QUESTION: What maintenance is required for a bicycle? Is there a lot I have to do, or can I just buy one and ride it and not worry about it? —Leslie A.
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: There’s not necessarily a lot you have to do, but if you want the bike to keep operating safely, efficiently and problem-free, some minimum maintenance is required — and a much of it is easy enough that you can do it yourself in minutes.
Bicycles are remarkable machines that will often stay rideable — though not necessarily safe or efficient to operate or problem-free — for an extended period with almost no upkeep beyond putting air in the tires. You may have seen someone riding a junker with a squealing chain and wobbling wheels, but still rolling down the street.
Those three specifications — safe and efficient to operate and problem-free — define the boundary between a bicycle that is maintained and one that is not, but which is somehow still functioning.
Let’s say you purchased your bike new from a professional bicycle shop, which normally means the bike was assembled and inspected by an experienced bike mechanic and is safe to ride and in good operating order when you rolled it out of the shop. (The same assumption cannot necessarily be made about bikes purchased from a department or big-box store, where the assembly may have been done by a store employee who has no bike-specific experience.)
With the bike-store steed, however, you can likely ride it several times without doing any maintenance other than keeping the tires inflated and cleaning off accumulated mud and grime.
Many bike stores offer a free tune up of your new bike after you’ve ridden it for a specified time or distance. Take advantage of that offer, because new cables and chains can stretch and stop operating as crisply as they should, and even properly tightened nuts and bolts can work loose from the vibrations of riding the road or trail. That post-sale checkup will catch and correct those things and, generally, those adjustments will hold until the components begin to wear, which, depending on how often you ride the bike, should not happen too quickly.
Here is a minimum maintenance schedule, but if you are new to cycling, don’t be intimidated by it. This plan is an ideal — some riders do more, and some do less — and experience will help you adjust this schedule to fit your needs and riding style. But it is a place to begin:
Before each ride
- Inspect the tires for damage or wear.
- Check the air pressure with a gauge or pump. Often, topping up the air pressure once a week is sufficient.
- Spin the wheels to make sure they turn freely and don’t rub on anything.
- Squeeze the brake levers to make sure they engage the brakes before the levers hit the handlebars.
- Touch the chain to ensure that there is sufficient lubrication on it. Unless you’ve ridden in wet conditions, you normally only need to re-lube the chain every 100-150 miles or so.
On the ride
- Listen to your bike. A happy bike makes very little noise. If you hear a sound that’s not normal for your bike, stop and see if you can determine where it is coming from. If it’s something you can fix right then, like removing a foreign object stuck between a wheel and the frame, or tightening a loose bolt, do so. You may not be able to find the source of some sounds while on the road, but do your best to determine that there’s nothing making the bike unsafe to ride.
- Repair flat tires (obviously).
- Clean off any accumulated grit or mud. This stuff gets into your chain, derailleurs and other moving parts, making them sluggish and causing excessive wear.
- Re-lube the chain if you rode in wet conditions.
- If you heard any sounds from the bike that you could not locate and correct on the ride, try again, in the quiet of your workspace, to locate the noisemaker. Fix it if you can. Consult with your local bike shop if not.
Periodically (could be monthly if you ride a lot; could be quarterly or farther apart if you ride less often)
- Thoroughly clean the bike, re-lube the chain, derailleur assemblies, brake and shift levers, pedals, hinge points on the brake assemblies, and the brake and shift cables.
- Check that the wheels are running true and that there are no loose spokes.
- Run through the gears to determine if the shifting is working smoothly and traveling all the way up down the cassette and chainrings (if you have more than one) without skipping any gears.
- Inspect the brakes. If you have rim brakes, check the pads for wear and imbedded grit. Clean the rims with rubbing alcohol. If you have disc brakes, check the pads for wear and imbedded grit. Check that the rotors are not bent or warped. Clean them with rubbing alcohol. Touch up with fine sandpaper if needed.
- Snug all nuts and bolts.
- Measure the chain. The distance between 12 pairs of links on a new chain, pin-to-pin, is 12 inches. If your chain has stretched to longer than 12 1/8 inches, it should be replaced.
- Depending on how much the chain is worn, you may also need to replace your rear cassette, which wears in sync with the chain. However, if you replace your chain before the wear is extensive (say every 2,000 to 2,500 miles), you may be able to keep the same cassette though two or three chains (not a bad move, since chains are less expensive than cassettes).
- Replace any other worn-out parts.
- If you are not comfortable with things like truing wheels, adjusting the shifting or some other procedures, schedule a tune up with your local bike shop.
True story: Recently, while riding my bike on the road, I noticed a creaking sound that hadn’t been there before. I stopped on the roadside and spun each tire, both of which turned freely and emitted no noise. I spun the cranks and the pedals but heard nothing. I did a quick visual inspection and spotted nothing, so I remounted and rode home, still hearing the creaking intermittently.
At home, I put the bike in my workstand, and using a bright flashlight, I examined every inch of the bike. (On a previous occasion, I found a cracked rim that way, and ended up replacing the wheel.) I then squeezed every pair of spokes, worked the gears, moved the fork, applied the brakes and found nothing out of order and heard no abnormal sounds. So I washed the bike completely, including the whole drivetrain. I then put fresh lube on the chain and all the usual moving parts. Finally, I went over the whole bike with my hex wrenches and checked every nut and bolt. A couple of them tightened slightly, but I found nothing that seemed loose enough to cause the mystery sound.
Nonetheless, when I finished and took the bike for a test ride, it was quiet, as it should be.
When it comes to bicycle maintenance, a little TLC goes a long way.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.