Grey Matter and Rethinking Used Bikes

No doubt, I inherited my aversion to buying used vehicles from my parents. As Great Depression era kids, they were used to having possessions which were always secondhand, but I think the final straw came when my father returned from Europe and started looking around for a car in post-WWII Chicago. The automakers in Detroit had not yet switched over to producing civilian vehicles, so the only thing Dad could find was an ancient Ford Model A which always needed repair. Family legend has it that when he started dating Mom, and would come to pick her up on cold winter nights, she would snitch the rubber mat from my grandparent’s bathtub and put it over the floorboard of the old Ford to keep the ice and snow from splashing up through the rust holes and soiling their party clothes.

After they were married, and my sister and I came along, they moved west to Arizona and life became better. The car dealerships they dealt with always knew my parents were new car buyers; they had no interest in used cars. My mother summed it up with a statement I heard many times during my childhood: “Son, when you buy a used car you’re just buying somebody else’s problems.”

I drove used cars until I graduated college, and then I began buying an unbroken string of new cars. That string was only broken when my wife and I helped my son and his wife buy a used sedan for their growing family. I’ve always purchased new bicycles, and I guess it’s because in the back of my mind I still hear Mom’s Somebody Else’s Problems admonition; the last thing I want is to have some kind of problem on the road when I’m bike commuting. That may be changing, however.

I saw a story on television about a unique bike shop which has just opened near me. It’s called the Grey Matter Foundation Bicycle Shop, and its backstory is truly inspiring. The shop is the dream of a young man named Kyle Claffey. He worked in bike shops as a high school kid, and pursued a passion for cycling even when he was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 17. And even as he struggled with treatment, he raced in the 2013 Race Across America (RAAM). Kyle’s eight-man Team Barrow finished a respectable fourth place and raised around $110,000 for Barrow Neurological Institute, one of America’s premier neurological research and treatment facilities. In January, 2014, Kyle and his family started the Grey Matter Foundation, a non-profit organization with the purpose of opening a shop to sell affordable used bicycles and parts, and provide bicycle service and repair, to the Phoenix cycling community; a portion of the shop’s proceeds would go to Barrow.

Sadly, Kyle lost his battle with cancer on April 18th, 2014, just a month before the bike shop was scheduled to open. But Kyle’s twin brother, David, and his father Michael completed Kyle’s dream and opened the shop. When a local television station had a segment on the Grey Matter Foundation Bicycle Shop, I had Kyle’s story as an additional motivation for stopping to look at bicycles at a new shop in town.

As I wandered among the bikes in the Grey Matter inventory, a number of things started churning in my own brain. They had some of the same things you’d see in any pile of used bikes: Big Box store refugees, well worn classic cruiser type bikes, classic 3-speed tourers, etc. But they also had a number of decent bikes for great prices.

There was a 2004 Felt F35 road/triathlon which looked to be in excellent shape. When I spoke with Kyle’s brother, David, about it he told me it was a bike he had sold new to a customer when he worked at another bike shop; he knew the bike’s history so he could say with authority that there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. The F35 sold new for around $2,200 USD new, Grey Matter wanted just $700 USD for this one.

I looked over a 2008 Giant XtC 1 hard tail mountain bike they had leaning against the wall, searching for any sign it had ever been off the road. I couldn’t find much of anything. These bikes retailed for between $800 and $900 USD, and this one had a pretty decent set of SPD clipless pedals on it which probably added another $30 to $40 USD. The price tag said “$700.00 OBO”. If you could talk the store down to something south of $600, this bike would be a literal steal.

By far, the most impressive wheels I saw in the store belonged to a pair of Day 6 Dream 24 bikes. The Dream 24 is sort of a super-cruiser-with-semi-recumbent-leanings. It features a step-through frame, a crank forward bottom bracket connected to a 24-speed mountain bike type of drive train, and a recumbent-like type of saddle with a nice, flat seat bottom and supportive seat back. The Dream 24 lists for $969, and these two particular bikes looked like they had just been taken out of the wrappers. The price tag on each was $300.

As a recumbent rider myself, I know the value of the Dream 24, and as I snapped some pictures I found myself wishing I had an extra six hundred bucks to buy both of them. I don’t think my mother’s “somebody else’s problems” scolding would apply to anything in the GMF Bicycle Shop: even if you purchased a bike there and never rode it, you couldn’t help but feel great about yourself for contributing to a good cause and promoting the legacy of a remarkable young man.

BluesCatBluesCat is a resident of Phoenix, Arizona, who originally returned to bicycling in 2002 in order to help his son get the Boy Scout Cycling merit badge. His bikes sat idle until the summer of 2008 when gas prices spiked at over $4.00 per gallon. Since then, he has become active cycling, day-touring, commuting by bike, blogging ( and giving grief to the forum editors in the on-line cycling community.

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6 thoughts on “Grey Matter and Rethinking Used Bikes”

  1. Tim Sherman says:

    This is the shop that helps me on my commute. It is an amazing place where the owner often gives me parts for free. He has so much there that he is glad to help. It has to be one of the nations best bike shops.

  2. matt says:

    We have something similar here in Philadelphia. The Devereux Foundation operates a bike shop where the developmentally disabled, under the supervision of an expert technician, repairs donated bikes for resale. I bought my daughter’s bike there for her use at college. Its a great win/win.

  3. John M. Hammer says:

    Nowadays I’m fairly car-light and in the future I’m hoping that I can get along without one entirely, relying on cabs and rentals or some car-sharing program when I absolutely need a motor vehicle. But I’ve always purchased new cars.

    “When you buy a used car you’re just buying somebody else’s problems.” That’s exactly – word for word – what my dad always told me, and when it comes to cars I think it’s not really that far off the mark. I’d buy a dealer’s demo vehicle, or a manufacturer’s refurbished, warranted, and dealer-sold lightly used car. But I’m glad that my finances and transportation needs have never demanded that I purchase a used car from an owner that is trying to unload it or from a used-car salesman.

    But bicycles are not cars. Absent structural damage or fatigue they really can last almost forever and can be brought back from seriously sad neglect to not only ridable but truly desirable condition with (relative to a more complex collection of systems such as a car) little effort: Some elbow grease and a few often minor component changes are all it usually takes. Recent models of well-taken-care-of bikes can be had for 50% or less of the equivalent new bike while delivering 95% or more of the value. Some old bikes are just terrific, can often be found for junk-level prices, and can be made into both beautiful and functional rides.

    I’m very happy with my current stable of bikes (EZ-1 Lite recumbent set up for transportation and recreation, Schwinn Crosscut hybrid set up for shopping, Dahon Speed D7 folder to take on buses and in cars) but if I ever purchase another bike I’ll look at available used bikes as much as I’ll look at new ones and given the price/value ratio will almost certainly purchase a used bike. One exception would be if I ever buy a Brompton, which I really would like to do some day and would most likely get custom-made to my exact specs.

    One thing I really like about shops like Grey Matter is that they weed out what is for me the biggest problem with purchasing a used bike: Thievery. I’d be very hesitant about purchasing a used bike from, say, a listing on CraigsList unless the seller had the sales receipt, a ride log, pictures of himself on the bike from a year ago, or something else that would make me feel confident that it wasn’t something he had just stolen and was trying to flip. I know some shops in the NYC area that deal in used bikes and parts and they pretty openly purchase from known bike thieves; I also know some shops that filter them out pretty well. Most shops around here just don’t deal in used bikes, though.

    Those two Day 6 bikes are indeed a steal! Someone who knows what they’re looking at, is looking for something like them, and has the dough is going to get a heck of a bargain. They’re not for me; I don’t really like crank-forward bikes at least compared to a true recumbent. But they are darn nice and if there were a deal like that in my area in a reputable shop I’d be tempted to pick them up as future gifts for friends.

  4. Jeff says:

    Blues does well to call attention to the largest under-considered segment in cycling — the used bike market.

    Yes, great deals abound! But as with all else in life there is a flip side: the largest single factor in the equation is demand. Low demand makes for low prices.

    As we hear rumblings of $200 bbl oil, the price of used cycles may jump soon enough.

  5. Lars says:

    I’ve read up on buying used CF bikes. A popular mechanics magazine article, “Things never to buy used on Craigslist” listed CF bicycles. The bicycles can have hidden damage inside the frames. Only way to tell is with x-ray. Steel and aluminum frames can corrode on the inside and weaken the frame too. Just saying that buying used has its hazards that may be hard to detect.

  6. Aaron Whaley says:

    I buy many more bikes used than new. If I buy a new bike I usually end up spending half again the purchase price in customization and upgrades. Better to buy used and have the extra money to spend on the upgrades and customization. One of my best purchases was way back in 1982. I bought a 10 year old Raleigh 3 speed at a pawnshop for $25. That bike was my only transportation for the next 5 years. Still have it today. It has undergone some transformations, currently sports baskets and is used as a beer hauler/light grocery getter.


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