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Winter bike saga – Part 2 – The ebay nightmare

As outlined in Part 1 of the Winter Bike Saga, at the start of Dec 2014 I decided that a fixie would be the ideal winter hack and although I was happy to buy a new bike (the Fuji Track looked the best bet), a secondhand single-speed fixie caught my eye on ebay. In practice this should have been a straightforward purchase – what can go wrong with a ‘much loved’ fixie – but it turned into a cautionary tale for anyone buying a bike remotely.

Two things worth noting:

1 – I have taken out all references that would identify the bike or the seller. I have given them the benefit of the doubt and trust that, should they recognize themselves, they realize that this cautionary tale works for the seller as well as the buyer. This could have happened to any bike and, in fact, it was only the simplicity of this single-speed that stopped the whole affair being more protracted and painful.

2 – In my day-job I get involved in the prevention and resolution of online fraud, so I was well placed to pursue this and get into extended communication with the seller. I would strongly recommend that anyone in a similar position to stick to the facts, don’t get personal and let the Resolution teams at ebay sort out the problem.

So where do we start, early in December with the advert of course, which said:

… my trusted and much loved bike… Great bike… reliable as the day is long.
Only selling due to getting a new bike.

The accompanying picture showed a steel frame fixie that was showing it’s age but which, apart from a dubious ‘street’ chain, looked to have plenty of life left in it. So I started the bidding, eventually winning the bike (including postage) for just under £190. Having won the auction and arranged the delivery, I then put an order in with Chain Reaction for some new brown bar-tape (to match the Brooks saddle that I intended to fit), a new chain and some chain tugs. It was all looking good.

The bike duly arrived – it was in a cardboard bike box wrapped in an old duvet, but appeared to be in one piece, but… stuck to the top of the duvet on a scrap of paper was a note that read…

I have tried to get all of the bike ready for you but have hit a problem I did not see coming – the seat post will not move… this will happen I just ran out of time and tools”… The seller had also sent an ebay message after the bike had been dispatched saying much the same.

Well that was an issue. Assuming a bike frame is in reasonable condition, a badly seized seat-post is probably a mechanic’s worst nightmare. If you’re lucky, some WD-40 and a sturdy wrench will free the post, but often more drastic measures involving heat and caustic acid are required. It’s definitely not something that you want to find out after you’ve bought a ‘much loved’ bike.

A few alarm bells rang, but the initial ebay messages with the seller seemed positive – he wanted to retain the sale and I wanted to sort a winter bike, and I had the tools and facilities in the Mombee workshop to undertake some simple attempts at removing the seat post. Fortunately, with hindsight, the seller refused to contact me by phone, so all of our communication was by ebay messaging, and as the issues unraveled this proved to be an absolute godsend.

With the seller’s written agreement I started to try freeing the post, and had some Facebook discussions with friends, including a local mechanic. The approach we all settled on was as follows, the aim was to try options that protected the frame and paintwork with a clear assumption that the bike would be returned if these didn’t work:

1 – Soaking Plusgas into the seat-tube. Plusgas is better at penetrating thatn WD-40.

2 – Apply some force:
2a – Using a large stilson (a plumber’s wrench, not a smelly cheese) on the seat-post to twist it.
2b – A blow with a hammer, to try and break the corrosion seal.

Neither of these options made a difference, so on to Step 3…

3 – Use a blowtorch to heat the post several times and hopefully get the expansion to break the seal. The best option when using heat is to apply it to the down-tube, but this would have destroyed the paintwork, so the second-best option is to heat the seat-tube and expand that – with the subsequent contraction (of the seat-post) hopefully breaking the corrosion.

An alternative was to use plumbers freeze (@£15) to cool the inside of the seat-post to get some contraction away from the seat-tube.

I didn’t try the freeze option, but the heat option didn’t work either.

Just for the record there were two further options available, but I didn’t try these as they risked damaging the paintwork and/or the frame itself, these were:

4 – The last practical option is massively time-consuming to use a hack saw blade to cut inside the seat-post, and to collapse it inwards.

5 – Use caustic soda to dissolve the seat post, but that would almost certainly result in a new paint job.

I had an ebay message from the seller saying “I agree with all of your proposed solutions to this situation”. So when the obvious options all failed to free the seat-post, I was comfortable that the return and refund would be fine, bearing in mind that in these circumstances the seller is also required to pay for the return postage charges. This is where it all started to get messy…

Having proposed the return, I got another ebay message asking “Can you confirm that the frame is still intact and the not damaged”. It was a curiously specific message and it got wondering whether I’d been pulled into some inelegant scam. Anyway the bike was duly packed up in the same box and duvet that it arrived in, and it was sent back to the seller.

The bike was delivered safely before Christmas, but it was after Christmas that things got really unpleasant for a while. Again, I’m going to give the seller the benefit of the doubt (there’s a lot going on over the Festive period and sorting a second-hand bike is probably the last thing anyone wants to think about), but it again highlights the need for clear messages when issues arrive.

After Christmas I was sent a picture (via ebay messaging) of the rear seat-stays of the bike showing a slight bend. There was no accompanying message, but the clear implication was that I had somehow damaged the frame – things were taking a turn for the sinister. Because the seller had not properly checked the bike upon it’s return, there was no recourse for an insurance claim against the carrier – but as the return was a result of the undisclosed seat-post at point of sale, I felt that the risk of the return again fell to the seller.

What followed were some heated messages resulting in an agreement that the seller should take the bike into their local bike shop for the frame and seat-post to be assessed. I don’t know what then happened at their end, but the next thing I knew was that the refund (for the original sale) was approved and the only hit I took was for the £22.50 return postage – gut-feel is that bike shop replayed everything that I’d mentioned in the messages and left the seller back at square one, with a bike with a seized seat-post. Under the circumstances, while I was feeling hugely aggrieved that someone had dispatched such a flawed bicycle, I was more than happy to accept that hit to get it all off my plate.

Lessons learned…

1 – if you buy a bike without seeing it first, expect some teething issues (it won’t be brand new, so will almost certainly need some fettling), and thoroughly inspect it when it arrives.

If you’re not comfortable with that then don’t buy it without seeing it in the first place.

2 – make sure that all of your communication is via ebay messaging. Even if you have a telephone call with a seller about an issue, make sure that you replay that back to them by ebay message and get their written agreement before you act.

If the seller won’t put anything in writing, then don’t proceed with any changes or fixes, as it’ll be your word against theirs.

3 – set very clear boundaries on what you’re prepared to do to resolve an issue and what the ramifications will be if the issue cannot be resolved – in this instance it meant that the bicycle was returned but the seat-post was scratched.

At the end of this part of the winter bike, I had missed the start of the Christmas bike and still had no winter hack… not desperately impressed at this stage. Happily it came to a satisfactory ending in Part 3.

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