Here’s a step-by-step checklist to use to make sure you’re ready to ride on your big day. Note that I am assuming you know how to make any repairs needed. If not, you have time to take the bike to your local bike shop.
1. Do the tighten up. Stand in front of your bike, holding onto the handlebars and clamping the front wheel between your legs. Now, apply gentle, steady force to the handlebars to see if they are tight and cannot move left and right on their own. Next, rest your hands above the brake levers and push down with some of your weight to make sure the bars won’t slip down. Then put your hands on the brake/shift levers and gently push in to make sure they’re tight. If anything moves, tighten it and make sure it won’t move.
Tip: Do NOT overtighten your levers. They should be just tight enough not to move when you’re holding them when standing to climb or sprint. But you want them to move if the bike falls over or you crash, or else they can break.
Stand beside your bike, grip the seat in your hands, and try to move it laterally. Also try to tip it up and down. It shouldn’t budge. If it does, tighten it until it stays put. It’s a good idea to check your seat height too. Sometimes seatposts slip down slightly and it’s better to find this and fix it than to ride with it too long and injure your knees (if you put a wrap of electrical tape on your post, you’ll be able to see at a glance if it has slipped down).
Tip: Even if the parts seem tight on your bike, I recommend taking the right wrench and checking EVERY nut and bolt to make sure they are all tight, right down to the derailleur-pulley bolts and bottle cage screws. Everything. We mechanics have a saying that it’s always the nut that you didn’t check with a wrench that is the loose one that ruins your ride. It only takes a minute to check every one with a wrench.
The last part to check for tightness is the headset or steering bearings. There should be no play in the headset or the fork can rattle when you hit rough pavement and could cause a loss of control if it loosens more. To check for this, grab the fork with your dominant hand and the down tube of the frame with your other hand.
Now push and pull to feel for a knocking sound/feeling that indicates the headset has loosened and needs to be tightened. Another way to check is to try to move the parts beneath the stem. If they are loose or turn easily by hand, the headset adjustment should be checked.
2. Make sure the wheels will go round and round. Check the quick releases on both wheels to make sure they’re tightly fastened. Look closely at the fork, chainstays and seatstays to make sure the wheels are centered in the fork and frame. You can also slip the same finger on each hand between the rim and frame to use your fingers as feeler gauges and feel if the wheels are centered.
Also, grab the wheels at 12 o’clock and gently push and pull sideways to feel for play in the hub bearings. If you feel any, remove the wheel with play, check the hub and fine tune the bearings to remove the play.
Next, spin the wheels and make sure they are nice and true. Also, start at the valve stem and go around the wheel and wiggle each spoke to make sure there are no loose ones (even if the wheels look true, you could have a loose spoke that could cause thewheel to go out of true on the ride).
Finish your wheels by carefully checking the tires for good tread, no sidewall issues and no glass or debris embedded in the tread that could cause a flat.
Tip: In case you missed my column about checking for rim cracks at the nipple holes in the rim, this is another good thing to check. Look closely at each nipple hole in the rim to make sure there are no rim cracks.
3. Stop watch. You already checked your levers, so they should be tightly fastened to the bars. Now squeeze them and make sure they operate the brakes smoothly. Binding or roughness in the cable pull suggests that there’s a fraying cable, cracked or pinched piece of housing somewhere — and you’ll want to find it and fix it.
Also operate the brakes and look closely at the calipers, making sure the brake pads have ample thickness (when the grooves on the pads are worn out, it’s new-pad time) and that they strike the rim squarely and retract the same amount on each side when you release the levers. If not, center the brake.
Tip: Even if everything feels great when you operate the brake lever, do a visual check of your cables and housing. They’re probably fine if they feel fine, but it’s good to double check since a cable might be rusted and about to break if you have to slam on the brakes.
4. Chain check. Since it’s the key component moving you down the road, get down close to your chain and inspect every link. It’s possible to have a cracked or broken one and still ride but you want to catch it and fix it so it can’t ruin your big day. If the chain checks out, make sure it’s adequately lubricated.
Tip: A good final chain check is to pedal backwards and watch the links as they go over and around the rear derailleur pulleys. If there are any stiff chain links or if there’s a chain pin protruding, they will usually trip up the pulleys and make the derailleur cage snap back and forth a little. That’s a sign that your chain needs fixing or perhaps replacement.
5. Make sure your drivetrain is dependable. Put your bicycle on a bike rack or support it so the rear wheel is off the ground, and shift through the gears repeatedly to make sure the front and rear derailleurs, the cables and the levers are functioning properly.
Carefully inspect the shift cables for any signs of fraying, rusting or weakness. Be sure to check beneath the bottom bracket where the cables often run over a nylon carrier. Make sure the cables are sound and they’re lubricated there.
If you didn’t already, put the appropriate wrench on every bolt on your crankset, such as the crankarm bolts, chainring bolts, and pedals, and make sure that everything is tight. Also, turn the crankset by hand to make sure it spins smoothly. Significant resistance or crunching noises indicates that the bottom bracket bearings that the crankset turns on are worn out and need to be replaced.
Tip: Another good bottom bracket check is to hold onto both crankarms and to push and pull laterally to feel for play or knocking in the BB bearings. There shouldn’t be any play.
6. Go over your gear. Are the cleats on your shoes tight? Have the straps on your helmet stretched and need adjusting to protect you properly? Do you have the right lenses in your glasses for the conditions on the ride? Do you have the right clothing packed? How about your energy food and drink?
Tip: Don’t forget to check your seat bag to make sure you have a good spare tube, patch kit, tire levers, mini-tool, etc.
Have a great ride!
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.