Buying a Used Bike 2: Things to Look (Out) For

Found a second hand bike that takes your fancy? MICK ALLAN explains the things you should look for to make sure you don't wind up having to replace all the parts and components

How much bike do you need?

This is a guide to finding a bike to use for utility purposes. The bikes we're discussing here can be taken off touring, but if you get the bug, you'll want to find a machine a little finer than the ones discussed here, which nevertheless make good ‘hacks' for getting from A to B.

Look through the pros and cons above, and think about what you want from your bike, and how much you are prepared to put into it.

Where to find second-hand bikes

As well as checking out the small ads, see if your local bike shop has trade-ins for sale, or a small-ads board. It helps if the bike comes from someone with some enthusiasm for cycling, or at least someone who has taken care of the bike. As a last resort, bikes can be assembled from the remains of several left at the local tip. Usually a very character-building process, but it can be done. Police auctions of lost or stolen bikes can be good sources, too.

What to look at on a second-hand bike

Size and Set-Up

A traditional bike with a crossbar should give you a couple of inches clearance between bar and groin when you are standing astride the bike. With a mountain bike you should get at least four inches of clearance. It's better to err on the small side when choosing a bike. Too big, and the bike is uncomfortable and unwieldy, and you could be injured by a high crossbar.

Saddles should be set at a height which allows the leg to be almost fully extended at the bottom of its stroke, with the ball of your foot on the pedal. Start with the saddle further down if your confidence is low, but raise it as soon as possible.

Handlebars can be adjusted up or down, but start off with them about level with the saddle. Never raise the saddle or handlebars above the ‘min' mark shown on all stems and seat posts.

Is it worth buying?

A bike that needs a lot doing to it will cost a lot to put right. Worn tyres, bent cranks, buckled wheels: this all needs big money. So it pays to take care when selecting a second-hand bike.  Looked after properly, a well used older bike can be made to last for many more years

Is it stolen?

Buying a bike that you suspect to be stolen is a crime, and encourages further bike theft. Ask about the history of the bike. This also gives you an opportunity to assess how well the bike may have been looked after. If in doubt walk away.

Used bike checklist

What to look at when you view a bike for sale. General condition: Is it looked after or rusty? Are the tyres bald and cracked or in good condition? Is the paint scuffed and the frame dented, or are there just the one or two honourable scars of a hard worked but looked after machine?


Are they well inflated? Are they bald? Are the sidewalls cracked and perished? Tyres should be inflated hard – they should barely give when you squeeze them.


Are the rims steel or alloy? Are steel rims rusty? Do the wheels run true? Gripping the top of the wheel, can you wobble it from side to side – yes? –possible bearing damage. Are any of the spokes broken? Check at the hub end. If two or more have gone, then more will be on the way out. Are any spokes slack? –Bad! Check the wheel for trueness.


Are the pads worn? Do they rub the rim? Are they seized solid? Are they scuffing the tyre? Do the pads bite on the rim almost as soon as you move the lever on the bars? Are the cables rusty and frayed, or looked after, lubed, and finished with a ferrule?

Headset, (where the forks and bars swivel in the frame)

Do the forks revolve smoothly? When the front brake is applied, can the bike be rocked forward and backward, rocking the fork within the frame?


Is it rusty? Taking the chain at the front most point of the chainring, (the cog by the pedals), can the chain be pulled nearly clear of the teeth? Yes? - worn chain. It may have worn so badly that the sprockets are worn down too; expensive to replace.

Chainwheel and sprockets

If teeth have a sharks-fin appearance, reject the bike, as the whole drivetrain will be much too worn. A worn chain on a hub geared bike can often be replaced on its own. Derailleur chains; if it's been left to wear out for too long you'll need to change the whole drivetrain – big money..

Bottom bracket, (bearing in the frame between the pedals),

Grip the cranks and try to rock the axle up and down and side to side. Play and a clicking noise? –Bearing needs adjustment or replacement. Do the cranks rotate smoothly?


Do they spin smoothly? Are the ends battered? Do they rattle loose on their spindles? When you ride the bike you may feel a rolling sensation in the ankles caused by either bent pedal spindles or bent cranks. Pedals can be replaced; bent cranks are destined for the skip – expensive to replace. Riding with misaligned pedals can cause damage to the ankles and knees. (Ankles and knees are really expensive to repair…)

Frame and forks

Look carefully at the tubes, especially at the ends. Are there dents, creases of wrinkles inn the paint which may indicate crash damage? Reject any frame you suspect may have been bent. Similarly inspect from the front, squatting to get down to the same level as the bike, look to see if the frame twists between head tube and seat tube. While you're there, check that the forks are symmetrical, and not bent backward from a crash. Be very careful here, and if in doubt reject the bike.


Are they bent? Rusty? Is everything attached to them firmly? Look at the stem – can you see the minimum insert mark? No? - Good. Stand in front of the bike with your feet gripping the wheel. Try to turn the bars. Do they move easily? - Bad. Lots of resistance? - Good. Seized? - bad, and possibly rusted solid.

Racks, mudguards, ancillaries

Check everything is bolted on firmly. If not, use it as a bargaining point. Distorted or cracked plastic mudguards should be replaced for safety – they can break and jam into the tyre on the move. Racks should be firmly attached and rigid.. If dynamo lights are fitted, check that they work. Does the bell work?


Is it attached firmly? Grip it and try to rock it forward and back. Is it torn or worn ?

Got a Bike? Good. Now hang on to it!

Trouble is, some individuals will be keen to take it off you… Never assume you are safe from bike theft. Always lock your bike. A D-lock is best, and is worth spending some money on. Keep the bike indoors overnight if possible, and even if it is left in a shed it is worth locking. If you go away from home, lock the bike indoors if you can. Shackles are available to lock a bike to the wall or a concrete floor at home.

Always lock the bike to something immoveable, and always lock it through the frame. Quick release fittings on wheels, and especially on saddles, are an invitation to an opportunist thief. Use security skewers which require tools to remove the wheel, use a secondary cable to secure the wheels to the frame, or remove the front wheel and lock it to the frame. Or revert to old fashioned wheel nuts.

Choose a conspicuous area to leave your bike, where there are plenty of passers by. Can you ask someone to keep an eye on the bike for you? Choose a well-lit place to leave a bike locked up in town at night.

Service for safety

Budget to spend a bit more once you've got the bike, replacing the safety-critical parts that are subject to wear. Change rusty, sticky or frayed brake cables. Basic replacement cables are fine – run a little oil over them before installing. Make sure you get the right cable type. Cable outers need replacing if they are kinked or excessively rusty. Fit new brake bocks if the old ones are worn. Change the chain if it needs it (a bike shop will advise if you're unsure), and then keep the new one oiled! Some modern ‘dry' lubricants don't attract dirt, though they are more expensive and not as waterproof. Check tyres for perishing, bulges and cracks.


Then buy a lock and a simple pump. Check you get the right pump! Once again, spending a bit of money, (but not megabucks), here will save in the long run; ask the bike shop's advice about getting good value.

Finally, make sure you have mudguards and trouser clips. Neither is fashionable, but they save a fortune in cleaning bills. Few things are as impractical as a utility bike without mudguards.

Toolkit, and basic maintenance

A basic toolkit should include: Medium sized, good quality adjustable spanner, a set of Allen keys, spanners- the most common sizes are 8, 9, 10, 13, 14 and 15mm. Puncture repair kit, tyre levers, decent quality wire cutters, and a chain tool. Get reasonable quality tools, so you'll not have to replace them.

After working on any bike, and after a purchase, always check that all fixings are secure before you ride.

A note on cheap new bikes

These pop up from time to time in garages, car parts stores and catalogues. Be cautious here; though you may get some form of guarantee, don't count on it. If you buy from such a store, don't expect much in the way of service, and certainly not after-sales support. A bike shop will be more helpful, but their attempt to talk you out of a basic bike will be pretty valid, and don't expect them to be enthusiastic about putting right a new bike bought from someone else that may well not be capable of being more than tolerable in the first place.

If you do take this route, look for alloy rims, slick tyres, ‘V' brakes, mudguards and rack, and good luck!

Taking it further

Pop in to your local

Local bike shops are normally willing to give advice and support to new cyclists, and will often know of second-hand bikes for sale. If you are going to use them for advice, though, do make sure you get your bike supplies from them rather than a superstore; they are only going to be around to support local cyclists as long as we put business their way!

Take heart!

The information here can look pretty daunting, but it needn't be, so please don't be put off! Great riding can be had on very ordinary bikes, and many enthusiasts have a tatty old roadster tucked away in the shed; a roadster that still brings a smile to the face on a ride through the park. Remember, too, that regular riding, even on the most elderly bike, takes years off your cardiovascular age. Don't Worry – Get Cycling!

Read More on Starting Cycling

Buying a Used Bike 1: Types of Bike

A Beginner's Guide to Cycle Commuting - Choosing the Right Bike

A Beginner's Guide to Cycle Commuting - Cycle Security

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