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How to maintain your bike one step at a time

After purchasing a new or second hand bike there are some maintenance skills you’ll need to learn to keep your bike in it’s best shape. We aren’t all born with the comprehensive skills of a bike mechanic that’s why we put together this article with some tips and tricks.

Like any maintenance job you’ll need some tools, some are very common and inexpensive tools like hex-keys and wrenches. Other maintenance jobs will require specialist tools. We want to point out that these specialist tools usually don’t come cheap. Depending on the job at hand it can be cheaper just to go to your local bike shop and let them take care of the problem, they will have the necessary tools. Still, it’s completely up to you on how big you want your toolbox and how much money you want to spend on it.

Although not mandatory, but to me the only indispensable item in your garage should be a bike stand. This will make a lot of your maintenance jobs a lot more comfortable and easier to access.

Basic tips

  1. Keep it clean

The best maintenance you can give to your bike is keeping it nice and clean! It is the most basic of skills and the easiest thing to prolong the life of your bike. We recommend to wash your bike at least once a month but if you spend a lot of time riding in muddy conditions or if you ride often you’ll need to schedule your washes accordingly. Even in dry and dusty conditions a bike wash is recommended every couple of weeks.

You don’t need any fancy cleaning kit, a bucket, a sponge, a bit of dishwash soap and some rags will do the trick.

But if you’re serious about your bike maintenance you’d best invest in some bike specific brushes and soap. The bike brushes you can find them fairly cheap but for your bike soap I recommend getting one from one of the better known brands.

Keep bike clean

How to clean your bike

First of all you’ll need to remove as much dirt and grit as possible, starting from the top towards the bottom. The best way is with a garden hose or a pressure washer. Although with a pressure washer you’ll need to be a bit more careful. Due to the high pressures coming from the nozzle the water can push some of the grease out of moving parts like headsets, bottom brackets, hubs… Try not to aim directly on any bearing - certainly on a full-suspension bike, put your pressure washer on the lowest setting, and you’ll be just fine.

The next step is soaping up your bike, just spray it on with a spray bottle (the specific brand soaps will already come in a spray bottle), a bucket with hot soapy water will do fine too, and wipe off all the remaining grit and mud with a sponge. Don’t forget to use your specific brushes if you have any or a toothbrush for those hard-to-reach places like your drivetrain. Once you’re done scrubbing spray any remaining soap and dirt off, make sure you don’t forget to clean your tires too. Lastly you need to dry your bike with a rag or ,my favorite, a microfiber cloth to prevent rust on your frame.

  1. Lubricate

Even if you don’t always wash your bike you’ll need to make sure your bike is always lubricated. Lubrication is essential and protects moving parts from wearing down too quickly from metal to metal friction, dirt and other abrasive particles. Remember: lubrication keeps water, dirt and mud out of your moving parts.

Some parts of your bike will need more attention than others, your bottom bracket or headset for example only need to be greased once or twice a year. Your drivetrain on the other hand will need a lot more attention. But more on that later.

  1. Tires

Your tires are the only contact points between you and the ground, it is best to give them a regular checkup. Regularly checking your tire pressure is the most obvious thing to do. A tire will lose pressure after about one or two weeks and a poorly inflated tire is prone to punctures. My advice is to check before every ride, although this might seem excessive, certainly for daily commuters, but it’s always smart to check for slow leaks or any sign of punctures. To keep your tires inflated you’ll need to invest in a decent standing track pump with a pressure gauge.

A regular, more thorough inspection for cuts and tire wear is advisable. You can do this while cleaning your bike or if you noticed a slow leak. Spin your wheels so you can easily check your sidewalls for cuts and the tire tread for any glass, thorns or other debris.

  1. Brakes

One last major component that needs a regular checkup are your brakes. You want to be able to stop at any given time and stop effectively. You’ll find either a rim brake system or a disc brake system on your bike and we’ll cover some basic tips for tuning up both systems.  

Our first tip is to check your brake pad wear. You can check for yourselves if your pads are worn on rim brakes when you can hardly see the grooves any more. Disc brake pads are measured by their thickness, once they go below 1mm it is time to replace the pad. (quick hint: 3 business cards are about 1mm thick) replacing a worn out brake is not a difficult job, you’ll find many YouTube videos to help you out. (Park Tool has many useful how to videos)

Our second tip is how to avoid squeaky or rubbing brakes. Try to always have clean brakes, most of the time a screeching brake is a dirty brake. Do net let any oils contaminate your braking surface, certainly with disc brakes, or you’ll lose all braking power. If by any chance you did get oil on your braking surface clean it with disc brake cleaner or some isopropanol alcohol.

You still hear your brakes rubbing, this means they are not properly aligned. On disc brake rotors this is a very easy fix: loosen your brake caliper until it can move freely over your disc brake then pull the brake lever and tighten the caliper again. Your brake will be realigned in the center and won’t rub any more. If there still is rubbing check if the brake disc itself isn’t bent. For rim brakes it all depends on the type of rim brake you have but yet again YouTube and a couple of hex keys will be your helping hand.

Lastly you will want your brake levers to feel responsive. Once you need to pull your brakes more than halfway you need to tighten them up, at least for cable actuated brakes. The easiest way to do this is with the barrel adjuster next to your brake lever. If the barrel adjuster doesn’t bring any improvement you’ll need to tighten the brake cable at the caliper bolt. Once again, YouTube can provide the necessary visual documentation depending on your brake type. Don’t forget to rule out your brake cable and housing! A rusted cable will cause a lot of friction and should always be replaced.

For hydraulic disc brakes on the other hand, a system bleed will give you the necessary responsiveness back into your braking system. Nonetheless this might seem quite a daunting task at hand, it is pretty easy to perform yourself with the right tools at hand: a bleeding kit and the correct oil for your brake system.

Advanced tips

Starting from here our tips will require a bit more technical skill and some bike specific tools. If you think you lack the confidence or don’t have the necessary tool to execute the job don’t hesitate to bring your bike in your local bike shop. (LBS) Your bike mechanic will be happy to help you out.

  1. Drivetrain

Your shifter, chainring, cassette, derailleur and chain are the most used and abused parts on your bike. If something goes wrong on your drivetrain this can screw up your whole ride. Here you can find some maintenance tips to keep all the parts on your drivetrain running as smooth as possible.

Gear indexing

Put your bike in a bike stand, or at least have the back wheel in the air so you can pedal the bike freely. While pedaling go up and down your gears, all shifts should feel nice and crisp. If you notice some hesitation or skipping while shifting you’ll need to adjust the tension on the barrel adjuster, which adds or removes tension in the gear cable. You’ll find the barrel adjuster most of the times at your shifter but on some bikes it is placed next to the derailleur.

To improve downshifts (shifting to bigger cogs) you need to turn the barrel counter-clockwise to add cable tension. To improve upshifts (shifting to smaller cogs) turn the barrel clockwise to reduce cable tension.

Do not forget to check your high (H-Limit) and low (L-Limit) limit screws, they stop the derailleur from moving too far inward or too far outward. You don’t want your chain to drop when shifting into your highest and lowest gear. Most derailleurs also have a B screw (body-angle screw), this gives some form of adjustment for the guide pulley to the cogs. You only adjust the B screw when the chain is on the largest cog on your cassette and requires a gap between 5 and 6 millimeters between the guide pulley and the cog. You can use a hex wrench to gauge this distance.

If your indexing is still off it is possible that your derailleur hanger has been bent. You can check this with a derailleur adjustment tool. If the derailleur is not to badly bent, you can straighten it out with the tool otherwise you’ll just need to buy a new hanger.

If you still notice that your shifting feels heavy after indexing check your gear cables and housing. Most likely your cables are generating a lot of friction due to grime or rusted and used cables. The best solution is to replace the cables and housing all together, it’s not very expensive to do. Just a little tip: when you feed the new shifter cable put a light grease on it. This will expand the lifespan of your cable. To keep your shifter acting smoothly just spray from time to time a bit of silicone spray in your shifter, this will act as a lubricant and repels water.

Chain wear

Your chain will be a part that needs a lot of attention. It is the most exposed component of your drivetrain and with every ride it will amass grit and dirt between its rollers. Over time, the chain’s pins and inner links will wear, and as a result, the pitch of each link will grow. Because the chain’s overall length grows with wear, chain wear is commonly called ‘chain stretch’ – even though the metal does not actually stretch, the inner rollers wear out. Once the chain has stretched to a certain point you’ll notice that it starts skipping when you put some power on the pedals. To check your chain stretch you can always use a chain checker, this is a small tool that let’s you measure how much your chain has worn out.

If you notice that your chain is worn out you need to replace it as soon as possible because a stretched out chain will shorten the life expectancy of your drivetrain and this is not a cheap replacement.

The best way to slow chain wear is lubrication. It is such a basic method to lengthen your drivetrain’s lifespan and it holds your bike as quiet as possible. There exist different types of chain lube that are suited to different conditions. There is wet lube which is a pretty thick lube, ideal for very wet and muddy conditions. It is possible to use it in normal conditions but because it is a high viscosity lube it will attract lot of debris and grit in your chain. There is also dry lube which has less viscosity than a wet lube and is meant to be used in dry and sandy conditions as it won’t attract as much dirt than a wet lube. It is up to you to find out which lube suits your climate. On a personal note, I use manly a dry wax lube unless it’s really pouring outside. The only downside to a wax lube is the drying time, but I try to lube my chain the day before a ride to always have it in perfect working condition.

How to apply lube on a chain? First of all, your chain needs to be as clean as possible. Simply cleaning your chain with some degreaser, an old toothbrush and some disposable rags will already take care of most dirt. But ideally you’d invest in a bike chain cleaner. This is a pretty cheap device that passes your chain through some brushes with degreaser. For the best result you do this before washing your bike so any degreaser residue can be washed off. After drying the chain you can apply your lube on the inner rollers. I prefer to apply my chain lube next to the lower derailleur pulley one drop per roller. After that you just let it dry for a couple of minutes and then you just wipe any excess lube with a rag.

Cassette & chainring wear

Worn down cassettes and chainrings are easy to spot as they’ll start looking thin and like shark teeth. Cassette and chainring wear due to a couple of reasons. The most common one is chain wear. As the chain pitch grows, it rolls higher on the tooth, accelerating cog wear.

In general, for 10- to 12-speed drivetrain users, if you replace your chain when it measures .5%, you can perfectly re-use the existing cassette and chainrings. And you should get three chains to that one cassette, or even as many as six chains to the chainrings. Unfortunally if you wait till the chain measures .75%, you’ll likely need at least a new cassette, that goes along with that new chain too.

Another reason for cassette wear is poor maintenance and a poor choice of lube. A chain may only be slightly worn but can still abrade through a cassette. There is plenty of truth to the old saying that a clean bike is a happy one.

There doesn’t exist a tool or gauge for determining cassette and chainring wear, though fitting a new chain is the best way to reveal any significant wear as it will skip under load and rumble on the worn teeth. The new chain will reveal gaping issues with the worn cassette, and you should be able to spots where the teeth are used as the chain sits higher than the base of the cog/chainring tooth.

Tip: use two or three different chains and switch between them in a loop every 500km. (chain 1 at 500km, chain 2 at 1000km, chain 3 at 1500km, chain 1 at 2000km,…) This way your cassette and chainring will last you a lot longer and all of your chains wear out evenly.

  1. Bolt check

Bicycles are held together by dozens of nuts and bolts. Every few months you need to make sure everything is tightened and torqued up to spec correctly. Loose bike parts can lead to serious wear and tear or even worse…  

In most cases the recommended torque will be printed on each part but if unsure consult your owner’s manual. To torque everything up to spec always use a torque wrench, you don’t want to overtighten your components? Certainly if you have a lightweight carbon frame or carbon handlebars, too much torque can crack your carbon component.

If you do a bolt check on your bike, I recommend you do what I call “the M-check”. Simply put you start at your front wheel checking your axle. Then you move upwards to your cockpit, checking handlebar clamp bolts, stem clamp bolts and your starnut bolt. Next we go back down to your pedals and crank bolts. For the MTB riders on a full suspension bike, don’t forget to check your linkage bolts as these can come lose due to vibration. From there we move to the seatpost bolts and lastly your rear wheel axle and your derailleur hanger bolts. And thus you made your check in an M-shape if you followed these steps.

  1. Wheels

Not only do the tires need inspection, the wheels on which they are seated need some attention too from time to time. All sort of inconveniences can pop up: a spoke might come loose or even break. You noticed a slight wobble or you hear your rim brake rubbing against your wheel. These are all signs your wheel needs truing. Although this is a pretty quick fix it is best you let a professional take a look at it, as you need special equipment.

For our riders with carbon rims make sure to check regularly for dents or impacts because this will weaken the carbon structure of your wheels. In some cases a carbon repair shop can do miracles on your wheels for a small fee. (which is always better than buying a new carbon wheelset)

  1. Bearings

My last tip is to regularly check all the bearings on your bike. Every moving or rolling part on your bike has some form of bearing to make it operate smoothly. Your headset, pedals, bottom bracket, the hubs of your wheels… even linkage bearings and shock bushings on a MTB. Make sure everything is well lubricated and if the bearing is loose or damaged make sure to replace it.

How do you know if a bearing is loose? A good bearing is a quiet bearing. If you hear any buzzy, rattling noise or feel some knocking sensation one of your bearings is loose or even damaged.

For example a loose headset you can easily check by holding one hand on your headset and squeezing the front brake with your other and. If you feel movement it is loose and you need to tighten the starnut bolt. If that didn’t resolve your problem it’s best to replace your headset.

Bear in mind for some parts like linkage bearings and press-fit bottom brackets you’ll need specialist tools to do the maintenance yourself. It can be cheaper if you bring your bike to your local bike shop.

Conclusion

Riding is the most fun part of owning a bike. But to keep things in working order, to know your bike inside and out gives you so much satisfaction. And it ensures that you can keep having fun on it. Regularly washing and inspections are the simplest ways to encounter any issue that could turn into a bigger problem. Don’t forget: if you do most of your maintenance at home, YouTube is your friend. You can find many videos and channels about bike maintenance.

But even with regular cleaning, basic maintenance and routine bike checks, it’s best to get a professional tune-up every year. A bike shop might catch things that you’ve missed, or have suggestions for avoiding future issues. As a bonus, it’s good to have a friend at the local shop.

  • Nov 18, 2021
  • Category: Articles
  • Comments: 0