by Joe Conway of Drift Surfing//
Getting a used bike to cruise around town on or ride to work is a great, simple way to improve your quality of life. There’ s almost no reason to buy new bikes; with the internet the selection of perfectly functional older bikes is almost limitless and they’ re often cheaper and higher quality than what’ s available today.
Before you start your search for used bike, figure out a few things to make the process easier:
What do you want to use the bike for? Unless you’ re planning on using the bike for trail riding, a road bike always makes the most sense. Road bikes, aka “ ten speeds” and “ racing bikes” are the ones with the drop down bars and skinny tires. They’ re excellent for cruising around town with minimal effort, doing errands and riding to work or school.
What’s your budget? The general rule for buying a bike is, “ The more time you’ re planning on spending on it, the more you’ re going to want to pay.” If you want to race or take a bike touring trip, it’ s probably time to spend some serious money—your legs and butt will thank you. Otherwise, you should be able to get a great bike for under $300. If you get lucky you might even find one for $50-100, especially if you expand your search to flea markets and yard sales. A $150 used bike is light years away from a $150 new bike—never by anything that has wheels and gears for less that $600, unless it’ s on sale.
Bike Buying Basics: Steel vs. Aluminum. The frame is the most important part of a bike. A lot of what determines how a bike feels when you ride it is what the frame is made out of. In the used market, about 99% of the stuff you’ ll see is made out of either steel or aluminum. You can tell the difference by looking at the tubes that make up the frame. A steel frame will have smaller diameter tubes that sound dull when you tap them with a knuckle. Aluminum frames have larger diameter tubes that will ring with a sharper, almost tin-y sound when you rap on them. Steel bikes are usually more common, especially if you’ re looking at bikes from the 1980’ s or earlier.
Each material offers benefits and disadvantages, and it’ s up to you to figure out with option best suits your needs. Steel is heavier but it dampens vibration and offers more flex and give, resulting in a more comfortable ride. Most racing bikes are made out of aluminum because it’ s light and stiff—two qualities that are great, but can make them ride a bit harsh. An aluminum bike can feel “ faster” than a steel bike, but you’ ll also feel every crack and bump in the road. For most people looking for a bike to get around on and possibly take on a few longer rides, steel is best choice. The same characteristics that make it comfortable also make it long-lasting, it still rides great after fifty years of dents and dings whereas aluminum has a finite life span and shouldn’t really be ridden if it’ s dented or damaged in any way.
Where to look.The easiest, most reliable place to find a used bike is Craig’s List. Ebay can also be a good resource, but last minute bidding wars and the whole “ competition shopping” thing seem to have driven the average price of used bikes up on the whole. You can still find the odd “ buy it now” gem, but for the most part Ebay isn’t as sweet as it once was. If you really want to dig, check out flea markets, yard sales and local classifieds. You can score, mostly because people who sell bikes in these venues tend to be less internet savvy and thus less informed about what they may or may not have to sell, but it takes some serious leg work.
What Size Do I Want? Getting a bike that fits you properly is the most important part of the equation. Most road bikes are measured in two-centimeter increments starting at about 49 cm (most brands use odd sizing but some do use even), which is unfortunate because the numbers end up being pretty abstract to most of us in America. In a very general sense, you can think of the numbers as corresponding to sizes: 49=XS, 51=S, 53=S/M, 55=M, 57=L, 59=XL, 61=XXL, 63=dinosaur.
If you think you’ re a medium sized person, a size 55 is a good place to start. Find a 55, throw a leg over it and stand straddling the “ top tube” (the one that runs more-or-less horizontal to the ground). You should have about two fingers between the bar and your precious human bits—that’ s the most basic measurement. A lot of people selling bikes, particularly older gems, don’ t always know the size of the bike. The “ stand over” test is a good, quick way to see if any bike could potentially fit you. If a bike passes the test, go for a little spin and see if you can ride with your hands on the brakes (the actual lever that goes vertical to the ground) with a comfortable bend in your arm. If you feel at all cramped, it’ s too small. If your elbows lock out, it’ s too large. An exception to this rule is if you’ re looking for a super comfy but fast city bike—then you can figure out your actual size as above but actually buy a bike that’ s one size smaller. This way you can switch out the “ drop” bars for something a little more upright like mustache bars, risers or cruiser bars.
The Final Details. So you’ re off on your way and you’ve started finding a few bikes. You’ ll inevitably come across some head turners, and the final step to the process is figuring out what you really actually want. If you’ re just looking to cruise and you live in an area that’ s mostly flat, your selection is going to range from cheapo junkers to super styled out retro gems. Still, it’ s good to know what you’ re getting yourself into. Yes, that Schwinn Collegiate does look sweet, especially with the gold fleck paint job, but it’ s also a total boat anchor. That’ s the thing, just like today, back in the day there were bikes that were built to be ridden and bikes that were just meant to be sold. The good news is that it’ s pretty easy to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Step 1: Pick the bike up. If it feels like it’ s made from lead pipes, it probably is and you don’ t want it.
Step 2: Look for a kickstand. There’ s nothing wrong with kickstands when they’ re added to a bike. When they come welded onto the frame it says something about the intended purpose of the bike because that’ s a lot of unnecessary metal to be lugging around.
Step 3: Look for other tell-tale signs of a less-than-able bike: big metal pie plates on the back wheel, guards that cover the front gears and/or chain, and dual hinge break levers that let you put your hands on two places on the handlebars. None of these things are a huge problem, they’ re just heavy and unnecessary. You can usually get a friend who knows a thing or two about bikes to pull them off for a six-pack, but if you’ re looking for something fast and fun to ride, you may want to avoid them all together.
Step 4: If you have to choose between a bike that has the shifters up near the handlebars on the “ stem” (the thing that connects the bars to the frame) or on the “ down tube” (the part of the frame that runs diagonally from the pedals up towards the handlebars), go with the latter—trust me on this one (they tend to be higher quality).
Step 5: Bike frames, especially steel ones, last a long time. Components—the shifters and brakes and stuff—don’ t. That’ s why you see a lot of people on older road bikes that have been broken down into “ single speeds.” If you’ d like to be able to do this, you need to find a bike that has “ horizontal dropouts.” How do you know that? Take the back wheel off and look at the place where the wheel axel fits into the frame. If the slot that accepts the axel runs horizontal, or mostly horizontal, you can turn the bike into a single speed or fixed gear—although fixed gears should only be ridden by experienced riders and are super bad for your knees.
Finally, most people are pretty curious about brands when they’ re looking at older bikes. The selection is pretty huge, so it’ s hard to give a rundown of what to look for. In general, avoid “ department store” bikes—JC Penny, Columbia, Macy’ s, Phillips, and always, always Huffy. In terms of what to look for, if it’ s old and sounds Italian, it’ s probably a pretty good bet (French too!). Others to look for are Schwinn, Raleigh, Peugeot, Motobecane (these can go both ways, they made some good bikes and some bad ones), Nishiki and Lotus get a bad rap but they’ re decent, Bridgestones and older Treks are awesome. What you’ re really looking at, and it’ s hard to tell with bikes, is where the bike was made. It’ s the old issue of globalization and outsourcing, as with pretty much everything else. Bike that were made in Italy, France or the US back in the day were welded by experts for the most part. Then the companies slowly sent the production to Mexico, Japan, Taiwan and then on to China. Now most bikes are made in China by people who don’ t ride them with almost zero regulation on production standards— especially environmentally in regards to waste. If you can, find a bike that was welded by someone knew what they were doing and loved their work. It’ ll make you happy about riding it.
If you already have a bike but it needs some fixing, be sure to check out our 5 Gear Fix Up Surf Sufficient.
A BIG THANKS to Joe Conway of www.driftsurfing.com for this tutorial
Illustrations by Dan Madison
NOTE: If you or someone you know has a killer tutorial that you think we should know about, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org