How to buy a second hand mountain bike

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Dieter is a bike mechanic at Happy Days Cycles in Sowerby Bridge, where he regularly revives donated bikes to sell to customers, or repairs customers’ bikes with parts retrieved from bikes that can’t be saved. He’s happy to get you rolling again without upselling you the latest whizz-bang technology, so we asked him to pass on some of his wisdom so that you could make better choices when it comes to buying a second hand bike. Over to Dieter…

So you want a bike and you’ve decided that second hand is the way to go, first of all I commend you for your decision!

As well as preventing another of the most beautiful and practical machines ever created from being sent to the furnace you’ve also, however minimally, relieved the cost on our already overworked planet of the raw materials used to build yet another new bike! And yes I’m fully aware of the fact that the materials will probably still be stripped from the earth and built into a new bike but you can’t really fight against the twenty first century nightmare of consumerism. You can however lessen your own impact as best you can, and you know who’s not gonna help you? Bike companies that want to sell you the latest and greatest, slackest and lowest, most progressive yet totally bottomless feeling new model year bike, or part that you just can’t live without! 

Five years ago, (insert major bike companies name here)’s new model was the fastest bike ever made with the most progressive geometry ever seen! Is the latest version with the slightly revised suspension layout, new oh so trendy idler pulley, or a degree off the head angle really as much better as the would have you believe it is?

Would you notice the difference? Especially with that extra burst of riding skill and excitement that always seems to come when you change bikes? What you lose in warranty support when buying a new bike you save in cold hard cash, and if you buy from a shop specialising in second hand bikes they’ll generally give you some kind of aftercare cover anyway.

But what type of second hand bike do you want? With prices from about a tenner to about ten grand there’s a fairly wide field to choose from so we’ll start at the bottom.

Price range : £10.00 – £100.00

Most buyers at this kind of price point will probably be looking for a machine for commuting on and maybe odd weekend rides on canal ways, disused railway tracks, etc.

What not to buy.

Don’t be drawn in by fancy looking full suspension bikes. These are generally what are referred to in shops as BSO’s or bicycle shaped objects. They look for all intents and purposes like a real bike, but any ‘suspension’ is just for show and not designed to offer any kind of performance benefit. They will generally be of a URT design (unified rear triangle) where the entire drivetrain is mounted on the swingarm behind the main pivot, causing the suspension to lock out when out of the saddle. This is a leftover from the wild west days of full suspension in the late 80’s and early 90’s when mountain bike design was much more of a ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’ situation!

Yay! Buy me!

If you’re looking at spending £100.00 or less the best recommendation I have is to look for something like an old mid 90s steel hardtail from just about any of the big bike brands. Drivetrain components from that era tend to be almost indestructible and there seems to be an almost never ending supply of mid 90s steel hardtails that have barely been ridden in garages up and down the country. The other benefit of an older 90s bike is that if you do manage to wear out a drivetrain it’s much cheaper to replace a 7-8 speed set up than it is something newer.

Child seat unfriendly
Child seat friendly

A lot of people in this kind of price point will also be looking for a bike they can fit a child seat to, again the 90’s hardtail wins the day here! Just make sure that the front derailleur cable mounts from underneath the bottom bracket shell and that there’s adequate space between the seat tube and the tyre for the mounting bracket.

Price range: £200.00 – £400.00

At the lower end of this pricepoint I’d still maybe recommend towards something of a more 90’s steel vintage and maybe spend a few quid on some upgrades. Grips, bars, pedals, tyres, saddle and maybe a stem would be on my list.

Towards the higher end of this pricepoint is where I can finally start recommending some more modern bikes. I’d still stick with hardtails over full suspension, looking at bikes that probably retailed for about £1000.00 a few years ago.

Bikes in this price bracket will generally start to come with a fairly competent suspension fork. I’d be looking out for Rockshox forks preferably with an air spring as it will be easier to set up for a new rider. Always check the fork stanchions for wear as replacements aren’t always available and even if they are they’re not cheap.

I’d probably suggest going to a dedicated second hand bike shop at this kind of price, as the bike you buy will generally have been fully serviced and safety checked. If you’re in the West Yorkshire area then I can highly recommend (as an absolutely shameless plug! ) Happy Days Cycles in Sowerby Bridge – a small social enterprise shop supporting a local homeless charity. There’s also The Bikes College in Leeds and a number of other similar shops dotted the length and breadth of the country.

Price range £500.00 – £700.00

At this kind of price you can expect a really nice, fairly modern hardtail. Maybe something someone built as a second bike out of spares a few years ago from one of the smaller UK frame brands like Cotic, On-One, or Ragley. Towards the top end you’ll also start getting some older but still good quality full suspension bikes. One thing to bear in mind when going to a full suspension rather than a hardtail though is maintenance costs. While maintaining a hardtail frame involves little more than giving it a good wash and keeping it somewhere dry, suspension frames have (usually) multiple pivot points that all need regular maintenance, and also a rear shock that requires servicing – all adding to the overall cost.

Price range: £800.00 – £1000.00

Now we’re talking!

At this kind of price you should be looking for a top end aluminium hardtail from any of the big brands, but you can also expect to start seeing some slightly bigger hitting more enduroey (is that a word?!) bikes. Again it’s worth bearing in mind the increased cost of maintaining bikes like this but if you search around enough there are some real gems out there.

Price range: £1100.00 – £1700.00

Within this price bracket you’ll start finding some well specced carbon fibre 26″ wheeled bikes – don’t be put off by the industry’s abandoning of 26″. You’re buying a second hand bike, there are plenty of second hand parts still out there to match it.

You’ll also start getting good examples of modern mid-range full suspension bikes from the bigger brands and some less good examples of high end full suspension bikes. If you factor in maybe a couple of hundred quid for a full strip down service as soon as you buy it, this could be a good way of getting a really sweet bike for a great price. It’s just a bit of a judgement call on what’s a bike that just needs a good service or what’s a bike that needs some very spendy lifesaving CPR.

Price range: £1800.00 – £2500.00

At this point you’re getting to some really good examples of dream bikes from a few years ago from some of the boutique brands. As an example, I recently found a friend a hot pink 2017 Santa Cruz Bronson in almost brand new condition with full Fox Factory suspension, SRAM 12 speed groupset and Hope/Renthal finishing kit for £2,200.00!

Also this is a great pricepoint to look for ebikes. Bikes that retailed around £4k regularly pop up for about £2-2.5k. It can be a bit of minefield for battery and motor condition though, so that’s worth bearing in mind – and you may not be eligible for warranty replacements.

Price range: £2700.00 – +++

At this point you should just about be able to take your pick of whatever bike you wanted a couple of years ago and couldn’t afford! Let someone else sell a kidney for that £10k bike five years ago, so you can have it for £3k now.

Things to look out for

I always check wear to the cranks first of all when looking at second hand bikes. If the arms have visible wear to the finish and the chainrings are showing signs of wear, it’s a good indication that the bike has had some serious use. This shouldn’t instantly put you off as the bike could still be well maintained overall – it’s just showing signs of wear and warrants further investigation.

Wear or rubbed off anodising on brake levers/shifters – again similar to the crank arms, heavily worn brake and shifter levers suggest a bike that has seen a LOT of miles. Not a deal breaker, but again worth investing further: do the cables shift easily with minimal friction? Do brake pistons retract into the caliper properly?

Hub and headset wear: on cheaper bikes this can quite often be visibly seen by rusty water drying into rusty streaks on hub bodies or on the back of the fork crown.

Lift the front wheel and turn the handlebar, feel any roughness? That bikes gonna needs a headset service.

Give the wheels a wobble in the frame. If you feel any movement then the hub may need servicing. It’s also worth spinning the wheels and holding on to either the fork leg for the front wheel or the seat stay for the rear wheel, if you feel any roughness then the hub will need to be serviced.

Check the wheels are true and that there is no cracking around the spoke holes of the rim and hub,  a wheel rebuild is a costly job that no one wants with their new bike.

Inspect VERY CAREFULLY around the welds for any cracks. This is especially important on aluminium frames from the 90’s. I like to use a small torch so I can really see deep into the welds.

Wobble the cranks from side to side and give them a spin with the chain off, feel any roughness or play? That bike needs a new bottom bracket!

If you have a friend that knows more about bikes and bike maintenance than you offer them a beer to go with you to check it out. I’ve got myself many beers this way…

Things to look for

Good drivetrain condition and smooth bearings all around, basically the reverse of the ‘things to look out for’!

Cranks this age in this condition are a very good sign that the bike hasn’t been ridden hard!

I also like to look out tricky little bits that a previous mechanic may have done. In particular neat cable routings or well utilised frame protection are a signs of a bike that has been well looked after.

Buying stolen bikes

Just don’t do it. Ok? If a deal looks too good to be true it probably is, no one legitimate sells last year’s top spec Yeti for a grand.

If you’re buying privately second hand make sure you collect from the seller’s house and don’t end up meeting at a motorway services or something – a pocket full of cash in such a situation is not a great move.

If an advert is written in a way that doesn’t quite seem right, it’s probably not right. Spelling mistakes when listing branded components, calling suspension “shockers” – there’s not a lot of people spend a few thousand pounds on a bike who don’t know what each component is actually called.

If the spec doesn’t look right – a 650B bike with 26″ wheels, 25.4 stem and bar on a modern frame, and for some reason always a cable disc brake with not quite enough outer casing – all signs it’s probably been chop shopped!

Viewing 18 posts - 1 through 18 (of 18 total)
  • How to buy a second hand mountain bike
  • gazzab1955
    Full Member

    Good piece and good advice. I would add to the stolen bikes bit, if possible ask to see the original purchase receipt. It’s not necessarily a deal breaker, but if they have one its 99.9% not a stolen bike. I’m Looking around on e-bay/Gumtree/Facebook at the moment and there are lots of “pandemic” purchases now up for sale “bought it last year, but now not riding it…..”, especially as we get into the winter months.

    Full Member

    Ooh, a Raleigh Peak! I had one of those, it was a lovely bike, even had a titanium handlebar. Mine unfortunately died in a collision with a Post Office van in North Wales.

    Full Member

    Oooh I had a Raleigh Peak and bloody loved it. Hmmm Zoom stem and seat post, just wonderful.

    Full Member

    Good article, and great counterpoint to £12k bike reviews.

    Free Member

    Agreed. Respect to STW for publishing it.

    Full Member

    Why is the grey frame classed as ‘child seat unfriendly’? Yeah with the cable stop where it is you can’t have a Hamax style child seat but it has got rack mounts instead.

    Full Member

    Do they need donations? I have a spares bin dating back to the 90’s. Don’t do Instagram so can’t see from the link.

    Full Member

    @Jonno yes, they accept donations. Their website is a bit out of date but give them a call and I’m sure they’ll let you know if they can take what you’ve got.

    Free Member

    Fair play. That’s really good.
    I’ve never bought a new bike.

    Full Member

    Good read, Also never bought new, Remember buying a £50 Raleigh Tundra over 10 years ago to get me started!

    Full Member

    Disagree on the ‘no service station’ meet up. When I’ve sold bikes I’ve always made sure the meet-up has been away from my house (well away!) The reason being, I don’t want anybody to know I have potentially decent bikes stored at my house. Even if they don’t see my garage (or the contents of) it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder what else I might have lurking about the place…

    Full Member

    @jimthesaint I’m just not a fan of rack mounted child seats! Does anyone actually still use them? I thought they’d pretty much been killed off by the rise of Hamax and the like!

    Free Member

    OK so how do I sell second hand bikes? N+1 is all well and good but I need to get in my garage again!

    Full Member

    I agree with the ‘sonny sell from your house’ bit. I don’t want potential thieves to come back and ‘have a look’ later on.

    Full Member

    So… what are folks offering me for a 2005 Stumpy FSR expert. 1 careless owner. Always raced and rallied. Still has the original front triangle (!) and an off trend 110mm stem. 26″ wheels obvs. Hope bulb rear hub.
    Alpine proven.
    It has ‘street cred’ all over it 👍

    Full Member

    roberta – 20 rothmans and a wrap?

    Full Member

    This is excellent!

    Free Member

    I had that exact model, same colour. Used to race it in my teens, it was blinged up with anything that could be anodised purple.

    X-Lite took a lot of my money in those days. Good times!

Viewing 18 posts - 1 through 18 (of 18 total)

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