top-tube distance. Your frame should be close enough to your size that you can put a reasonably sized stem on that allows you to be at about a 45 degree angle.
- Brakes and Handlebars. Your handlebars should be about the width of your shoulders. Your brakes should be set up to allow you, when riding normally and resting your hands on them, to keep a straight line from your forearm through your wrist and hand. Having the hands at an angle to the forearm cuts off circulation and puts unnecessary strain on the hands, wrist and ultimately all the way up to the neck and shoulders.
Common frame types
- Steel. Steel is real. It can also be real garbage. Steel is very durable and tends to lessen the vibration of the ride. It is the only commonly found option that can, on occasion, in certain parts, be bent back (e.g. the derailleur hanger). It is great for touring, cyclocross and, if you’re hip, mountain bikes. Steel also comes in the plumbing tube variety. Good, quality steel is most commonly Chromoly, but there are lots of great alloys and processes. Steel can go from cheap garbage to the finest bicycles on Earth and price ranges reflect that. Well crafted, old, steel bikes can maintain undiminished quality, higher than plenty of brand new ones.
- Aluminum. It is light and cheap. It also tends to transfer the vibration of the smallest pebble right to your rattling teeth. If you want something good and light for a reasonable price, it is great. It is also porous like swiss cheese and just as soft. It is not as strong as other options and it does not bend back. With that said, it can be very strong. If you are unsure, it will have a higher pitch sound, when you flick it, than steel and the down-tube is generally larger to make the strength adequate for the alloy.
- Carbon fiber. While plenty more expensive than other options, carbon fiber is extremely light and extremely strong. When it fails, however, it is catastrophic. It splinters instead of bending, like metal. Damage that can lead to catastrophic failure can be internal and invisible, or appear as nothing more than cosmetic damage. Be very careful when buying pre-owned carbon fiber. With that said, it is also really great at absorbing vibrations from the ride. It is really great at key contact points, for that reason: seat-post, handlebars, stem.
- Titanium and bamboo. Awesome.
Quality, tiers & components
Bikes made in the last two to three decades tend to follow a mass-produced pattern. Many of the major manufacturers, such as Specialized and Trek, tend to follow a three-tier grade for each type of bike. Whether mountain bike or road, there is entry level, mid-range and pro/race/weekend warrior. Within each, there tends to be about three subdivisions of low, middle and high. You will find a frame will be of an entry-level quality and components will range from low to mid quality, composing about two or three models of a type of bike. Then you will have a mid quality, with a few variations on the frame composition and components ranging from low to high quality. Finally, high quality frames tend to have mid to high quality components.
There tend to be three tiers based on frames, with sub-tiers based on component combinations.
Because this is the case, you can often get a rough idea about the quality of a bike made in the last 2-3 decades based on a quick glance of the rear derailleur. There are only three modern, major manufacturers of drive-train components:
These companies have low to high quality components with special names. These names can be found in order of quality on their websites. Manufacturers will make the rear derailleur quality relative to the frame quality. The front derailleur, shifters and most components tend to be one step below the rear derailleur. If your rear and front derailleur are low quality, your bike is probably entry level. If they are mid-high quality, your bike may be mid-high quality, but remember, this assumes original parts. In this way, you can get a very rough idea of the quality of a bike, without knowing anything about brands or models.
For classes, call Esperanza.