by Ameir Mobasheri
Do you remember that scene from the beginning of Quicksilver when you see Kevin Bacon's character ask his cab driver to get into a race with a bike messenger, Nelson Vails, after said messenger spit his gum out in Bacon's general direction? Well, if not take two minutes and check out the link. I want to leave aside the messenger's and cabby's disregard for the rules of the road, even though there is a lot to be said about road etiquette for drivers and cyclists alike, abuse of sidewalks by bikers, and the inadequacies of a beret as a helmet. Instead pay attention to the bike that Nelson is riding.
The bike is basic, but that doesn't stop Nelson from keeping up with and eventually beating a NYC cab driver down the road. High-end performance bicycles can easily cost thousands of dollars, and a decent mid-range model bike can still run to the hundreds of dollars brand new. A great number of people are dissuaded from picking up cycling as a hobby or transport due to these very real financial concerns, but they don't have to be. Buying a used bicycle can be an elegantly cost-effective solution. Here I will be talking about road bicycles because I am woefully inexperienced in evaluating, buying or riding mountain bikes.
Most people don't want to buy a used bicycle because they want to ask the salesperson questions about the bike they are buying. While there is definitely value in asking questions and making informed purchases, a salesperson can only guide you to the bikes they have available and their goal, like anyone in the market, is to have you buy one of their bicycles - hopefully that day. I have found, especially in Denver metro, that person to person sales through websites like Craigslist.com, or apps like letgo or offerup are ideal if one knows what they are looking for.
First, I will suggest that you talk with a local bike shop about frame sizes. While there is a lot of science and attention to detail that goes into finding the ideal frame size, for the average beginner the critical issue is that they don't injure their pelvic region when dismounting from the bike. At a bike shop, take the opportunity to stand over a variety of road bikes. With your legs swung over the bike, stand upright and take notice of where the top bar of the frame is in relation with your downstairs. A couple of inches of space between you and the frame is sufficient. Also use bike sizing guides like this one to help you find a range of sizes you can work with. Test a few bikes to be sure of your range.
I suggest steel frames. They are heavier to be sure, but more durable and reliable. Aluminum is light and stiff, but when buying a used bike it is often hard to check the frame for cracks or bends, which can be catastrophic on aluminum bikes whereas a manageable fix with steel. Same goes for carbon-fiber frames; usually they are exceptionally difficult to repair and nearly impossible to notice structural failures. If you're not sure, bring a magnet with you when you look at the bike.
A lot of the other considerations to be made are a matter of personal taste. However there are a few things you can check for on the bike before you purchase it to make sure it's not a lemon:
As they spin look at tire as it passes the brakes. Do you see a lot of side to side movement? It means the wheels need to be straightened or “trued.” Does the wheel rub against the brake and not spin freely? It could be that the wheel isn't aligned and centered, but that's a headache you probably don't want, so just avoid the bike if it doesn't spin freely.
The bottom bracket isn't visible, so the best way to check is to grab hold of both pedals and try to move side to side. Obviously pedals were not meant to move side to side, so if you feel even the slightest shift or movement, there's a good chance that bottom bracket is shot and the bike shouldn't be purchased for more than $40
Does it easily move from one gear to the next when you shift? Or does it rattle for a couple of rotations and only after a lot of noise does it change gears? Adjusting your derailleur can be done easily at all bike shops. However, if the hanger (metal connection point between the bike frame and the derailleur) is bent, it will be difficult to fix. So if there is a lot of trouble shifting gears, it might not be worth it.
There should be no movement. If there is and the brakes are in good shape, then there is probably a problem with headset or stem (the stuff that connects your handlebars to your fork and front wheel). At best it can be fixed by tightening a couple things, at worst it could mean an expensive replacement.
Can you raise or lower the seat, if you can't the seat post might be fused to the frame making seat adjustments impossible. Not worth it.
It seems obvious but it's amazing how many times sellers have been shocked that I ask. Be prepared to leave the money with the seller as collateral or an ID if they are the trusting type.
Craigslist is where stolen bikes go to get flipped. Sometimes bikes are disassembled and reassembled to avoid complications, sometimes they are not. If you want to check, look on the underside of the bike there should be a string of numbers on the bottom-bracket shell. If the numbers are missing, yeah it's probably a stolen bike. If the numbers remain, it still might be a stolen bike; get in contact with law enforcement if you feel compelled to.