How To

You Can’t Find a New Bike Right Now. Your Best Bet Is to Fix One.

Hands inspecting the cable leading to a rear bike brake.

Many of the pandemic shortages make sense, now that we’ve lived with them a while. Paper products, exercise gear, home office equipment, even baking supplies—they’re things that people suddenly wanted, and there wasn’t a ton of surplus.

But, bikes? Isn’t there always a fleet of bikes at the sporting goods store? Can’t they make more bikes?

As detailed on a recent Marketplace report, it’s complicated. The bike shortage is an international supply-chain problem, with extremes of both supply and demand. It’s a 3-minute listen that’s well worth your time. But if you can’t listen, here’s the bullet-point summary:

  • The bicycle industry’s central supply hub, East Asia, was the scene of the earliest coronavirus outbreak, shutting down factories.
  • Bikes that would have been made in early 2020 are what typically sell in the U.S. in the spring and summer.
  • When the U.S. began to stay at home in March, kids and adults wanted bikes for recreation, and eventually adults wanted commuter bikes to avoid public transportation.
  • Bike theft is up significantly in cities like New York, especially for expensive (newer) bikes, making the pinch even tighter.

Not mentioned in the Marketplace report is that new bike parts are also tough to come by. From my experiences with bikes in the pandemic—rebuilding a 1980’s Trek, swapping out cables on a 2018 hybrid, and check-ins with my local bike shop and repair co-op—if it’s shiny, new, and made in a factory, you likely won’t be able to get it until this fall.

Bike tire being removed from a rim.

What you can do right now, though is reconsider the value of old bikes. Take another look at bikes that you, a relative, or a friend aren’t using, or bikes on your local selling sites (Craigslist, Marketplace, OfferUp) that need a little care and therefore aren’t sold within an hour. Parts for these bikes—with their older-style wheels, brakes, and gears—are easier to come by, and sometimes found used. Even the host of Marketplace recommends it (listen at 7:30 in the full episode).

Over the last 4 years, I’ve gone from having a 50% chance at replacing an inner tube correctly (assuming I could find a good YouTube video) to rebuilding two bikes from the bearings up. I’ve explored the sweet spot of bike repairs that most people can learn to do, but can still seem like too much effort to unenthusiastic sellers. This is where you can find a good bike value, or bring an old bike back to life. Here’s what I suggest learning how to do, if you want to save a bike or fix up a new find:

Know your bike size

Before you take on a bike from a friend, relative, or local seller, know what size you need for your body. REI’s bike sizing page covers the basics of measuring yourself (scroll down to “Bike Frame Standover Height”) and avoiding pitfalls (relying on manufacturers’ sizing numbers instead of actual measurements). You’re obviously going to want to stand over and ride any bike you plan to acquire, but the starting point is a basic height measurement. If it’s not listed on a seller’s page, ask.

Watch this video on fixing up a busted bike

There are thousands of videos on fixing up specific issues with old bikes, but few give you as good of an overview of what to look for, and what makes a bike a no-go, as this video from the Global Cycling Network. It’s helpful for any bike you’re looking at for a fix and upgrade. Wiggle the cranks from side to side, try to move the handlebar forward and back, and look for dents, deep rust, or other issues with the frame. Everything else is a matter of replacing or tuning, depending on how much time and money you want to invest.

Look for the easiest fixes

Wrapping aqua-green bar tape around a handlebar.

If a seller or donor knows what’s wrong with a bike, there are some fixes that stand out as easy to pull off without having to invest in new tools or learning arcane knowledge. Here are my picks for the best fixes to find:

  • “Needs brakes” is great, because brake pad sets are cheap and readily available.
  • Sometimes you don’t even need new brake pads. With common tools, you can toe in the pads. With your fingers, you can tighten the brakes by turning the barrel adjuster (loosening the adjuster tightens the cable). Sometimes you have to release a cable, pull it a half-centimeter, and re-fasten a holding bolt.
  • Pedals are a fairly standard component, and replacing them requires either a narrow 15mm wrench or a sub-$15 pedal wrench (and the knowledge that the pedal on the left threads opposite of standard).
  • Worn-out tires, handlebar tape, seats, or other surface things are often an easy fix.
  • Bent or broken spokes or rim on a front wheel makes for an easy fix, if you can afford a new front wheel. It’s easy to replace, and people may not know that they’re often standard sizes (26 or 27 inches, 700c, etc.) with a few different widths.
  • A broken or rusted chain is simple to overcome, even if you don’t have a chain tool.

Take advantage of your local bike shop or co-op

Your bike seller/donor might not know what’s wrong with a bike, and you might not be able to figure it out after inspecting and riding it. That’s okay—that’s what bike shops are for. Some people give up on bikes the moment they have to consider taking it to the bike shop. But a new-to-you bike has no such psychic debt. Bring it to the shop and see what they think. You might found up someone gave up on a bike that only needed a little lubricant dropped into its cable guides, or a quick tightening of the bottom bracket and cranks.

If you live in a town with a bike co-op or community workshop, see if they are open, or just accepting bikes from the public, during this pandemic. They can often help you restore an older bike, and might even point you to some bikes available for sale or fix-up.

Once you’ve got your bike fixed up and riding, make sure you’re ready for a flat, and consider building out a truly minimalist bike repair kit.