I started riding every day and maintaining my own bike back in the early 1970s after college. I was an artist, money was nonexistent, and a bike was the best way to get around Pittsburgh. Bicycle stores were few and far between; so do-it-yourself was the order of the day. There weren’t any fix-it classes, so I learned from my mistakes. I had three bike repair bibles, Anybody’s Bike Book: An Original Manual of Bicycle Repairs, Glenn’s Complete Bicycle Manual: Selection, Maintenance and Repair, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. A few simple tools and I was ready to fix my bright orange Eddy Merckx Falcon. The first two books were the best available illustrated repair guides for an amateur wrencher. Zen, on the other hand, provided the philosophical context for an understanding of the mechanical world. It laid out the fundamental reasoning and analytical skills required to approach repairs and a perspective on the mental calmness and physical touch required of a mechanic. A much better approach then busted knuckles and cursing ‘Why I oughta … ’ at an inanimate object.
Here are four simple repairs that any rider should be able to wrench at home.
Air Your Tires! You should check your bicycle’s tires for wear and proper inflation every time you get on it. Riding on tires with low to no air is as common as it is foolish. Low tire pressure makes your bike s-l-o-w and also increases the risk of a flat or a crash. Bike tires will always slowly leak air (rubber is porous) so pump up your tires once a week, or before any big ride.
Start by locating the PSI number on the side of your tires (usually near the logo). The PSI number indicates the amount of air the tires should hold, in pounds per square inch. The PSI number varies depending on the type of tires you put on your bike. Use a pressure gauge to guarantee that the tires of your bike remain at the proper level of inflation. No, pushing your thumb against the tire is not accurate! If you don’t have a floor pump with a pressure gauge, go get one at your local bike shop.
Check out this link that demonstrates how to properly inflate your tires. Don’t forget to also check the condition of your tire. Your tire has reached its wear limit and must be replaced when there are spots where the rubber tread is gone and you can see the inner lining.
Lube Your Chain!Upkeep on your bicycle chain is de rigueur DIY maintenance. If your chain is dry, rusted, and chirping like a bird when you ride you have problem #1 — not enough oil. On the other hand an overly oily chain attracts dirt and mud like a magnet — problem #2. A poorly lubed chain has a shorter life span and diminishes the bike’s performance, so oil it about every week of use or whenever your bike gets wet. But wait, you aren’t done! For every moment you spend lubricating it, spend two holding a rag lightly against both side plates of the links as you spin the chain backward. A good way to conceptualize a clean, lubed chain is that the inside of the links have been recently lubricated while the outside has been wiped clean. It’s the inside pins and links that do the work that power you forward. All that lube on the outside does is soil your pant cuffs! Oh, and spend $5-$6 buying chain lube from a bike shop. Do NOT use WD-40!
Lubing your chain is also a great opportunity to visibly check that your bike’s drive-train (front sprocket and rear gear cluster) are working properly. Here’s a video link to show you how to lubricate your bike chain. With proper care, your chain should last 1,500 to 2,000 miles. And yes, just like tires, chains do need to be replaced.
Adjust Your Gears! When your shifting becomes clunky or misaligned, it’s time to adjust your rear derailleur. The two most common causes are that the cable has stretched or that the amount of tension it exerts on the derailleur is out of whack. Both are easy to fix. (The H & L marked “limit screws” (usually in a pair with a Phillips head) are only to be touched if the chain is throwing off the cassette and jamming, or not reaching one of the furthest cogs. These limit screws are used to set up the derailleur’s range of motion and after that should seldom need readjusting.)
Most of the time it’s easy to get rid of that clanky noise or low shifting with some simple adjustments that require no tools. Shift to the smallest cog. Turning the pedals by hand, click up one gear. If the derailleur balks, click back and stop the chain. Turn the barrel adjuster (located where the cable goes into the derailleur) out half a turn (clockwise). The barrel adjuster should be easy to find — it’s the only component there that looks like a barrel! Try the shift again, continuing to slowly adjust the cable tension (half a turn at a time) until the derailleur snaps crisply onto the correct cog. Take your time and progress up the cogs to the largest one. When shifting is smooth and precise all the way up to the largest cog, repeat the process coming down. This time, however, if the derailleur hesitates, turn the barrel adjuster in (counter-clockwise) one-quarter of a turn. Every wrencher has a slightly different approach to rear-derailleur adjustment, but this video shows you how to do it. Your reward for 10 minutes of work will be a smooth and quiet shifting rear derailleur.
Stop Squealing Brakes! A word of caution: Your brakes are critical to avoiding crashes. Don’t mess with your brakes unless you are secure in your ability to safely return them to fully working condition.
If your brakes squeal when you stop there are two easy fixes to try. First, try wiping off the black gunk and grease on your rim. Use a little steel wool, fine sandpaper, or a clean grease-free rag. See if that solves the problem. It often does. If not, take a file (or fine sandpaper) and gently file the shiny part off your brake pads. Use an awl or other sharp implement to remove any embedded grit or metal shards. This will often quiet them down. If they still squeal, the brakes need to be “toed-in” which means that they need to be adjusted so that the front of the brake pad (instead of the rear) hits the rim first. This video will give some simple tips to stop squealing brakes. Replace the pads if they are so hard you can’t press into them with your thumbnail or are so worn that any grooves are almost gone. Wrenching Tip: DIY brake maintenance should always be done one side at a time, or by closely monitoring which brake pad came from which side. It’s easy to reverse the pads.
Recently, I was working on my bike and forgot the lessons that Zen had taught me: to look first, not jump to conclusions, and approach repairs with calmness at all times. I was distracted, in a rush, and cranky but decided to adjust the front derailleur on one of my road bikes. I knew that the cable–end was frayed and the barrel adjuster was frozen. But instead of waiting for a day when I was more focused and could calmly approach and deal with the multiple problems, I rushed into it and thought I could wrench it right in a couple of minutes. Not even. Lesson learned, the hard way!
You don’t have to learn the hard way. Always approach simple repairs with the right spirit and don’t forget to have fun! If you need tools, instruction, or some encouragement, head down to the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition’s DIY shop, Bici Centro. There you can tackle repair projects and gain confidence, knowledge, and mechanic skills. Safe pedaling!