Columbus, OH USA
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by Greg Knepp
Used Bikes - A Buyer's Guide
As After one helluva winter it feels, at long last, like spring is trying to break through. Most of us mid-core cyclists (as opposed to those hard-core pedal pushers to whom the recent assaults of snow and cold seemed merely mild inconveniences) will be cleaning and lubricating our trusty steeds in preparation for a new season of two-wheeled bliss. But there’s another group – those new to serious cycling who will be looking to purchase bicycles, perhaps for the first time.
Most will go to bike shops and get sensible machines that suit their cycling needs to a tee. Undoubtedly, a number will buy department store econoklunkers, only to find themselves upgrading after a year of wear reduces their once-gleaming transports to embarrassing rustmobiles. Still a third contingent will opt to buy used bicycles, some out of thrift, others out of a desire to be immersed in an aura of hip-retro élan that one assumes aboard, say, a vintage ‘71 Nishiki Competition – an aura simply unavailable even to those who shell out four figures for the latest handcrafted carbon-fiber European mounts.
Both motives are perfectly valid; in fact, only last summer I sold my ‘75 Schwinn Sprint for $160 to a young fellow who lives across the street. The bike, a genuine ten-speed, is in mint condition and a rare beauty. I couldn’t really use it because its frame geometry, gearing and wheels are configured for speed rather than comfort – perfect for a young dude, not so great for me. The point is, he got the bike he wanted, élan and all, for a terrific price! Such deals are not uncommon, but for every great used bicycle on the market, there’s a corresponding lemon, its deficiencies often masked by a new coat of paint and a fresh slime of oil on its chain.
So how does one go about buying a used bicycle? What brands and styles are likely to be of good service in today’s cycling environment, and how can the basic condition and road-worthiness of an older machine be determined without consulting a third-party mechanic – a procedure that might make sense where the purchase of an automobile is concerned but seems excessive for a
Well, if you are looking for a bike, new or used, you’ll need to get one that suits the type of riding you’ll be doing. There are plenty of new commuter models, but the farther back in time you travel the more limited the commuter choices become. Even so, single and multi-speed “uprights” and three-speed “English racers” from the 1950s-on make good city bikes so long as they’re in top condition. The Schwinn Suburban, Raleigh Sport and Sears Free Spirit are three models from the old days that have held up surprisingly well and are very handsome to boot. By the eighties, the so-called mountain bike had come into vogue, and today, the few that are still on the road can be easily converted into rough-house commuters, with the addition of comfortable saddles and upright handlebars. Brands such as Schwinn, Trek and Giant, to name a few, turned out sturdy models that can still be spotted from time to time on the streets of Columbus. The hybrid bicycle debuted in the mid-eighties with the Raliegh Technicum. Other manufacturers followed suit. The hybrid configuration, combining strength, comfort and speed, became very popular, and served as the model for present-day city and commuter bicycles. But hybrids also proved their worth on the open road. In fact, I completed the 1997 TOSRV on a ‘91 Schwinn hybrid – that’s 212 miles in two days! I have the bike to this day and it’s as fit as ever.
Speaking about road worthiness, older bicycles provide a wider variety of choices where road bikes are concerned, and often at extraordinary savings over brand new steeds. For the uninitiated, road bikes are those thin-tired speed demons with down-turned handlebars and wedge saddles guaranteed to affect you sex life – either positively or negatively, depending on your gender. These bikes are used for a variety of purposes: racing, touring or just speeding along country roads or bike routes. They work best on smooth, straight surfaces. Older brands that have maintained their value in this category are Schwinn, Nishiki and Fugi. Within the last twenty years or so, road bikes from Giant, Trek and Univega also seem to have held up quite well. On the other hand, Popular European brands from the seventies and eighties such as Gitane, Motorbecane, and Pugeot, while considered very hip at the time, ultimately proved too flimsy to stand the test of time. Few remain on the road today.
OK, so you now know what kind of riding you want to do and the corresponding type of bike that you will need, and you have a good idea of the reliable brand names to scout out first. Time to run out and plunk down $185.00 on that spiffy ‘93 Schwinn Cross-Cut you saw advertised on Amazon?…Not so fast! Any machine, no matter how well designed and built, will wear down with use and the passage of time – bicycles are no exception. Unless you’re a bicycle mechanic looking for en esoteric older model or a cheap fixer-upper, you’ll want to lay your hands on your prospective purchase before buying it. Avoid mail or Internet purchases. Buy from someone who knows and respects cycling, or, better yet, a bike shop that specializes in used machines.
You’ll want to take a test ride, but even that won’t give you all the information you need. Check for rust and grime, especially on the gears and brakes, test the tires for proper pressure and tread, and make sure that the brake and gear cables operate smoothly. Some experts will advise you to examine the frame for stress and hairline cracks – that the frame is the ‘heart’ of the bicycle. Despite such cyclebabble, the frame is not the ‘heart’ of the bicycle. Talk of the stiffness of aluminum, the bounce of crom-moly, the solidity of carbon steel or the aireness of carbon fiber abounds in glossy cycling monthlies and the expansive wheel web. But in the real world, all frames are pretty much the same and adequately serve the purpose of keeping the bicycle’s various components from flying off in different directions.
No, the heart of a bicycle – if there is such a thing – lies in the three main bearings: the crank bearing and the two wheel bearings (purists will protest that I’ve ignored the head bearing, but head bearing failure is as rare as frame failure, even in el cheapo models). The main bearings function under extreme pressure and are absolutely critical to the performance of any bicycle. Here’s how to check them out:
1. Lift the front of the bicycle a few inches, leaving the rear wheel resting on the ground. Grab the front wheel rim near the top with your free hand and wiggle it back and forth. There should be no perceptible side-to-side play in the axel housing. Then give the wheel a gentle spin. It should rotate freely and silently for some extended time, slowly coming to rest, with the air valve (due to its extra weight) finally settling at the bottom of the arc.
2. Repeat the process with the rear wheel, keeping in mind that, on most models, the click-click of the ratchet mechanism in the free wheel will interrupt the otherwise silent performance of the wheel rotation. Also, due to a small but unavoidable amount of friction inherent in the gear system, even the best rear wheel bearings will not perform quit as well as the unencumbered front wheel set. If, for these reasons, you feel uncomfortable with the results of your rear wheel check, simply ask the attendant to remove the rear wheel from the frame and chain. This will take less than thirty seconds with most bikes and will allow you to spin the axel within the wheel, free of all chains and gears. Your fingers should feel no hesitation, grinding or ‘sandy’ sensation through the exposed axel as you wiggle and spin it in the hub.
3. Finally, to check the crank bearing, ask the attendant to remove the chain from the front crank ring (rings). Again, this is a simple procedure that should take about half a minute. With the crank now free of its normal mechanical encumbrances, simply grab a pedal and start turning. The crank axel should move smoothly within the housing. There should be no resistance, grinding or sandy noise or sensation. Lacking the means to generate centrifugal force, the crank will not spin on and on like the wheels, but it should move freely and with little or no side to side movement.
Having satisfied yourself that the main bearings, and all other mechanical and aesthetic attributes of the bicycle are in order, pay the man and start pedaling. I’ll catch you on the bike trail…if I can.
Greg Knepp is a Short North cyclist
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