How to perform regular bicycle maintenance while on a bike tour

bike touring pakistanI 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.

repairing flat tire on highway


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.

biking touring broken spokes

Broken spokes are no fun. Even though we had diligently checked our rims and spokes, we had not looked at the spoke nipples. Within a day, five of my spoke nipples broke, rendering my bike unrideable. I hitched into town to get my wheel rebuilt.

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


schwalbe tires

While I would not recommend letting your tires get to the point where the inner layers are exposed, if you use really good quality tires like the Schwalbe Marathon Plus you don’t have to worry quite so much.

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.

oil chain while bike touring


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 or email him at


books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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8 Responses to How to perform regular bicycle maintenance while on a bike tour

  1. Angie February 6, 2014 at 6:12 pm #

    This was so helpful. Thank you so much Chris for sharing with us. I will definitely be referring back to this and send others to come read and learn things as well.

  2. Dave Meyer February 12, 2014 at 8:49 am #

    Hello, my name is Dave Meyer and I am contacting you to spread the work of a children’s bicycle safety device my wife and I have invented. Please visit to read about our product and the horrific injury our son suffered in a low speed bike accident. We truly believe that this device could have prevented the injuries he sustained and want every kid to have these. We want all kids leading a healthy and active lifestyle while remaining safe, as our four kids do. I am contacting Blogs such as yours to spread the word. Thank you for your time and HAPPY RIDING!

    Dave and Judith Meyer

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel February 13, 2014 at 10:04 am #

      @Dave Meyer, Oh my gosh!! My son (at age 7) suffered a very low-speed crash on his bike as well. Over the next few hours it became apparent that something was wrong and I took him to the ER. Turned out that he had injured his pancreas. Fortunately, he was able to heal on his own by going on a clear-liquid diet for 4 days, and then a NO-fat diet for another week. I will send you an email.

  3. Ed Oliver April 9, 2014 at 4:20 am #

    This is a great post – it’s so important to have the right materials and knowledge available so that you can fix easy problems on the road!

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel April 9, 2014 at 10:45 am #

      @Ed Oliver, Absolutely. Bikes break. It happens. You need to know how to deal with it. BUT, it’s best to do everything in your power to prevent that from happening in the first place.

  4. Don Lankey July 16, 2014 at 11:26 pm #

    Dear Vogels,

    Your volume and depth of information is priceless! Major thumbs up about everything! I’ve been preparing for nearly a year to begin an adventure of life time (a little delayed). Between your website and countless others I’ve visited, viewed hours of videos, read endless versions of being better prepared, I’ve tried to prepare myself for whatever will happen. Although I’ve been trying to break the news to my family, neighbors, and friends; which they look at me differently like I’m ready to be admitted to the psych ward of a hospital. However, when they see me prepare my bike and do local trips, they change their questions to the effect of, “You’re really serious about doing this.”

    All in all I could leave tomorrow and be completely okay with the way things are. Working on a farm and doing marathons has prepared me well to not be surprised if a situation arises. However, I’m in the process of a documentary that will later be broadcasted on major news programs about biking, our world, the land, and trying to see as much as possible before………. Like the countless people I’ve talked with on the trails, roads, and travels, it would be interesting to “cross roads” amongst our adventures.

    If anything else, “Thank you for efforts” with: the website, books, YouTube videos, and the very helpful information. As mentioned before, “It is priceless.”

    Best regards with great adventures,

    DOn Lankey

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel July 27, 2014 at 10:08 am #

      @Don Lankey, Thanks Don! I am happy you found it useful.

      I wish you all the best as you embark on this journey – the learning curve is steep, but thankfully it is short. Just go and you’ll learn all you need to know in short order.

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