The Guide on Buying a Used Bike Online for First Time Triathletes

The Guide on Buying a Used Bike Online for First Time Triathletes

DISCLAIMER:  Some Hardcore triathletes and professionals may not like this advice I am about to give.  This article is intended for those about to or just entered the world of triathlons.  They probably don’t own a triathlon bike or road bike, and they don’t need to buy that $2000+ bike…yet.

The two most common reasons people hesitate signing up for a triathlon are you don’t know how to swim or you don’t have a bike.  We are going to focus on the latter, because buying a bike can be stressful.  You can spend hours constantly questioning whether or not the bike is worth it, and you don’t even know what to look for in a bike.  I am going to focus buying online, because the local bike shop could be intimating and is too expensive for new triathletes.  While there are several places you can buy a bike online, this article will focus on the two most popular, Craigslist and Ebay.  There are pros and cons to both, which we will go over.

If you don’t own a bike and you have never done a triathlon, I suggest first trying to borrow a bike, any bike…as long as it fits.  If the race is a sprint distance, then I would even consider borrowing your friend’s mountain bike.  This is not ideal, but would be acceptable for a race or two.  Trust me, you will not be the only one out there on a non-road or non-triathlon bike.  You will find out if you like the experience or not before investing in a bike.  Anything over a sprint distance tri, I suggest using a road bike or a triathlon bike.  If you have decided it is time to buy your first bike.  Definitely buy a used bike, unless you really have the money.  The value of bike drops significantly after the sale, and used bike prices are pretty steady (it will be less of a financial hit if you choose to sell it 6 months later).  I would also consider a road bike vs a triathlon bike as your first bike for the following reasons:

  • There are many more road bikes on the market which provides a better selection
  • Used road bike are generally cheaper
  • You don’t have to learn to ride in aero (on the “triathlon” handle bars)…yet
  • If you decide triathlons aren’t your thing, then it is better for charity rides or other group rides to use a road bike, because your hands are closer to the brake
  • You can always add clip-ons (aero handle bars)
  • Road bikes are generally better at climbing (riding in the hills/mountains), and handle better

I borrowed a friend’s road bike that was too big for my first two sprint triathlons.  Then I bought my first road bike for the next several. I am not saying, DO NOT buy a Triathlon specific bike, but you are making a commitment to triathlons when you purchase one. Below are the factors to look for in searching a bike road or a tri (in order of importance).

  1. The Bike Size
  2. The Bike’s Condition
  3. The Components

DISCLAIMER. I partially failed on number 1 for my first bike.  See Squeaky below:

After Aerobars….if you want to call them that.
My first race on my first bike. It was a half Ironman relay

It was a $100 road bike named Squeaky (it had a squeak the local bike shop and I were never able to identify).  I did several sprints, a few Olympic distance races, and 2 half ironman on it.  It definitely wasn’t the best fit….obviously, but I was able to stand over the cross bar and the seat height/location was okay, which allowed for a decent pedal stroke.  It also had decent derailleurs (i.e., Shinamo 105s), but my reach to the handle bars was ATROCIOUS, and wheels were not true.  Every race I did, I would hear from those guys on their $5000 bikes how bad the reach was on my bike…whatever.  It wasn’t the best long term fit, but I developed a love for the sport before I bought my first Triathlon-specific bike.  A side benefit was I got pedals and shoes with it.


Let’s dive into some of the details for each factor:

1. The Bike Size

The bike size is the most important aspect to get correct on a new bike, because it directly effects your bike fit, pedal stroke, power, and injury prevention.  The frame size and top tube length (i.e. reach) are two main factors in the bikes size.  The frame size is the distance from the bottom bracket (center where the pedals are to the bottom of seat/saddle).

The frame size is the first step. It effects the ability to adjust your seat/saddle.  These are the general rules of thumb for the “size” of the bike:


Height Inside Leg Frame Size Frame Size
5’1″-5’3″ 27″-29″ XS 48cm
5’3″-5’5″ 29″-30″ S 50cm
5’5″-5’7″ 29″-31″ S/M 52cm
5’7″-5’10” 30″-32″ M 54cm
5’10”-6’0″ 31″-33″ M/L 56cm
6’0″-6’2″ 32″-34″ L 58cm
6’1″-6’3″ 33″-34″ L/XL 60cm
6’3″-6’6″ 34″-36″ XL 62cm

Some bikes are listed in S, M, L, etc, and others 48cm, 52cm, etc…, therefore I listed both. Some manufacturers may not have the correlated the letter sizes (i.e., S, M, L) to the same frame sizes as above.  Also, if you are buying a triathlon bike always buy the smaller bike if you are in the in-between category (S/M, M/L, L/XL).  Unless you are buying the bike on Ebay, then you should definitely take the bike for test ride before completely the purchase.  See tips for buying a bike on Ebay and Craigslist here.

The top tube length directly affects your comfort.  The measurement you should look for it the effective top tube length.  It is the distance from the seat tube to where the handle bars connect, but tape measure should be parallel to the ground.

The top length can “adjusted” by changing the stem, which are relatively cheap and easy to install.

Here a couple of examples:

I am 5’-9” with inside leg length of 30”.  I ride on the low side of a Medium or 54cm bike.  I could ride many 52 cm bikes.

Rider 1 is 5’-6” with an inside leg length of 30”.   I would suggest looking at size Small or 50-52 cm bike.

Rider 2 is 6’-0” with an inside leg length of 32”.  You could look at M or L, but I would look at Mediums for a Triathlon bike.  I would be careful buying a 58cm bike.  Since the rider is on the low end of that size, I would definitely test ride it first.

2.  The Bike’s Condition

When buying a used bike, you need to really exam it.  If you are looking on Ebay, make sure the seller has posted lots of photos and has great reviews in the past.  You can always request more photos, and ask more about the bike’s history.

Aluminum, Carbon Fiber, Steel, and Titanium are the most common materials with Aluminum and Steel being the cheapest.  I generally suggest Aluminum for everyone’s first bike.  It is durable, light, and stiff.  They last a long time and are very effective.  My bike of the last 8 years is Aluminum.  I have complete 3 Ironman on it, 8 half Ironman, several Olympic Distance races, numerous sprints, and have won my age group at many local races with it.

When you are reviewing the bike, you want to look for signs of a hard fall or accident.  Are there large scratches of paint missing or painted over?  Is there any rust on the bike?  If the bike is carbon fiber, look for signs of damage to the carbon and any signs of repair. Do not buy a carbon frame bike if there are any signs damage to the carbon in any form.  The damage could be a deep scratch that hit the carbon material or dented it.  Carbon fiber is not easily fixed when damaged, and it can be very dangerous to ride if there are any weak spots in the carbon.  If the bike is Aluminum or Titanium, look for any cracks or bent areas.

Most Triathletes will sing the praises of carbon fiber for good reason.  It is lighter and stiffer than aluminum. While my next tri bike will most likely be a carbon fiber bike, I suggest not being fixated on it.  Carbon fiber is always more expensive, and I would focus on better components for a newbie.

3.  The Components

The components or groupset (or grouping) on your bike include your shifters, brake levers, front brake, rear brake, front derailleur, rear derailleur, the crank, the chain etc…  Not every component on the bike is of equal importance.  The two most important are the rear and front derailleurs.  These are responsible for moving the chain to appropriate selected by the shifter. The two biggest brands selling the components are Shinamo and SRAM.  You do not need worry about one brand vs another, because both are very reliable.  Each brand has different tiers of sub brands.  Below is a breakdown of those tiers for each brand:

Good 105
Good Enough Tiagra
Best Red
Better Force

Try to stick with the Good or Good enough and above for your derailleurs. If you are new to triathlons, don’t worry too much about the others.

Note:  Don’t be concerned with the “speed” of the bike.  Most of these will be either 9, 10 or 11 Speed.  If you hear of a speed greater than 11, they multiple the number of gears in the front by the number in the back.  Some entry level bikes may have 3 gears in the front, but most should have 2.

Tips for buying your bike online

There are two main places to buy a used bike online, craigslist and ebay.  Both have their advantages and disadvantages.  Craigslist is great because the sellers are within driving distance and the bikes are generally cheaper than ebay, but the selection can be poor.  Also, you are able to ride them before buying it.  The best part about Ebay is its wide selection of bikes, but they are usually more expensive.

Here are some strategies I use for buying on Craiglist:

  • In the “For Sale” section search “Road” for a road bike and “tri” for a triathlon bike. Sounds simple enough, but you would be amazed how many bikes it can miss.
  • Review the photos and ask for more if they don’t have enough, ask if it has ever been in a crash, when was its last tune up, and why they are selling it. Also ask if what the components are if they aren’t listed.
  • Copy the post header and search it on Google and within craigslist. This will see if they posted it before.  This will help with determining the offering price.
  • Also search for the exact bike on google to verify the craigslist is a good price.
  • If you are interested in the bike always mention you check it out later that day, and always offer cash at a price slightly lower than the off. Make sure to say “$400 Cash”.  Sellers like urgency and they like to hear cash.


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