Choice of bike
Even if the bicycle that you really want seems in good condition, its past and how it has been used remain unknown. If you are planning to buy the bike from an individual seller, you have virtually no possible recourse if there is a problem. In fact, the guarantee that comes with a bike when you buy it new is not transferable (except for a few brands).
If you buy a bike second-hand you must carefully check the different, susceptible parts of the bike: the frame, the bearings, the chain and gear system, the wheels, the brakes and the peripherals. A detailed inspection of the bike will allow you to come to a more precise idea of its condition and its correct price before buying it.
Just like buying a new bike, it is important to decide what your needs are in advance so that you can target the kind of bike that suits you. Also check basic issues such as the size and weight of the bike.
Make sure you can scrutinise the bike in daylight or in good lighting conditions.
The bike’s origins and past life
Above all else, check that the bike has not been stolen! The invoice and the serial number engraved into the bike will allow you to trace its history. Has the frame been repainted? Have stickers been applied to hide the serial number? Is the price abnormally low? The size of the bike and that of the seller do not match? If so, be cautious!
Also make sure you possess the seller’s contact details before any transaction takes place. Ask him some basic questions that any owner would be able to answer: the purchase price, approximately how many kilometres the bike has done, how often it has been maintained, why they want to sell it…
The bike’s frame is the key piece from which all the peripherals follow. It is the first element that should be inspected, including several specific points:
- the tubes and the welds should be in good conditions, without cuts or cracks, and must have a regular shape. Good alignment of the 2 wheels will mean that the frame is not twisted (a fork that is not aligned with the front part of the frame would be the result of a violent frontal impact);
- watch out for stickers that might disguise defects;
- the condition of the paint or the possible presence of rust attest to the owner’s care and use (including storage conditions).
When inspecting the bike, feel free to glide your hands over the whole surface of the frame in order to detect any defects.
The condition of the bearings is also a good indicator of the overall condition of the bike. So it is important to systematically test all moving parts of the axle or ball bearings. To do that you need to carry out some simple tests.
Start by checking the steering. Lift up the front wheel and position the bike vertically, leaning on its back wheel. Keep the brake on. Rock the bike from side to side, several times, with a maximum range of motion. If you feel resistance when you turn the handlebars the headset (steering head) bearings certainly need to be changed. Then put the bike back onto its two wheels and brake sharply. There must not be any play in the steering. However, a simple retightening can sometimes be enough to resolve the problem.
The chain and gear system
Different elements to check:
- the sprockets and the chain: if the sprockets and chain are very worn this can greatly increase the cost of reconditioning a bike. So check that these parts are in a good state. Twisted or broken teeth indicate major maintenance defects. The wear of the chain can be detected by its lengthening. Put the chain on the large chainring and pull on it gently: if you can see a tooth, the chain should be thrown away;
- the derailleurs: shift the derailleurs with your hand and check whether or not there is too much play (if so they will need replacing). Also have a look at the rollers of the rear derailleur (little wheel situated below the main piece). Their teeth must not be too pointed. Also, if there is a lot of oil this indicates that the bike has not been maintained regularly;
- the set of gear cables and ferrules: check all the gears by testing a maximum possible combination of chainrings/gears. If the movement of various gears is difficult you will need to allow for replacement. Note that it is often at the extremities that you can detect malfunctions. Turn the handlebars from left to right: little crackles indicate that the gear cabling preferably needs replacing. Also check that the notches for the gear levers (shifters) are still distinct.
The crank arms and pedals
Apply lateral pressure on the crank arms to detect any play (which can sometimes be retightened) and turn the pedals. The movements must be fluid. If not, this could be a sign of problems with the derailleur. Also examine the screws – a rounding of their heads will prevent you taking everything apart.
A quick look at the wheels will allow you to spot whether any spokes are missing or damaged. You should also turn the bike upside down to see whether a wheel is loose. To do that, take the brake blocks as reference points and turn the wheel. If, during the rotation, the wheel does not stay equidistant between the blocks, it is probably bent. Also check that the sides of the wheel rims are not pitted.
There should be no play in the wheel’s axle, which will risk damaging the wheel’s bearings. A simple lateral pressure on the wheel will test its stability. In most cases, a simple retightening is enough.
Lastly, check the state of the tyres. Cracking indicates a lot of wear and means they should be replaced.
The first issue to check for the brakes is whether there is wear on the blocks. Their grooves should be sufficiently pronounced. Also check that the set of brake cables and ferrules is in perfect condition: by pulling on the brake lever you will see whether not they are responsive. The ferrules must not be crushed or rusted.
If the bike has disc brakes, check that there is no air in the system (spongy brake lever), that the top layer on the brake pads is thick enough (more than 2 millimetres) and that the disc is not warped.
Finish your examination by reviewing the bike’s peripherals. Carefully check the following items:
- the saddle: any holes, folds, jammed saddle tube;
- the handles: worn, turn on the handlebars;
- the handlebar stem: jammed
- the mudguard: bent, broken…;
- the lights: dynamo not working, cable cut…;
- the chain guard: split, broken, missing.
Some final advice
- Check that your bike has everything
- Test ride the bike
- Negotiate on the price of a second-hand bike
- Consider getting a completed sales certificate (for more expensive bikes)
Where to buy a second-hand bike?
Bourses aux vélos (bike sales)
Different organisations, including Pro Velo (mainly in Wallonia) and CyCLO (in Brussels), regularly organise large-scale bike sales. You can find all kinds of models, but watch out for defects.
Specialist bike shops
Some bike shops offer second-hand bikes. They are generally a bit more expensive than those found at bike sales or on the Internet, but you can get more advice. In addition, bikes that are offered by a bike shop have usually been serviced and are in good working order.
Many sites present small ads for bikes or bike parts. However, be careful when you make a purchase. Do not commit yourself without having seen and tested what you wish to buy.