Monday, October 10, 2005

Beyond color: choosing a good used ride

I'm looking for a used bike to ride to work—from Woodstock to downtown—and just as general transportation. I want a bike that's fun to ride, and since it will eventually pay for itself in saved gas, I'm looking to spend up to $300. I want to get something I really like, but I don't have much technical knowledge. Please briefly describe some of the criteria for judging the quality of a used bike, other than the color of the paint.

—A newer commuter

Newer, you wound me! Experts agree that paint color is of foremost importance. As my wife says, "Red is fast." What more do you need to know?

Oh, all right. Here are what I think of as "benefits" of a good used commuter bike that's fun to ride, and from there maybe I can backtrack to "features":

  • Easy to carry onto bus racks and MAX
  • Brakes work well even when wet
  • Your feet stay on the pedals even when wet
  • Lots of room to mount wider-than-racing tires and full fenders (for the wet)
  • Has enough of a gear range for the places you're likely to go

That leads to these features:

• A sturdy but light frame made of a high grade of steel known generically as 4130 chromoly (manganese-moly is good too), with brands such as Reynolds, Columbus, Tange, Ishiwata, True Temper, etc.

Most better bikes will have a sticker somewhere on the frame that describes the frame material. If the sticker doesn't list the aforementioned brands or generic type, the frame likely is a lower grade of steel—still sturdy but not so light. Of course there are frames of aluminum, carbon fiber, etc., but most used ones will be wannabe racing bikes that can't fit wider tires or full fenders--so they're not so useful when rainy season hits.

• Wheels with rims made of aluminum alloy—because steel rims lose most of their braking ability when wet. Better yet (but rare), disc or drum brakes that aren't affected at all by the wet.

• Pedals that have foot retention such as toe clips and straps and/or grabby metal teeth or pegs and/or a receptacle for the cleats that adorn cycling-specific shoes (with the cleat and receptacle acting kind of like a ski boot and binding)

• An appropriate drivetrain. For your commute, with that short but steep wall at about 39th Street, you could get by with "average" road-bike gearing—but the extra low gears derived from a third chainring (as with 18, 21, 24, or 27-speed bikes) would be welcome.

Unfortunately, some bikes matching this description could be 20 years old or more. You should watch for the following predictable funkiness:

• The spokes—particularly those of the rear wheel—may be near the end of their life span, so you may get a broken spoke every other week or so. When a spoke breaks, the wheel gets wobbly and rubs on the brakes, which is a pain. Consider having the rear wheel re-spoked or replaced as a preventative measure, if it hasn't been done already.

• The chain and the smallest two or three of the cogs it meshes with may well be worn and in need of replacement. Such wear can lead to the chain skipping and causing you to stumble at the worst times—like in the middle of an intersection. Again, consider replacing them it hasn't already been done.


Anonymous said...

To Mr. new bike commuter;
You say you're new to bike commuting and you live in Woodstock?

I'm a 20 year bike commuting veteran who lives just off of Woodstock at 48th avenue. Please email me at or
I'm happy to help you with routes, maps, repairs, advice, and anything else you might need.

Charles said...

Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u

Used Bikes