Although I bicycle all year long – even in the snow and ice of winter – the fall is my absolute favorite time to be out on the road on my rusty-but-trusty 10 speed.
I’ve also noticed that fall is probably the best time of year to buy a bicycle. If you’re looking for a brand new one, bike shops often discount their inventory in the fall to make room for next year’s models. But I’ve also found that fall is the best time to score some real deals on used bikes at thrift stores and yard sales; with summer now in the rearview mirror, everyone seems to be jettisoning their lightly used cycles rather than making room for them in the garage.
If you’re not mechanically inclined, buying a used bike can seem a little intimidating. But the risk is usually worth the potential reward: I frequently find used bikes in the $25-$50 range. With a similar amount invested in repairs and labor, that used bike can be rehabbed into one that would cost $250-$500 new. Of course many of them are vintage bikes from the 1970’s and 80’s, the likes of which you can’t buy today at any price.
Here are some of the most common mechanical problems to look for if you’re thinking about buying a used bike:
Flat/worn out tires and inner tubes. Dry rot is common in tires/tubes that have been sitting un-inflated for a period of time, so they often need to be replaced, rather than just inflated and/or patched. The good news is, new tires and tubes are usually pretty cheap and easy to install.
Bent wheels/rims. This is easy to evaluate before buying a used bike. Just spin the wheels, and if they wobble significantly when you spin them or if they’re so bent that they won’t spin at all without hitting the frame, then you have a problem. Diagnosing how serious the problem is – and how costly it will be to repair – is more difficult. It could just be a few broken or loose spokes, and a bike mechanic can fix it with minimal labor and parts. But it could mean you need a whole new wheel, which can get expensive and hard to find for some older bikes. Unless you know what you’re looking for, it’s probably best to stay away from used bikes that have wheels that are seriously out of balance (aka “true”).
Check the frame carefully. I’ve bought some used bikes simply because the frame was intact and well worth the price alone, even though all of the other components were worthless. Look for any signs that the frame (including the front forks) is bent, cracked, broken, or has been in an accident (patches for flaking paint can be a sign that it’s seen some collision action). Don’t buy a bike with a bent frame or any clear signs of frame damage; it probably can’t be repaired and will lead to further problems down the road (assuming it even gets you down the road).
Other than the three items discussed above, most used bikes are desperately in need of proper lubrication (think Tin Man in Wizard of Oz) and some adjustments to the gears, cables, and brakes, but that’s not typically complicated or costly, and even a novice can do those things himself. Obviously if there are parts missing, that’s another story.
Also, consider buying the simplest used bike that will meet your needs. Having 15 or 20 gears or “speeds” really isn’t necessary for most cyclists. It’s just more stuff that can break and cause problems. A 10-speed is still fine for most (I’ve ridden nearly 100,000 miles during my lifetime, and never had a bike with more than 10 speeds), and for around town, an old fashioned 3-speed or single speed is probably fine for most casual riders.
If you’re looking to have a used bike repaired or totally reconditioned, avoid big, fancy bicycle shops that sell expensive new bikes and gear—they’ll want to sell you new, rather repair your old clunker. Look for small, mom and pop type bike shops that special more in repairs rather than sales. There are still plenty of little old men who repair bikes out of their garages, and some nonprofit organizations offer repairs services and classes, as do some “free markets/stores.”
Also, consider bartering for repairs through online barter and time-bank sites. And consider joining a local bike club; many offer repair classes, and there’s always lots of “self-appointed mechanics” in the group who thrive on fixing other people’s problems. As for how-to instructions, the web is the best resource (see bicycletutor.com), since you’re often dealing with older bikes, the likes of which won’t be discussed in current books on bike repairs (just Google the brand name of your bike and the problem you’re having.)
If there’s one thing I like even more than saving money, it’s saving good stuff that might otherwise end up in a landfill. Recycling a used cycle is a perfect example of both.
Jeff Yeager is the author of: