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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.