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Second Hand Road Bikes How to Buy Them and What to Check

It doesn’t have to cost the earth to get cycling, and second hand road bikes make a great deal of sense, as well as a great deal.  But ‘buyer beware’ is a good motto.  Like any consumable  product, bikes are subject to theft but it’s arguably harder to identify if they have been stolen than many other products.  For example, cars come with log books, you can look at its history to see if it has been involved in an accident; outstanding finance can be looked into.

There’s little to compare to this in the cycling world (though frame numbers, see entry #1 below, are a good start).

But there are also many other things that you need to keep an eye out for, from frame damage to worn parts.  Even screw heads and bolts could suggest a deeper problem.  Below is my attempted definitive list, but please do add more in the comments section if you have any.  And don’t forget, if you find this article useful, click the “google +1” above so that others can find it more easily when searching.

second hand road bikes

second hand road bicycles

So here following is a guide for what to look out for.

1) Frame number.  You should find this on the underneath of the bottom bracket (where the crank sits).  If it is worn off or rubbed off in some way, scratched out, or if you can’t get the information from the vender in the case of buying online or ‘phoning up in the case of a local newspaper ad., then beware. For more information on registering and checking if a bike is stolen or not, see bike register.

2) Check all the usual things you would on a new bike.  Is it the right size?  Is it comfortable?

3) Check the frame, particularly the joints, to see if there are any cracks.  If you are buying a second-hand road bike then it’s important to ask how it has been transported on a car.  Lightweight carbon or aluminium frames should never be carried using a rear mounted bike carrier because the stresses go in the wrong direction.  And that’s the official Cannondale handbook information!  Check also the forks for cracks.  Any dings or small imperfections in the frame could indicate a crash, and that will weaken the frame, which means you will have a ‘frame catastrophic failure’ at some point, and if you are hurtling down-hill at speeds approaching 40-50mph and your bike collapses underneath you then the mess isn’t going to be pretty.  Steel bike frames can be repaired by a frame builder.

4) Check the seat post

The seat post needs to not be rusty, and if it is a carbon post then no dings or damage.

5) Wheels.  Spin the bike wheels and check the wobble amount between the wheel and the brake pads. Very small wobbles are just niggles that can easily be adjusted at home.  Large wavers could be a bigger job for a bike shop.  Any ticking sounds or side to side movement of the axle could mean damaged bearings.  You need a new wheel, which is expensive.  The tyres should still have tread, or if it is a road bike not have damage or irregularities in how they are worn.  Split walls are a good sign of the age of a tyre.  Whatever, budget for a set of new tyres – cheapest come in at around £10 a piece – in the next couple of months.

6) Brakes should move freely and return to their starting points before being applied quickly.  It might just be they need a spot of oil between the mechanical moving parts (not the pads…duh!), or it could indicate that the cable are sticking in their housing.  Make sure that the ends of cables are covered by little metal ferrules (I forget the name right this second, leave a comment if you can remember!).  Frayed cable ends again show the age of the cables.  You should be able to reach the brakes easily and they should be effective when squeezed, applying enough pressure to stop the bike BEFORE you have squeezed the brakes all the way to the bars. Some brakes are more effective than others at this, and you can always replace them at some point in the future.  If you are able to squeeze them in this way, but the bike still doesn’t stop it might mean that oil has gotten into the pad working surface, and there is nothing you can do about that other than give the rims a good clean and change the pads.

7) Cranks in the bottom bracket shouldn’t move from side to side.  Look out for rust as that makes the cranks difficult to get out.  Check the pedals to make sure that they move freely, but don’t move side to side.

8.) Bolts and screws.  They are often made of soft metal, so the heads can be stripped out making them a nightmare to remove or adjust.

9) The chain shouldn’t be rusty.  You also need to check for chain stretch, which you can do easily with a 12 inch ruler or a tool.  If using a ruler, each link is 1/2 an inch long.  So the 12 inches should be the distance from the exact centre of the first to the last of a 24 link length.  If it is over 1/16” variance from this, you will need to replace the chain.

10) Gears should be smooth changes, but anyone with a road bike will tell you that you need to regularly adjust the gears to make sure that they change smoothly.  Rattles are often located at the extreme ends of the cassette and might just need an adjustment of the front or rear derailleur.  Triple sets will struggle with this more than compact chainsets. As a rule of thumb, gears 4-7 on a road bike shouldn’t rattle the front derailleur whether you are in the larger or smaller [front] chainring gears.  Look for broken teeth or excessive wear on the cassette of chainring.  If there are broken teeth then you will need to replace the chain as well because broken teeth indicate either the chain damaged the sprockets, or the sprockets will have damaged the chain!  Allow about £50 if any of these parts need replacing and you need a shop mechanic to do it for you because you don’t have the right tools for the job.

11) The derailleur itself should hang perpendicular to the cassette.  Look for bends in the bracket.  If you are buying a a carbon frame walk away because it could indicate unseen damage in the rear fork.  Cheaper aluminium frames can take a bit of a knock here and are tougher than the hanging bracket, and steel can withstand it too up to a point, unless it is the very fine grade steel.  Top of the range aluminium frames like on my Caad 10 are as damage susceptible as carbon frames.  If you still buy the bike, remove the derailleur and straighten it in a vice, or buy a new one.

12) Headsets should move freely and the handlebars flop to the left or right when you lift the frame from the front.  They can be adjusted if too tight.  If the bike is carbon, do not let the bars bang the frame or it will damage it.  The headset shouldn’t make a clunking sound if you move the bike backwards and forwards with the brakes on.

13) Do expect that on any second hand bike that the paint or transfers will be worn.  What you are looking for is irreparable damage or hidden damage.  On carbon frames, for example, even a small cut could compromise the frame.  In the end, buying second hand is a great way forward, particularly with a first bike, and you can get a great deal, but you have to know what you are looking for.  I would suggest that if you aren’t a competent mechanic, you either take one with you who really knows what they are doing, not just a mate who says they do, or else visit a local bike shop who sells second hand.  That way they will give you some form of warranty so that if something goes wrong in the first 3 months they will sort it out for you.

Creative Commons License photo credit: moriza

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