Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
It’s August, which means some of the best pedaling of the year is ahead for a lot of us. The days start to cool off, the roads get quieter as the summer vacationers pack it in and there are more fun rides on the calendar.
But wait! If you’re been knocking out the miles all season long, it’s likely your trusty two-wheeler needs a little attention. To help, here’s a checklist to give a bicycle the once over and make sure it’s ready for action.
The only tools required to do this check are the allen and torx wrenches that fit your components plus a chain-checker. Once you have these essentials, you’ll be prepared to do this check in the future. (Of course, if your check uncovers needed repairs, you may need more bike tools to do the work.)
For most bikes, basic folding allen and torx sets will have every size you need for checking things. You might already have them in your all-in-one tool you carry on rides. With allens, you may need an 8mm, which is on some pedals and crankarm bolts.
A chain-checker makes it easy to determine if a chain is worn out. Park Tool makes a nice one that works on all derailleur chains and sells for $10.95. Here’s their video explaining how it’s used. If you don’t have one, I think it’ll convince you to add one to your toolkit. You’ll need it for this checkup and you’ll probably end up using it a lot more than that.
If you have any important rides coming up, you want to do this bike check about a week before. That way you will have time to be able to fix whatever issues you find, which might mean purchasing parts or even seeking professional help for a repair. Otherwise, I recommend doing this check about twice yearly to keep your bicycle ready to go and safe.
Please note that I’m assuming your bike is in good working order and nothing major is worn out. What we’re doing is checking to make as sure as we can that your machine won’t let you down over the rest of the season.
Clean Bikes are Best for Checking
Ideally, your bike will be clean for this check. Dirt, grease and grime will hide issues you want to be able to see. Also, it can work its way into parts and cause problems. A good habit to form is keeping your roadster clean with a quick spruce-up after every ride that leaves it a little dirty.
This check shouldn’t take more than a half hour. Still, you might get interrupted and forget where you left off. It can help to work on systems as a whole, like the handlebars, stem and levers; the wheels and brakes; the drivetrain and so on. However you do it, keep track of what you’ve checked as you work so that you don’t overlook anything.
Start with the Chain Check
The chain’s condition is a key indicator of overall drivetrain health. When a chain wears out, it can mean that the cassette is worn out, too. And, maybe even a chainring. The derailleur pulleys might be toast, also.
So, if the chain checker shows that your chain is bad, you’ll want to investigate further and possibly address other more pressing issues than basic bike checks. You can do them once your drivetrain is back to 100%.
The Bicycle Checklist
If you’re still reading, congratulations on having a good chain and drivetrain!
These are the things to check for on your bike with some tips:
Make sure every nut and bolt is still tightly fastened.
Things can loosen with enough use. And one of the best ways to find out if something is coming loose is to put the right size wrench on it and try to tighten it.
Note that you’re not trying to make something that’s already tight, even tighter. You’ll feel it if a bolt or part’s fastener is loose. And if you do, you should tighten it.
There are lots of fasteners on bicycles so look at yours closely and check everything. Don’t overlook disc brake rotor bolts, brake and derailleur mounting and cable anchor bolts, chainring bolts on cranks, crankarm bolts and the pedals. If you have electric shifting, wire connections should be checked by hand gently.
Back to the pedals, be sure to check any bolts that might loosen on the clipless pedal jaws or on toe clips if you’re using them. And take a moment to check the screws holding the cleats to your cycling shoes. Many rides have been ruined by a cleat falling off. Don’t let that happen. This is a good time to look for and replace worn-out cleats by the way.
An old mechanic’s saying is that it’ll be the one nut or bolt you didn’t check that loosens and spoils the ride. So, focus and make sure you put the right tool on everything to check it.
“Stress test” components for loosening.
Handlebars, stems, seats, seatposts, wheels, spokes and bearings can loosen, too. For large parts like the bars, stem, levers and the seat/post, check them by applying firm force sideways and up and down to see if they move out of position.
They probably won’t since they’ve been working fine, but now’s the time to make sure. And if something is about to fail due to a crack or corrosion, the tug and push/pull stress tests can find that ride-ruiner.
Check the spokes by going around both wheels, gripping every spoke in your fingers and wiggling it.
If you feel even only one that’s significantly looser than the ones near it, give the wheel it’s on a spin. A loose spoke will cause a wheel to be out of true and if you see that, you’ll need to true the wheel or have it trued. Because, loose spokes mean a weakened wheel that’ll get worse.
Make sure the wheels are tight in the frame.
This is a key check if you routinely remove wheels to transport or store your bike. But in that case you may already know the wheels are properly attached. If not, to check quick release wheels, try to but don’t fully open the quick release levers. They shouldn’t open easily, they should resist. With through axles, the fastener (handle or bolt) should be so tight it’s hard to make it tighter.
IMPORTANT: Don’t overtighten.
These checks raise the issue of the proper torque for bicycle parts. Ideally you would use a torque wrench to check and tighten parts. With one you won’t mistakenly overtighten things. If you have a torque wrench or want to buy one, that’s the best way to check tightness.
Check the bearings.
Bearing systems have improved over the years but it’s still a good idea to check them. They tend to loosen and develop play if something’s going wrong, not become tighter. This can lead to problems out on the road. To check for this, feel for lateral play.
On wheels, grip the wheels at six o’clock and push and pull gently sideways. Wheels shouldn’t have any lateral play. For the headset (steering bearings), the easiest way to find play is to lift the front wheel only off the ground a few inches and drop it listening for a clunk (shifting brake levers can rattle when you do this test – that’s not the headset). That’s a sign that the headset is loose and needs adjusting.
For the crankset bearing (called the bottom bracket), stand beside the bike, grip the closest crankarm with one hand, reach through the frame with your other hand and grip the other crankarm and then push and pull on the crankarms. You’ll feel a knocking or click or pop if the bottom bracket is loosening. You’ll want to diagnose and fix the problem if so.
Check the parts that wear fast.
These are the tires, brake pads and sometimes the brake and shift cables. Some tires and pads have wear indicators that show you when it’s time to replace them. On both it’s usually something that wears down with use, such as pockets in the tread, the tread itself or grooves in brake pads.
If there aren’t any indicators, you can gauge wear by condition. Tires should have sufficient tread to prevent flats and sound looking sidewall casings, and brake pads need enough material to stop the bike under even extreme braking conditions.
A sign of brake pads wearing out is excessive lever travel when braking. With tires, it can be difficult to see that a tire is wearing thin. If you know when you installed the tire in question, the age of it might tip you off to how near worn out it is. If you’ve suddenly gotten a couple of flats, that’s another sign that a tire may be done.
For cables, look for signs of corrosion, wear and tear. Rusting on section of the cables that are bare can mean it’ll break soon. Cracks in the housing sections covering cables can indicate a cable that’s being worn inside or one that binds. If anything looks suspect it’s best to replace it with new.
Check braking and shifting.
Now that you’ve checked all the other details, one final test is to make sure your bicycle shifts and brakes perfectly. You can do this in a bicycle repair stand or out on the road. But if you test it on a ride, do it at a slow, safe speed and watch where you’re going – don’t be so busy looking down at the shifting that you run into something and crash – I’ve seen it happen.
If your bicycle has accessories on it such as fenders, racks and bags, as a final step you’ll check them, too. Don’t forget to check what’s inside your seat bag making sure you have what you need to fix flats, the most common breakdown.
It would be great if you shared your top tips on keeping your bike(s) road-worthy all season long. Thanks!
Ride total: 9,359
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim’s full bio.