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Second-hand bikes: a buyer’s guide

If a second-hand bike is on your shopping list, there are a number of things to look out for when you go checking out any potential purchases.

Whether you’re buying your first bike, a commuter steed to save your best bike from the city streets, or a second bike to batter through the winter, you want something that’s going to last and doesn’t cost over the odds.

There are three main areas to consider and assess – let’s take a look!

Theft Check

With a second-hand bike, it’s always good to understand a seller’s motives, and to develop an understanding of how they acquired the bike.

You want to get a feel for if the bike genuinely is their own, and not one that they acquired through more suspicious means. If any explanations of their history with the bike are hazy or muddled, there’s the possibility they may be making it up. If you have suspicions but want to check further, a quick web search of local news or cycling outlets can turn up information about stolen bikes.

Also, probing into why the bike is being sold may give you a feel for whether there is an underlying problem with the bike. Of course, it’s unlikely they’ll tell you that it’s damaged or not road-worthy, but you may get some hints that the reason for the sale is due to problems with the bike.

Safety Check

Now you’re sure you’re comfortable that the bike doesn’t have a suspicious background, you want to be sure you’d be happy to ride it! The bike may not be roadworthy, or may be very close to the end of its life.

The key thing to assess here is any signs of cracking in the frame – particularly if it’s made from carbon fibre. Carbon is a brittle material that doesn’t withstand shocks or crashes very well, and even a relatively innocuous fall can leave hairline cracks in the bike’s frame.

You’re not just seeking out cracks however; even surface-level scrapes and scratches can reveal more. If you see an area with damage to the initial layers of frame material, give that tube a close inspection. Sometimes, tapping with a fingernail along the tube can reveal more than you expect – a sudden change of tone in the knocking sound can suggest there’s structural damage within the tube.

Key areas to inspect for damage are the front fork, rear stays, and top tube. The forks and stays absorb the most punishment from the road, while the top tube is subject to a lot of stress if the bike falls over or is involved in a crash.

Finding cracks in the frame should make you carefully consider whether you want to purchase the bike. Riding a frame with a crack in it is extremely dangerous, and getting one repaired is expensive, time-consuming, and not always effective.

value checks

If you’re content the frame is safe, now it’s time to look at the components of the bike liable to wear and tear. Spotting areas that are worn or damaged gives you a negotiation point when agreeing a purchase price for the bike.

wheel checks

Having already checked over the frame, you want to start the value assessment with the wheels, which are the most expensive component of the bike. As well as being the most valuable replaceable item, wheels are also extremely liable to damage.

Are they true? Spin the wheel and check to see if it rubs the brake caliper or disc brake disc at certain points.

Rims: Inspect along the brake track – if it looks worn or uneven, the wheels may be reaching the end of their life. A damaged rim is extremely expensive to replace and build into a wheel, and it is typically a better option to buy a new wheel altogether.

Spokes: Go around the wheels and give all the spokes a wobble – any loose ones may suggest the wheel isn’t fully true, or may incur a replacement cost if damaged.

Hubs: Grab the front fork or rear stay and rock the relevant wheel gently. If it feels as though the wheel is moving laterally, the hub is worn and will need to be replaced or repaired.

Bearings

It’s not just the wheel bearings you want to check, but those found all over the bike.

Headset: Grab the handlebars and turn them from side to side. Do the bars swing easily or is there a gritty sensation as they move? Worse still, do the handlebars hardly move at all?

The first situation suggests the bearings are heavily worn, and the second suggests they’ve reached the end of their life.

Bottom bracket: As you stand to one side of the bike, grab a crank and try to rock it toward and away from you while holding the frame. There should be no movement at all – if there is, this suggests worn bottom bracket bearings.

Next, try spinning the cranks backwards. They should spin freely and not ‘stick’. If there is any stickiness, the bearings are worn or it’s possible the whole bottom bracket needs replacing.

Drivetrain

The next area to assess is the drivetrain – the front chain rings, rear cassette, and chain. These are all replaceable, but the chain rings in particular could be expensive.

Take a look at the teeth of the cassette and chain rings – they should be square at the ends and not pointy. Pointed teeth suggests they’re worn.

To check the chain, simply assess the ‘stretch’ by using a chain checker tool.

Seized or rounded bolts

The heads of bolts or screws are liable to getting rounded out if the previous owner hasn’t been careful when maintaining the bike. Rounded bolts and screws may need drilling out, which is a time-consuming and tricky process.

The key areas where bolts may get rounded are those where the component is adjusted frequently, namely the seat post and stem. Use the relevant Allan key or Torx key on the bolt to feel whether the head has been rounded out.

While you’re checking the seat post bolt, check that the seat post isn’t stuck inside the frame. Seat posts can be long and liable to getting jammed in the seat tube. A jammed seat post is very tough to get out – so loosen off the bolt and try shifting it.

Fast-wearing components

The last area to take a look at when assessing whether you’re being asked a fair price for a second-hand bike is the fast-wearing items, namely the cables, brake pads, bar tape and tyres. These components are all very easy and quick to replace, but any that are particularly worn could give you a bargaining chip to reduce the price you have to pay for the bike.

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