May is National Bike Month, and it's the perfect time to hop on a bicycle both to get in shape and save some money by leaving your car parked in the garage. As we cyclists like to say: Cars run on money and make you fat; bicycles run on fat and save you money.
But if you don't already own a bicycle, you may experience some sticker shock if you go shopping for a new one. At the same time, I'm always amazed at the number of good quality bicycles that I see at thrift stores and yard sales, most priced at about $50 or less. Of course you may need to put a little additional money into some repairs, but if you get a used bicycle that's mechanically sound, then you'll usually still come out way ahead compared to buying a new bike.
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If you're not an experienced cyclist/mechanic, here are some things to keep in mind when shopping for a used bicycle that's truly a good value:
Check the frame carefully: A sturdy, intact frame is the most important thing to look for when buying a used bike. Look for any signs that the frame (including the front forks) is bent, cracked, broken, rusty, or has been in an accident; patches for flaking paint can be a sign that it's been in a collision. If the frame is bent or otherwise damaged, it probably can't be repaired and will lead to further problems down the road ... assuming it even gets you down the road.
Keep it simple: Consider buying the simplest bike that will meet your needs. Having 15 or 20 gears or "speeds" really isn't necessary for most cyclists. It's just more stuff that can break and cause problems. A 10-speed - or even an old fashioned single speed or 3-speed - is still fine for most casual cyclists. I've ridden nearly 100,000 miles during my lifetime, and never had a bike with more than 10 speeds.
Don't be deflated by flat tires: Flat tires and dry rot of tires/tubes is common with bicycles that haven't been used for a while, so they often need to be replaced. The good news is, new tires and tubes are usually pretty cheap and easy to install.
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Spin the wheels: Other than a damaged frame, the next most important thing to look out for when buying a used bike are damaged wheels. This is easy to evaluate before buying a used bike. Just spin the wheels: if they wobble significantly when you spin them or if they're so bent that they won't spin at all without hitting the frame, then you have a problem. Diagnosing how serious the problem is - and how costly it will be to repair - is more difficult, so it's probably best to stay away from used bikes that have wheels that are seriously out of balance (aka "true").
A little oil goes a long ways: Most used bikes are desperately in need of proper lubrication (think Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz) and some adjustments to the gears cables, and brakes, but that's not typically complicated or costly. Obviously if there are parts missing, that's another story.
Finding a mechanic: Once you've found a trustworthy used bike, if it needs repairs look for a small, mom-and-pop-type bike shop that specializes more in repairs rather than in new bike sales. Some nonprofit organizations also offer repairs services and classes, as do some " free markets/stores". And consider joining a local bike club; many offer repair classes, and there's always lots of "self-appointed mechanics" in the group who thrive on fixing other people's problems. You can also find a lot of good, free, do-it-yourself repair instructions on the Internet (just Google the brand name of your bike and the problem you're having).
Happy biking. Ride on and Stay Cheap!