Every now and then in our comments we get asked about why we don’t spend more of our time reviewing mid-range bikes and products. It happened again recently. As I mentioned in my response, the big reason is traffic. The difference in traffic between a review of a $3000 bike vs. a $8000 bike will be a factor of two at minimum. The more exotic the ride, the bigger the numbers. I suppose that’s just a function of human nature.

That said, we are not insensitive to life on a budget. Nor are we immune to the balance that must be struck to remain married—hopefully, happily.

It’s easy to joke about N+1, but living that is another matter entirely. Back in the 1990s, when I was at Bicycle Guide I wrote a feature about strategies for how to cobble together a workable cyclocross bike without actually going out and buying a brand new cyclocross bike. I spent an afternoon at a shop in Orange County with a guy I raced against each weekend, and for whom most of his fall business was retrofitting touring bikes and such for use in ‘cross races. Alas, that was to run in an issue that never made it to the printer. Mark’s ingenuity appealed to the Yankee in me (by way of genes if not by birth).

While I work in the bike industry, many of the bikes I’ve purchased over the years have been used. Working in the bike biz doesn’t tend to make people rich, so despite my access to dream bikes, I don’t necessarily have all the dosh to buy the posh.

We have never talk used here. I don’t have a good reason why.

So here’s a question no one has asked, but deserves to be posed: What would I buy if I had $2000 to spend on a bike?

I wouldn’t buy new. That may be the biggest surprise. And while some manufacturers out there might not like a reviewer saying they wouldn’t buy a new $2k bike, I’m going to assert that my money still helps the new bike ecosystem. Any time someone drops $2000 on a used bike, you can be virtually guaranteed that the person selling that bike is turning around to buy something new.

Case in point, I’ve got a buddy I used to ride with in SoCal who had to have the latest and greatest. He was one of those. He was so fiery we called him Sterno. He’d buy some $10k wonder machine and after a couple of seasons he’d need the next hella bike. I was complimented that he always asked my opinion of what to check out next. And when he’d identify the next object of his obsession, he’d sell the Time/Willier/Look, often to a fellow riding buddy who had two kids in expensive colleges. He made bank, but his kids came first. And because Sterno cared for his bikes with Q-Tips—I poo you not—Jim would get bikes that looked like they’d been out for a couple of test rides.

There’s a guy I know who runs an Ebay store that sells nothing but bike stuff. He serves as a clearing house for old equipment from a couple of pro teams (no names mentioned), a number of current and ex pros, plus he helps out a few bikes shops move old stock. Two of the shops even instituted a trade-in program and he liquidates the bikes the shops take in. He confirmed for me a few suspicions I’ve had about the used market.

The first, biggest, truth to the used market that people should know is that the bigger the brand, the better it will hold its value. If you plan to buy new and flip your bike every season or two, buy Specialized. No other brand holds its value as well. But if you plan to buy used, avoid Specialized. Go after other brands known for doing high-quality work but doesn’t have as high a profile. A great target: Felt. Their bikes don’t hold value quite as well because they aren’t sponsoring a big Pro Tour team and they don’t advertise much. But the bikes are fantastic quality.

Another way to save a load of money if you’re a century rider who isn’t putting out maximum watts in a sprint: buy a titanium bike with a 1-inch head tube. Quill stems are as hip as ankle socks, but they work just fine. I still see Merlins and Serottas on the road from the early ’90s.

The same rules apply in the handbuilt realm. If you go looking for a Richard Sachs or a Masi, you’re going to pay top dollar. But if you were to run across Teesdale or a Davidson, you’d get first-rate work without the multiplier.

And here’s the kicker: When I think of reader service here’s a truth no one talks about. I’d rather buy a high quality bike with 2000 or 3000 miles on it but is equipped with top-shelf components than to buy new with budget-oriented parts. This is especially true when you limit your buying power to $1000 or $1500. I’ll take used 105 over new Sora any day. In my experience, performance degrades more quickly and more significantly on budget parts than on the good stuff. Used Ultegra may be the smartest buy in bike components there is.

Ebay is the most democratic market with the biggest selection, but Craigslist is another option. The thing to keep in mind about Craigslist is it’s a buyer’s market, not a seller’s market.

So there you have it. If you want to make your dollar go further, buy used.

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  1. Michael

    I am pleasantly surprised to see an article treating the resale market, with specific recommendations for the budget oriented/value conscious buyer.

    Chapeau, it was long overdue based on the comments section, and a nice counterbalance to the LW review lol

  2. Gus C

    Agreed, however I learned that buying bikes that belonged to pros may be a tricky thing, because:

    1. if the pro used that particular bike primarily, avoid it. It was probably beaten senseless, torqued to no end and its nice looks might betray an earlier death (of the bike, not the owner)

    2. if the bike was the pro’s reserve bike, or the pro-bike belonged to the team doctor or one of the mechanics, then go for it. it’s quite likely that that 1-2 season bike has very few kms.

    I use ebay for buying stuff. or buy stuff from friends who i know take good care of stuff. but your point is well-taken: many folks who work for a living and have kids, if they were racers back in the day will more than likely opt for a used or budget bike where frame and wheels come first, parts can be sorted to a lower standard.

    well done. i wish you’d cover more budget-minded rigs, but i understand the dynamics.

  3. brian ledford

    How old a mountain bike would you be willing to buy? Road bikes, if you’re interested in rim brakes and the rear wheel spacing in 130 mm can be upgraded for a good long while. I don’t think road geometry has changed much, really. Mountain bikes seem to have changed a lot between disc brake vs. no, wheel size, is the headtube compatible with an available suspension fork. And geometry has changed a fair bit – a mid 90’s mountain bike will have a shortish top tube and longish stem relative to a newer bike. I was able to buy an old merlin for not much because of this, but I had to accept no disc brakes (I realize there are adaptors of sorts, but…), no suspension fork, etc. I guess I’m wondering what the mountain bike equivilent of an eroica eligible bike is.

  4. Denis

    Tis true. I got much more serious about riding last year, now that kids are older. On a serious budget, I spent $1500 on a great ti frame that was only a year old and built up with a mostly red drivetrain, with the remaining parts a mish-mash of mid to hi end. A few upgrades are in mind for the coming year or two. Perhaps when the pockets are once again deep I’ll buy new, but I doubt it.

  5. Paso Winemaker

    Great topic!

    Just because a bike is older doesn’t diminish its comfort or efficiency. I recently retired a 1993 Dave Moulton Fuso which I bought brand new complete with Dura Ace drivetrain. A few years ago I decided to modernize the bike with a carbon 1″ threadless Ritchey fork, SRAM force & Rival drivetrain, and some Neuvation wheels. Although I really appreciate the performance of my modern BMC TeamMachine/RED, I loved riding that bike! I recently retired it because of rust issues (the finish has finally given up the ghost). So, I went to eBay and found a wonderful replacement for it: a 1995 Litespeed Ti frame ($750) which has received all of the components from the Fuso. I really love riding that, too.

    It would be no burden at all to use eBay to build a VERY capable bike for under $2,000.

  6. Andrew

    Great article. Facebook is also a good place to find used bikes. We have a few local buying/selling groups here in the Midwest, and the stuff I see on there (and the great prices) are mindblowing. Every day I want to buy a new (used) bike!!

  7. Rob

    A couple of other points from someone who rarely buys anything new:
    1. There are many great deals out there on non-disk brake cyclocross bikes and wheels.
    2. Size matters, if you ride the more common frame sizes, you have a wide selection of used bikes available to you, if you’re tall or small, not so much.

  8. Rob

    Oh–one more thing, if you’re looking to upgrade components, buy a full bike that wears the parts you want no matter the size, pull the parts then sell the frame.

  9. Dan

    Outstanding article. Some additional considerations…

    Buying new has the advantage of getting a warranty and establishing a direct relationship with a shop that can help you if/when things fail. This seems to be more important than ever in the age of fragile equipment. Your Ti frame example is great, but you have to watch out if the 25 yr old frame has an original carbon fork on it and you can’t find a suitable replacement…and a used Specialized is great, until you discover a creak, then a crack, and are out the cost of a new carbon frame…S-Works E5 though…nice. There is a sweet-spot not discussed – and that is the “last year’s model” option for buying new at a steep discount. N=1: I recently purchased a ’12 Madone 6.9SSL frameset (gloss black with simple white Trek decals) assembled with ’15 Force components and a mix of higher-end Bontrager parts that looks incredible for $2K from my LBS. It’s not aero or disc-ready, but it is easily a $5K+ bike on paper, rides amazing, and I have the peace of mind of a frame/fork under full warranty. Of course it’s hit or miss with sizing, and those on the extremes will probably have an easier time finding leftovers (I’m a 60cm), but its something to consider… It may be worth asking your LBS if they have access to supplier left-overs and if they’ll pass on discounts – I seem to remember that being a thing, but I haven’t worked in a shop in 15+ years.

    1. Author

      Lots of great points there. One note I’d like to respond to though is that a bike shop lives or dies not by bike sales, but by parts and labor. You needn’t buy a bike to build a relationship with a shop that they will value.

  10. david

    Good article. Finally, a mention of something other than $1,200 shoes or 5 figure carbon wheels.

    I’ve also used eBay to purchase gently worn clothing. This works especially well if you’re aware of specific brands’ sizing bias, or if the seller accepts returns. I’ve got a closet full of Pearl Izumi summer and winter jersies that I picked up for $5.00 – $10.00 and cannot be distinguished from new. Shorts are another matter entirely for me, but jersies, arm and leg warmers, shoe covers, sure.

    1. Harwell Dekatron

      If you’re not a germaphobe or have some foot funk hangup, I’ve had excellent results with used high end road shoes. Neat freaks dump ’em on the ‘Bay for peanuts if they have a bit of “character” (scuff, broken dial, worn Velcro etc) …all of which can be easily fixed by your local cobbler or lil’ sewing lady. Mid range shoes not-so-much, but the typical buyer of the the top shelf stuff tends to dump it when it no longer looks perfect.

  11. David Feldman

    Brilliant! A couple of other things–a custom bike will always sell for less $ out of it’s neighborhood of birth; a Davidson or Rodriguez will always command more money in the Northwest than in California, for example. And, look for a groupset that’s supported well; I hate to say it but Campy 9 and 10 are harder to maintain than Shimano 8, 9, or 10 just because you can’t buy rear cassettes as easily. French BB threading? No problem; Phil Wood, Soma, and Velo Orange can take care of you. Odd size quill stem, a French thing again? Get a quill adapter, emery it down to 22mm and the whole world of current stems and bars is yours. The small brand advice is good, too. 45 years in the bike business, 20 of them at a big Trek dealer, tells me to stay the heck away from Trek’s early 3-tube carbon bikes (2100 and 2300.)

    1. Author

      Great observations. This is what’s so terrific about our comments section: we can cover additional details that would have made the original article too long. And occasionally, raise point I never even thought about, like French components (something I try not to think about except in the case of Mavic).

  12. Rod

    Another option, depending on your local availability: there’s a bike rental place in town, nice bikes ranging from city putzers to triathlon racers (visiting athletes will rent them). Normally on sale at the end of the renting year, in this case in October (we get snow). Great deals, and since they had to be in shape for daily riding they are very well maintained – they can’t afford downtime on their tours.

    And a second vote for old stock bicycles. My TT and road bikes were both demo models, sold by the manufacturer through a local shop. If they have the size you need that’s normally a very good deal. Mine were 40-50% off last year’s MSRP. And well maintained, since who would buy a demoed bike that doesn’t ride well?

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