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Basic Bike Maintenance

Fixing a bike can be a daunting task. A funny noise can turn into a long afternoon of frustration, culminating in a trip to the bike shop. If you’re on a Backroads Trip you’ll have guides and mechanics on nearby to resolve any issues. But if you’re on your own, there are a few basic bike maintenance tips—both preventive and remedial—to reduce the frequency of those expensive and annoying trips to your mechanic.

1. Clean

This sounds obvious, but cleaning is often overlooked. (Many bike riders are certainly guilty of neglecting this!) Regular cleaning, though, really does help prolong the life of your bike and its parts. After a long ride, take a damp rag and wipe down your bike, focusing on the areas where dirt and grime accumulate. Pay special attention to the brakes, crank, cassette and wheels. Last step is to give the chain a good wipe as well. This will make your rag filthy, but it’s worth it. Lots of grime and dirt accumulate in the chain and get spread to the chainring, rear derailleur, and the cassette.

2. Lubricate!

It’s true that a little lube goes a long way. Immediately after cleaning, be sure to re-lubricate your bike. Wiping off the dirt is great, but you often take all the grease along with it. Use Tri-Flow on the chain, brakes, levers and derailleurs. This will keep things running smoothly and silently, which is always a good thing.

3. Check Your Tire Pressure

It’s always a good idea to make sure your tires are at the right PSI before a ride. Low pressure can make a bike feel heavy, sluggish and much less fun to ride. Overinflating your tires can create a dangerous situation in which your sidewalls might blow out and cause a catastrophic crash. Most bike pumps come equipped with a pressure gauge, so be sure to use it. Road tires generally take 90–120 PSI. (This depends on the tire’s manufacturer, quality, and width. Be sure to check the specs on the tire itself.) On bumpier surfaces, a slightly lower pressure is preferable, while higher pressure creates less drag on smoother surfaces.

4. Adjust Your Brakes

Some simple adjustments to your brakes can stop squealing and improve performance dramatically. It helps to have a friend nearby for this, but it can be done on your own with a little patience. First, make sure your wheel is properly attached and centered. With one hand, squeeze the brake calipers so they touch the wheel rim. The pads should be parallel to the rim, and the entire pad should make contact with the braking surface of the rim. If they aren’t, loosen the bolts that attach the brake pads, and adjust accordingly. Then, with the other hand, loosen the cable that runs from the brake lever to the caliper. With a third hand—here’s where a friend is useful!—squeeze the brake lever slightly. Do this to the point you’d want the brakes to engage if you were riding. (The cable should move at the place it’s connected to the caliper.) With the calipers still touching the rim, retighten the cable with the lever in the desired position. Release the lever, spin the wheel, and make sure the brakes stop it. You can fine-tune the brake tension with the adjusting barrel. Adjusting your brakes takes practice and patience, but it’s worth the time! More detailed information can be found at Jim Langley’s site.

5. Adjust Your Derailleurs

If you’re riding and notice a scraping from your chainring, or the gears take too long to shift, or you can’t get into a certain gear, chances are your derailleurs need to be adjusted. To do this, you need to adjust the stop limit screws found on the mechanism. One screw (usually the upper) adjusts the outer limit, while the other (the lower) adjusts the inner limit. The idea is to shift the bike into the outermost gear and to tighten or loosen the upper screw until the derailleur is directly below the cog. Then shift the bike all the way to the innermost cog. Adjust the screw so that, again, the derailleur is directly below the cog. Once you’re sure the stop limit screws are properly adjusted, you can check the adjusting barrel. If the bike seems to shift too slowly in a small-to-large direction, the barrel is too loose. If it shifts too slowly in a large-to-small direction, it’s too tight. Adjust the barrel accordingly. Fine-tuning and adjusting derailleurs can be complicated, and it requires patience and practice. At first, it will seem daunting and time consuming, but you will eventually get the hang of it.

This covers a small amount of the work you can perform on your bike yourself. The more you practice taking care of your bike, the more you will learn—and the more you will want to learn. Eventually you might find yourself removing crank arms, changing bottom brackets, truing wheels, and replacing the cabling. However, some of these things should be left to a professional until you’re very comfortable doing them. Things like spoke tension and headset adjustment affect the safety of a bicycle. Unless you really know what you’re doing, these should be left to a trusted mechanic, but with practice, patience, and the help of a friend or two, you will be doing all the work on your bike in no time!

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