We should leave many projects in our lives to professionals. For example, relatively few people are qualified to cut their own hair or perform their own surgery, and even if you’re actually a barber or a surgeon you’re probably still going to turn the job over to a colleague for best results (though back in the Middle Ages you would have at least been able to turn both jobs over to a single person).
For most of us, bike maintenance falls into the for-the-pros category, and understandably so. A misshapen haircut is one thing; having your knuckles stitched back together because you tried to take off your pedals is another. Even so, I am here to implore you to open that tool kit you got for your birthday three years ago and tap into the primordial collective consciousness that exists inside of every cyclist: The Great Mechanic Within.
~ Eben Weiss, Bicycling.com’s Bike Snob, in The Great Mechanic Within
Like Weiss, many of us reach a point where we want our relationship with our bicycles to be about more than just riding them. Some jobs are best left for the experts, but there are some things that you just might find that you have the skill and patience to tackle. Bill Strickland, in The (Not Very) Dirty Dozen details for Bicycling.com some tasks that you might want to try for yourself.
The (Not Very) Dirty Dozen
12 simple but vital repairs you can master with basic tools
A certain elemental satisfaction comes from growing your own hot peppers or figuring out how to fish a lost toy (or wedding ring) out of a drainpipe, yet few of us choose to lead the daily, tough life of a full-time farmer or plumber.
So it is with our bicycles: We gain something important as cyclists by learning just enough to avoid being stymied by that scratching sound coming from the brakes. Eliminate a squeak from your seatpost and you experience a pleasure that is admittedly out of proportion to your achievement but also undeniably authentic.
Here’s a year’s worth of simple yet vital projects that will give you the satisfaction of working on your bike without requiring you to set up an elaborate home shop or adopt the scraped-knuckle existence of a grease monkey.
Bottom Bracket / Crankset
With the chain derailed, spin the crankset slowly with one finger. If the movement feels gritty, audibly grinds or catches at certain spots in the rotation, you need either a bottom bracket overhaul or full replacement. You did the diagnosis, which is plenty. Leave the surgery to a shop. 1 Grab the crankarms and try to wiggle them toward and away from the frame. If there is play, determine if the whole crankset is moving or if it’s only one of the crankarms. For the crankarm, try tightening 2 (with the required 8mm hex, a thin-walled socket or in some cases a proprietary tool) then check again. For the crankset itself, a shop might be able to tighten the BB or else replace it. 3 Finally, snug all chainring bolts, usually with a 5mm hex or a Torx key. (Some bolts require you to hold the opposite side while you tighten.)
From now on: Check it once a month.
Clunky rear shifting is most often caused when the cable stretches or the amount of tension it exerts on the derailleur somehow goes out of whack, which affects the derailleur’s alignment with the cogs. Amateur mechanics sometimes try to fix this by fiddling with the two screws that are prominent on the derailleur body. Those limit screws, however, are intended to be used to set up the initial range of motion (preventing the derailleur from jumping into the spokes on the large-cog side, and centering it precisely at its lowest, least-tensioned starting point on the small-cog side).
Fortunately, the simplest way to tune the rear shifting solves somewhere around 90 percent of all problems. Shift to the smallest cog. Turning one pedal by hand, click up one gear. If the derailleur balks, click back and stop the drivetrain. Turn the barrel adjuster—located where the cable goes into the derailleur; it’s the only thing down there that looks like a barrel—out half a turn (counterclockwise). Try the shift again, continuing to dial out the adjuster as needed until the derailleur snaps crisply onto the cog. Progress up the cogs. When the shifting is perfect that way, repeat the routine coming down the cogset. This time if the derailleur hesitates, dial the barrel adjuster in just one-quarter of a turn at a time. You should be able to work your way up and down the cogset and fine-tune the shifting in less than 10 minutes.
From now on: Tune whenever shifting gets balky.
A pro-team mechanic showed us a cheap and easy quick-clean method we love: Soak the center of a sponge with dish soap (or a commercial degreaser or cleanser). With one hand, wrap the sponge around the chain, under the chainstay, then with the other hand backpedal 10 revolutions. Rinse the sponge, squeeze out excess water, reload with cleaner and repeat. Continue until the sponge no longer gets dirty. Dry the chain by letting it sit for 10 minutes or by backpedaling through a clean rag. Apply one drop of lube to each of the chain’s pins, then backpedal 10 revolutions, allow five minutes for the lube to penetrate, then wipe the chain with a clean rag by backpedaling. (Any lube removed this way is excess that doesn’t help the links move, and attracts grime.)
From now on: Clean every two weeks, 10 hours of riding, or after a wet ride.
Mark your seat height by wrapping electrical tape around the seatpost (flush with the collar, the part that clamps the post in the frame). Loosen the clamp bolt and remove the post. Clean it with a dry rag. Tip your bike upside down and let the water that’s accumulated in the frame run out of the seat tube in a brackish, malodorous stream. Feel smug about doing this. Push another rag into the seat tube and swab the inside clean. For a steel or aluminum post, spread a dollop of grease along the bottom third of its length. Use just enough to leave a milky sheen. With carbon posts, do the same with paste or assembly compound; these are tackier and grittier, which helps you avoid overtightening the clamp bolt in an attempt to keep the post from slipping. Reinsert the post to the correct height. Tighten the clamp to the manufacturer’s recommended torque.
From now on: Clean and reapply grease or paste every six months, or after several wet weeks, or when you hear a squeak.
Check Chain For Wear
You’ll hear chain wear called “stretching,” because you detect a worn chain by measuring the distance between pins, but the term is inaccurate. The plates don’t get longer. The pins and bushings that hold the links together degrade, creating slack that increases the distance between pins. When this happens, the chain doesn’t sit properly on the teeth of the cassette or chainrings. Shifting becomes clattery and imprecise and the teeth can wear, leading to expensive replacements. You can detect wear with a special tool, but here’s the simplest method: With the chain on the small ring, apply force to the right pedal with one hand while holding the rear wheel stationary with the other. If the chain floats above the teeth rather than fully meshing with them, it’s time for a new one.
From now on: Measure every 500 miles.
Fresh wrap changes your bike’s appearance so much some people will ask if you just bought a new ride. But there are practical reasons to change tape: Friction from your gloves eventually erodes the tape’s tackiness, leading to an insecure grip, and as small cuts, tears and abrasions accumulate so does the chance of the tape ripping or slipping during a moment of high-stakes stress–like when you’re locked onto the bar in a sprint. To remove the wrap, first unpeel the finishing tape that holds it in place near the center of the handlebar. Unwind the wrap by hand, spiraling along the bar. When you get to the brake/shift lever, peel back the hood then continue. Before you reach the end of the bar, remove the plug that tucks the end of the wrap into the hollow. When the wrap is off, scrub away adhesive left on the bar. Taping isn’t difficult, but expect several botched attempts. The fundamentals: Start from the end.
1 On the first wrap, leave half the width of the tape hanging off the bar (this is the part you’ll tuck in with the plug). Continue along the bar in spirals, wrapping away from the bike as you go over the top of the bar, and slightly overlapping. 2 At the bend, say a hosanna and wrap around the brake in a figure eight. Continue on. 3 A hand’s width from the stem, cut the tape and tack it down with two revolutions of electrical tape.
From now on: Rewrap once or twice a year.
Cables and Housing
If shifting or braking feels sluggish, the problem is often gummed-up housings or dirty cables. You can restore spry action with a simple cleaning. Create slack in the brake cables by opening the quick-release buttons (on the calipers for Shimano and SRAM, on the lever for Campagnolo). To slacken the rear derailleur cable: Shift to the largest cog while turning the pedals; stop the pedals and rear wheel, then push the shifter as if to return to the smallest cog; because the derailleur won’t move, the cable slackens. (The front shifter cable is exposed along most of its length already.) With the tension gone, you can easily slip the housings out of the stops, then slide them along the cables to expose dirt and grit. Wipe the newly exposed sections of the cables clean, then spray degreaser into one end of each housing until it drips cleanly out of the other end. Most modern cables don’t need lube for smooth operation, but you might want to try it to see if friction is reduced; place a drop or two of lube on your thumb and forefinger, then pinch the cable between them and wipe any exposable sections. Replace the housings in the stops, tighten the quick-releases, and gently pedal the rear derailleur into the proper gear. If the shifting is still sluggish or the cables appeared frayed, rusted or bent, take your bike to the shop for a replacement.
From now on: Replace both at the end or beginning of every season, or when you notice any cut or crack in the housing, or fraying or rust on the cable.
Examine the pads and remove embedded grit or metal shards (which come from your rim) with an awl, tweezers or other sharp implement. Then roughen the surface with sandpaper or a file to improve braking. Finally, replace the set if either pad is too hard to let you press in with your thumbnail, or if the grooves etched into the pad are so worn they’re almost nonexistent.
From now on: Examine once a week, or after every wet ride.
Left unaddressed, a loose headset could cause you to lose control, impair steering and eventually damage your head tube and fork. 1 With your bike in a stand or sitting on the ground, grab the handlebar with one hand and the front wheel with the other, then push and pull in opposition while feeling for play. To tighten: 2 Loosen the two bolts that clamp the stem to the steerer tube, then turn the bolt in the top cap of the stem clockwise and retighten the clamping bolts to the manufacturer’s recommended torque. The headset is just right when there is no slop when you perform the check, but the front wheel freely flops from side to side when you pick up the front of the bike. You might need several attempts to find the precise adjustment. Make sure you always loosen the clamp bolts before tightening the cap.
From now on: Check every two weeks.
To check for fatal cuts and embedded grit that will lead to punctures, deflate the tube to about half pressure. Working in sections as you rotate the wheel, squeeze and wiggle the tire between your fingers. Manipulate or tweeze out grit and shards. Think of cuts as you would with your body: Anything superficial is no worry, but anything that exposes underlying tissue (in this instance, casing instead of bone) is serious. As a general rule, replace a tire with three or more serious cuts, or with one gash that, at full pressure, causes the tire to bulge outward.
From now on: Evaluate once a week.
Cleats and Pedals
When your cleats wear, your foot can get stuck in the pedals–hello, embarrassing topple at a stop sign–or pull out under torque and take half the Sunday ride down at the town-line sprint. Most plastic cleats, such as Look, have built-in wear indicators: When a different color shows through, it’s time to replace the cleat. Also watch for chipped or ragged edges. Metal cleats tend to look sharp or overly shiny at the edges. The best indicator is that clicking in or out becomes unpredictable. If performance is iffy but you don’t detect wear, try lightly lubing the pedal everywhere it contacts the cleat (not the shoe sole). If that doesn’t work, tell your mechanic “I dunno what’s wrong.”
From now on: Inspect every six months, or when clicking in or out becomes persnickety.
When you feel a wheel wobbling, you have to return it to true (side-to-side alignment). A wheel that’s hopping is considered out of round, which is much harder to address, and best handled by an expert at a shop. Even when it comes to truing, messing with spokes is one of the most intimidating acts for amateur mechanics, but if you work in small increments and use patience you can often restore a smooth spin to your wheel.
To true a wheel: Spin the wheel and locate the section that is wobbling toward one side. On that side of the wheel, use a spoke wrench to loosen the two spokes closest to the wobble one-quarter turn. On the other side of the wheel, tighten the two closest spokes one-quarter turn. (Which way is tight and which is loose? Imagine the tire and tube are gone and you standing behind the mounted wheel–front or rear–looking at the spokes and nipples through the rim. Turning the nipple clockwise tightens the spoke, counterclockwise loosens it.) Spin the wheel and tune the wobble again. Never turn the nipples more than a quarter-turn at a time, and be prepared to work back and forth, loosening or tightening several times on each side until the wheel spins true.
One other thing: All the spokes on one side of a wheel should be equally tensioned; check this by plucking them like harp strings and listening to the tone. If one is significantly looser or tighter, begin the truing process by dialing it to the right tone. (On the rear wheel, driveside spokes are tighter than spokes on the left–but all the spokes on one side should feel the same.)
From now on: Check for trueness and loose spokes after every ride.
If you are planning to make adjustments, remember to work in the following order: Wash, rinse, dry, lube, adjust, wax. “You can’t properly adjust a bicycle that is dirty and not lubricated,” Karl Frisch, chief mechanic for Team Tibco/To The Top, tells Bicycling.com.
For those not willing to take the plunge into moving parts, Higher Gear has the following bike maintenance advice:
Never Put Away a Dirty Bike: If you’ve ridden through mud or water, your bike will need some care before it’s stored. Rinse off any mud and grime and re-lubricate moving parts (see below).
Inflate Your Tires Before Every Ride: Don’t ride on tires that are not properly inflated. But don’t over-inflate either or you’ll be bouncing around. Here’s a guide for determining tire pressure. Check the sidewall of your tire for maximum pressure allowed and decrease for your weight. Bicycle pumps these days make the job easy – with dual or “smart” heads that work on the whole family’s tubes and built-in gauges.
Your Bike Should Be Silent: Nothing should squeak, squeal or rattle. If you hear any noises other than the sound of the air whipping between your helmet and your ears, your bicycle is asking for attention. More importantly, it needs attention. Moving parts should be re-lubricated and your chain needs to be cleaned and re-lubricated every two weeks or after any wet/dirty ride. (See instructions under Chain above. If you’re not comfortable doing this on your own, get comfortable coming by for frequent race checks. If you would like to learn, our mechanics can give you a quick lesson next time you’re in the shop.)
For more on bike maintenance, check out the following articles:
- The (Not Very) Dirty Dozen by Bill Strickland for Bicycling.com
- The Great Mechanic Within by Bike Snob columnist Eben Weiss for Bicycling.com
- 3 Super-Easy Things Your Bike Mechanic Wishes You Would Do by longtime bicycle mechanic, Mark Purdy, for Bicycling.com
- Wrenching Resolutions: Your Essential Cycling Maintenance in Bicycling.com
- 10 Bike-Fix Essentials by Jim Langley for Bicycling.com