How to Buy a Bike Online
Buying a new or used bike online requires a little bit of savvy and a whole lot of research. Here's what you need to know.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Bike purchases used to be a strictly in-person transaction: you went to the bike shop, tried whatever inventory they had, and handed over your payment. The internet changed that—a lot. Today, the options for buying a bike online are seemingly endless—you can pre-order the latest and greatest model before it’s even available to customers, build a super-customized steed from the wheels up, or have a used bike in Michigan shipped to your home in New York, all with the click of a button.
Pros and cons of online bike shopping
As with any shopping experience, there are pros and cons to buying a bike online. Some people prefer the convenience of the online shopping experience: instead of traveling to multiple locations to comparison-shop, the customer can simply open multiple browser tabs. For someone who lives in a rural area and/or does not have the time or resources to hit up multiple stores, shopping for a bike online can be a whole lot easier. Online shopping is also great for those who have a hard time finding exactly what they need – most bike shops do not keep hard-to-find sizes or high-end upgrades on their sales floor, whereas an online store lets you search for certain features or even design a bike from scratch.
But convenience comes at a cost. If you’re not completely sure of what you want, buying a bike online can be a gamble. When you visit a local bike shop, you have the ability to interact with the bike you’re considering. A cleverly-written description on a website can make a bike sound enticing, but only a test ride can reveal whether it’s the right bike for you. When you buy a bike online, your first ride on it is likely to be after you’ve already spent a significant amount of money acquiring and assembling the bike. If it turns out to be a dud, the return process can be cumbersome (and if you have to pay return shipping fees, expensive).
Things become even more complicated when buying a used bike online. Though the savings can be significant, in some cases, a deal may truly be too good to be true. Buying a used bike through online marketplaces like Facebook Marketplace or eBay comes with the risk of misrepresentation – a bike for sale might be stolen, damaged, or unsafe to ride. Though the risk of falling victim to a scam can be mitigated with a few precautions (below), it’s still a risk, and given that most used bikes online cost a good chunk of change, it’s up to the customer to decide if it’s one worth taking.
- Better selection of styles, sizes
- More customization options
- Competitive pricing
- Easy to comparison-shop
- Delivered direct to your home
- Photos, description may not match actual product
- Customer support may be lacking
- No test rides
- Supply chain and shipping delays
- Potential for online scams, “porch pirates”
- Some assembly required
- Returns can be a hassle
RELATED: Triathlete Buyer’s Guide: The Best Triathlon Bikes
How to Buy a Bike Online
Know your measurements
The biggest argument against buying a bike online is the risk of buying the wrong size or fit. You can buy the sleekest, lightest, most expensive bike, but it’s not going to do much for you if it’s the absolute wrong size. Though a bike fitting after your purchase arrives can remedy some issues, consider going for a bike fit before your purchase. Visiting a bike fitter before you begin shopping can help you understand what styles and sizes work best for your body. You can also use this fitting information to expedite your setup and fit when your new ride arrives.
RELATED: The 5 Keys to Finding the Right Bike Fitter for You
“Shop” outside of the website
Remember that anything you read on a website is written to sell you a bike. Yes, it may sound amazing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s accurate. When possible, go “shopping” at group rides and races – when you see a bike you like, ask the owner questions about it (cyclists and triathletes, in general, love to talk about their rides). You can also read reviews online to get a sense of what people are saying about the bike.
Avoid “showrooming,” or visiting a local bike shop to test-ride a bike, then purchasing online. Online stores often offer lower prices than their brick-and-mortar counterparts because they do not have the same overhead cost; the slightly-higher price of a bike shop covers in-store rent, staff, and utilities. Buying a bike from a brick-and-mortar store also usually comes with complimentary builds (assembly). If you take advantage of these in-person options, pay for them.
Set your budget
Whether you’re buying a new or used bike online, it’s important to know your maximum budget. Sales websites are designed to get you to spend as much as possible, so your shopping process will likely be peppered with options to upgrade certain components or add customization options. You’ll also need to account for shipping, insurance, assembly and bike fit costs in your budget (more on this below). All of this adds up quickly! Remember, clicking buttons online is easy; paying off a credit card bill, not so much.
Research the seller
At the very least, confirm that the seller exists outside of their website. If you’re buying a bike online from a manufacturer or retailer, check to make sure they have a physical address. Call the phone number on their site and/or send an e-mail to their customer service department. Ask questions about the specific bike you’re looking for – if their response is slow or vague, be concerned. It’s also a good idea to review the seller’s Better Business Bureau ratings.
If you’re purchasing through an online marketplace like eBay, Facebook Marketplace, Pinkbike, or GearTrade, look for sellers with a high rating and/or who are have some kind of history on the site. Again, ask the seller questions about the bike: How long have they owned it? Approximately how many miles per week did they ride? Was it maintained regularly? Where was it stored when it wasn’t being used? If they’re not able to answer these questions quickly and in detail, that’s a red flag.
Research the bike
If you’ve zeroed in on a particular bike, open a new browser tab and google the bike itself. The first few results will likely be paid ads, so keep scrolling. What pops up in your search results after the paid results? Are the reviews from industry publications generally positive? Have there been any recalls or product defects with the brand? Do customer reviews point out any issues with sizing or components? Review at least three pages of search results, and note any potential issues.
If it’s a used bike, even more research is needed. What is the Bicycle Blue Book value? If a bike is being offered at a significantly lower price than its value, that can be a sign of a defective bike and/or a stolen one. Ask the seller for a photo of the bike’s serial number (if they don’t provide it, that’s another red flag) and search for it on the Bike Index registry. Confirm with the seller that the photos of the bike in the listing are indeed photos of the actual bike for sale, and when in doubt, ask for more photos, like close-ups of the fork or bottom bracket.
Get out the magnifying glass (app)
A used bike comes with an inherent assumption that there is some wear and tear, so a few scratches are fine. But actual damage – whether intentional or unintentional, external or internal – is a deal-breaker, especially if the bike is a carbon frame.
So how do you inspect a bike for damage? In person, it’s much easier, since you can closely scrutinize the frame and components using your eyes, ears, and fingers. When you’re buying a used bike online, you’ll have to rely on the seller’s photos and the zoom function on your computer. How to inspect a used carbon frame bike online:
- Look for any uneven spots (cracks, ripples, bubbles) in the paint finish, which can indicate damage.
- Check all attachments on the frame. A layer of powder around rivets, seatposts, or steering joints can be a sign of corrosion.
- Observe the dropouts (the end of the fork, where the wheel’s axle meets the frame). If they aren’t symmetrical, that’s a sign the wheel may be out of alignment when you ride.
- Scan the seatpost for corrosion or cracks.
Even if everything checks out in the photos, it’s important to note that buying a used carbon bike comes with some serious unknown risks. Most online bike retailers have some sort of disclaimer saying as much – so if you’re looking for more confidence in your bike purchase, consider an in-person shopping experience.
Read the fine print
When buying a bike online, it’s important to know exactly what to expect. Things like return policies, warranties, and privacy policies can be tedious to read, but it’s better than being stuck with a bike you can’t return, or having to spend more money to repair damage not covered by a warranty. If you can’t find these policies anywhere, don’t give the seller any money.
It’s also a good idea to confirm what, exactly, you’re getting with your purchase. Will you need to spend additional money on things like wheels, seats, pedals, and integrated hydration systems, or are those included in the cost? How much is shipping, and what does that include – will you have to pay more for things like upgraded padding/packaging, tracking, and insurance?
Ready to click the “buy” button on that online bike purchase? Congratulations! The best way to pay for your online bike purchase is through a credit card – that way, you can dispute the charges if something goes wrong.
Before entering your financial information, however, double-check the URL box on your browser. Specifically, look to the left of the site’s address – a padlock means that a site is secured by an TLS/SSL certificate that encrypts user data.
Build and tune
If you buy a bike online, it’s still worth visiting your local bike shop for assembly. Some brands partner with local bike shops to have your bike delivered there for assembly instead of to your home. The cost of bike assembly usually ranges between $50 and $200, depending on the complexity of your bike set-up.
It may be tempting to save money by doing this step yourself, but having a pro build your bike can make the difference between a first ride that ends with a smile and one that ends with facial reconstruction surgery. It’s also a good idea to get a bike fit at this time to ensure your new (or new-to-you) bike is adjusted to the unique parameters of your body. A basic bike fit usually costs between $50 and $100, while a more detailed fit can be $200 or more.
If you’ve purchased a used bike, a tune-up from your local bike shop can also serve as a quality check to ensure you’ve gotten what you’ve paid for. Do this inspection soon after your bike arrives – if you discover you’ve been scammed, most credit cards have only a 60-day window to dispute a charge.
Leave a review
Did you have a great experience buying your bike online? Fantastic! Leave a review on the seller’s site saying as much. Ditto for unpleasant experiences – your comments, whether good or bad, will help future customers. Given the growing popularity of buying a bike online, chances are you’ll be helping many, many people down the road.