Bike Maintenance 101
I’ve been biking to work for five years and love it.
Finding a good commuter bike is key and will increase the odds that you stick with it. Closely tied to that is learning bike maintenance basics.
The right bike will help limit your bike maintenance – but stuff is going to happen as you put on the miles:
- you will get a flat tire
- your brakes will wear down and become not as responsive
- your chain will start to stick
- your tire tread will wear down or start cracking
Like most things in life – once you learn how to remedy the most common handful of issues, you will have achieved 90% of the gains. Pareto’s Principle applied to bike maintenance, 80% of your maintenance issues are going to come from (far less) than 20% of the parts. Actually just 4 parts: your tires, tubes, brakes, and chain.
If you can just learn how to:
- diagnose a flat bike tire
- repair a flat bike tire
- fine tune your brakes
- clean and lubricate your bike chain & drivetrain
… you will save a lot of headaches, time, money, and you will keep biking. That’s it. Just four easy-to-learn skills.
On the saving money point – I’m reminded of hearing a story of a bike mechanic who fixed 60 flat tires in one day in my town (a town with at least 8 bike shops, that I know of). 60 in one day! I called the bike shop to find the price: $5.99 for the tube and $10 for labor. Considering they probably bought the tubes in bulk for less than $1 each, that is $900 in pure profit for one bike shop in one day one one skill that every biker will commonly come across and should know how to remedy.
Why remedy on your own? What if you get stuck out on the road? Do you want to rely on a stranger to find you, pick you up, and take you home or take the few hour walk home? Or would you rather be self reliant by taking 15 minutes to fix the flat, and be on your merry way?
If you want to pay someone else to fix your flats because you are not willing to learn how to do it, please do not get in to bike commuting!
Bike Maintenance Tools Every Biker Should Have
To get started, there are a few tools/gear that every bike owner should have. The following, you can keep at home:
- Bike pump: rubber is porous and air molecules will escape at high pressure over time. You need to refill them periodically, even if there are no visible leaks. Make sure you get a pump that can work with both presta and schrader valves.
- 1-2 extra tubes: matched to your tire size (which is listed on the side of your tire).
- Chain lubricant: make sure you use an actual lubricant and not a de-greaser solvent like WD-40.
- Bike wheel rim tape: inside your bike wheel, you will find little screws for the spokes. You must cover these in tape or with a plastic strip to prevent tube puncturing. Measure the inside rim width to match up to the tape width.
Then there is the stuff that you should keep with you on your bike, so you don’t get stranded, in the event of failure:
- Wedge pack: fits comfortably under your saddle, and can hold all of the following.
- Multi-tool: that includes that includes screwdrivers, wrenches, etc., and allows you to make any adjustments on the fly.
- A tire lever tool: to help you get the tire off the of the wheel and back on, in the event of a flat. A bike mechanic turned me on to Quik Stik – and I will not go back to any other lever.
- Tube patch kit: these are cheap, but you can make your own. They consist of a piece of sandpaper, rubber cement, and patches – and when used properly, can seal tube leaks and holes.
- CO2 inflator: to re-fill your tube with cartridge air when you get a flat on the road.
- C02 cartridges: keep 2 in your pack.
- A tiny spool of duct tape: because it’s duct tape – why wouldn’t you?
On to the maintenance…
How to Diagnose a Flat Bike Tire
First thing is first. You will get flat tires if you ride a bike enough. It is inevitable. It will be the most common bike maintenance issue you encounter.
Learning how to diagnose what caused the flat bike tire is essential.
You must first know that 99% of bikes have a tube inside of the tire. Some very high end mountain and road bikes have gone tubeless, but most are still using a tube inside of the tire. The tube is what you are filling with air. When you fix a flat bike tire, you are essentially fixing the tube.
There are two common reasons for a flat bike tire:
- The air has slowly leaked out over time.
- The tube has been pinched or punctured.
The first is easy to diagnose and fix. Usually this only happens if you have stored a bike for a long time without riding it. It should not happen to the point of being flat in between a daily, weekly, or even monthly commute. If it has been a while, fill the tire to within the pressure range dictated on the tire (your pump will have a gauge), let it sit for a while before riding, and if the pressure hasn’t decreased when you come back to ride, you should be good to go.
The second, is harder to diagnose and you have a bit of work to do:
- take the wheel off of the bike
- pull one side of the tire off of the wheel, using your tire lever. Do not take off the tire entirely
- slide the tube out of the tire, but keep it in place by keeping the stem in the wheel
- fill the tube with air to find out where the leak hole is – you should be able to feel or hear it
- check the tire and wheel to see if there is anything at the matching leak point that would have caused the hole (could be a shard of glass, thorn, spoke screw, sand, or other debris that got inside your tire somehow). You may have to completely remove the tire from the wheel at this point – but keep the tube lined up, so you know where to look on the tire for the cause of the leak
- Remove the cause of the leak
- If you can’t find out what caused the leak, after close inspection, it is possible it could have been caused by a simple pinch in the tube. This does happen with the high air pressure and force from bumps or potholes
How to Repair a Flat Bike Tire
Diagnosing is much harder than the actual repair, usually.
And when it happens – you will rarely need to buy a new tube (which costs $5-8), unless there’s been a huge gash in the tube or a tear where the valve meets the tube.
If, during your diagnosis, you found a hole in the tire, patch it up, from the inside of the tire with a little rubber cement and patch from your kit so that no debris gets in the hole to cause future punctures.
- Use the sandpaper in your patch kit to create some abrasion on the tube at the point where you will place the patch (roughly the size of the patch). Just a little goes a long way – you don’t want to wear the tube down
- Cover the abrasion area with a layer of rubber cement, and let it drive for ~5 minutes
- Place the patch over the cement and apply pressure for ~5 more minutes
- Put the tube back in the tire.
- Put the tire back on the wheel
- Put the wheel back on the bike
- Fill up the tube to the specified pressure on the side of the tire
- You’re good to go!
Most patch kits will have a tiny set of visual instructions, or you can make your own using these guidelines, so you don’t have to remember.
Adjusting your Bike Brakes
Just like with cars, over time, bike brakes wear down with use.
Some bikes (mostly mountain) have disc braking systems. But the vast majority still use a good ole fashion brake pad. You will need to replace your bike pads at some point. $12 a pair, and easy to replace.
Up until the point where they are worn down to being unusable, you will need to periodically adjust your brakes. The challenge is finding a good balance between responsiveness (which is influenced by how close your pad is to your wheel) and not have the pads so close to the wheel that they rub the wheel when you don’t intend to brake.
Finding the right balance is a must – you want to be able to come to a stop very quickly in an instant for your own safety. At the same time, you don’t want to be slowed down by the brake pad unintentionally rubbing the wheel.
The two most common bicycle braking systems are cantilever (more commonly used for wider wheels, as you’ll find on mountain bikes) and caliper (more commonly used for thinner wheels, like on road bikes).
Here’s a good YouTube video that explains break adjusting better than I can with written words, for a cantilever “V” brake system:
And here’s an excellent video on how to do the same with a caliper style brake.
Cleaning & Lubricating your Bike Chain and Drive-train
This is your bike drive-train:
It’s what makes your bike go.
And the more you go, the dirtier and grimier it gets.
So you need to periodically clean it and lubricate it, to make sure that it keeps going – and does so in a smooth and effective manner.
Most of the grime is going to gather in two places: your chain and your rear derailleur. I use old cloth rags from old t-shirts I no longer wear to clean these off. With my daily commute, I do this about ever 2-4 weeks, or right after a really messy ride. I’ll also use a wood chip or stick to clean grease from the freewheel grooves.
Then, I use lubrication on the chain and derailleur components.
I lubricate the derailleur at the movable pivot points. And then I lubricate the chain by placing one drop on the top of each link as it passes through the bottom of the drive-train. If I am done with my ride, I take it for a real quick spin to work it in. Simple as that!
Bike Maintenance Resources, Videos, & Books:
Hopefully everything I’ve shared gives you some comfort in knowing the basics. But sometimes, you will need to go beyond the basics. So here are a few of my favorite resources:
MadeGood: this is a little known but hugely awesome free resource on bike maintenance, made out of the UK. Excellent, professionally well-done videos that explain just about anything you would want to know about bike maintenance.
Bicycle Tutor: another great bike maintenance resource – with help forums and videos. You do have to pay to watch the videos though.
YouTube: lots of free bike maintenance videos.
Zinn & the Art of Bike Maintenance: a classic, updated book from a former member of the U.S. national race team.
The Bicycling Guide to Complete Bicycle Maintenance & Repair: For Road & Mountain Bikes: another classic book on bike maintenance.
Bike Maintenance Discussion:
- What bike maintenance tips do you have for beginner bike commuters?
- What bike gear do you recommend having at home and on the road?
- What are your favorite bike maintenance resources online or elsewhere?