How to maintain your bike (and spend as little time doing it as possible)

Now that the nicer weather has deigned to return to those of us in the northern hemisphere, I’m seeing more people riding their bicycles, many of them equipped with rusted chains and ill-attached baskets. As you rattle across the pothole-filled roads, consider doing some maintenance on that old clunker. Seriously, it’s not that hard, and also pretty inexpensive if you choose to have a shop do the work.

Here’s a schedule of maintenance for your bike. Adjust this if you ride infrequently, of course, but still do the yearly and seasonal stuff when you can. And remember, you can abuse your bike and it’ll take it with a smile (usually), but repairs will end up being more expensive. And keep your bike clean, it’ll help cut down on maintenance.

Most of these things take very little time at all, with a little experience and repetition. This list may seem long, but it’s about learning what needs to be done when.

Watch these things while riding.

(Most of these fall under the make-a-note-of-it category, except for the first two.)

  • Do your brakes work well when you squeeze the levers on your 80’s mountain bike or pedal backwards to stop your tank-like beach cruiser? (If not, get off the bike and adjust immediately.) If the brakes feel a little “mushy”, you can frequently adjust that with a thumbscrew at the lever. Any major problems, get off the bike and fix. You don’t want to be unable to stop your tank-like rust machine!
  • Check the tire pressure, or at least squeeze the tires to see if they’re inflated to a reasonable level. This is more critical with high-pressure tires, to prevent pinch flats, where the tire is inflated too little—going over a curb or through a pothole can squeeze the tire between the rim of the wheel and the curb-slash-pothole.
  • Does the drivetrain look reasonably clean? Any sticks or rocks in it? Do you feel anything grinding or clicking while riding? Pick out anything visible after a quick glance. Even pine needles and sand can cause problems if there are enough of them. If you have hub gears, where the gear-shifting machinery is enclosed inside the rear wheel’s hub, you’ll still want to keep the chain and cogc reasonably clean.
  • Are you able to shift smoothly? If not, you may be able to make minor adjustments at the shifters, similar to the thumbscrews on the brake shifters. (Some bikes don’t have these, and are harder to adjust. You can install OS X on those bikes.) Make a note of any problems for later. Keep in mind that major problems can cause undue wear on the drivetrain.
  • Are the tires fairly symmetrical? If not, make a note of it, particularly any sidewall bulges. That can get worse over time.
  • Do these things weekly.

    • Adjust your brakes. Mostly, this involves taking up the slack from any cable adjustments you’ve made via the brake lever adjusters. Also, are the brake pads reasonably parallel to the rims? Are the pads themselves worn and in need of replacing? If so, put some brake pads on your shopping list (before brillo, after biscotti). It costs about a minute to take a look, maybe five to swap out the brake pads.
    • Clean your bike. No high-pressure water, please; that can cause problems with the bearings, and it’ll knock your derailers out of adjustment. Soap and warm water in a bucket will do the job. Use a rag or a soft brush on the drivetrain, using degreaser to get the grease and oil off: Wipe and rinse it clean, then add some lube when you’re done.

      This item can be performed monthly if you ride on clean roads, but do keep an eye on the drivetrain; small pebbles or sticks can get caught in the drivetrain and cause damage. If you have fenders, clean them as well. Don’t miss the pedals, particularly clipless pedals. Once you’re set up, this’ll take half an hour and some elbow grease.

    • After cleaning, spend two minutes to dribble on a few drops of bike lube. Not WD-40, get the real bike lube stuff, either wet or dry.
    • Check for any loose bolts or screws. Are your wheels’ quick-releases tight? (In particular, check the front wheel, especially if you remove and replace it often.)
    • Check the bearings. Are the wheels and cranks turning evenly and smoothly?
    • Take a look at your tires. Anything caught in the tread? Look for thorns, slivers of glass, pieces of metal, small rocks, and anything else. These things can work their way in over time and result in a slow leak.

    Monthly.

    • Check for chain wear. You can do this with a ruler, or you can get a chain gauge to do this. If the chain is worn replace it immediately, but you shouldn’t need to do this more than once or twice a year. And chains are cheap.

    • How’s the chain tension? If it’s drooping too much, tighten it.
    • Does the spoke tension seem even? You can do a rough check on this by squeezing adjacent spokes together and feeling for any catches or rubbing. (This can be a less frequent check with bikes that have heavier wheels or higher spoke counts. Those of you on light road bikes with ultra-skinny wheels may want to do this weekly.)
    • Lube your brake and shifting cables. This may not need to be done monthly—twice a year is usually enough—but keep an eye on how smoothly they’re working.

    Every six months.

    • Disc brakes: Time for servicing. A shop can do this best, unless you’re a pro wrencher.

      What you’ll want done: Bleed the brakes, clean the rotors, check brake pad wear. Here’s a page on servicing disc brakes. Be aware the squealing can be indicative of a problem (with conventional rim brakes, it’s usually just an annoyance). Check for any leaks in the lines.

    • Any tires that look worn should be replaced. If you’re getting a lot of flats on a tire, swap it out.
    • Is your bar tape looking worn? Handlebar grips getting ratty? Streamers and baseball cards looking old? It may be time for new ones.
    • Running a leather saddle? Time for some Proofride. Rub on a thin layer and let it dry. Opinion is divided about whether or not you should put any on the underside. (I’ve decided to be lazy and not.)

    Yearly:

    I admit, these will take a little longer, but all of them are worth the time.

    • Have your wheels trued. Any shop with a truing stand can do this fairly quickly.
    • Replace any cables that have stretched too much.
    • You’ve been keeping an eye on that chain, yes? Check it again, swapping out for a new one if needed. A new chain is much cheaper than a replacement drivetrain that’s been worn down because you didn’t replace that chain!
    • How’s your saddle height and tilt? Handlebar angle? Stem height? How’s the float on your clipless pedals? Time to look at these. Keep in mind that riders gain and lose weight, riding styles change, and bodies droop as they get older. Stay comfortable and keep your bike adjusted.
    • Internal hubs: How’s the cable tension? Check the internal fluid by removing the pin: Is it black and dirty? It shouldn’t be, in the event it is, so consider having the hub serviced.
    • Bearings: Have you been noting any clicks or catches noticed while riding? Now’s the time to have these looked at if you’re been putting it off.

    And, if you’re still riding when the weather turns on you…

    Do these things seasonally:

    • If you ride in the winter, swap out your tires for studs, or at least ones with better tread—preferably before your first spill on the ice.
    • You’ll want to step up your cleaning routine when those huge, rusty trucks start spraying rock salt and ice on the roads. Keep rock salt off your bike. If you need incentive, keep in mind that there’s a reason those trucks look like deathtraps.)
    • Chains are inexpensive, and generally don’t last more than a year or two, and usually need to be replaced after a winter of riding anyway.

    Summary:

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