Maintenance That Will Prep Your Bike for Spring
It’s going to be another crazy year for bike shops. Get ahead of it to ensure your ride is ready to go.
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Early spring is the perfect time to get your bike tuned up for the summer riding season. Shops are typically less busy, so you can schedule service more easily. That’s important to understand, because the pandemic bike boom continues to impact not only bike sales but service departments, too. Besides, doing maintenance now will give you time to get parts and fix any significant problems before the weather warms. And if you’ve been riding through the winter, your bike probably needs some TLC after lots of riding in harsh conditions. This list doesn’t apply equally to every kind of bike, but here are problems to look for, followed by ten repairs that well-used bikes need on a regular basis.
Inspect Your Bike for Problem Areas
Pick a warm day to wash your bike, paying particular attention to the frame, drivetrain, and wheels. Once it’s dry, give it a complete inspection. Check for the following.
A chain checker is an inexpensive tool that will save you money by alerting you when your chain needs replacing, a fix that can reduce wear on other, pricier drivetrain parts. Inspect your chainring and cassette teeth as well, looking for bent or broken teeth and signs of excessive use, like pointed tips or a shark-fin shape on chainring teeth—those mean it’s time for a replacement.
Obvious problems include big cuts or spots on the sidewall where threads from the nylon belt are showing through the rubber casing. But also seek out signs of excessive tread wear. On mountain bikes, this can be knobs that are worn down or ripped off; on road bikes, a telltale indicator is a noticeably flat profile instead of a smooth, rounded one. Tire sidewalls that lack rubber’s natural tackiness may be dry-rotted.
Sticky Shifters and Brakes
If you have a cable-activated drivetrain or brake set, shift through the gears and pump the brake levers. The action should feel smooth and consistent. If braking and shifting require lots of hand force, or if the derailleur is slow to shift the gears, that means there’s drag (dirt) inside the housings, so those and the cables need replacing. Damage to plastic cable housing or any signs of cable fraying also mean new ones are in order.
Hubs, bottom brackets, and headsets should spin freely but without any play in the bearings. If you feel a gritty resistance, your bearings are shot and need replacing. If things feel smooth but there’s play, try adjusting the preload—the clamp force on the bearing cartridge—first. If you still can’t get the bearing to spin smoothly without play, it’s worn out.
Worn Brake Pads
If you’ve worn entirely through the vertical wear-indicator grooves on your rim brake pads, you need new ones. For a disc system, the telltale sign is if there’s less than one millimeter of pad material remaining.
Before you wash your bike, look for greasy dirt at the slider seals or bottom of the fork legs, an indication that your suspension is leaking oil. Shocks and forks should compress and rebound fully and smoothly, without looseness or a harsh, pogo-stick rebound. Grab the rear suspension and twist it side to side, feeling for looseness in the linkage, which means pivot bearings are toast and should be replaced.
Look for cracks or damage, like deep gouges in the paint exposing metal or carbon, dents (in metal), or any stray carbon strands that signal a crack or break. Have a shop inspect it if you’re concerned, especially on carbon-fiber bikes, because damage can spread with a less visible sign.
Make sure nothing has loosened over time. I highly recommend a torque wrench in general, but for parts like the stem, handlebars, and seatpost clamps in particular, it’s a must. Overtightening can cause carbon to crack.
Most of these issues will fall into two categories: repairs you can probably handle at home with a basic tool kit and stand, and repairs that require the help of a professional. Online repair guides (especially Park Tool’s library of how-to videos and text) are great resources for DIY jobs. But if you feel in over your head, call a pro. You want to avoid turning a simple, inexpensive repair into a pricey disaster.
Tackle Any Easy At-Home Repairs
Swap Cables and Housings
Tools and supplies: Cables and housings (about $50), a cable and housing cutter. Optional: An internal cable-routing kit ($66).
Some riders swap cables and housings annually to prevent problems; others only do it as needed. Regardless, it’s a great way to revive a slow-shifting drivetrain. A caveat: many modern bikes use cables routed inside the frame tubes. Not all have guides, which means that when you feed a new housing section into the frame, it doesn’t automatically go to the exit port. There are tools and techniques to help with this, but the process can be a pain, and it’s not always clear if a particular frame has internal routing guides. When in doubt, have a shop do it.
Tip: Before tossing your old housing sections, use them to measure and cut the new ones.
Tools and supplies: Hex wrenches, pliers, a screwdriver
If you just replaced cables and housings, you’ll need to do this. (If you’re also replacing a chain, do that first.) Even if you didn’t just swap cables and housings or the chain, a spring shifting tune-up is still a good idea, because drivetrains can creep out of adjustment on their own. It’s best to start with a clean drivetrain. Make sure to remove all the caked-on gunk from the cassette and chainring teeth and derailleur pulley wheels, and clean the chain as thoroughly as you can. Re-lube it once everything is dry.
Tip: If you swapped cables, pre-stretch the new ones before adjusting. Clamp the cable in the derailleur as normal, then shift the bike to the largest cog or chainring and let it sit for ten minutes or so. Shift the derailleur back to the smallest cog or chainring, loosen the cable bolt, and take up any slack before tightening it again. If you skip this step, you’ll have to retune your drivetrain in a week or two as the cable stretches.
Replace a Chain
Tools and supplies: A new chain, a chain tool
Only replace a chain after washing your bike. Putting a new one on a dirty drivetrain will contaminate it quickly, leading to faster wear. First, wipe down your new chain. They’re packed in grease, which prevents oxidation in storage but also means they’re extra sticky, perfect for attracting grit. Use a rag lightly dampened with degreaser followed by a rag dampened with rubbing alcohol to strip any residue left on the surface. Better yet, dive into the world of chain waxing.
Tip: Set your old chain aside and use it to size the new one for a perfect cut every time. Also make sure your chain tool is compatible with your drivetrain. Some chains require special tools.
Swap Brake Pads
Tools and supplies: Brake pads ($10 to $30 per wheel), a screwdriver or hex wrench, needle-nose pliers. Optional: A plastic scrubbing pad, rubbing alcohol.
Hydraulic brakes self-adjust to pad thickness, but for cable-activated systems, you’ll likely need to readjust the cable to account for the new, full-thickness pads. For disc brakes, remember to bed in the new pads to the rotor.
Tip: This is a great time to clean braking surfaces. A clean plastic scrubbing pad dipped in rubbing alcohol will pull off a lot of old grit from both rim or disc braking surfaces. With disc brakes, use latex gloves to handle pads and rotors, because skin oils can contaminate braking surfaces and make your brakes squeal.
Replace Handlebars Tape
Tools and supplies: Bar tape ($15 to $30), craft scissors, electrical tape. Optional: A rag and rubbing alcohol to clean the handlebars.
If you’re replacing cables and housings, you’ll have to do this anyway. Most handlebars tape is made with EVA foam, like that found in running shoes. And just like in shoes, it loses its cushioning pretty rapidly. Fresh tape not only makes a bike look sharp, it also adds to a more comfortable ride. If the old bar tape left adhesive residue on the handlebars, use a clean shop rag and rubbing alcohol to scrub it off before re-taping.
Tip: This is also a good time to redo the electrical tape holding the cables to the bar. Cables can wander over time, making for an uncomfortable grip.
Swap Tires and Top Off Sealant
If your tires are shot, change them out. You should be able to use the same tubes, unless they’re toast, too. Tubes may stick a bit to the old tire, but that’s OK—just gently pull them apart. If your system is tubeless, you’ll want to clean the rim of old sealant (use a rag and some elbow grease) so the new tire seats well. It’s also a good idea to check the valve cores for dried sealant; replace them if the valve stem doesn’t move freely or if the tire is hard to inflate. Even if you’re not swapping tires, this is a perfect time to take them off, scrape out any old, dried sealant, and replace it with fresh goop. Sealant should be replaced or topped off at least every six months.
Tip: Sealant isn’t toxic, but it is often ammonia and latex based. If you’re looking for a greener alternative, Effetto Mariposa’s new Vegetalex is biodegradable and plant based, made from water, xanthan gum, and plant fibers.
Save Tricky Fixes for a Professional Mechanic
Note that the prices listed below are approximate, as service rates vary. All prices are for basic service; if your mechanic finds other issues, costs will likely increase.
Keep Up With Suspension Service
Cost: Anywhere from $45 (for basic rear-shock service) to $200 (for a major fork rebuild)
Periodically, you’ll need a shop to disassemble, inspect, and clean your suspension forks, rear shocks, and dropper posts, and then rebuild them with new internals and lubricant. Most suspension makers’ official guides advise doing this as often as every 50 hours of riding and at least every 120 hours of use. This is a bit of bullshit. Suspension maintenance is a major investment of money and time, sometimes involving removing and shipping parts. Your bike may not be rideable for a couple of weeks. Even most of the bike-industry folks I know don’t religiously follow these service intervals, and their bikes work fine. My recommendation is to go by feel.
A few times a year, such as after a bike wash, carefully inspect your suspension, as detailed above. If it has adjusters for compression and rebound, ensure they’re working properly. Note your ride settings first, then dial rebound and compression damping to maximum and compress the suspension. It should rebound very slowly and feel stiff and hard to initiate. At minimum rebound and compression damping, it should compress easily, bounce back like a spring, and yield a fork that moves easily when you push on the handlebars. If twiddling those knobs doesn’t change how the suspension moves and feels, your bike needs service. Dropper posts don’t have these adjustments, but they should rebound fully and quickly (but not violently), and they shouldn’t sag under your weight. Don’t ignore maintenance, but don’t freak out about exactly following manufacturer service schedules. It’s a bike part, not a helicopter.
Bleed Hydraulic Disc Brakes
Cost: $40 and up per wheel
A brake bleed flushes out and replaces old hydraulic fluid. You can certainly do this at home. A disc-brake bleed kit costs between $50 and $75, plus DOT fluid or mineral oil (brakes use one or the other—they’re not interchangeable). But it can be messy, and there’s an art to a good brake bleed, so a lot of riders leave it to the pros. Hydraulic disc systems are touted as low-maintenance, but they still need some TLC now and then. Microscopic dirt particles can make their way into the system over time. And in hard use, air can “burp,” or bypass, seals and get into the system, where it mixes with the hydraulic fluid and causes problems.
The general rule is to bleed systems yearly, but as with suspension, I’d go by instinct. Signs of problems include an inconsistent feel at the lever, sudden changes in braking force, and oil leakage at the caliper or lever (greasy dust is your clue). If your brakes change feeling on long descents, with the lever pull increasing or decreasing, or if they experience a major fade in power, it’s time for a bleed.
Cost: $20 per wheel
The regular bumps and jolts of riding can easily knock a wheel out of true. Symptoms include hops and wobbles, speed shimmying on descents, or spokes that are noticeably tighter or looser than the ones next to them. A good wheel service will correct tension balance between spokes—check for any kind of stress cracking at the spoke holes on the rim or hub flanges—and keep your wheels spinning straight and strong. This is an as-needed service: if your wheels spin straight and your bike’s spoke tension seems even, you don’t need it.
Replace Worn Bearings
Cost: $20 to $50
Price varies here, because the work ranges from a quick bottom-bracket swap (usually the full unit rather than individual bearings), which takes 15 minutes, to more complicated repairs like replacing a headset or suspension-pivot bearing. These are simple jobs, although there is skill involved: an improperly set bearing can ruin a bike. The other barrier here is that removing and installing bearings without damaging other parts requires special, and often pricey, precision tools (bearing punches and presses with properly sized guides, or drifts) that aren’t cost-effective to buy for as rarely as they’re used. As with wheel truing, consider this an as-needed fix.