Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Advice on Buying A New (Used) Bike

A treasure trove of used bikes at the Phoenix Bike Co-op in Arlington, Va. Credit: Phoenix Bikes.

Now that we've got our email address out there, we've been getting lots of mail requesting advice on bike purchases.  I'm always reluctant to get overly specific with bike-buying advice, because bikes preferences are so subjective.  In fact, that's one of the things I love about bikes -- there are so many options.

Here's something that may be surprising: When I respond to these emails (I can't help myself, I love talkin' bikes), I rarely recommend any of the bikes featured on our blog.  The fact is, there are so many used bike bargains out there.  Imagine, for a moment, that you're in the market for a car, you respond to an ad on the cars/trucks section of craigslist, and you have the following conversation with the owner after checking out the car:

Buyer: Wow, your car seems to be in mint condition.  It looks like it's never seen the outside of your garage!

Seller: Actually it's been out a few times, but only for short drives around the block.  But then I got busy with ping pong and other hobbies and lost interest in driving, so it's been sitting in my garage ever since.  At this point, I just want it out of here.  How does $50 sound?

Buyer: I'll take it!

A very improbable scenario for a car purchase, yet in the world of used bicycles, this conversation happens all the time.  I know, because I've been the buyer in that scenario way too many times.

Because these bargains are out there, I often ask people who are in the market for a new bike whether they would consider getting a used one.  Here's a recent email exchange I had with Eric from Indianapolis.  He's given permission to share, and maybe you'd like to chime in with your own wisdom in the comments.



I stumbled across your blog yesterday and have found it very useful and interesting! I could use some help in putting a bike project into action. I have a basic understanding of bike styles but am a little foggy on which direction to go. Here's what I'm after; a commuter bike that will be mostly on pavement, but could go off road on grass, dirt, or possibly even easy trail, something I would have to be afraid of being a little aggressive with. Here's a few parameters...

*My commute to work is 18-20 miles one way

*I want the bike to be as simple as possible in form and function

*The least amount of gears to handle a few moderate hills

*Able to be aggressive (mildly... no drops or jumping of logs!) off the pavement, as in cyclocross?

*Trying to avoid a suspension fork

*29's or 700c?

*Able to bear some weight, ie light touring

*I love flat black or gray! I would love to customize it as much as possible

*I have about $700 on the top end to put towards it, so I'm a little limited
So, If you think you could offer some pointers or stere me in the right direction, I would greatly appreciate your advice!
Kind Regards,
Eric in Indiana
Hi Eric,

Thanks for following our blog!

There are so many directions you could go based on your criteria. The first thing I would need to know is whether you are willing to consider a used bike. If so, you have many more options and your $700 will go a long, long way. For example, and this is just an example, you could get a rigid steel mountain bike from the '80s or '90s like a Stumpjumper or a Bridgestone MB-1. You could put on 26 x 1.50 slicks and it would make an excellent commuter.

Other questions:

What's your handlebar preference? Do you like drops, riser bars, flat bars? Do you want to ride upright or a bit lower?

How fast do you want to go? 18-20 miles is a lot of ground to cover; a sport tourer might be an option for you to consider.

Are you planning to ride in all types of weather?

How "moderate" are those hills? (I know Indiana is mostly flat, but I recall a few immoderate hills in places like Brown Co.)

Are you going to carry stuff on your bike? How much stuff?

I realize I haven't give you any answers, but I hope this helps you narrow in a bit more.

Hey freewheel,

Thanks for the reply! I was hoping we could get a conversation going about this. I open to any option.. whatever will get me the best bike for the most efficient use of my limited cash! I am sure open to a used frame/fork and put a little more money into better components. I looked up the Bridgestone MB-1... that looks great. Now if I can just find one around here reasonably.

I'm thinking riding somewhere between low to upright, but closer to low. I've had drop bars on a bianchi road bike I had recently and I really enjoyed it, though for this one, I'm thinking more upright, but not cruiser up right. Does that make sense? I want to be comfortable but efficient. I'm leaning toward a flat or riser bar. Open to suggestions

As for the hills, I'm in Indianapolis. The hills that I would ride through are not to the level of Brown Co. hills, but a gear or two would be nice! I've been looking at single speeds a lot and I really like the simplicity of it, but I think a 3-5 gears would be prudent.

I'll cary some stuff. I'm a firefighter so when I go to work, it's for 24hrs. I can fit more overnight stuff in a back pack easily enough. I doubt I could fit my turn-out gear in any bag though! Luckily, I don't often have to transport that. I see a rack on the back and that's probably all I'd need. I'm thinking I'd put a milk crate on the rack to put the back pack or a water proof bag in, in case I don't feel like wearing the backpack, or to put a couple bags of groceries in.

Thanks again and talk to you later,


I just found a bridgestone mb5 for $100....good bad or ugly?




Now I'm getting a clearer picture. You want to carry stuff, and you're going 18-20 miles. Based on that, I'd recommend a bike with a rear rack, and maybe a front rack as well. So you'll want to look for a bike that has braze-ons for the rack, or one that already comes with the rack attached (but avoid rear racks that attach to the seatpost). There should also be eyelets in the fork and in the rear for attaching a rack. In fact, the best set-up would be double eyelets front and back -- then you could run fenders and racks.

If it were me, I would invest in waterproof panniers and attach them to the rack. I wouldn't want to ride 18-20 miles carrying stuff on my back. That takes some of the enjoyment out of the ride. Here's a recent post by Tom called Bags for Bikes.

Also, I recommend investing in some lights so that you're visible in Indy traffic.

OK, so if you're looking for a bike that will take fenders and racks, or will come already set-up that way, that should eliminate quite a few bikes right there. A carbon fiber racing bike is lightweight and designed to go fast, but most of them are expensive, won't take fenders, won't allow for fatter, cushier tires, and aren't designed to carry stuff.

There are a lot of older steel road bikes that would work, but again, make sure you can attach a rack. Some of the so-called "entry-level steel bikes of the 70s and 80s don't even have pegs for a water bottle, which is another thing you'll want to carry along on your 18-20 mile commute.

Here's our post on buying a used bike, which was really just an excuse to re-publish Gene Portuesi's excellent article on the subject.

An MB-5 or something like it might work - I can't remember the details of an MB-5 but I'm pretty sure it will take a rack. You can replace the handlebars with whatever you want, including drops. There's some work involved, because you will need to recable the bike once you have the new handlebars in the position you want them.

One final piece of advice - test ride whatever you're thinking of buying and make sure it fits you well. There are a lot of bikes that will work for what you want to do, but a poor-fitting one will take the enjoyment out of riding.

Hope this helps. Let me know what you end up with!


p.s. if you're OK with it, I could put our discussion up on the blog and you'll get a whole lot of free advice in the comments!

Great!  Thanks, and please do put it up.  I'm sponging up info!  Eric


OK, now it's your turn. What would you recommend for Eric?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Year and a Half with the Torker Cargo-T

Back in 2009 I was looking for the perfect transportation bike. I needed something that I could ride to work, a 7+ mile ride one way that's fairly flat. I wanted to be able to commute in my work clothes, so it had to have full fenders and a decent chain guard. Another requirement was a grocery getter since we have three grocery stores within a 3 mile radius. I ended up with a Torker Cargo-T ordered from a local Torker Dealer. 

The Cargo-T is a copy of the Batavus Personal Delivery Bike minus the galvanized frame, chaincase, wheel lock, dyno hub, rear roller brakes and other Dutch goodies. The Cargo-T was a discounted 2008 version that came with a Shimano 3 speed and coaster brake with a front roller brake.

What's worked:
  • The lack of rim brakes is great for the rain (and those lazy with bike maintenance). The front brake can lock up the wheel and just requires a little grease every 6 months or so.
  • I've thought about swapping out the 26x 1.95 Kenda tires, but they've held up well, soaked up bumps and are generally forgiving
  • I'm completely spoiled by the headset lock (keeps the front wheel fixed when parked)
  • The front and rear racks are beefy and they're used to carry adult passengers in Europe, so they shrug off bags of ice and gallons of milk.
  • The step through frame is great for mounting with a full load. I guess I'm spoiled now by being able to do sidesaddle moving dismounts.
Components that were replaced:
  • The double kickstand failed on the first use. Torker sent a beefier-looking replacement and has worked flawlessly since.
  • The pedals that came with the Cargo-T were plastic with a nubby rubber surface. The nubs were ground to a pulp after a few months. Apparently they were not made to withstand hiking boots in 20 degree temps.
  • The plastic rim tape was installed incorrectly that caused a flat. I've been meaning to replace the tape in both wheels but haven't gotten around to it.
  • The rear wheel was missing a spoke nipple. I'm told this *never* happens, but yep, I was missing one.
  • The chain guard has cracked so now the bike is missing part of it (see photo). It looks, um, not so great, but it works. I would like to replace with a full chaincase if possible.
Things I've added that work well:
  • I got the ultralight mirror after seeing it on Dotties Rivendell.
  • The tiny black bell that came with the bike is now on my folder. I've added a proper Crane brass hammer strike bell that really is louder with a nice long sustain.
  • I was excited that the Cargo-T has frame mounts for a wheel lock; however, I had to zip-tie my Velo-Orange wheel lock in place because it's too narrow for the mounts. Wheel locks are great on a big heavy bike like this one. I can't image fetching carryout with a U lock.
  • The bike now has three baskets... a Wald mountless basket zip-tied to the front and two Wald folding baskets on the rear rack. All are zip-tie mount. I can carry 4 bags of groceries now.
  • The MKS RMX pedals look great and do a better job of gripping tennis shoes than rubber-topped pedals.
  • I used the light mount on the front rack and some stainless hardware to make a Planet Bike Blaze mount.
  • The sprung vinyl saddle that came with the bike worked OK, but was a little, ah, swampy in the summertime. I'm (still) breaking in my VO Model 8 saddle. It's a little squeaky at this point but it looks fantastic.

Two questions I always get: "How much does it weigh? Isn't it slow with the three speed?" OK, so it's heavy, about 50 lbs with the current array of baskets. It isn't particularly slow unless your climbing. I've had people on road bikes, after catching up with me after a stop, comment on how I was riding "faster than expected for the bike." They may have meant "for someone not wearing lycra" but I'll let that go. I like the three speed, but have often wished for a 7 or 8 speed. You'll just be in a sub-optimal gear sometimes and have to push harder... not the end of the world.