By Jim Langley
Poor bike maintenance can cause big crashes. We’ve been sharing crash stories in order to reduce the chances of going down. Mostly, we’ve covered biffs caused by rider errors, road conditions, drivers and other cyclists. Yet, another whole crash category is those caused by bike maintenance issues. Let’s look at some common ones, what fails and what checks and maintenance to do to help avoid hitting the deck.
Worn Out Bicycle Tires
Some of the best road tires today last seemingly forever, especially on the front wheel where there’s less weight and drive force. Because of this, it’s easy to take these tires for granted and just keep logging the miles.
The problem is that tires wear from use and also from age. Even if there’s still tread all around the tire and no threads from the casing are showing through, an old tire may be ready to fail due to weak sidewalls or thin spots in the tread.
When a bad tire fails – front or rear – it can easily cause a crash. If you’re lucky it’ll happen when you’re crawling along a flat, straight road. If it blows on a fast descent, it can be very hard to slow and stop without having the bike go out from under you.
To prevent tire troubles like this, inspect your tires at least monthly during the riding season for signs of wear, aging and damage. Look for worn out tread or bald spots, cracking, brittle or damaged sidewalls, gashes in the tread and S-shapes, bulges or twists in the tire when you spin the wheel and watch it. If you see any issues and you know the tire has seen over a year’s riding, you should probably replace it.
Worn Out Cleats or Clipless Pedals
When clipless pedals and their cleats wear enough, it can be hard getting into and out of the pedals. And if your feet suddenly won’t come out when you’ve already committed to stopping, you can fall hard and even break an ankle or wrist.
It’s also possible for a foot to slip off a clipless pedal under pressure when a worn cleat or pedal doesn’t hold fast as it should. That’s another crash-causing glitch. Unfortunately, these problems usually surface on rides rather than in the repair stand. So the best plan is to regularly inspect your pedals and cleats for things that can cause these problems.
For example, worn cleats can make it hard to get in and out of pedals and/or let your feet slip off. But, it can be hard to tell just how worn they are. I like to always keep replacement cleats on hand so I can compare my old ones with the new to tell how worn the old ones are.
Or, if you know you’ve got mega miles on your cleats and you’re starting to feel a difference getting into and out of your pedals, it’s probably smart to replace the cleats.
Inspect pedals for any loose parts that might allow shoes to slip or interfere and prevent getting in. Some clipless pedals have screws that can loosen, rise up a bit and block entry. And look for worn or damaged jaws that grip the cleats. Most pedals tend to hold up a lot longer than cleats, but since clipless systems require both the pedal and cleat to function correctly, you do want to check the pedals and make sure nothing’s about to fail.
Wheels Not Properly Attached to the Bike
True story: a mechanic at our shop once made it to work riding on a front wheel without its quick release. His wife had borrowed it and not told him and he didn’t check before heading to work. All it would have taken is a bump or pothole for his wheel to have fallen out, probably putting him in the hospital.
The moral of that story is to regularly check that your front and rear wheels are firmly fastened in the frame. If wheels aren’t tight, they can move in the frame. On the front, this might only mean the brake dragging. But, on the rear, you might pull the wheel out of the frame accelerating and stop the bike abruptly, causing a crash.
Wheels can get loose because they weren’t tight enough to begin with and because the quick release adjustment loosened and you didn’t realize it. Or it can happen if the wheels get taken on and off a lot, for example if the bike goes in and out a car a lot or onto a fork-mount car rack.
To check quick release wheels, try opening the QR lever to make sure it resists. It should take a decent amount of force to open the lever. If that’s not the case, open the QR, adjust it so it’s tighter and close the lever again. For bolted wheels, check tightness with the appropriate wrench.
Loose or Corroded Handlebars, Stem and Controls
Three of the most important things to make sure stay tight on road bikes are the bars, stem and levers. If any of these loosen, it can cause a loss of control and crash because we put so much weight on the front end of the bike – especially when climbing while standing.
I’ve seen riders flip over the bars when the handlebars moved under them and others crash when a loose stem swung to the side when they were trying to turn. Loose levers can surprise and cause crashes, too.
Handlebars, stems and levers are easy to check and snug up. Stand in front of the bike, holding the front wheel from moving with your legs. Now, holding the drops, pull up on the handlebars. Next, put your hands on the brake hoods and push down on the bars and sideways on the levers. Lastly, try turning the bars with a little force to both sides.
When you do these tests, nothing should move or give way. If it does, tighten the bolts and recheck to make sure everything’s tight. Most components today have torque specifications that you can often find printed on the part, or on the maker’s website. You’ll also need a torque wrench with the appropriate allen tips for your components to tighten them right.
Loose or Broken Seats and Seatposts
Like the handlebars and stem, since so much weight and force can be on it, the seat and seatpost slipping can surprise you and cause a crash. And like the bars and stem, all it takes to prevent issues is keeping the seatpost tight in the frame and the seat tightly fastened to the post. Here’s another place your torque wrench comes in handy.
Worn Out Bike Chain
Lastly, chains can jam, skip and break, causing crashes. Since we went over this a couple of Tech Talks ago, you can read up on it there. Just keep in mind that if you’re noticing a noise or sensation that only occurs when pedaling, it’s a good idea to carefully inspect the chain and see if something’s wrong. You might find something about to fail and prevent a crash.
Next Article: Top Cycling Shorts Under $100
An additional thought on the pedals – Pay attention to the pedal attachment to the internal shaft and associated bearings. Pedals have uniquely small bearings and the bearing/shafts must withstand complex high loads. Routine and proper lubrication is critical to keep the bearing working well. Rotational Bearing /shaft deterioration is usually felt as a rough/grinding sensation well in advance of failure. Lateral failure (pedal sliding off the shaft) can be much more sudden and far more catastrophic; when installing and performing maintenance check for lateral pedal motion. Life long rider, one catastrophic pedal crash.
Kevin Miller says
I have had two handlebar stems break one an original on my 40 year old Nishiki, bad spill over the handle bars, the a one month old stem slow speed, still not pretty. Pannier malfunction locked up the rear wheel at speed, time spent in wheelchair. Crazy stuff happens, keep insurance current
I can testify to the hazard of worn cleats. On a recent descent, my right shoe unexpectedly came out of the pedal which quickly got my attention. I was fortunate not to crash, and on inspection of the cleat found that the tongue had become wafer thin. I’ve made a mental note to pay more attention to this!
Joel Honeycutt says
My worst crash, I didn’t hit anything besides the ground. I believe that a contributing factor, after a light mist on the trail and possible riding across stenciling on the asphalt, was me topping off my tires before the ride. I feel that had I not pumped my tires up to there max psi, and had left them slightly soft, my tires might not have slipped out from under me like I was riding on an ice rink. I think a good tip would be to NOT top off your tires if the ground might be wet. I would like to know other riders thoughts on this.
Excess air pressure is way too common. Less is much more comfortable and will generally give you more control, until too little and it gets squishy. Also, run larger tires with less air and you’ll be way ahead.
Jon Peck says
My experience with a number of brands over the years suggests that one in particular – and not a cheapie – would develop a bad habit of locking me into the pedal when it was only moderately worn. Not a good situation! I got rid of those, although I had encouragement when I flew over the bars when hit by a car and actually tore one pedal apart. (Luckily my injuries were minor though the bike was totaled.)
Mark Follmer says
Left pedal crank arm simply snapped in half as I was out of the saddle, pedaling hard. Down I went, dislocated shoulder.
Charles Wells says
Regarding quick releases, I think it is valuable to clean and lubricate them regularly. Dry and dirty QR skewers give more resistance when being closed, and thus give the illusion of high clamping force; only when clean and well lubricated will you get a real feel for how tight your skewers really are. I like to perform this bit of routine maintenance at the same interval with which I lubricate my chain.
If one’s spouse has removed your quick release, not told you, and not replaced it, then IMHO, recommended maintenance is a very serious, sit down, “Honey, we need to talk” conversation.
I suspect foul play. Why didn’t she remove the wheel to make it clear that the quick release was out?
If you ride a fixed gear bike, check chain tension before each ride. Chain tension does tend to loosen seemingly on its own. It should be tight but not so tight that it binds the chain as it rotates around the chainring while not so loose that the chain may pop off the chainring during a high cadence/high speed descent. If a chain pops off, it can wrap around the right crank arm, lock up the rear wheel, cause a loss of control, and a nasty high speed crash. It happened to me once at about 25 mph but fortunately the chain did not wrap around the crank arm and I did not crash, but I nearly had a heart attack.
Bruce Pully says
Regarding connecting links. Most manufacturers say that connecting links should not be reused. And when installing a connecting link, especially on 11 and 12 speed bikes, make sure both sides of the link are properly seated. If not a broken clavicle and concussion could be the consequences.
Even worse, a gentleman with whom I rode weekly was standing and the chain broke sending him over the handlebars and he passed away 4 hours after the crash. Take care of your bike.
As I was almost home and slowing for a left turn, I was not injured (but could have been) in a freak accident…
I had a spoke break and manage to fall between the chain’s inner plates. That locked up my back wheel and splattered me down hard on my right hip and shoulder.
John Klever says
After each ride, I wipe off each wheel for two turns. This cleans the wheels and allows me to check for worn tread, imbedded debris, and other tire flaws.
I use Frog Speedplay pedals. As the cleats wear they click out unexpectedly, and the attachment to the pedal tab becomes thin and sharper. Carrying an extra cleat also helps, if any of this becomes a problem during a ride.
Ron Rommel says
I a serious accident out of nowhere. Could my chain have locked up. now i have a six inch screw in my left elbow and a detached tricep.