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Your complete guide to buying a second hand bike

Buying second hand? Here is what to look for while sticking to a budget, plus a helpful mechanical checklist

Buying a bike second hand is the perfect way of getting into cycling without exhausting your savings. There are lots of options online and in second-hand bike shops but picking a ride that is suitable for your needs and in good condition can be quite tricky—so here are our tips…

Our guide details the best way to approach buying a used bike and the pitfalls to avoid. A key part of buying a used bike is determining how used it is. To help with this, we have included a mechanical checklist so you don’t get caught out by buying a bike that is cosmetically a great find, but mechanically should be in the dump.

We spoke to bike mechanic Chris Burn of ByCycle—who hires out a fleet of second-hand bikes—for his advice on finding a two-wheeled machine that ticks all your boxes and doesn’t let you down.

> Advice: Cycling survival — 13 beginner mistakes to avoid

✓ Do try to find a local second-hand bike shop

Online auction sites such as Ebay and other places like Facebook Marketplace often have lots of choices but Chris recommends searching for a local ‘bike kitchen’ project or ‘recycle a bike’ style scheme.

Bike shop

While going down this route is likely to prove a little more expensive, you’ll benefit from getting a fully serviced and repaired bike—which is ideal if your mechanical know-how is limited. With a bike in working order you can rack up the miles straight away and it’s less likely you’ll get hit with extra repair costs any time soon—so potentially cheaper in the long run.

✓ Do see the bike in person before buying

If you are scrolling through online platforms, such as Facebook Marketplace, it’s very easy to be tempted by a beautifully pictured steed that is miles away. Asking for the bike to be posted may seem like an excellent idea for expanding your search area or avoiding the hassle of a long drive, but is it worth the risk?

Chris said: “Even with the high-quality photos that can be taken by sellers on smartphones these days, photographs don’t really show you much at all on a bike. All you are going to see is cosmetic damage which is not really that important anyway—you need a bike that you can actually ride and is in working order. Photos don’t reveal if the headset is grinding or how the gears feel.”

Even worse is if stock photos from the brand’s website have been used instead of the seller’s own images. It’s absolutely necessary to have photos which depict the current state of the bike.

✓ Do ask for more photos

Don't be afraid to ask for more photos than those that have already been supplied in the online listing. It can be useful to see close-up images of the chain, tyres, brakes and other mechanical parts, to get a better idea of the bike’s current state—so you are more prepared. You’ll be able to tot up in advance the costs of replacing these components that appear to be worn.  

Worn rim.jpg

Seeing additional photos of the bike before meeting the seller in person can also help you decide if it really is worth still considering, and therefore whether it warrants the trip down to see, and then buy, the bike.

✓ Do check if it’s been stolen

Stolen bikes

Asking to see proof of purchase is a good shout and you should check that the bike has not been listed as stolen on the Bike Register Database.

When searching for a second-hand bike it goes without saying that you are going to be hunting for a decent deal. But—as cliché as it sounds—it’s important to remember that if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is. To put it simply, you don’t want to buy a stolen bike.

Chris said: “If it’s not been registered as stolen then you kind of have to assess the person who is actually selling the bike. This is another reason to see the bike in person, so you can see the seller too.”

Ask the seller why they are getting rid of the bike. There may be a legitimate reason why it’s cheap, other than that it’s stolen or in bad condition. Perhaps the seller needs the money quick to buy a better bike on a good deal, or they are moving house and no longer have the space for so many bikes.  

Chris advises: “To find out if it’s stolen I would ask questions that only someone would know if they are a cyclist and it’s actually their bike.”

Some examples of questions Chris suggests include:

  • Which bike shop did you buy the bike from?
  • How do you find the gears work?
  • What was your last big ride?

✓ Do follow this mechanical checklist and budget in for replacements for worn parts

Checking the bike for any damage, as well as wear and tear, is important to do before you purchase a used bike. With this in mind, it’s necessary to see the bike in person (as detailed above) to be able to perform these checks.

> Can’t get a new bike? Here’s how to make your old bike new again

The list below contains the components Chris recommends to look over and he explains how to tell if they are not in suitable condition.

If you are aware how to check for these issues it gives you a great argument for knocking down the price of the seller if the components aren’t in the condition the listing stated. If the poor state wasn’t described at all, the price should be completely slashed or you need to walk away. Replacements of this list are expensive and you'll need to factor in bike shop labour if you aren’t mechanically minded.

Buckled wheels

“Check at the rim brakes if the wheel moves either side to side, or up and down when you spin it. If it’s doing either of these it means the wheel is buckled”, Chris explains.

How to replace a spoke 08

This sensation can feel unnerving when riding and the movement can cause the wheel to rub against the brakes or chainstay—causing further damage. Fixing this – truing – is going to cost you (unless you're able to do it yourself) and it can sometimes be difficult for a mechanic to re-straighten the wheel to be completely dead on. If it's really bad and/or you are sensitive to imperfection, a whole new wheelset may have to be the solution.

Worn gears

SpeedX Unicorn Di2 - chain ring.jpg

Chris says to focus on the condition of the chainrings and cassette.

> Here's how to fit a new cassette

He said: “If they have got nice, round shaped teeth on them then they are fine. But if they look like horrible shark fins and are really pointy and sharp, that’s no good at all.”

Cassette.JPG

If the chainrings and cassette are in this poor condition, then the chain is likely also worn and will need to be replaced. A chain wear indicator tool can clarify this, but if you don’t have one, basing the chain wear on the state of the chain rings and cassette is your best bet.

> Do you need a new chain? Find out the easy way to tell
> Advice: Beginner's guide to understanding gears

Shot headset, bottom bracket and wheel bearings

no.22 headset

Bearings are a hidden, but essential, part of a functioning bike. To check the headset bearing, Chris said: “Move the handlebars from side to side to feel if it’s grinding. Hold the front brake and push the bike forwards and backwards to feel if it’s knocking. Sometimes the headset is just loose and if that’s the case then it’s less of a worry as you can just tighten it up. But if its grinding or if it feels sticky then it’s definitely time for new headset bearings.”

> Here's how to adjust a threadless headset perfectly in just 7 steps
worn bearings.jpg

Then there’s the bottom bracket. Chris suggests you try and push the pedals side to side and see if there is any play in it, as well as spinning them round and see if they run smoothly and freely. He adds that it’s the same process for the wheel bearings. If there’s any grating in these areas, the bearings need to be serviced at the very least and might well need to be replaced.

> Find out how to replace a threaded bottom bracket

Cracked carbon frame

Chris admits it’s pretty unlikely that a cracked carbon frame is going to be sold but it’s incredibly important to double check, as cracked carbon means the bike is completely unrideable.

Worn brake pads

Brake pads

Working brakes are incredibly important so that you can stop when you want to. Checking for worn brake pads is easy. Chris said: “There should be a wear line on the pads themselves and if you can’t see the little cut out, then the pads need to be replaced. The pads themselves are cheap to buy and are not so difficult to swap out yourself.

Scruffy handlebar tape, worn tyres and brake pads are cheaper fixes that can be easily budgeted for. It’s still worth haggling for a lower price but it shouldn’t put you off purchasing the bike. That said, the worn tyres and brake pads should be replaced before you start riding.

✗ Don’t trust a dirty bike

Okay, maybe that is a bit too much of a generalisation, but in all seriousness, a bike that hasn’t been cleaned is a sign that its rider hasn’t been taking the best care of it. We all have dirty bikes from time to time, but an owner who can't be bothered to clean it for the photos doesn't inspire confidence. Also, if the bike hasn't been cleaned regularly, the mechanical components could have suffered.

> Guide: How to clean your bike - from a quick lick to a full makeover
How to clean and lube your chain 09

This doesn’t mean you have to take this bike instantly off your shortlist, but it does mean you should consider the possibility that you're going to need to replace mechanical parts such as the chain and cassette.

✗ Don’t get hung up on the saddle or pedals that come on the bike

2021 Boardman SLR 8.9 Carbon - saddle.jpg

Some of the parts of the bike are much more personal and therefore you shouldn’t worry about what comes already attached. You’ll either need to replace a particular part with your own or buy a new one that is more suitable to your needs.

Saddle worn - 1

Saddle discomfort can completely ruin a bike ride if you are sitting on a perch that doesn’t gel with your body—everyone’s anatomy is different so what was comfortable for the previous owner of the bike will not necessarily be for you. Check out our guide to choosing the correct saddle for you and your riding here.

2020 RaceFace Chester flat pedals two.jpg

The pedals will also need to be suitable for the type of shoes you are planning on wearing when cycling. If you are new to cycling and plan to wear trainers, it’s best to get pedals which have pins so your feet don’t slip off so easily—here’s our round up of the best.

However, we do recommend you invest in a pair of cycling road shoes and clipless pedals—like Shimano SPD-SL or Look Keo—down the line. With this style (and despite the name), you are ‘clipped in’ and better connected to the bike—once you get used to it.

> Advice: How to choose the best cycling shoes for you

✗ Don’t spend all of your cycling budget on the bike

2020 Rapha Pro Team Crit Bib Shorts - riding.jpg

Although a bike—one that is in working order—is obviously key to start rolling on the road, there are other essentials that you should consider and account for before blowing all your spare money. Each item itself isn’t expensive but it adds up.

> Advice: Beginner's guide to cycling clothing — do you really need all that Lycra?
2020 Topeak Roadie TT Mini pump - extended.jpg

You'll need to carry a mini pump, spare inner tube and multitool on all rides so you can fix basic mechanical issues such as punctures—so you aren’t stranded on a country lane.

Padded cycling shorts are a huge benefit on anything but short rides around town, as a well-fitting pair with a high quality chamois can prevent uncomfortable chafing and saddle sores.

2020 Fabric Gripper Bottle 600ml.jpg

You're also going to need a water bottle—that securely fits into the bike’s bottle cage—in order to stay hydrated while exercising.

More information and buying help can be found at our starter kit guide here.

✗ Don’t buy a bike that is the wrong size for you

Merida geometry table - 1

Merida geometry table

Depending on when you are looking, you could be unlucky that there are limited options available in your size. In such times—when you are desperate to just get riding—it’s very easy to get tempted by the perfect model that is a size up or down.

> Advice: How to set your saddle height

While you can adjust the seatpost height and replace the stem so your forward reach is either shorter or longer, this can change the handling of the bike and the adjustments only go so far.

> Advice: How to choose the best stem length

Find the size chart on the manufacturer’s website to check their recommendations based on your height and other measurements, but this can only take you so far.

At a later date—to further improve your riding position—it is worth considering having a bike fit to maximise your comfort and performance on the bike, while also minimising the chance of injury.

✗ ►Don’t buy a bike from a unheard of brand

Specialized Allez 2010 That top tube

Chris recommends buying an older bike of a respectable brand rather than a newer company that is an unknown.

He said: “Avoid brands that you haven’t heard of. The market is flooded with cheap road bikes that are really unpleasant to ride as they have cheap components fitted. I’d rather buy an old Specialized Allez with Sora 8-speed from 2005, than a three-year-old bike from a brand I've never heard of.”

To give some idea of brands to look out for, our reviews of bikes, rated 8 or higher, from back in 2010 can be found here

Anna has been hooked on bikes ever since her youthful beginnings at Hillingdon Cycle Circuit. As an avid road and track racer, she reached the heady heights of a ProCyclingStats profile before leaving for university. Having now completed an MA in Multimedia Journalism, she’s hoping to add some (more successful) results. Although her greatest wish is for the broader acceptance of wearing funky cycling socks over the top of leg warmers.

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