How to Buy Two Used Touring Bikes in London, in Ten Easy Steps

Editor’s note: one of our main objectives in London was to outfit ourselves for a bike tour across Europe, a major component of our honeymoon.

Step 1: Take inspiration from your parents. During their own honeymoon 36 years ago, Howard and Wendy chanced upon two perfectly-sized used touring bikes sitting in a shop in London. This happy accident led to them embarking on a cycle tour across Europe! By all accounts, my parents’ bike acquisition process couldn’t have been easier. They saw the bikes, decided on the spot to go touring, and rolled out of the shop with pretty much everything they needed. Figure that your own bike acquisition process won’t be quite so simple, but couldn’t take more than a day or so. (This will turn out to be not at all accurate.)

Step 2: Consider changed circumstances. The world and the bike industry have both changed substantially since the Reagan years. For one thing, a good touring bike is harder to find than it used to be. It’s not necessarily that bike touring has become less popular, it’s just that road bikes have veered off in a race-oriented direction that has made it rarer to encounter a versatile bike with sensible geometry, gearing, and load carrying capacity. I blame Lance Armstrong for this.

Step 3: Do a little advance recon. Write a Reddit post asking how one should best go about buying touring bikes in London. Get told, variously, that all secondhand bikes in London are guaranteed to have been stolen, that all secondhand bikes are inherently unreliable and unsafe to tour on, and that cheap hybrid bikes from Decathlon (think Dick’s Sporting Goods) are totally fine to tour on. Receive these responses with skepticism that later turns out to be justified. (To be fair, some used bikes are stolen bikes and some used bikes are in bad shape – but a savvy buyer can generally tell and avoid both. And we’ve seen a lot of people touring on cheap bike-shaped objects from Decathlon, so if riding a heavy aluminum frame with junky components works for them, good for them. I never said I wasn’t a bike snob.)

Step 4: Visit the online markets. Go to London Craigslist only to find that Londoners don’t really use Craigslist. Find a website called Gumtree with more listings but terrible search functionality. Of the hundreds of used bikes for sale, find only a few even worth following up on. Get a little worried about the feasibility of this whole process.

Step 5: Increase your budget. You were hoping not to spend more than about $500 per bike, but in the face of limited used options, ponder the “nuclear option” of buying two new bikes instead. Figure if you sell them later, you can recoup much of the added cost anyway. Visit a range of shops from the uninspired chain Evans Cycles (whose shop-brand Pinnacle bikes actually look pretty great) to the charming Brixton Cycles (which sells high-quality Surly and Ridgeback bikes at alarmingly high prices).

Step 6: Think laterally. Ask bike-shop employees how Londoners buy used bikes. Find out that eBay is actually the dominant marketplace and that it’s totally expected that prospective buyers can meet with sellers to test-ride bikes. Find several listings that look genuinely promising. Contact sellers and schedule test-ride trips in parts of London you’d never otherwise have reason to visit.

Step 7: Create a fail-safe option. Although you have some good leads, this whole process has taken much longer than you expected. (Of course, you’ve also been doing plenty of sightseeing, too.) It’s now Thursday and you need to leave town by Monday. Order two brand-new bikes from Evans that will be built up in time to ride on Monday and just hope that you can pull out some kind of miracle over the weekend so you don’t have to spend more than $1000 per bike. You can always cancel the order or return the bikes if one or both proves unnecessary.

Step 8: Get lucky once. After days of dysfunctional communication with the seller, take the Overground to east London on Friday morning and meet a guy with a 2012 Dawes Ultra Galaxy. (You’re already familiar with the Dawes Galaxy as it’s probably the most famous British touring bike, but the new models are no good. Why would you ever sell a touring bike with an aluminum frame, when durability is the name of the touring game? This used bike is different, though – a top-of-the-line Reynolds steel frame and a 3×10-speed Tiagra drivetrain. It would have cost $2300 when it was new.) It’s not in perfect shape: the bar tape is a mess and the rear brake squeals incessantly. But it’s got great bones and it fits you great. Buy it on the spot for £570 cash (about $720).

Step 9: Get even luckier. It’s now Saturday (two days before departure) and you have one last eBay visit scheduled, to Uxbridge in far far west London. You certainly never thought you’d be traveling this far from the city center. But when you get there, you find a nearly-new Spa Wayfarer, with disc brakes and 3×9 shifters, that fits Sara perfectly, superbly maintained and perfectly set up to ride with fenders, rack, and all, being offered by a gentleman named Chris who, like you, is a huge bike geek. Buy the bike, unhesitatingly, for £499, but also accept Chris’s wife Mary’s invitation to join them for a cup of tea. Hear about their own travels and cycling adventures and feel an immediate sense of kinship. Listen with growing interest to their recommendation of cycling in Dorset, on England’s southern coast, and make a mental note that they have a second home in the port town of Weymouth.

Step 10: Tidy up loose ends. Leave Chris and Mary’s home with warm farewells and well-wishes (you can’t remember the last time you hugged someone who just sold you a bike) and start biking eastward along quaint canal paths, until you realize you’ve been riding for an hour and you still have like 20 miles left to ride. Get back on the Underground instead. Get caught in a sudden rainstorm while riding from the Underground back to Crouch End. Isn’t this fun already?! Call Evans Cycles and cancel your $2100 order; they’re mercifully understanding about this. The afternoon before you depart for your tour, hastily purchase another pannier and some water bottles. Miraculously, discover that all your stuff fits in your motley assemblage of panniers, baskets, bags, and straps.

And you’re off! Easy peasy.

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