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Bike Maintenance

By Jeff Nachtigal - July 28th, 2005

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I'm rolling along a benign country road, just me, my bike and the cows out to pasture. And then the farmer unloads his double-barreled shotgun in my direction.

Or at least it sounds like that.

They call it a shock for a reason. Just like an unexpected gunshot will send a hearty jolt of adrenaline up your spine and out your scalp quicker than the time it takes a squirrel to U-turn in front of your wheel, so too will the crack of an exploding bicycle tire.

I've got a gaping hole in my rear tire, the product of a quarter-sized piece of sharp metal glinting wickedly at me ten yards back. Like a torpedoed ship on the high seas, the effect is the same: I'm dead in the water.

Dead, that is, until I rummage around in my pockets for a PowerBar wrapper to pull off a little fix-it magic. Before long, I'm back on the road.

Bicycle maintenance really isn't magic. With a little effort and a few tricks you can keep your rig running smooth and avoid long walks when breakdowns do occur.


Washing your bike is one of the easiest and most important maintenance tasks you can do. A clean, well-lubed bike will run longer, roll quieter and break down less often. Better yet, it's much more fun to ride a sparkling-clean bike.

The best time to wash your bike is just after a ride. Rinse off the grit and grime with a simple hosing-down before it solidifies.

In my not-so-formative years of bike repair, I used the country-boy method of soaking my bike parts in gasoline. While touring the western United States ten years ago, I would stop next to RVs at gas stations and buy 30 cents worth of gas to swab my chain. (I could mention my McDonald's diet too, but nutrition is a whole other story.)

Although gas works great on steel parts it's pretty harsh on your hands and lungs. I finally outgrew my mineral spirit naiveté when I discovered the simple alternative: soap and water.

For the most part, everything you need to wash your bike can be found around the house. You'll need a few rags (who doesn't have a few grubby T-shirts?), a bucket, dish soap, degreaser product and a garden hose. Skinny bristle brushes and big sponges (find them at auto parts stores) also work well.

Start off with a warm soapy sponge bath and rinse. Use degreaser on all the drive train parts, and let them soak for a few minutes. Don't forget to clean brake pads and rims. If you use a high-powered hose be careful not to aim directly at bearings - unless you're planning to repack them next.

Then use a metal file to buff the brake pads clean. Don't forget to apply Teflon-type lubrication to the drive train after your bike is dry.

Perhaps the most important aspect about cleaning is that it allows you to give your bike a careful inspection. Dirt and grime can cover up worn parts in need of attention, and can sometimes mask catastrophic frame cracks. Inspect for frayed cables, worn brake pads and abnormal wear and tear - things you don't want to find out about after you've taken a spill.

My friend Pat has a photo that he took when his car broke down in the desert. In the self-portrait, the empty highway disappears into an endless blue sky. He waited for a long time. The lesson? Bring tools.

That photo pops into my mind whenever I skulk guiltily out of the house for a ride without tools. You know how it is: you're in a rush to catch the start of a morning group ride, or the daylight is fading and you want to squeeze in a short spin, and you dash off without the essentials.

The most important tools are the ones you should have with you on every ride: tire levers, pump, Allen wrench set (1.5mm to 6mm sizes), chain break tool and a spoke wrench. A spare tube and patch kit eliminates the hassle of patching a tube on the road - bring the flat one home to fix in comfort.

Quarters for a phone call - or a cell phone - also come in handy. Avoid begging change in lycra to make sheepish come-pick-me-up calls.

With the bicycle-boom of the 90's do-everything pocketsize tools came into vogue as more people with new bikes needed tools for the road. There are many good products on the market; any one of the fold-up hex wrench/screwdriver/chain tools is an essential purchase.

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And learn how to use your tools. Fixing a flat is probably the most important repair to get right, followed closely by knowing how to repair a broken chain. A wobbly wheel is easily "trued" with a spoke wrench. Hint: Spoke nipples tighten in the opposite direction of a normal nut.

A friend laughs (now) about his late-night ordeal deep in the woods when his chain broke. After scouring the area for rocks, he eventually managed to knock the chain back together to limp home. The chain is the one part on the bike that can't be improvised; don't leave home without a chain tool.

Home Shop

Start with a stand. If you've ever tried to adjust a hard-to-reach cable or brake pad, you know that your back is the first thing to go. Like a hydraulic lift is to an auto garage, a bike stand is an indispensable tool for home bike mechanics.

With your bike on a stand, you can run it through all its gears, test brakes and put it in multiple positions to reach the bottom bracket or underside of the bike. A stand also works great for washing your bike, or as a bike storage rack.

If a full stand is out of your price range, go with a rope. I learned this trick from a Swiss couple tandeming their way across the United States. They relied on a short section of rope and a climbing carabiner for all their repairs. Loop the rope under your saddle and over any handy tree branch or garage rafter, and hoist your bike eye-level.

The ceiling is a long away from a 2mm bolt head so shed light on your subject with a clip-on spotlight. Use pegboard, a sheet of plywood with nails or a common kitchen magnetic strip to make a rack for organizing your tools within handy reach.
The little things. It never fails: You buy a miniscule nut at the bike shop or online, and as soon as you it get home, you drop it. Always buy two pieces of the same small part at the bike shop. If you don't drop it, then you save a trip the next time you need that nut.

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Look before you turn. Pausing to examine the order pieces come apart or how a part attaches can make putting the bike back together much easier. "Count your bearings," cautions home repair guru Matt Hill. Nothing is worse than putting a hub or bottom bracket back together minus one ball bearing.

If you're stuck, and you will be at times, often your best source of information is just down the street at the local bike shop. Hang around with the mechanics - pick a slow time of day - and ask questions.

"For anyone wanting to do their own repairs at home, talk to a mechanic and make sure that you get the right tools for the job," says long-time wrench Justin Krause. "That alone can make the job a helluva lot easier. Right tool, right job, easy! Don't pay those inflated repair costs when a little common sense and the right tool will get you through." A basic bike repair and maintenance manual, new or used, is a good reference to have on your shelf.

The nice thing about a home shop is that you can do trial runs. Before you close up, get out and ride your bike. Shift hard, brake forcefully; try to see if you can knock something out of whack, then go back to your shop and fine-tune the adjustments so you're ready to roll for the real ride.

Repair Tricks

There were six of us. How in the world everyone in the group managed to forget a spare tube was beyond me. But there we stood, shivering in the cool shade of the evergreens, miles from the trailhead, balefully eyeing the snake-bit tube.

Leaves, dirt, and grass, the approximate equals to our inanity for going on a 20-mile mountain bike ride sans spare tubes, rescued us from our quandary that day in the woods.

By stuffing the tire (remove the tube) with any soft material, you'll be able to roll without destroying your rim. A friend told of resorting to using roadside garbage in a road tire after flatting on a highway - a dirty job, but it did the trick.

The "PowerBar boot" trick is a fix for blown tires (but not tubes). Use an energy bar wrapper to cover the hole from the inside, then inflate the tube, being careful that the "boot" doesn't slip from its place before the pressure is high enough to ride. Out of bars? Try a dollar bill, or any piece of tough, flexible material. It beats walking.

The bike bungee tow is the best remedy for irreparable drive train problems. Everyone in the group (you've got to have ride partners to make this work) donates their spare tube to build a rubber chain. Loop the tube bungee around the "pull" and "follow" riders' chests under the armpits, and head for home. Works in woods or on the road.

A tacoed rim gives you the opportunity to vent your anger in a perfectly acceptable fashion. Pop it back to semi-round shape by slamming it against the ground, which will allow you to ride on it without the brakes attached.

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A German bicycle courier pedaling to Barcelona for the bike messenger world championships came up with an ingenious solution to a lost derailleur pulley. Since the pulley and connecting screw are usually impossible to find if they fall off, he substituted a coin with a hole drilled in it and a strand of wire. It was enough to get him through the race.

For a broken rear derailleur, remove the broken shifter and pull out enough links to shorten the chain to one-speed length. Or leave the derailleur on and adjust the stop screws (an upper and lower screw located on the back of the derailleur) so the chain sits in a bigger rear cog. You can't shift, but you can pedal.

Pro Tips

A professional bike mechanics' day starts at the crack of dawn, and doesn't end until all the bikes and riders are put to bed.

The long hours and low glamour make it a tough job, but former pro wrench John Cribari isn't complaining.

First as a mechanic, then soigneur, and most recently as the manager for several teams, Cribari has massaged the legs of star mountain bikers Alison Sydor and Tinker Juarez, and given words of encouragement to Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond, to name a few.

"I can say from experience that the hardest job on a pro team is that of mechanic," Cribari said, recalling the crazier moments spent with AC Pinerello, Diamond Back and Volvo-Cannondale over the past decade.

"There's nothing like having to go from a dead sleep in the back of the car following a race and having your number called to change a wheel. You can go from complete REM sleep to being anaerobic in under 15 seconds."

The most important thing to do well, Cribari says, is to be organized and careful while doing repairs.

"When you're checking your bike, it's important to be very methodical so you don't miss a step, like tightening down your stem after replacing a handlebar. Focus on the task at hand and do one section at a time."

"Make sure your skewers and stem are tight - that can be very bad. Mountain bikers should always check over bolts on the bike. One jarring ride is all it takes to loosen bolts to the failure point."

In the end, it all comes back to soap and water.
"It feels good to get on a clean bike. Psychologically it made a difference to my riders. Even if I didn't do a thing but clean their bikes they felt good about it, they knew that I had looked at their bike."


Bike Maintenance a drudging must

This Bike Maintenance article highlights the need to keep it clean and take care of bike repairs as they arise. While most repairs are pretty easy, you definitely need to seek out a professional when you're unsure. My experience in bike repairs has left me literally "up a creek" packing my bike out several miles wishing I paid the $50 for a pro to take care of it.

Posted on November 24, 2007 - 10:42am
by Ed Heaton

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