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The Beginner's Guide to Essential Bike Maintenance

Whether you own your own bike or pedal from time to time with a bike rental, bicycling has a variety of benefits that make it a popular pastime for many people. Not only can biking provide effective exercise, building muscles and providing a healthful cardiovascular workout, but bicycling can also be a means of transportation that does not cause harm to the environment. However, anyone who spends time bicycling must pay attention to regular bike maintenance to ensure that the bike remains in good working order. Bike maintenance enhances safety and extends the life of the bicycle.

Safety Checks for Bicycle and Gear Before Every Ride

Although it's tempting to simply get on a bicycle and ride, the wise bicyclist will perform a cursory safety check before every excursion. Safety checks don't take excessive time, and they can be very important, especially for those bicyclists who ride on varied terrains. These regular safety checks may lead to the discovery of dangerous issues such as loose wheels and other problems. It's also important to perform an in-depth inspection of a bicycle every 200 to 300 miles to make sure serious issues have not developed.

Before Every Ride:

  1. Check tires to ensure that they are properly inflated. Add air if necessary, and inspect tires for signs of wear.
  2. Grasp the front brake and move the handlebars back and forth forcefully to make sure the headset is sufficiently tight. If you feel movement or hear knocking, tighten the headset.
  3. Pull on the quick releases of both front and rear wheels to make sure they are tightly fastened. If you are unsure about their snugness, release the quick releases and tighten them fully.
  4. Grasp the front brake tightly and try to move the bike forward. The brake should keep the front wheel from moving. Repeat the same process with the back brake.
  5. Lift the front of the bike and spin the front wheel. You should not see or hear any evidence of brushing against the brake pads. Repeat the same process with the back wheel.

Every 200 Miles or Two Weeks (Whichever Comes First):

  1. Check the chain and add lubricant if it looks dry. Riding in dry or wet conditions may necessitate more frequent chain lubrication. If the chain is dry, it will squeak. If it is dirty, you will hear gritty sounds as you ride.
  2. Check both front and rear brake pads. Ideally, you should see daylight when you look through the grooves from the top down through the pads. If you don't see grooves, replace the brake pads.
  3. Check the cleats on your shoes to ensure that they are not excessively worn.
  4. Remove both front and back wheels and wipe the bike frame completely, inspecting to find any issues with the frame or the paint.

The Importance of Tire Inflation

Maintain proper tire pressure according to the specifications for your tires, your bike, and the riding surface on which you generally travel. Even allowing slight variances in tire pressure can impact how a bike handles. Always bike with a road tool kit so you can manage potential issues such as flat tires. Your road tool kit should include a spare tube that will fit your bike; a patch kit to repair a flat; a pump and spare CO2 cartridges, if applicable; two tire levers; and a few dollars in case you need to make a purchase.

Guidelines for Checking and Lubricating Bike Chains

  1. Lean the bicycle against a wall over an area of ground that you can get dirty.
  2. Use an old rag to clean the chain. Grab a bottom section of the chain and pedal the bike backward; as you pedal, allow the chain to move through the rag to remove debris.
  3. Apply lubrication. Point the nozzle at the bottom section of the chain and spray lightly while back-pedaling. Continue this process for about four full rotations.
  4. Allow the lubricant to soak for several minutes. Grasp a bottom section of the chain with the rag and pedal the bike backward to remove excess lubricant.
  5. Check the chain to make sure it's glistening without looking overly lubricated and squeaky.

Adjusting a Cable-Pulled Derailleur and Brakes

Cable-pulled derailleurs operate under tension, making this important for having safe and reliable shifting and braking systems on a bike. As brake pads wear, it's necessary to adjust the pads to ensure firm braking. Tighten the brake cable by turning the barrel adjuster located on the brake caliper a quarter-turn counter-clockwise. As you turn the barrel adjuster, rotate the adjuster out of the caliper to the left to take up the excess cable. If this adjustment makes the brake overly tight, turn the adjuster back clockwise slightly.

Adjusting Road Derailleurs

Gears can adjust slightly with riding, so it may be necessary to adjust road derailleurs from time to time. Turn barrel adjusters to increase or decrease the tension of the cable. Some bikes adjust directly on the rear derailleur, while others adjust with a built-in line directly on the cable system.

The front derailleur moves opposite of the rear derailleur, also moving a greater distance between gear shifts. If you notice unsmooth shifting to a harder gear, turn the cable adjuster connected to the cable on the left shifter counter-clockwise an eighth- to a quarter-turn. Turn the adjuster clockwise in similar fashion if you notice unsmooth shifting to an easier gear.

Bikes without a cable adjuster at the right shifter for the rear derailleur will use the barrel adjuster at the rear derailleur for adjustments. If shifting to harder gears is not smooth, turn the barrel adjuster clockwise an eighth of a turn at a time to reduce tension on the derailleur cable. Test after each eighth of a turn and adjust again, if necessary. If shifting is not smooth to easier gears, turn the barrel adjuster an eighth of a turn counter-clockwise.


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