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Basic Questions About Buying a Bicycle, New or Used, Inexpensive!

eebee's picture

I am going to need to buy my son a bike, but don't want to get overwhelmed with facts or pricing. I can't afford $100, much less $3000 for a bike. I think he'd rather have a mountain bike than a racing bike, although the reason for me buying it for him would be so he could cycle whilst I skate. I'm not opposed to him owning 2 styles for different purposes, however. I'll find a place to cram 'em into my living space, if necessary.

What are some obvious pros and cons about buying a cheapie from WalMart vs. a nicer, 2nd hand one?

I'm mostly interested in possible negative effects it would have on his still-growing, 13 year-old body. I have asked this question to various bike-store owners and connoisseurs, but they get so involved and technical, without me being able to write it all down, that I just glaze and zone out.

I guess these are my main priorities (probably mutually exclusive!):

  • Comfort for him (so he can handle 20 miles or more)
  • Price (low!)
  • No negative repercussions to his bones/muscles as he grows.
  • Portability - easily removable wheels, etc.

Anybody have any thoughts right off the top of their head?


roadskater's picture

Talkin'o'Which: Recycling Bike Recyclers in UK

Oy. I found this article about a fellow that started a free bike repair shop that turned into a charity life's work and paid employment for a small staff. They take in recyclables and sort and sell those, provide free bike repairs, and sell refurbished donated bikes at what seems to be 10% to 30% of new retail or so...£10 to £30 methinks. Sweet.


timv's picture


> What are some obvious pros and cons about buying a cheapie from WalMart vs. a nicer, 2nd hand one?

The nicer, 2nd-hand one should be assembled correctly and in good working order. From WalMart, you can't take that for granted. N2HO can also be resold for about what you paid for it when your son outgrows it, as he soon will.

New bike from WalMart is new, and with a little tinkering will work better than a several-year-old-and-only-slightly-better-quality used bike. (Cuz if the used bike is cheaper than the W-M bike it probably isn't much better if any.)

Also there's perverse backward-chic value to riding a department-store-bought bike-shaped object, but I wonder if your son's sense of irony would be well-developed enough for this yet. It take several decades of disillusionment, disappointment, and mounting cynicism for most of us to reach this point.

> Comfort for him (so he can handle 20 miles or more)

Anything can be tinkered to work well enough for that. This spring, I rode 40 miles to accompany Blake on a coaster-brake beach cruiser bike from Toys 'R' Us circa 1990 and felt fine on it. It's far from out-of-the-carton stock of course, but none of the upgrades on it were expensive.

If he won't be doing much off-road then switching to narrower slick or smooth-treaded tires that can handle higher pressure will make life a lot nicer for him. (Panaracer Pasela!) Saddles also make a difference and more expensive isn't necessarily better. (Nor is more padded.)

> No negative repercussions to his bones/muscles as he grows.

Millions of us spent our youths riding bikes bought with a lot less concern and forethought than you've given this already and yet somehow we survived with our bones and joints intact. I'll bet the bike-shop folks make a big deal of this, preying on parental concern to squeeze more ever-shrinking dollars out of them.

Cycling is incredibly easy on the body compared to just about any other activity--even videogaming! If he isn't going to be doing heavy-duty training, riding hundreds of miles a week, I wouldn't sweat it much. Make sure he's comfortable and pay attention if something starts to hurtz. Worry about his knees if he starts playing football or basketball or soccer.

> Portability - easily removable wheels, etc.

Quick-release wheels had be had or can be adapted. My commuter bike--a converted MTB, the one you saw Sunday--has them. That was about a $100 investment, but needed since the bike had no wheels when I got it. You probably won't get them on a lower-end Wal-Mart bike, alas. But it's all a matter of degree. A 13mm box-end wrench doesn't take up a lot of space, and really bike wheels are all pretty easy to remove.

northinsouth's picture


I wouldn't buy a bike from walmart. they all weigh about 45 pounds. we bought one for avery, and its a very small bike and i think it weighs more than mine and its 5 time the size! Craig
eebee's picture

Bike Weight

Cute flag :-)

Thanks for your perspective on bike weight and WalMart, Northinsouthinuk! I have to treat it one 'bike fact' at a time, so I'll consider that too. As stated before, the old clunkers I used to ride as a child/teen weighed half a ton too, but then I never accompanied my Mother on any 25 mile skates :-)

timv's picture


Keep in mind that Craig's bike weighs something like 12 pounds. I think I have wristwatches that weigh more than it does. :-)

But yes, do heft it up before buying if you decide to go the dept. store route. The worst offenders that I've seen are the ones with large-diameter frame tubes meant to look like the shaped aluminum or carbon tubes in high-end bike frames. Except the cheap bikes are made of plain low-grade steel, so this doesn't do anything except make them really heavy.

I'd be leery of any sort of suspensions in that price range too. They aren't needed for the kind of riding you're talking about, and it's just a likely point of failure with the grade of materials being used in a lot of those bikes. It can even be dangerous if it allows the wheels to develop play and start wobbling.


eebee's picture

Really useful pointers

Thanks for the useful info, Timv. This is all news to me. I hadn't thought about suspension, or would even recognize good/bad potential on a bike in a store.
roadskater's picture

Ha Ha Craig is in the UK

Thanks for posting, Craig. You knew (because I told you!) I'd get a kick out of seeing the UK flag on a comment or post! Glad to know you have made it thus far safely. We'd love to hear about your travels but I expect you will be too busy to be sitting in front of a computer. I bet eebee and kjg are jealous (and the rest of us).
eebee's picture

Cycles D'oh!

So OTOH isn't a new bike brand name, and neither is N2H0 a chemically-altered version of carbon fibre. I finally figured it out, thanks to Google, but now there's steam billowing out the top of my head :-)

This is advice I can live with, thanks, Tim! It helps me to know that pricier doesn't necessarily mean better, regarding comfort or quality.

I was going to point out that I rode odd-shaped, beaten up bikes most of my teenage years and look how I turned out...but I'm not so sure I'm such a great example.

My son has the football and soccer already out of his system, and the basketball he's playing right now isn't worrying me as much as the pyramid-shaped bruises popping up on his shin bones from skateboarding   :-0 

Well bike wheels currently aren't easy for ME to remove, neither do I possess tinkering or parts knowledge, but it's all a question of learning and repetition. It'll take me a while to comprehend some of your points, and I'll probably post here again with more questions.

I really appreciate your perspective.

timv's picture

a chemically-altered version

I hope my insider cyclist jargon wasn't too off-putting. :-)

> I was going to point out that I rode odd-shaped, beaten up bikes most of my teenage years and look how I turned out...but I'm not so sure I'm such a great example.

Don't sell yourself short! As with so many things in life, we're acutely aware of skaters who are better and faster than us, but it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the we're more fit and more active than probably something like 95% of our peer group. What you do very regularly--30 and 40 mile skates, Tour to Tanglewood, Athens to Atlanta--are unimaginable to must adults in our demographic. To have the physical ability and the mental attitude to achieve these things does indeed make you a great example. As the saying goes, if it was easy everyone would do it.

> Well bike wheels currently aren't easy for ME to remove, neither do I possess tinkering or parts knowledge, but it's all a question of learning and repetition.

Bikes are great for learning this kind of thing and a terrific stepping-stone to more general mechanical aptitude in assembing and repairing things and using tools. Looking back at the history of cars and aviation, a remarkable number of the pioneers came out of the 19th-century bicycle business, the Wright brothers being best known but far from the only ones.

It could be a good start for your son if he should happen to take an interest in picking out parts and customizing the bike. There's an amazing wealth of information on the internet about which parts fit which frames and tricks for doing various operations. Sheldon Brown's website is a great resource specifically for bike info, and learning how to research and synthesize an understanding of things like this could be a very fine general set of skills to develop. There are all kinds of wonders from 120 years of cycling to be had on eBay, naturally. A lot of it is surprising cheap, and the best part is that you can pay as you go, $10 or $20 here and there as the budget permits instead a big lump sum. And it's probably better in that regard to start out with a bike that you don't think of as precious and untouchable, like Blake and me with the department-store bikes of our youth.

(I can't remember if I've posted my "What are you, some kind of mechanical geniuses?" story here yet. But it's a good example.)


roadskater's picture

When Money Rules

When money rules there is very little choice, but at least you've found a couple of alternatives. I've never been in the Recycles store here in Greensboro, but it seems like a great idea at least...a used bike store. Somewhere in a closet, guest bedroom or shed there are great bicycles for all of us! This leads me to think that buying used or inexpensive is a good way to go until someone definitely has the bug for biking in a serious way.

Having said that, I often feel that people would get the bug for skating more if they bought K2, Salomon or upper-level Rollerblade skates (I'd add that I loved a pair of Ultrawheels I had as much as any other skates I had). But rolling on a boot is different, yes.

I am sure you have been looking on your local freecycle list. (As you know, but others may not, freecycle lists are where people give away stuff they are about to throw away otherwise, but they are highly competitive and you just about have to be getting individual emails to catch anything in time. Even then I bet the best sob story wins, true or not?) I think this would be a great way for someone who loves to work on bikes and doesn't need one at a particular time to get something. But I don't recall seeing many bikes, come to think of it! Anyway...

Seems like eBay might be a good place for some of this, but again, a bit of knowledge might be required unless buying a complete solution, and then shipping comes into consideration. Not the best solution for you I guess. Perhaps Craigslist?

The idea of getting a great used bike is a good one, if you have the time, energy, and some knowledge or someones with knowledge to help a bit. Other than that, taking a kid to a store to pick out a bike (or two!) seems like a blast to me.

As I believe I emailed you yesterday, not knowing whether it would be helpful, I understand WallofChina-Mart had a $47.77 or so mountain bike special tease this morning in women's and men's versions. I'm sure there's plenty wrong with these new bikes in the long run, but I had a metallic purple Murray with high-rise handlebars and a banana seat that I loved, despite my friend (long since out of touch) who had a Schwinn Sting-Ray or some such that he was certain was much better. I sat there thinking: "It's not purple, so how could it be?!" I could do the same tricks or better, so I felt better knowing I did that on "common" equipment, ha!

Regarding the hubs, it's not just the hubs but the brake calipers that may cause you problems with that front wheel. This is where a good roof rack or hitch mounted bike rack would be sweet, but that'll cost more than the bikes perhaps? I used to have a cheapie bike rack that grabbed onto the trunk lid and was neither secure nor pleasant to deal with, and this is one reason I got into skating!

I think some of these convenience features may be found on these low-end bikes after all if you look around a bit. Or more likely, they may be on the next-to-the-lowest-price bikes.

For skating with new or infrequent riders, a longer distance skate will be easier with someone who has a road bike. That depends on  the quality of the surface. There are exceptions, of course, like my nephew, who drops us at the start on his mtb, but that's why he's there...to do just that to everyone he can who is riding skinny tire carbon fork multi-kilodollar hardware.

Timv's point about an extra set of wheels with hybrid tires is a good one, and I imagine there are some bikes in the store that are mtb style with hybrid tires and quick release hardware for not a lot more than the base model. This might be as good for now as buying two different bottom of the rung bikes, unless you plan to ride instead of skate along (oh pardon me for saying that). I think my dad uses roadworthy tires on his mtb, as he mostly rides paved trails and local streets. He gets better roll with a still durable tire, methinks.

Maybe we can get a look in on Recycles sometime soon, and of course, who knows, Dale at Cycles de Oro may have something used worth considering. My bro or nef might have some ideas, too. Regardless, the whole idea of a new bike or two, even a new old bike or two, sounds fun for your son...I'd say he's grown out of the previous one. He was mighty proud when he completed over 26 miles on the Silver Comet a couple of years ago, and we got to skate along!

timv's picture

money changes everything

> I've never been in the Recycles store here in Greensboro, but it seems like a great idea at least...a used bike store.

I've been several times. The owner, Merritt White, is very friendly and has been extremely helpful especially when I've been looking for some little thingamajig for an old bike, little stuff where shipping off eBay would cost ten times the price of the doodad. He commented once that his number one goal is getting as many people on bikes as he can.

(Recycles Bike Shop, 908-A Spring Garden St, Greensboro, NC. I have no connection except as a customer.)

> But rolling on a boot is different, yes.

RIght. The physical interface of bicycle to person is a lot more forgiving than with skates, and also bicycle technology has had about 100 more years to mature than inline skates have had. So even for cheapo bikes, the baseline for the technology and equipment is a lot higher.

> but I had a metallic purple Murray with high-rise handlebars and a banana seat that I loved, despite my friend (long since out of touch) who had a Schwinn Sting-Ray or some such that he was certain was much better.

I learned later that the high-rise/banana seat bikes are referred to as "Stingray" type bikes by most cyclists and collectors, because that's what Schwinn called their model. In my circle, we always called them "Spyder" bikes, since that's what Sears called theirs, and we were infinitely more likely to get a bike from Sears than from Schwinn.

> Regarding the hubs, it's not just the hubs but the brake calipers that may cause you problems with that front wheel.

Nice thing about old mountain bike technology: with cantilever brake calipers, the straddle cable (the short piece of wire connecting the two arms) can be pulled loose on one side using just your fingers. It's almost as fast to unhook and rehook as a quick-release lever. Both my fixed-gear bike and my commuter have this kind of front brake. (And my modded coaster-brake beach cruiser has no front brake at all, so no problem there either.)

The "U-brakes" on current entry-level MTBs can be a problem though, yes. Having to re-adjust the brake caliper after replacing the wheel is time-consuming and no fun.

> Timv's point about an extra set of wheels with hybrid tires is a good one,

Actually while I have extra wheelsets for my nice racing bike, I haven't done this for the beater bikes. I just swapped road tires onto the original rims. Bike wheels are pretty pricey (in a relation to the price of the whole bike) but the tires are cheap. A Panaracer Pasela in 26 x 1.75 is roughly the same price as a single 100mm skate wheel! This is aided by the tendency of mountain bike makers to save weight by using rims that are really too narrow for the tires. They're just right for a nice comfy paved/gravel road tire.


eebee's picture

Freecycle Violins

The sob-stories became so prevalent on my local Freecycle group that the moderator finally put his foot down about it. He now edits the 'wanted' messages very openly!


I could look on Craigslist, I could look on Ebay, I could go to 2nd hand stores. I still wouldn't have a clue as to what would be a wise buy for the little money I have. I'd probably buy something shiny.


It was indeed that WalMart ad that prompted this question in the first place. This just seems to be one of those situations where my lack of expertise and money clash.


Thinking about it further...I think I should probably only bother with a mountain bike for now, because I'm not likely to want to blow half a tank of gas getting over to the Silver Comet Trail to skate only 25 miles, and we'd need to hop on some rugged paved trails at my local park to get from one section to another. He'd bend a road bike wheel like a tater chip in about 2 seconds.

roadskater's picture

Quick Release Hub and Calipers, Non-Knobby Tires, Perhaps

Sounds like a good use for the hybrid idea. Sturdy frame and tires but not necessarily made for mud or single-track trails. Tires can be changed of course, without too much problem, theoretically. Plus, if you can find a nice color (the most important thing...I bet he'll go for green to match his brainbucket) that still has quick release hub and brake calipers at least on the front, sounds good. If you could get all that for a bit more than the lowball price it'd likely be worth it. Good luck and please keep us posted. I need to get photo uploads going here for members soon!

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