Follow Steph as she navigates the used bike market, and gets an understanding of how additional costs, sizing the right bike, and developing a relationship with a local bike shop could have saved her a lot of money in the long run.
My Used Bike and Me: An Expensive Love Story
When I saw her on Facebook for the first time, it was love at first sight. That was July 2018. We’re still together. I still love her. But between you and me, she’s a little more high maintenance than I bargained for. You see, I needed a bike for my first Pelotonia ride.
My adorable seven-speed, cream-colored cruiser that weighs as much as my five-year-old wasn’t going to cut it for 45 miles. I borrowed a friend’s flat-bar hybrid when I started training last spring, but soon enough I started to envy the cyclists on their road bikes. The alluring curve of the drop bars, those sleek narrow tires, and the look of determination and utter seriousness on the cyclists’ faces as they whizzed past me, cornering with confidence and precision. I wanted one of those bikes. I wanted to be one of those cyclists.
I started with a little research and quickly discovered that those sexy bikes are an investment. You can get a new, direct-to-consumer road bike on the internet for less, but those can be unreliable and sometimes even unsafe. So I visited a bike shop near my workplace to figure out roughly what size I’d need (53-54 cm), then I hit Columbus’ used bike market on Craigslist and Facebook.
(And yes, I admit it may have been cold-hearted to try on a bike for size at a shop without intending to buy. FWIW, I’ve purchased shoes, jerseys, tubes, etc, at this shop since then. I always buy my gear locally now, even if I need something the shop doesn’t carry. Most shops are happy to make a special order if it means helping you get the item you need.)
The alerts came rolling in for weeks until I saw her: a 2012 54cm aluminum frame road bike from a reputable brand in a not-entirely-objectionable color, with no visible issues as far as I could tell from the photos. I set up a test ride that night. On my way out the door I messaged a friend who knows a lot more about bikes than I do.
ME: Halp! I’m going to look at a used bike. Uh, how do I do this?
HIM: Make sure it shifts smoothly. Spin the wheels and look at them head-on, checking for wobble or “hop.” Look for corrosion on the frame. Be wary of a rusty chain because it’s a sign they didn’t care for it well.
HIM: Do you know how to shift a road bike?
ME: It’s not like the Townie?
HIM: You’re going to crash this bike, LOL.
ME: [middle finger emoji]
I pulled the car over on my way to the ATM and Googled “how to shift a road bike.” Something a local bike shop could show you how to do even better than a YouTube video.
When I arrived at my test ride, I did the things. I spun the wheels. No obvious problems. The frame looked okay to me. I squinted and stared and pretended I knew what I was doing. Then it was time to ride. I eyed the clipless pedals and glanced down at my red Chuck Taylors. “I’m gonna level with you,” I told the seller, “I’ve never ridden a road bike before.” He graciously showed me how the shifters worked, reinforcing what I’d learned on YouTube minutes earlier.
I climbed aboard, perching my sneakers on the tiny pedals, and coasted down his driveway into the cul-de-sac. It was lighter and twitchier than any bike I’d ridden, responsive to my slightest movements. If my cruiser felt like relaxing on the bench seat of a comforting old Cadillac, riding a road bike for the first time was like hopping into a Porsche. I took a deep breath and tested the shifters, not entirely sure what smooth shifting should feel like. But whatever. I had some cash in my pocket, I’d driven all the way across town, and I was going to buy this bike. I was so excited I actually dropped my $350 in twenties and tens on the man’s garage floor. I’m not known for my tough negotiation skills.
I asked my friend check out the bike later that week. He confirmed it was in decent shape, but right out of the gate we needed to make a few changes, starting with the original handlebar tape. “Riding with someone else’s tape is like wearing their old, dirty sweatshirt,” he told me. Next came tubes and tires because the old tires were completely worn. My friend did the labor out of the kindness of his heart. I also bought new pedals, but I didn’t include that here because it’s a cost I would have incurred with a new road bike, too.
Retail cost of supplies, plus what it would have cost for labor if I didn’t have help:
High-quality bar tape: $45
Good tires: $150
Labor (had I needed it): $35
TOTAL: $210 - 245
With these changes, my used bike and I made it through many miles of training, plus my first 50-mile ride at the Pedal with Pete charity ride, 45 miles in Pelotonia, and even 120+ miles over three days on the Ohio to Erie Trail. Then in October, after four months of riding in ignorant bliss, I did something I should have done the minute that bike was in my hands: I took it to a local bike shop to be assessed.
A few women on my office’s Pelotonia team attended a bike maintenance clinic at Johnny Velo Bikes, and this was my introduction to the shop that has become my second home. Shop owner, John Robinson, put a bike from the service department on a stand and showed us how to assess it from stem to stern (or wheel to wheel).
As we took turns squinting at brake pads, spinning the wheels, and turning the cranks, I grew nervous. I now understood what my friend meant when he said check for “hop” in the wheels, and I wondered how my bike—which was leaning against the wall awaiting her turn in the spotlight—would stack up.
When it was my turn, we started with the wheels. A little wobble, which I could see now because I knew what to look for. I grasped the ends of my quick release skewer. Bit of a gravely feel as the wheel spun, but not enough to require a hub overhaul, according to John. Brake pads were in good shape, but the braking was soft and spongy. Cranks turned smoothly, no gravely feel. But my chain was stretched far beyond normal. (For a detailed explanation of chain wear, check out this article.)
My chainring teeth were also damaged because I’d put too many miles on a bike with a worn chain. But the good news was, my 2012 aluminum frame was still in good shape and the steering was fine. I left my bike at the shop for further assessment and maintenance by expert mechanic and bike whisperer, John Boggs.
A few days later he called to tell me that along with my new chain, I needed a tune-up and wheel truing (to correct that wobble). No new chainring needed, although the last time I had my bike at the shop, Boggs shook his head when he looked at the damage. Lesson learned, my friends. Do not neglect your chain unless you want to make a mechanic shake his head sadly at your bike.
Chain + labor: $31
Light wheel truing: $20
I figured I was done for awhile. And then I had a bike fitting. Dear reader, I once again learned an important lesson from my local bike dealer. When your bike shop is talking to you about proper fit, they aren’t kidding. It makes a difference.
Based on that fitting, I bought a shorter stem and narrower handlebars. And oh my goodness, the difference was night and day. I’ve watched cyclists handle their bikes with ease, and I assumed it would come with experience. While that’s true, it also helps if your bike fits your body. (A complete bike fitting is $150 at Johnny Velo, and well worth it, but I didn’t include that cost here because I would have paid for it with a new bike, too.)
In a single day I became a more confident cyclist. My shoulders no longer ached. Riding one-handed became easier. Even getting out of the saddle to pedal was easier, just from moving those handlebars 10 millimeters closer to my body. John also raised my seat, which eliminated knee pain, and he adjusted the position of my badly placed cleats, which helped me increase my pace on my next ride. My bike is still slightly too big for me, but these adjustments were so worth it that I could (and might) write an entire post about it.
If you’re keeping track, my beloved 2012 used bike needed an additional $522 in parts and service on top of the initial $350 I paid for it, for a grand total of $872. For another hundred bucks, I could have had a Liv Avail 1, an equivalent bike with newer shifting technology, tubeless tires, and vibration-dampening in the seatpost.To top it off, when you buy a new bike from Johnny Velo, you get a year of free service, a $65 tune up, a lifetime warranty on the frame, a 90 day price match guarantee, and lifetime cable adjustments. Which raises the question: was my used bike worth it?
After hanging around the service department at Johnny Velo for the last few months, I realized I lucked into a pretty good bike. I’ve seen used bikes that needed far more work than mine, from customers who paid a lot more. And it’s hard to be objective about a bike I’ve fallen in love with, because there’s something special about your first road bike. On the other hand, I’m already staking out my next one. A road bike that’s a better fit, lighter, and more suitable for my long-term goals.
My recommendation is to ask yourself these questions as you consider used versus new: Do I know enough to assess the potential maintenance issues of a used bike? Have I ridden enough bikes to know what the right one feels like? Am I prepared to own a bike that may need service immediately? In some cases, even financing a new bike will be a better long-term investment than a used bike you aren’t sure of.
Only you can decide what’s best for you and your budget. My friends at Johnny Velo Bikes or your favorite local shop will help you find the right bike for your budget and your goals, whether you want to ride in a race or around the neighborhood. And if you decide to buy used? Take it in for a free assessment so they can help you have a safe and happy long-term relationship with your bike, because above all, you should Enjoy Your Ride(™)!