Monday, August 20, 2007

The BSNYC Used Bicycle Buyer's Guide

Admittedly I’ve been quite critical of the Craigslist bikes for sale section here. And yes, if Craigslist were a stream it would be filled with PCBs, syringes, and used car tires, and there would be a Native American on a horse next to it crying his eyes out. Nonetheless, if you know how to fish safely from this stream you can occasionally catch a good deal—especially if you’re shopping for a bike but you can’t afford something new from a shop. If this is you, here is a handy guide which should help you hook a real trophy fish:


Bicycles can be made from any number of materials, but the most common are steel, aluminum, titanium, and carbon fiber. If you’re looking for your first real bike you should know a little bit about each of them before hitting the classifieds. Here are the pros and cons of each material:


Pros: Cyclists and builders have long sung the praises of steel, citing its strength, reparability, and magical ride quality akin to being carried across a land of mattresses while on ecstasy by a phalanx of fairies wearing running shoes. Common sayings include, “Steel is Real,” “If it’s ferrous, others will be jerrous,” and “Aluminum sucks, but chromium and vanadium will get you laidium.”

Cons: Rusts, goes soft, is noodly and heavy, can give you tetanus, and eventually will turn on you and try to kill you in your sleep.


Pros: Lightweight, inexpensive, stiff, and strong. Larger-diameter tube size allows larger manufacturer logos and more places to display clever stickers celebrating your political beliefs, sense of humor, and favorite equipment companies.

Cons: Rides harsh. Will fail catastrophically and without warning. Seven out of ten aluminum-bike owners do not live to regret their choice of material, let alone long enough to own another bicycle.


Pros: Incredibly strong and lightweight. Riding ti is like being carried across a land of down duvets while on opium by herd of Jell-o horses all riding lugged steel bikes with Clement tubulars.

Cons: The vast majority of titanium bikes are built of tubing purchased from breakaway republics that were once part of the former Soviet Union. These republics subsidize themselves by dismantling their nuclear weapons facilities and selling the space-aged materials of which they are comprised to the West. The result is that most titanium bikes emit unacceptable levels of radiation. Owners of titanium bikes are transforming their DNA on every ride and are unwittingly spawning an army of mutants even as you read this. In an already uncertain time, this is, quite frankly, horrifying.

Carbon Fiber

Pros: Incredibly strong and lightweight. Used in space. Space! Riding carbon fiber is like a Caribbean vacation without hurricanes, getting sand in your bathing suit, or having to look at or interact with the locals. And for chrissakes, they use this stuff in space. I cannot stress that enough.

Cons: Carbon fiber delaminates in the sun, fails catastrophically, contracts and cracks in sub-zero temperatures, is water soluble and emits a sulfur-like odor if ridden in the rain, and because of the infinite shapes into which it can be molded allows bicycle manufacturers to build and market the ugliest bicycles the world has ever seen.

Bike Fit

Once you’ve decided on a material, the next consideration is making sure the bicycle fits you. While bike shops employ a knowledgeable staff trained to convince you to buy a bicycle in a size they’ve got in stock, in the used marketplace the burden is on you to make sure a bicycle is the correct size. Here is a quick test you should perform before agreeing to purchase any bike:

First, straddle the top tube of the bicycle. If you feel a blinding pain in your genitals that was not there beforehand, or that is different from the genital pain you normally experience, then your frame is too large. In some cases, you may be able to compensate for excessive frame size by adjusting saddle height, switching to a smaller wheelset, or by employing platform cycling shoes compatible with your preferred pedal system.

If you are able to straddle the bicycle without pain, next stand straight up, grab the top tube with both hands, and lift the bicycle as hard and as fast as you can. Stop as soon as you experience severe and blinding genital pain. Then, lower the bicycle again until the wheels contact the ground. If you cannot lower the bicycle so that the wheels contact the ground without having to bend over, then the frame is too small.

Once you’ve determined the frame is the appropriate size, begin riding the bicycle. While riding, can you hold the bars, sit on the saddle, and pedal the bicycle simultaneously? Yes? Congratulations, Cinderella! You’ve found your glass slipper!

Test Ride

Okay, so the bicycle fits. But there’s more to a bicycle than that. It must also handle well and function correctly. Here are some things to look for on a test ride:


If you are comfortable riding no-handed, make sure to do so before buying the bike. A bicycle that pulls left or right could have any number of problems, including an indexed headset, an out-of-alignment frame, or an evil mind of its own. If you are not comfortable riding no-handed, then pedal the bike to a good rate of speed and leap off. If the bike continues to roll upright for more than 20 yards before veering into oncoming traffic, a parked car, or an irate pedestrian, consider that a passing grade. (You may also be able to negotiate a lower price due to the damage sustained to the bike.)


While riding, make sure to go through all the gears, trying every conceivable gear combination. If the bicycle does not shift properly, it is possible that it is a single-speed or fixed-gear. If it is a single-speed, it will have no derailleurs, a lot of stickers, and possibly a bell on it, and the seller will smell of marijuana. To determine whether it is a fixed-gear, find a hill and ride down it as fast as you can. About halfway down, stop pedaling. If you wake up in an ambulance or hospital (or not at all) then the bike was most likely a fixed-gear. If neither of these applies, the bicycle is simply a geared bike that does not shift properly. Make sure the seller fixes the problem or adjusts the price accordingly.


As you ride, look at your reflection in store windows and bus shelters as often as possible. Make sure you like the way you look on the bike. If you see someone walking by that you find cool or attractive, stop them and ask, “What do you think of my bike?” If the response is favorable, be sure to purchase the bike.

Settling On A Price

Another difference between bike shops and private sellers is that, with the latter, there’s more room for negotiation. Negotiating is the last step in buying a used bike. Negotiation is also an important skill, and one that not everybody possesses. If you’re not a good negotiator, here are some quick tips to help bolster your ability:

Always Lowball

Regardless of what the asking price is or whether or not you’re willing to pay it, start by offering a tiny fraction of it. A good guideline is to remove all figures from the seller’s asking price except for the first one, and use that as a dollar figure. For example, if someone is asking $3,500 for their Seven road bike, offer him $3. This will show the seller you are a knowledgeable buyer and he will take you more seriously.

Watch “Glengarry Glen Ross” The Night Before

The film adaptation of David Mamet’s play, starring Alec Baldwin, is a perfect blueprint for negotiation. It will also get you pumped up. Speaking to the seller in a loud, booming voice, belittling him, and making unreasonable demands is a great way to strengthen your negotiating position. Quoting the film directly is a good idea, too. Useful lines to work into the conversation include: “A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing, always be closing;” “First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired;” and “What the hell are you? You're a fuckin' secretary. Fuck you.”

Offer Pay In Change

Laundromats, vending machines, parking meters, phone booths—we live in a society where Coin is King. The fact is, you just can’t have enough loose change these days. So offer to pay the seller entirely in small-denomination coins. The higher the price, the more likely the seller will be to accept your offer.

Pretend You Don’t Even Want It

Just like dating, people want you more when you appear not to want them. Tell the seller you think the bike is ugly and that you’re not really sure you want it. Tell him you don’t even know how to ride a bike and that you’re actually shopping for a lawnmower. And make sure to say that someone down the street is selling the same bike with better components for half the price. You’ll whip the seller into a frenzy—he won’t be able to sell you the bike cheap enough!

Hope this helps. If you follow the all of the above you should be able to find yourself a real honey of a deal. You might even make a new riding buddy in the process!


Yokota Fritz said...

"indexed head set" hah hah. I've got one of those (on an old 1987 steel bike that needs some repair in addition to the new headset).

Jim said...

Dear BikeSnob,

About once a month on my Surly, I do that stop pedaling->taste pavement test to determine fixed/single status. So far, the results have come back "fixed gear" each time, but I've only been doing it for about a year.

I'm concerned that I don't have enough data to draw on to conclude it's actually a fixed gear, especially since one time I rode into an open sewer and only then stopped pedaling. My collarbone is also getting really sore. No, you don't understand. I mean *really* sore.

I'd hate to be misled by my incomplete data set. So how many times do I have to stop pedaling and bite asphalt for the results to be statistically significant - y'know, so that I can be really sure that it actually is a fixed gear and not just a single with a bad freewheel?


Matt said...

You omitted one of the real advantages of steel, that is, its graceful failure mode. Rather than fail catastrophically, failures grow slowly and can be caught and repaired in any third world country. There's no better example than this than our steel Interstate 35W bridge which fell into the Mississippi August 1. Oh wait....ah the hell with it, the next bridge is going to be carbon! They use it in space you know! And, unlike my steel bike, it's impervious to pidgeon shit!

mattio said...

I chuckled.

I thought for sure you were going to mention a top-of-the-line bike being sold on craigslist within the past couple of days that claimed to be made of titanium boron steel...

meh-wee-uhn said...

I want $60 for a crankset and they offer me $7 cash, a demagnetized $1.45 BART ticket, and a used paperback the bought from the bummie sitting on the corner.

Prolly said...

To determine whether it is a fixed-gear, find a hill and ride down it as fast as you can. About halfway down, stop pedaling. If you wake up in an ambulance or hospital (or not at all) then the bike was most likely a fixed-gear. If neither of these applies, the bicycle is simply a geared bike that does not shift properly.

Pretty funny. There was a thread on BFSSFG where a kid bought a Fuji Track from and took off down a hill to only find his cog slip...

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I know bikesgonewild's "voice OR reason" is a type-o, but it's even funnier (and more accurate?) that way. Brilliant entry, BSNYC!


Anonymous said... on, jason...i first realized my own mistake (too late) & then had your thought...better to leave well enough alone...bsnyc is always a good read.

Anonymous said...

The Great White Hype said...

Hey Jeff, er, I mean anonymous at 10:36...nice way to get your ads out, baby.

Scorn shall flow forth. I had a good laugh. Thanks mate.

BSNYC, what happens if your bike has the best of all worlds? I have carbon and aluminium frame, a few steel parts, and I'm forever hitting my goolies on the top tube. Does this qualify me for a frequent d*ckhead special price on my next 'upgrade'?


Unknown said...

Easy ways to tell if the bike is hotter than jalepeno pepper that's been fired into the centre of the sun...

when they list the frame as being made out of "graphite",

when they don't have shoes that go with the pedals and don't know how to open the presta valves,

or if they don't have a clue how good the bike they're holding is. Like one bike thief I hassled who told me that adjusting the Majura hydraulic rim brakes was easy "coz they're just normal brakes".

Anonymous said...


Praise be unto you. When it's done right, "Ow My Balls" humor is always funny. This was funnier than Benny Hill. No, waaaay funnier than Benny Hill.

As for buying used bikes, I'd add that it's important to always pay attention to whether the ad states the original price. If it does, then the seller needs a hug. The item for sale clearly has sentimental value and letting go of it is emotionally painful for the seller. The seller - we'll call her Sad-Eyed Mary - is likely using the funds for Little Timmy's operation. When you conclude the transaction, why not tip Mary? Reach out and cup her face briefly with your right hand, and smile. She'll appreciate the sentiment and may even nuzzle your hand to wipe away a tear.

BikeSnobNYC said...


Thanks for that gracious compliment--I totally forgot to mention that the Benny Hill theme song should be playing during the top-tube height test.


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daos said...

waht do you mean by 'goes soft' as a steel negative? explain yourself.

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