During my undergrad I earned spare money wrenching on bicycles. When I first started, I didn’t know much about bicycle maintenance, but quickly recognized that most issues could be fixed with the advice of friends and Google. As with most things in life, having an understanding of your bicycle will give you a greater respect for it. Of course, it is best to leave some tasks to the professionals, but there are some fundamentals that anyone riding a bicycle should know. That’s what we will cover here. Even if you’d rather leave all the maintenance to the professionals, you may find yourself stranded at some point if you don’t learn the basics. As you’re getting on your bike this spring, consider these six tips.
- Check the pressure. Inadequate tire pressure will greatly increase the chances of getting a flat. When you have low pressure, your tube will get pinched when you hit a bump in the road. Plus, low tire pressure will make you work much harder than you need to. Take the time to pump you tire up to the recommended pressure that’s printed on the side of your tire. Most fat mountain bike style tires will work well at about 50 psi, a medium sized touring style tire will often be good at 70 psi, and a skinny road tire will roll nicely at 100 psi. If you don’t have a pump, any local bike shop will help you out or there are a couple of public pumps located around campus.
- Lube the chain. A chain should be lightly lubricated about once a month. The lubrication will keep your chain from rusting, squeaking, and causing excessive friction on the other components. Use a 3-in-1 oil or preferably an official bike chain lubricant. I like the ones with a little wax in them because they will help your chain stay cleaner for longer. When you want to apply the lube, wipe off all the old lube and grit with a disposable rag. It helps if you rotate you crank/pedal backwards and hold the rag over the chain as the chain slides through. Use the same backwards pedaling to aid in dripping lube over the whole chain. It will take three rotations of your cranks. If you’ve had your chain for over a year, you should probably stop by a local bike shop to ask if you’re due for a new chain. It’s much cheaper to replace your chain than to replace your whole drivetrain after the chain has done damage to the other components.
- Get out a wrench. Most of the bolts on your bicycle should be tight. There are a few noteworthy exceptions. If you don’t know what you’re doing, DO NOT adjust the screws on your brakes, derailleurs, or the bolt on top of your stem (pictured below). Those bolts/screws are used for adjustments and you will need to do more reading before you’re ready for that. As with any screw, if you torque it too hard, you can strip it. Checking bolts regularly will allow you to head off problems before they occur.
- If it’s threaded, lube it. As I said, you’ll want to make sure most bolts on your bike are tight, but there will come a day when you would like to swap out a part or adjust a component. The key to your success will depend on whether or not grease was applied to the contacting surfaces when installed. The two most common examples of this are pedal threads and seat posts. I once spent 10 hours attempting to remove a seat post from a frame. It was an aluminum post in a steel frame, and the owner of the bike didn’t use grease when he installed the post years ago. The two pieces of metal had essentially fused and I was forced to use sodium hydroxide to chemically liquefy the aluminum seat post. Had it been a less valuable frame, I would have recycled it. It’s much easier to put a thin layer of grease on your seat post when you install it.
- Pack some tools. I recommend getting a saddlebag or some sort of pack on the bike that you can keep your basic repair supplies in. Even if you don’t know how to use the items in the bag, at least you’ll have the needed supplies for another cyclist to make use of. I’m always happy to fix someone’s flat, but I would prefer to use their spare tube so that I don’t get stranded later in the day. The basics that need to be in the pack include a bicycle themed multi-tool (2 – 6mm allen keys are required), a spare tube that fits your tires, a pump or a couple CO2 cartridges, three tube patches (I like the glueless kind), two plastic tire levers, a dollar bill, and a snack. I won’t go into the details of why each of those items are required, but just trust me.
- Listen up. Most bicycle maintenance issues will cause a click, creak, squeak, or pop before the minor issue turns into a real problem. You should never assume your bike made a random sound that isn’t linked to an issue. Most sounds will help you narrow down what the issue is. You should ask yourself: Does the sound happen when I’m in the saddle? Does the sound happen while pedaling? Does the sound happen while braking? Even if you don’t know how to fix the issue, relaying those symptoms to your local mechanic will greatly improve their chances of fixing the issue efficiently.
Admittedly, this is a pretty basic lesson and you will want to refer to your local mechanic for further advice. Don’t be a hero, a well maintained bicycle is essential to your safety and enjoyment. Shredding the town on a well tuned bicycle is far and away the finest mode of transport known to man. If you’d like to learn more on your own, the below link is my favorite resource for basic maintenance tips. They have an interactive map that you can select the bike part that you need to know more about.