I know a lot about riding a bike around the world. I can figure out a route and know what to look for in panniers. I know a lot – and I know when I’m out of my league.
Bicycle maintenance is one of those areas where I will readily admit my ignorance. Yes, I could fix a bike in a pinch. I could probably even strip a bike down to the frame and figure out how to get it put back together, but I don’t enjoy it and it’s not my forte. That’s why I called on somebody else to write this post.
Chris Murray is a friend of mine who, for some bizarre reason that I will never understand, actually enjoys working on bikes. In fact, I would go so far as to say he’s probably one of the best wheel builders in the world today; he was called on to build a wheel for Daniel Burton when his wheel fell apart in the middle of Antarctica. Yes – you read that right. An extraordinarily well-planned expedition to the South Pole, with every detail considered, and his wheel fell apart. Chris was their go-to man who built a new bomb-proof wheel and shipped it via helicopter to Daniel.
Here are Chris’ tips for what to look for to make sure your bike doesn’t experience a similar fate.
One thing that drives me crazy is reading journals where people are left stranded and desperate because of something they should have seen coming for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. Frustration and time delays aside, not maintaining your bike properly is a HUGE safety risk, a rim blowout on a loaded bike at speed could be a rough way to remember about deferred bike maintenance.
I am a fan of preventative bicycle maintenance over waiting until things are so far gone your bike leaves you hitchhiking to the nearest town. To me the key is as simple as listening to your bike, feeling how its behavior changes.
Was it always rough when pulling the brake levers, did the bike always vibrate when you squeezed the brakes? Has shifting always involved pushing past that click to get it to change gears instead of simply stopping at the click?
Checking all of these places I mention may seem daunting at first but most of them you do not even have to stop riding to check, the rest can be checked in about the same time it does to lube your chain and add air to your tires.
What to notice while you are riding
Pay attention to how smooth your shifters and brakes are moving. They should feel smooth and easy to move. If your brakes are pulsing it could be a sign of a broken spoke or a rim about to split open from a worn brake track.
If cables are getting gritty you can either try to clean and lube them or simply replace them. I always recommend replacing the housing at the same time as your cables, parts are extremely cheap and can make a bike feel new again. If you neglect the cables long enough your braking power will drop, your shifting will be slow and you will be causing extra wear and tear on your shifters from them having to fight the friction in the cables.
Listen for noises, cheesy I know, but they are your bike talking to you. Your bike should be nearly silent when riding and you should not hear more than tires humming along and a small click when changing gears.
If it sounds like your bike is being followed by a flock of birds and chirping when you pedal, chances are your chain is in need of some lube.
If you hear constant clicking it is probably a sign your derailleur needs adjusting or a bearing failing.
Creaking could be something as simple as needing grease on the bottom bracket threads or a cracking frame.
Noises although often simple could be signs of a much much bigger problem lurking around the corner and need to be checked out as soon as you can.
What to check each time you air up your tires
You should be checking your tire pressure often, weekly at the very least. It takes very little time, reduces the rolling resistance considerably and is a great time to take a look at your tires condition.
Tires on a touring bike live a rough life and should be checked often for signs of impending failure. You want to obviously check the amount of wear on them but when looking at the tire also look for any debris waiting to work itself deeper into your tire leading to a flat, also look at the sidewalls of the tire for cracking. If there is a good amount of cracking going on it is a good idea to replace your tire as soon as you find a suitable replacement.
When putting the pump head on the valve, take a quick look at the rims. Look for any cracking around both the brake track and where the spoke enters the rim.
One problem that many touring cyclists with rim brakes face is brake pads wearing through the sidewall of the rim leading to a major blowout that can not be fixed roadside. A quick check here is simply feeling the rim if you do not have wear indicators. You are checking to see if the sidewall of the rim is becoming concave from the brake pad wearing it away.
If it feels very concave the next step is to measure how bad, you can lay a straightedge across the rim and look for a “valley” in the middle. I personally do not like when more than .5mm has worn away but checking with your rim manufacturer for wear limits is the safest call as all rims are different.
Take a quick look at your drivetrain while lubing the chain. I am not talking about making it look spotless; I am talking about being functionally clean. You do not want lots of gunk on your derailleur pulleys as it will wear them down much quicker.
When wiping off the chain to relube (you are doing that, right????) pinch the pulleys with the rag while pedaling backwards to knock off any accumulated gunk. I also like to grab my crank arms and rock them back and forth while lubing the chain. I am looking for play in the bottom bracket, if you find play chances are you can ride on for quite some time but next time you are near a good shop it is worth replacing as most are extremely inexpensive.
You can check these in a matter of seconds as well. To check hub bearings lift the wheel you are checking off the ground and try to rock it side to side, if there is play you should get it adjusted as quick as possible as loose bearings can ruin a hub very quickly.
Grab the front brake and rock front to back. If there is clunking it means your headset is loose and needs adjusting. This is a very quick adjustment and on most modern bikes can be adjusted with a multi tool in minutes. Threaded headsets take large tools to adjust and most cyclists would not carry them. It is still a very quick job and should be addressed next time you are near a shop.
It just takes a moment to look at your brake pads, get in the habit of looking at them every few days. It is true that brake pads often last for thousands of miles but it is also possible to wear completely through a new set in a single ride if conditions are nasty enough. If you notice very loud scraping when you apply the brakes there is a good chance something has lodged itself into your brake pad. Simply flip open the brakes or remove the wheel and pick out the offending material.
My take on preventative bicycle maintenance may sound like being wasteful replacing things when they still have a little bit of life left but if you look at the bigger picture you will realize that old saying about how a “stitch in time saves nine” has some merit. When we pay attention to the little problems and fix them quickly we rarely have those really annoying big problems that have us hitchhiking to the nearest town. Which would you rather do, replace a $3 cable an extra time or two or replace a $50 shifter that has been forced to fight corroded cables for one shift to many.
Chris is a long time professional bicycle mechanic and head wheel builder at The Fatbike Company. He also runs his own side business building high quality wheels and has built wheels for everything from daily commuters to a guy who pedaled to the South Pole.
He is passionate about all forms of cycling from mountain biking to touring, anything that lets him explore the world around him. The old IMBA saying, “Long Live Long Rides” could easily best describe his riding style.
You can see his work at http://chrismurraywheelworks.blogspot.com/ or email him at ChriskMurray@gmail.com