by Ray Birks
I’ll admit that I do like winter and snow sports but there’s always a part of me that pines for warmer temperatures and open trails for mountain biking or clean pavement for road biking. But as with most winters, here I sit, with my mountain bike in purposeful pieces in the garage, dutifully cleaning, scrubbing, greasing and lubing parts that move and tightening parts that shouldn’t move, wondering how far I’ll have to drive to find snow-free trails.
I will also freely admit that I am a home mechanic and not a professional by any stretch of the imagination. There are some repairs that are better left to those who have better knowledge, skill and tools and there is something to be said for forming a relationship with your local bike shop (LBS), both financially and socially. But there is sublime joy and a certain satisfaction with doing basic repairs on your own and gaining knowledge that will help you in situations where you may find yourself miles from your LBS.
I’ve rummaged around in my brain for five things that I think the beginner rider can and should learn with only a few cheap tools and parts that will help get your bike in shape for spring. I will be forthcoming and let readers know that I have a professional bike repair stand. A few years ago I stumbled into a gift card, threw it down and walked out of Arlbergs with a shiny new Park stand and it was one of the best acquisitions I’ve ever made. It lifts the bike off of the ground and puts it in easy reach to turn the pedals, make repairs and maintain your bike. Some of these repairs don’t require a bike stand but if you can get ahold of one or purchase one yourself, I can almost guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
In this article I’m not going to get into many specifics on how to do the repairs but I encourage you to visit your LBS and ask them questions. I’ve never found one locally that didn’t offer great, free advice. Look for local shops that hold bike repair nights and bring a friend. Also, YouTube is a phenomenal resource for learning to fix your bike and for most of these repairs you’ll find thousands of others who have made their advice public. I can’t recommend a particular channel since there are some many out there, but looking for repair shops’ and professional mechanics’ videos is always a great place to start. Many parts and bicycle manufacturers also have informative videos and manuals online as well.
So here we go, in no particular order, five bicycle maintenance tips that beginning riders should and can learn.
Check and Replace Chain
Your drivetrain is the heart of your bike and the chain is one of the few pieces that needs to be there in order to make things go without the aid of gravity. Your chain will stretch over time as the pins and bushings wear out and it will need to be replaced. One way to check chain wear is to grab the old ruler from the junk drawer and measure from the middle of one of the pins. Each roller should be ½” apart and the 12” mark should be right in the middle of one of the rollers. If it’s not, it’s time for a new chain. The other way to check your chain is to buy a Park Tool Chain Checker for roughly $12 from your local bike shop. Simply slip this tool into the chain and it will tell you the status of your chain and if it needs to replaced.
Replacing your chain is another task that seems difficult but is really pretty easy, with the right tools. If you know you have a quick link, I’ll start by referring you to this article about Wolf Tooth Pack Pliers. They make trail side and workbench chain repair much easier. If you don’t have a quick link you’ll need a chain breaker, which your LBS can also provide. If your chain is rusty, has stuck links or is worn then you’ll need to replace it.
Check for Worn Tires – True Wheels
Another item that may slow you down is a worn tire. To check if a tire is worn, look at the rubber. Is it cracked and worn? Are there cuts or gouges? Are the threads of the casing showing through? Worn tires will affect how the bike handles and also could leave you stranded far from home if they fail. If you see any of these characteristics it’s time to head down to your LBS and get some new kicks for your bike.
If the wheel starts to wobble excessively, another easy fix is to true the wheel. The rim and the spokes give your wheel its integrity. If spokes get loose or bend they will throw your wheel out of whack. A spoke wrench is your go to tool in this case. They’re not expensive to buy and they’re easy to use. Loosening or tightening the spoke nipple will help true the rim and get you back on the trail without a wobble.
Check and Tighten Bolts
Your bike has lots of bolts on it and making sure they’re snugged down can keep you from injury and/or bike damage. Be aware that certain bolts have certain torque specifications, so don’t just reef on them with all your strength because they could strip and be damaged beyond easy repair. I’m not suggesting you go buy a torque wrench and get things perfectly dialed in, just make sure the bolts on your bike are not loose. If you’re worried about exactness then head to your LBS. At home, having the right tool in this case can also help you from stripping bolts so make sure if it’s a Torx bolt you use a Torx wrench. If it’s a hex bolt an allen key will do.
Important bolts to check include the stem, handlebar clamp, seat bolt, front and rear derailleurs, brake levers and shifters, and chainrings. Just give them a check to make sure they’re not loose and going to cause issues in the future.
Replace Shifter Cables
If your bike is not shifting correctly or you haven’t replaced your cables in a long time (or ever) then it’s probably time for some new ones. This process can seem daunting but with a little practice and some pointers you’ll soon be able to replace your own. Derailleur cables run about $7 at your LBS and if you’re doing one of them you might as well do them both. To remove them, most shifter cables require you to snip the end off near the derailleur then open a little rubber dust boot on the shifter mechanism itself. From there you can simply push the old cable out and feed the new one in. Replacing these cables is not as hard as it seems and goes a long way toward making your bike perform better than before. Again, there are a multitude of videos on YouTube that will guide you through this process.
Adjust your Brakes
The caveat on this adjustment is that brakes are important and if you don’t feel comfortable doing this repair, hit up your LBS. Whether you have disc brakes or rim brakes, getting them dialed in makes your bike safer and more predictable which makes riding it more fun. Rim brakes can usually be adjusted with a hex key and a wrench while simple adjustments on disc brakes most often only require a hex key.
If your rim brakes don’t stop quickly enough, inspect the pads to see if they’re worn or damaged. If there’s enough meat left on the bone, you can tighten them up without having to replace them. If your disc brakes are rubbing a quick tip is the loosen the caliper bolts, spin the wheel and compress the brake lever. With the brake lever still compressed, tighten the caliper bolts again and the brakes most often will center on the disc.
There simply is no replacement for getting your bike tuned up by a professional if you are not comfortable doing some of these fixes yourself. The bike shops in our valley are amazing places filled with amazing people who not only keep the wheels turning but advocate and work on trails. They are a resource that cannot be denied and should be supported. Buy your parts from them even if they’re slightly more expensive. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Shake their hands and tell them “thanks”. Join them for a trail maintenance party. Let them do the heavy lifting when it comes to bike repairs but know that the skills and knowledge your acquire from doing your own repairs may help save you when you’re on an adventure and things go south.