Monday, March 24, 2014

Nixon's Nuggets - Spring Bike Maintenance 101

Stewart Nixon represents the great state of Colorado on the Triple Threat team. As I mentioned in his interview, he has a wealth of triathlon experience and wisdom... so much so, that I asked if he'd be willing to write a recurring guest column for the blog. He obliged, and we are all the better for it.

My main takeaway from the info below is that "never" is probably not a good strategy for any of the items... some I'll do on my own and others I won't, but the more educated and aware we are when it comes to bike maintenance, the better.

So sit back, relax, and learn as Nixon drops some serious nuggets of knowledge!

It’s getting to be spring time and along with the thaw of winter comes thoughts of venturing outdoors for our training rides. If your bike has endured a winter long season of trainer use, or even if it just sat all winter, unused since your last race, there are some steps you should take to ensure that your first day on the road, and the many days following, are not riddled with annoyances. 

This will be a two part post. Part one will cover some minimum maintenance items that I feel just about anyone can handle themselves at home. Part two will cover some advanced steps as well as a few tips to keep your bike cleaner while using it on your trainer. Of course, if you aren’t comfortable tackling your own bike maintenance, find a good local bike shop you can trust and develop a relationship. At the very least, you should be able to handle the first “minimum.” 

If you do wish to attempt any of this at home, I would highly recommend purchasing a bike repair manual to assist you. Sutherland’s Handbook for Bicycle Mechanics and the Barnett Bicycle Institute’s Manual are considered the Holy Grail of maintenance books but there are many adequate, less expensive options.


Wash your bike top to bottom. A thorough cleaning will get you up close and personal with many easy to check items, killing two birds with one stone. There’s no real need to get fancy with the wash product; a grease cutting dishwashing liquid is more than adequate. Use a soft bristle brush and rinse, wash, rinse, but skip a high power hose. The pressure can push gunk where you don’t want it and force out grease where you do want it. Dry it with a soft, absorbent cloth. 

Clean the chain. You can do this with the chain on the bike or you can remove the chain from the bike to clean it. My favorite solvent to use is a citrus de-greaser. The tools shown are convenient to use, allowing the chain to remain on your bike. 

Chain washer and cog/chainring cleaner

Lubricate the chain. Is your drivetrain loud as you pedal? It is not uncommon for people training indoors to think that the chain does not need lubrication since it is exposed to few of the harsh elements we encounter outside. Though the lubrication interval may be extended while using your bike inside, it should not be neglected, and is definitely something you want to do before your first outdoor ride. I won’t go into the best lubricants for chains, as there are a myriad of lubricants available, but I will say do NOT use 3-in-1 oil, WD40, or automotive motor oil. 

Check chain stretch. You can use a metal ruler, tape measure or use a “chain checker” to measure the chain wear of your current chain. To get the most accurate measurement, this should be done with the chain on the bike so there is some tension on the chain. Line up an inch mark of the ruler with a link pin and measure out 12 complete links. A brand new chain will have the other link pin line up exactly on an inch mark. If your chain’s link pin is less than 1/16” beyond the inch mark, you’re fine. At 1/16” or greater you should replace the chain. If the link pin is 1/8” or more past the inch mark, you will probably have to replace some rear cogs and/or chainrings. If you do need to replace the chain and you are going to do the work yourself, you will need a chain breaker even though most modern chains are connected with some type of master link. The reason is that all chains come longer than what you will most often use necessitating the removal of some links to fit the chain properly. The easiest way to do this is to use your old chain as a length guide, popping off the links of the new chain that extend beyond your old one. 

Chain breaker, link pin tool, and chain checker

Check chainrings and cogs for wear. If you have used your chain well beyond the “replace” measurement, your cogs and chainrings can wear to best fit the wear on the chain. A new chain will not fix the wear on the other drivetrain parts and you will speed up the useful life of the new chain as it adapts to the old wear patterns. If you see daylight between the cogs/chainrings and a new chain (when under some tension), it’s time to replace some of those other parts.

new chain on a worn cog

Replace brake and derailleur inner wire. Brake and derailleur wires stretch with use due to their mechanical nature of operating. Over time, your shifting and braking become compromised in the form of chain skip (getting stuck between gears) and spongy brakes. If your inner wires are fairly new, you can just use the adjusting barrels to “tighten” things up. But if your inner wires haven’t been changed since last season (or longer), now is the time to replace them. It is also a good idea to coat the new inner wire with a light weight grease or oil to reduce friction within the housing. My favorite is Phil Wood Tenacious Oil. 

Check brake and derailleur housing. Modern cable housing doesn’t compress like the cable housing of old and generally if you are replacing the inner wire, you might as well replace the housing as well. At a minimum, check that the housing doesn’t have any kinks, frayed ends, or worn areas. If it does, replace it. If not, it’s up to you if you want to replace it. If replacing, now might also be a good time to consider using a “compression-less” housing like Nokon or I-link. It’s more expensive than traditional housing but some advantages include almost no compression of the housing giving you crisp shifts and positive brake feel, tighter bends without kinking, and in many cases it’s lighter weight than conventional housing. 

Check bar tape. No one likes a bike with beat up bar tape, it just looks ugly. If yours has seen better days, install some fresh tape. 

Check torque of all bolts. I would consider this optional since it is unlikely that any bolts have loosened, especially if your bike has sat unused all winter and if they were torqued correctly to begin with. But it doesn’t hurt to check them. Many parts have recommended torque settings printed on them. In the old days of steel everything, we just cranked it down until it was tight. With the advent of different materials, especially carbon fiber, it’s way more critical to tighten to the correct torque so you don’t overstress parts and endure a catastrophic failure. 

torque wrench

Clean brake track on rims and brake pads. I like to use a toothbrush and rubbing alcohol to do this. The toothbrush allows you to scrub any gunk buildup and the alcohol evaporates so there is no residue left on the brake surface. If they are really grimey, use a solvent like 409 or Simple Green and a rag then finish with the toothbrush and rubbing alcohol. For brake pads, first wipe them off with a clean, dry rag to remove any brake dust. Then inspect the surface for any silver bits (if you have aluminum rims.) You will want to remove those bits using some sort of tool with a sharp point. My favorite is an old shop trick of using an old spoke with the end ground down to a point. Finally, once all the bits are removed, you want to run over the pad surface with an Emory cloth or fine file to remove any glazing. If your brake pads don’t have the vertical grooves in them anymore, it’s time to replace the pads. 

Check tires for wear and that tubes hold air. Before your first ride, you’ll want to check your tires for any foreign objects imbedded in them, check the tread for overall wear and check that they hold air. If your tread is really worn, has cuts or slices, or has foreign objects imbedded, replace them now. If you ride clinchers, this would be a good time to check the rim strip between the rim and inner tube. You will need to deflate the tire and remove it to do this. Tire levers will facilitate tire removal. If you have box style rims and a rubber rim strip, consider replacing it with a more robust rim tape, like Velox. 

tire levers

In addition to the above items before your first ride outdoors, there are things you should check before every ride: 

Spin the wheels to make sure they are true. You can use the brake pads as a guide to any lateral hops in your wheels. 

Inflate and check the tires. You can lose up to 10% of your air pressure overnight with butyl tubes, even more with latex tubes. You also want a quick visual check of the tires for any foreign objects. Make sure the quick release mechanism is engaged and tight. When you close the lever, it should leave an imprint on your hand for a moment. Squeeze the brakes. If you have excessive travel of the brake lever, check that the brake quick release is not open. 

Run the gears through their range. If any of the gears don’t engage properly, twist the adjusting barrel until the problem is fixed. If the chain will not pop up to the next larger cog when shifting, turn the barrel counter-clockwise to increase tension. If the chain will not drop to the next smaller cog when shifting, turn the barrel clockwise to decrease tension.

These checks should take about 2-3 minutes to complete and will help ensure that at least the start of your ride is trouble free. 

Happy riding!

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