This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.
With bike shop floors devoid of everything but the most off-the-wall builds in the least-helpful sizes, there has perhaps never been a worse time to try to buy a new bike. In the aftermath of the COVID-19–induced bike boom, suppliers aren’t just sold out of bikes, they’re sold out of years of bikes. Unbeknownst to many customers (present company included), brands often produce multiple years’ worth of bikes when it’s their turn on the factory floor, and the incredible demand of 2020 left some manufacturers without inventory not just for 2021, but deep into 2022. According to industry insiders, lead times for major parts and accessories manufacturers now stretch to 400 or 500 days — that’s over a year!
So what’s a cyclist to do? Well, you can make do and maintain your current steed (fingers crossed you can find any needed parts), check your standing at your LBS and try to muscle to the front of the line for what bikes do come available, or you can fire up your browser, head over to Craigslist (or the like) and wade through mountain ranges of hay in search of your dream needle.
Of the nearly four dozen bikes I’ve owned over the years, all but three have been used (or at least a majority of the bike was pre-owned). This is partially attributed to my profound cheapness and thus reluctance to eat the depreciation that hits the moment the tags come off. But it’s also a function of knowing thyself — or myself, as it were. I like to try new bikes, but I don’t necessarily need the very latest. Waiting a year or two allows me to put a more modest budget toward a nicer build for the same bucks. Plus tinkering with them, wasting huge chunks of mental real estate on component compatibility data, and searching out a special something adds up to more than a bit of fun for me. Yes, my therapist is aware.
Has this policy resulted in a few horror stories? Well, I’ve never been robbed in a parking lot or had a frame turn to dust upon arrival, but I’ve certainly spent seasons aboard ill-fitting bikes and thrown plenty of good money after bad chasing gremlins that previous owners conveniently omitted from their descriptions. But those have been the (mostly self-inflicted) exceptions, and I have no plans to abandon my habit of idly scouring the internet for my next lightly loved ride.
So take advantage of our hard-won knowledge for your 2021 purchasing needs because the one thing that’s nearly certain is new bikes are going to be scarce for a while yet.
Should we say it again for those in the balcony? FIT! If you don’t know what you like when it comes to bike fit, set this magazine down right now and slowly back away. A used bike search is doomed to failure if you’re not confident in your sizing needs, so above all else, know what you’re looking for when geometry is involved.
You need not be a complete cycling nerd to have these details at hand either; gather some basic data from your current bike and/or other favorites and see how they compare. Love the riding position on your touring rig but wish it was a little more upright? Consider similar geo but watch for longer headtubes or slightly shorter reach measurements. Likewise, an existing bikepacking rig that fits well but feels a little skittish at higher speeds could benefit from longer chainstays and/or a slightly slacker headtube angle. For those who have been riding for years, this is often simply a matter of pulling together a simple spreadsheet with a few bikes you’ve liked and highlighting their commonalities. Then, as you wander the wilds of the web, use a tool like geometrygeeks.bike to quickly compare options against your existing bike or one another.
Also consider your own parts bin. My collection of stems, bars, and saddles ebbs and flows enough that I’m usually confident in my ability to swap out cockpit components to dial in fit quickly. But cranksets? Those I do not have, so if a used option comes with a bizarre crankarm length or some other “standard” I’m not fond of, I can plan to budget for a replacement.
Every bike buyer fears dropping a paycheck on some new-to-you ride only to have it arrive and find the frame riddled with cracks, the cassette worn to nubs, and the suspension fork stanchions looking like they’ve gone three rounds with a wood chipper.
Let’s be clear: you’re flying in a warranty-free world here. It’s 100 percent buyer beware territory. But there’s still plenty that can be done to hedge your bets above and beyond having a little faith in your fellow humans (and more specifically, your fellow cyclists).
If the sale is local, inspect the bike carefully in a well-lit — and, it should go without saying, safe and COVID-safe — environment. Check frame welds, watch for bubbles or ripples in paint, and trust your eyes and ears. Tap the tubing, drop the bike from a few inches above the ground and listen for anything that sounds wrong. It’s not foolproof, but this also isn’t rocket science. For an extra level of confidence, consider checking with a trusted local bike shop for a pre-purchase inspection. This is a common occurrence in the world of used cars, and while it hasn’t entirely caught on in the cycling space, it’s worth a call to local shops to inquire — many are willing to give a used bike a once-over for a modest fee.
If the sale is internet-based, well, now things get a little trickier. Ask for photos, look them over carefully, and then ask for more photos. When it comes to enthusiast markets, our experience is that many sellers are honest to a fault when it comes to oddities and issues, but at the end of the day you’re going to be at least a little reliant on faith.
You’ve found the perfect bike, but it’s in Poughkeepsie and you’re in Pasadena. Even if the bike was as-new rolling out of an owner’s garage, the ensuing travel across the continent can take a toll.
My worst experience selling a bike was a lovely pumpkin-orange carbon Santa Cruz mountain bike that developed a nasty groove in the downtube thanks to a shoddy packing job (cough, mine, cough). But it’s the only time I’ve had such an issue in dozens of instances of shipping and receiving — remember, your brand-new bike probably started life in Asia and made it all the way to your local bike shop without incident, so it is possible to pack for even the roughest journey.
If you’re selling and have neither the supplies nor the inclination to tackle the job yourself, don’t! Shops will pack a bike for you and, in our experience, do a damn fine job. Fork over the 50 bucks (-ish) and sleep a little better. If you insist on doing it yourself and don’t warehouse a stash of bike packing gear in your garage like some kind of deranged cycling magazine editor, visit a shop for a box (sometimes free, sometimes cheap) suitable for the type of bike you’re selling.
Then take pains to protect everything, don’t skimp on padding, and send via a reputable service like bikeflights.com or shipbikes.com. Both outfits sell boxes themselves, which might work better for your purposes. YouTube is full of packing tips (very helpful!), but as people who receive bikes in the mail regularly, believe us when we say that some of the boxes look like they were used for target practice. If you think you’ve got enough protection on the bike, double it.
If you’re buying, consider how the bike will be packaged as part of your offer. If you’re paying full asking price, make it contingent upon having a local shop do the dirty work. Or just impress upon the seller that you’re the paranoid type and get some assurances. Crucially, inspect the bike and parts carefully and quickly upon receipt. If the damage was incurred during shipping and was the fault of the shipper, some options might be available for restitution, but claims need to be filed as soon as possible.
Whether your new-to-you bike came from around the block or the opposite coast, once you’re in possession of a second-hand sled, you’re fully in the realm of caveat emptor — Latin for “check the bolts, idiot.”
No matter a pristine visual condition, silent drivetrain spin, or fully inflated tires, you’re going to want to go over the purchase with a fine-toothed comb, and probably some hex wrenches. While there’s no sense in being a home mechanic solution in search of a problem, a wrench should touch every … single … bolt on the bike to confirm it’s tightened to spec, brake pads should be checked for wear, and fresh grease and lube should hit any part that calls for lubrication.
If all of this sounds outside of your comfort zone, a local shop’s full-tune option might be the perfect way to start a relationship with a new rig on the right foot. Either way, we’d suggest a complete going-through before a new (used) bike goes any farther than around the block to suss out any surprises and ensure any lingering issues from the previous owner are nipped in the bud.
For bikes of the squishy variety, a suspension service adds some cost to the beginning of ownership, but fresh oil and seals not only go a long way to adding to that “new bike feel” but also ensure you’re not taking someone’s word on “serviced this season” and risking scored stanchions, leaky seals, or just a poorly performing part.
Used bikes aren’t for everyone. And every type of used bike isn’t for every type of buyer. Maybe picking up a steel, 3x9 bar-con–equipped touring bike for three figures feels entirely reasonable, but buying last season’s high-end carbon all-mountain machine for a pair of mortgage payments feels clinically insane.
Buying used doesn’t help your local shop stay in business — well, depending on your labor needs — and it doesn’t offer the security blanket of a warranty backed by the manufacturer and administered by that selfsame shop that could be your biggest advocate in the case of a serious issue. And as we’ve alluded to, but will just come right out and say here: you could lose your shirt if a deal goes south, a scammer pulls one over, or you just get a healthy portion of bad luck. There is a non-zero chance you could get screwed.
But here’s the thing. Modern (and modern-ish) bikes are so good that the risk is often worth it. There are environmental upsides to buying used, and there are certainly monetary upsides. The biggest upside though, is the relative lack of downside. Modern frames, components, and even consumables like tires and chains are simply so precise and durable that bikes can withstand even lackadaisical maintenance from their first home and still live long, rewarding second lives as cross-continent tourers, dry and dusty bikepacking escape pods, and trusty daily drivers. So if you’re willing to take a little risk and potentially a little more time, there might be a bike out there ready for its forever home in your stable.
New To You, Part 2 will publish in mid-February with used bike resources such as where to shop, how to pay, and tips for shipping and more!