What to look for when buying a second-hand road bike

buying a second-hand bike

The process of buying your first road bike is extremely exciting. However, if you have no cycling experience you may not know where to look and what to look for. A mate of mine recently asked me to help him buy his first road bike on the second-hand bike market. It got me thinking… what do you need to look out for when buying a second-hand road bike? I have bought and sold several bikes over the past few years and this is what is important to me:

The first impression

The first thing I do when looking at second-hand road bikes on the market is to look at the overall condition of the bike. This has a lot to do with how much mileage is on the bike and who the bikes owner is. The former is self-explanatory. It is always a positive thing if a bike has done low mileage, compared to if it has done high mileage. Low mileage is a subjective term, but I would say anything under 2 000km could be considered as “low”. With that said I have also purchased bikes with over 10 000km on them that were in incredibly good condition. The reason for this is that it also has a lot to do with the owner of the bike and how good he or she took care of it.

I would never buy a second-hand bike from someone like myself. I just understand how hard I ride my bikes and more specifically how hard I RACE my bikes. When you are in a race you have no time to slow down for speed pumps, train tracks or anything of the sort. You simply smash over obstacles on the road at a high speed. You also put a lot of power through your drivetrain, causing it to wear out much quicker than it would otherwise. I know that when I started training hard and racing my bikes, I was constantly upgrading different parts. Do not get me wrong, every bike I sold had nothing wrong with it at the time of the sale and if it did, I would absolutely have made mention of it to its new owner. I just personally would not buy a bike from someone who used it to train hard or take part in road racing. Instead, I always look to buy second-hand bikes from people who did not really use the bicycle and if they did, it was to go on an easy ride with their mates a few times a week.

second hand bicycle


Inspect the carbon frame and fork

If you are buying a second-hand carbon bicycle, it is important to inspect the frame and fork closely for any micro cracks the owner never picked up, or did not plan on telling you about.

Take note if the owner is using spacers above his or her stem. This is something a lot of people do, but really should not. Bike manufacturers do not recommend using spacers above the bike stem, if the bike has a carbon steerer. The reason people do this is because they want to ride the stem very low down (aka “slammed”) but they do not want to cut the steerer for fear of decreasing the re-sale value of the bike. So instead of cutting the steerer, they drop the spacers on top. Big mistake!

spacers above the stem of bike

A bike will come with a custom steerer plug. The problem is that the custom plugs you get from most bike manufacturers do not extend deep enough, if you plan on using spacers above your stem. When inserting your steerer plug you need to make sure that it extends further than the lowest of the two stem bolts. If not, I would strongly recommend that you either cut the steerer or buy a longer steerer plug, that will allow you to safely run spacers above your stem. If it is clear that the person you want to buy a bike from has been using spacers above his or her stem without a long steerer plug, drop the carbon fork out and inspect it to make sure that it is safe. Better yet, take it to a bike shop and let them do it for you! Note: You do not have to worry about this if you have an aluminum steerer. Here is a video that will explain the above in even more detail:

The bikes gearing

After making sure that the bike is in good condition and is safe to ride, I will move on to inspecting the bike parts more closely. This starts with what type of gearing is on the bike. If you are new to cycling or if you live in an area that has a lot of steep climbs, it is a good idea to buy a bike with easy climbing gears. I have found an excellent gear combo to be 34×32. This means that you have a compact crankset (50/34) and a 32 cassette on your bike. It is perfect for if you want to do a lot of climbing. A big reason why new cyclist get knee pain is because they are riding at to low a cadence when they are climbing. Riding at a low cadence, also known as grinding, will put a lot of pressure on your knees. It will also make the climbing feel a lot harder, because you are working your legs more than you are working your lungs. This might be ok over short power climbs, but not so much over long steady efforts.

compact crank
A compact crankset has a 50 tooth outer chain ring and a 34 tooth inner ring

The only reason I can think of not to get the gearing I have recommended above, is if you want to race your road bike. If you plan on signing up for road races with your bike, then you might find that you run out of gears with a compact crank when you reach a very high speed. What I mean by “run out of gears” is that you are unable to keep pedaling and you will “spin out”, so to speak. Do not worry, you will learn all of the cycling terminology before you know it!

In road races you will often reach high speeds and you cannot afford to stop pedaling when you do. Even the slightest gap between your front wheel and the wheel of the person in front of you, could mean the end of your race if you are unable to pedal to close it down. This became a problem for me when I started racing Cat 1 (or “elite”) for the first-time last year. I decided to upgrade my compact crank to a semi compact crank, and it solved my problem. My gear ratio then became 36×32. It was good enough to keep pedaling at an extremely high speed, while also allowing me to not grind “too much” up the steep climbs in my area.

The bikes components

When buying a second-hand road bicycle, I believe the condition of the bike components is more important that the type of components on the bike. With that said, I will still look for components that are equivalent to Shimano 105 or better. Examples of this for non-Shimano bike parts includes the SRAM Rival and the Campagnolo Potenza groupsets.

Here is a good article that highlights the hierarchies of the different road groupsets.

shimano groupset

The brakes on the bike: Rim or Disc brakes?

There is something you should know about me. I am the leader of the Rim Brake Conservation Society. I would take a good condition top of the range 2015 RIM brake bike over the latest aero disc bike with carbon deep section wheels, any day of the week!

I will not get too much into this, because I think this topic deserves its own post. What I will say is that for your first road bicycle I believe it is even more important that you choose a rim brake bike over a disc brake bike. Disc brakes give inexperienced riders over-confidence on the downhills. The truth is that if you are new to cycling and you are descending so fast that you need disc brakes to stop, you have already exceeded the speed limit! Rim brakes offer smooth and consistent braking performance, whereas disc brakes are fast and aggressive. We saw a textbook example of this when Marc Hirschi descended like a mad man during a stage of the 2020 Tour de France! Hirschi is an exceptional descender and one of the most skilled riders in the pro peloton, but even he was locking up his back wheel when heading into the corners at a high speed. He had disc brakes.

disc brakes

You could argue that disc brakes give you better stopping power in the rain. This is technically true, however the problem with this is that you are riding on a bike with two skinny 23-28c tires. If you brake too hard in the wet, your wheel will slide out and you will crash. The Tour de France provided another perfect example of this during Stage 1 of the 2020 race. Go and find a link to this stage somewhere online and you will see exactly what I am talking about.

Disc brakes just make a bike feel unnecessarily heavy and sluggish. They are also a lot harder to service than rim brakes are. If you have a problem with your rim brakes, or if you want to adjust them so that they do not rub, you can literally do this with your hands! There are no special tools required and it only takes a second. In a race your team mechanic could even do this for you while you are riding. Do you think a mechanic is going to put his hands anywhere near a moving rotor?

rim brakes canyon

One thing I will say is that disc brakes do not wear out the braking surface on your wheels, as is the case with rim brakes. This is a good thing and I have no argument against this. They are also great for marketing purposes and make the cycling industry a lot of money! Think about it, how many of your friends do you know who had nothing wrong with their rim brake bike but decided to sell it for the sole purpose of buying a bike with disc brakes? If you do not know a lot of cyclist you do not have to answer that, but I know many riders who would fall into that category.

I am not as against disc brakes at it may sound. I am getting a disc brake bike very soon! It is a gravel bike though. Mud can destroy your rim brakes in a single ride, so as far as I am concerned disc brakes are for dirt and rim brakes are for road.

The price

The price of the bike is the ultimate filter. Even if a second-hand bicycle meets all the criteria listed above, if it does not fit your budget you can not buy it. Most people overvalue their second-hand bikes. This is especially true in the case of carbon bikes. Most people will smirk at the mere suggestion that their carbon road bike MIGHT not be safe to ride. The fact is that you have no idea what the owner of the second-hand bike you are looking to buy, did to his or her bike and therefore you should not be paying a premium price for it. Do not be afraid to so call “low ball” someone on the second-hand bike market. Make them an offer for what YOU think their bike is worth, not what they have the bike listed for. You are the person who will pay the price if their second-hand carbon goods fail, not them. If they do not want to accept your offer or if they are not open for negotiation, move on to a different bike. That is a good attitude to have when you are buying a second-hand bike. It will also prevent you from making a hasty decision and spending more on a bike than you actually should.

What second-hand road bike should I buy?

To summarize, I will look for a bike that is in pristine condition ridden by an owner who did not use and abuse it. I will also look for a bike that has easy climbing gears on it, so that I can have fun when I ride up all the climbs without putting extra pressure on my knees. I will also get a bike that has at least Shimano 105 components or equivalent. I will choose a rim brake bike over a disc brake bike. Last, but not least I will choose a bike that fits my budget. That’s it! I hope this post was of some help to you! Good luck and enjoy the process of buying your road bike. You are going to love riding it!

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