Over the years we seen just about everything that can be done wrong on a bicycle done wrong. Some of them downright scary. So what follows is an overview of the items you should be looking at when purchasing a new or used bicycle. When buying from your local bicycle shops you shouldn’t have these concerns. When making a purchase from somewhere else or a used bicycle this knowledge will be extremely helpful.
It is a pretty common occurrence for a bicycle to come in the door that isn’t safe to ride because it was improperly assembled. We see this mainly on bikes that were purchased from department stores or mass merchants and even from online sellers. Often you have the same people assembling the bicycles along with anything else that needs to be assembled at the store, not a professionally trained bicycle mechanic. Most bicycle stores will offer a safety inspection to let you know if the bicycle is safe to ride. The eye of the professional will be more skilled in checking over the safety of bike and may often save you money in the long run of making a poor investment.
A safety inspection for purchase is much more in depth than a pre ride inspection. Most of the areas outlined below are good ideas to monitor on a regular basis for your own bikes, not all of them apply but many of them do.
A good visual once over is a great place to start. General condition of the bike, is there anything that looks odd or jumps out at you? Is there rust? A possible indicator that it hasn’t been properly stored. Is there rust on the drive train? Rust on the brake and shifting cables. Rusted cables can be at a risk of braking or cause issues in the cable housing. Are the spokes rusty? Are the spoke nipples rusted or corroded?
If you are inspecting a used bicycle the first thing to do is check the frame for damage. Looking for dents and damage in the frame. Most importantly you want to check each of the welds for hairline cracks. Often there is dirt around the tubes joints, wipe it away and take a good look at this area.
One of the big things we see is the front fork is backwards. This often makes the bike unstable and squirrely when riding, because it shortens the wheelbase. You can tell if the fork is on backwards if the dropouts are behind the fork instead of facing forward on the bike.
Another popular thing we see are pedals that are not threaded all the way into the crank arm. You can recognize this when you can still see the threads from the pedal. Also you want to check that they are screwed in straight and not cross threaded. In some cases we see the pedals installed on the wrong side as there are right and left pedals. Installations like these can cause the pedals to fall out during a ride potentially injuring the rider and or damage the threads in the crank arms.
While you are checking the pedals it is a good idea to make sure that the crankset is tight. Push and pull the crank arms inwards and outwards towards the frame to make sure everything is secure. You shouldn’t feel any movement. If you are inspecting one side and both sides move that means you have a loose bottom bracket. If only one side has movement that generally means that side is loose. Riding with loose crank arms could cause damage to the arm causing it needing to be replaced or falling off while you are riding.
Next up the brakes. First you want to inspect the brake pads and make sure they are hitting the rim when the brake lever is squeezed. Are they rubbing on the tire sidewall? Are they partly on the rim partly off the rim? Are they secure to the brake arms? Used Bike: You want to check the rim for any cracks or damage. Is there excessive wear on the sidewall of the rim from the brake pads? Many rims have a wear indicator on the side. What is the condition of the brake pad? Are they worn out, do they have even wear? Uneven wear can indicate a brake adjustment issue. Most brake pads have a wear line printed on them. For disc brakes you are going to need to pull the brake pads to inspect them. In addition you’ll want to check the rotor thickness to see how much wear it has experienced. For hydraulic brakes check the line for leaks. Then ask about the service history of the brakes.
Next when you squeeze the brake levers do they stop before they hit the handlebar? If you squeeze them really tight is there cable stretch that allows the brake lever to hit the handlebar? New bikes have a brake in period where they need readjustment as the cables, housing and other items “settle” in. Which is why we offer Free Lifetime Basic Adjustments. Some of the initial stretch can be removed by the mechanic and other minor issues are often caught during the mechanics test ride. Are the brake levers tight on the handlebar or do they move?
While you are checking the brake levers it is a great time to make sure the handlebars and stem is tight. Will the handlebars move forward or backward when you grab them and try to move them? If you move the bar from left to right does the stem stay straight and not move. Having a steering system that is tight and secure is essential to your safety.
With the front brake engaged rock the bike forward and backwards to see if there is any movement. Here you are checking to make sure the headset is tight. If the bike has a suspension front fork it could be normal to have some movement as a result of the fork. If you turn the front wheel perpendicular to the bike and rock it back and forth you; can often eliminate movement as a result of the fork. Higher end forks will have less movement if any in the stanchions. Used Bike: If you notice a lot of movement in the fork inspect it a little closer as that could indicate an issue with the suspension. For suspension bikes check the functionality of the suspension. Does it work? When you adjust the settings on the fork do they do what they are supposed to? Is there wear on the stanchions? Has the fork been serviced on a regular basis?
Now that you have checked the braking system you’ll want to check the wheels for trueness. Spin the wheels do they move from side to side and or rub on the rims? Does it look like it is out of round, moving up and down when spun? We call this “hop”. “Hop” can also be a tire that is improperly seated on the rim. If so they will need to be trued – straightened out. Do they spin freely without a lot of drag or resistance? Next grab the tires and try to move the wheel from side to side. Is their movement? If so this indicates that the hub is loose and needs to be adjusted. While you are checking the wheels you’ll want to make sure the tires are properly inflated. There is an inflation range printed on the side of the tire. Proper tire pressure will greatly reduce the likelihood of a flat tire and make the bicycle more fun to ride. Used Bike: Inspect the conditions of the tires. Is there excessive wear? Flat spots in the tires, cuts and gouges? What about dry rot? Can you see any damage to the sidewalls or wear from a brake pad rubbing on them? Does the tube hold air?
Sticking with the tightness for safety theme the saddle and seat post are your next inspection. You’ll want to see if the saddle moves from side to side. If you push or pull on the nose of the saddle does it move up or down? Does the seat clamp work to keep the seat post secure? Used Bike: Does the seat post move up and down? Or is it seized in the frame?
Not to be forgotten is the drivetrain. You want to make sure the gears shift properly through the complete range. While harder to do without knowledge and a work stand, check to make sure the limit screws on the derailleurs are properly set. These are really important as they keep the chain from falling off or worse yet shifting into the rear wheel causing a possible catastrophic failure. While looking at the rear derailleur you want to make sure the hanger is straight and not bent. Does the bicycle pedal easy and smoothly or is there a lot of resistance in the drive train? Used Bike: Checking the wear of the drivetrain could save you a lot of expense. Inspecting the chain for wear with a chain wear indicator is important. How about the condition of the cassette and the chain rings? Are the teeth overly worn?
Modern bikes are built to be strong, durable and lightweight. Every one of the bolts on a bicycle has a recommended torque setting. It is important to use a torque wrench when tightening bolts on bicycles today. Especially on parts that involve carbon fiber.
Finally if you are purchasing a bicycle that is going to require training wheels you want to make sure that the rear axle is long enough to accept training wheels. In many cases we see axles that are too short to accept training wheels. Very often the case with department store bicycles. If that is the case you will need to replace the rear wheel with one that has a longer axle. Bicycles that have gears are generally not candidates for training wheels. There are some options for adult geared bicycles to accept training wheels. If the rider is old enough to be able to use a bike with gears there are ways to teach a rider young or old to ride a bicycle.
Spending some time inspecting the bicycle will be a good investment of yours to help you notice issues before they become bigger problems. In many cases your total cost of ownership for your bicycle will be less if you spend just a little more for it when you purchase it. The difference in the quality can be great and along with the durability will last you longer and be less expensive to maintain.
Want to learn more about how your bicycle works? Or how to work on your bicycle? Check out our Mechanics Classes.