If the cost of a new bicycle is beyond your means, it’s easy to become bitter and twisted about the features that differentiate a new bike from one that is a year, or even a few years old
If you can’t afford a new one, that doesn’t mean you are destined to soldier on with your old skedonk; or remain bikeless. With a bit of bravery, luck and knowledge, you can leave the trend chasing to others, and find a pretty good piece of engineering for yourself at a fraction of the original asking price.
Riddle me this
No one can pretend that stolen and damaged or neglected bikes are not part of the second-hand market, but if you know what to look for, one of these machines will hopefully not be going home with you. While buying second hand will certainly earn you some green points for recycling, it is important to note that the manufacturer’s warranty does not transfer from the original owner, so you need to be sure that the bike you buy is free of major defects. Even before you look at the bike itself, you can sometimes identify stolen bikes by checking out the owner or seller. If bike and owner make an unlikely pair, you need to ask some questions.
Before you go anywhere near the bike, it is always a good idea to see if you can find information about the model on the Internet, or see an example. There should be a frame number on the base of the bottom bracket and if it isn’t there, or has been filed off, you are probably dealing with a bike that has not been obtained legally and it’s best to walk away, no matter how good the deal.
Fish in the best ponds
If you don’t know much about bikes, or you’re a new cyclist, ask one or two people who do know to advise you. Some of the best deals will be on bikes that are never officially for sale and, unless you tap into the network of cyclists, you won’t be told about them. One of the most important things about your choice of bike is the size. If the frame is too big or too small, it will be uncomfortable and possibly unsafe. While newspapers, auctions, classified publications and general websites may offer thousands of bicycles, the range is confusing and the chances of finding a gem among them isn’t all that good. These will usually be cheaper items, but perhaps suitable if you plan to use the bike only for general commuting. Quality machines are far more likely to appear on specialist platforms, where the seller does not first have to explain why the bike costs more than R2 000, or even R12 000. The classifieds on forums such as The Hub chat site offer all sorts of items to a cycling-specific audience. Although you will have to compete with other potential buyers, you will also have the benefit of opinions and advice from a vast and well-informed, if not always impartial, audience. If your purchase goes horribly wrong (we sincerely hope it doesn’t), this forum does sometimes have the ability to hand down some jungle justice, but it’s better to avoid problems by being selective. BikeBay is another useful resource. Sales through this portal include a bike-fitting session and a full inspection of the bike you’re buying, and there are some handy guidelines about the rate at which bikes depreciate on the site. If you’re entering into a private sale, you ideally want to know a little about the seller before you make an appointment to see the bike. Do you have any acquaintances in common? Do you know where the person works, or whom they regularly ride with? Can you talk to the mechanic who last worked on the bike? Have you Googled the seller’s race results? On paper, a two-year-old bike might not be very old, but if that bike is ridden in 40 races a year, it is old before its time. Notorious bike breakers often don’t survive a bit of a background check, and if someone objects to this type of questioning, it is really better just to keep looking. When available, the original proof of purchase is useful, because it allows you to confirm age and ownership.
Not quite new
Bike shops don’t want to do themselves out of the sale of a current model bike, so they won’t advertise the fact that trade-ins are available, but a second-hand sale is better than none, and it doesn’t hurt to ask. Sometimes they’re able to offer you a very good price on a bike that is no longer the most recent model available, although it is new. Platforms like Obike and BuyCycle also sometimes offer such machines. Occasionally, these bikes are worth buying for the components alone and you might be able to build a very good bike by finding a better frame and building over the new components.
Look before you try
If you are buying a second-hand bike in a private sale, you mustn’t be embarrassed to look it over thoroughly to ensure that it is rideable and that the frameset and parts are in a reasonable condition. The frame is generally the single most expensive part of the bicycle and frames cannot easily be repaired. If you look carefully, damage from crashes can mostly be seen if you look at the frame in bright light. While shallow scratches are not a major problem, you do want to inspect welds, lugs and stress points for cracks and tubes for dents. More subtle indentations can be felt if you run your hands over the seat tube, top tube and down-tube. If the frame is aluminium, dents will weaken it. If it is carbon, you need to be careful. Carbon frames need to be looked over very carefully for cracks, and you must be wary of cloudy or dull spots, which could signal damage under the surface. Carbon components like handlebars and seat posts must be inspected carefully, unless you plan to replace them. If it’s steel, a lot of damage can be repaired, but look out for rust. If any of these issues arise, we say, don’t buy it. Also, look at the frame from behind, to see whether the wheels line up, and the rear triangle isn’t bent. On road bikes, you need to see that the fork is straight, and it’s a good idea to run your fingers over the rims to feel for signs of wear on the braking surfaces if the bike has rim brakes.
While components are less expensive and can be replaced, you may want to factor wear of these parts into the price you are prepared to pay. A new drivetrain and wheels could end up costing as much as your second-hand frame is worth. Check the headset by lifting the front wheel off the ground, while holding the bike by the top tube. If the handlebar flops to one side, it may just need a bit of adjustment. Pinch the front wheel between your knees, hold the front brake and see if there is play in the handlebar, or whether you can hear a clicking sound. A loose headset can eventually cause serious damage and needs to be repaired. Another common area of wear is the bottom bracket, which holds the bearings that connect the cranks to the frame. With the bike standing on the ground, put your foot on one of the cranks and apply some pressure. There shouldn’t be any play in the bottom bracket.
Wheels and tyres
If you spin the wheels, they shouldn’t wobble from side to side or touch anywhere. Sometimes you just need to reposition the wheel to make sure it’s sitting straight in the dropouts. If all the spokes are there and none are obviously bent, the wheel might need to be trued. Worn hubs will cause the wheel to wobble from side to side, even when tight in the dropouts. Tyre problems are easily solved with new tyres, but cuts, dry rot or bubbles in the rubber should be pointed out to the seller. If it is a mountainbike, tyres that are already tubeless are better than ones that you still need to convert. Never ride a second-hand tyre without checking that it’s inflated to the correct pressure and holds air.
Drivetrain and brakes
The pedals should spin smoothly on their axles and rusty or contaminated and worn gear cables will need to be replaced. A new chain is not a major expense, but a worn cluster or chainrings that are sharktoothed will set you back quite a bit. Lift the back of the bike off the ground and rotate the pedals while shifting through the gears. Minor niggles may need some adjustment, but you do at least want the bike to run through all the gears and over all the chainrings. Test the brake levers and try to roll the bike forward with the brakes on. The levers should stop well clear of the handlebar and obviously the bike shouldn’t move. Worn, contaminated or rusty brake cables will have to be replaced, and the brake pads may also need to be renewed. Spongy levers that stop after you have engaged the brakes, and then continue to travel usually indicate that there is some air in the system and it will have to be bled. If the bike has rim brakes, check that they are properly attached and that they line up with the rims, not the tyre. Poorly aligned brakes can cause a tyre blowout and need immediate attention.
The test ride
If the bike has passed these tests, it’s safe to take it for a test ride. Start off slowly in one of the middle gears, and test the brakes again. Listen for noises or rubbing from the brakes and the bottom bracket. Shift through the range of gears as you ride. Mountainbikes are machines with rough applications and it is unlikely that you will be able to test the bike fully for all of these, but do at least attempt a pavement hop or two, to see that there are no major issues with the fork, and note any noises from the suspension, which may require maintenance and some replacement parts.