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7 Steps to Tune Up Your Bike for Spring

Basic Bicycle Maintenance and Safety Checks
  -- By Glenn Kent, Ph.D., Certified Personal Trainer
It's no secret that the modern bicycle is a versatile machine, offering options for transportation, recreation, fitness, competition and employment. Cycling provides a host of health benefits, including improved cardiovascular functioning, leg strength, balance and coordination, plus improvements in mood. Biking can also help with weight management. For those living in seasonal climates, our bicycles typically lie dormant during the cold winter months and resurface in spring. But before you head outside for your first ride of the season, spend some time getting your bike ready for the road. These basic bike maintenance tips will help ensure a safe, efficient ride all season.

7 Steps for a Spring Tune Up
Before you think about taking your bike for a spin, make sure you give it a thorough tune-up. Don’t worry; most of these checks are easy to administer. If you don’t want to get your hands dirty, have a bike shop tune your bike (cost is approximately $30-65).

Tune-up task #1: Clean your bike.
A clean bike extends the life of all its components, just as a clean car lasts longer.

What to do: Use a basic biodegradable cleaner such as Simple Green, a towel and an old toothbrush to clean everything: the frame, chain, chain rings, cassette, derailleurs, pedals, brakes, and seat. Make an effort to use as little water as possible. Also, remove the seat post (the tube connected to your seat that slides into the frame) and after cleaning it, and add a small amount of bicycle grease before reattaching it. This grease will last longer than oil, which dries out faster, and will also act as a barrier against rust in the seat tube.

Tune-up task #2: Inspect your brake system.
Brakes are a vital component of all bikes because they provide control over the speed you travel. Controlling speed reduces the likelihood of being in an accident. Brakes also permit the cyclist to maneuver while turning, riding up and down hills and avoiding debris or other obstacles.

What to do: First, check the brake pads, the rectangular rubberized component that actually rubs against the metal tire rim. Just like the brakes in your car, bicycle brakes wear down over time and need to be replaced. Use a flashlight to assess if the pads are wearing evenly. If you notice a ridge or other uneven wear pattern, you may need to have your brakes adjusted. Replace the pads if they show excessive wear. Next, squeeze the brake lever on your handlebars and watch the brake pads. They should hit the rim at the same time. If they don't, you can adjust your brakes with the brake arm tension screw, which is located on one of the brake lever arms near the tire. If you notice too much slack in the cable when pulling your brakes, roll out the barrel adjuster at the end of the lever (where the cable enters the housing) to add tension to the brake cable, thereby making the brakes react more quickly.

A poor braking system could lead to loss of control while riding, which could lead to accidents and serious injury. If you conclude that your brakes are not working properly, then do not ride your bike; take it to a bike shop to be repaired. If your brakes fail while riding, figure out a way to stop your bike (perhaps go up hill or steer onto the grass or other high friction surface). After you have come to a complete stop, get off your bike and walk home or call for a lift. Have the brakes repaired before riding again.

Tune-up task #3: Watch your wheels.
Wheels (rims) hold your tires in place and provide stability and smoothness while riding. Your bike would not move without rims because they allow consistent contact between the tires and road surface.

What to do: Clean the wheels with rubbing alcohol and a clean, dry cloth. Inspect the rims for nicks, scrapes, dents or other damage. Next, elevate one end of the bike and spin the wheel. The wheel should move smoothly, without wobbling. Repeat for the other wheel.

Damaged rims cause uneven wear to tires and brake pads, which can shorten their lifespan. In addition, uneven tire wear usually leads to flat tires or a blown tire while riding—a potentially dangerous situation. Replace your wheels if denting or other damage is excessive. A wobbly rim can be adjusted with a spoke wrench—a simple fix that a bike repair shop can handle better than most do-it-yourselfers. Adjusting spokes yourself can lead to more problems if you do not know what you’re doing.

Tune-up task #4: Inspect the drivetrain.
A bike’s drivetrain includes the pedals, chain, chainring, derailleur (the device that moves the chain to make riding easier or harder) and rear wheel cassette (all the little teeth in the center of the rear wheel). The drivetrain is important because it transfers the power generated by the rider's legs to the rear wheel. This transfer of power provides the force that moves the bike.

What to do: You will need a partner or bike stand to assist with this part of the tune-up. Raise the rear wheel and spin as you did when checking the wheels (task #3 above). This time, shift through all the gears. Shifting should be smooth and easy to perform. Inspect the chain, chainrings, derailleur and cassette for damage (excessive wear, missing teeth, dents, scrapes, etc.). Note that small chainrings wear out sooner than large chainrings and that chains are the most frequently replaced component of the drivetrain.

If shifting is not smooth, take your bike to a repair shop to adjust the derailleur. Doing this yourself can lead to more problems if you do not know what you’re doing. Again, chains are usually the first component to go in the drivetrain and should be replaced every 2,000-3,000 miles. Replacement cost is generally between $20 and $50. Waiting too long to replace a chain will wear down the other drivetrain components faster.

Tune-up task #5: Check the tires.
Tires fit around the wheels (rims) to protect them and improve their function. Tires offer a source of friction (i.e., traction) with the ground, permitting travel over a variety of surfaces, including pavement, dirt and gravel. In addition, they form a flexible cushion with the ground, which smoothes out shock, making for a more comfortable ride.

What to do: Check your tires for splits, cracks or tears, especially along the sides (where the tire does not touch the ground). You will also want to check the tread for uneven or excessive wear. If the brake pads were out of alignment (task #2 above), make sure they have not damaged the tires.

Tires are fairly inexpensive to replace, so if you are in doubt about keeping a tire, it is best to have it replaced. Damaged tires are prone to burst, causing a sudden loss of control—a potentially dangerous situation. All bike shops will repair tires, but it's a simple to change a tire on your own using tire levers and a pump to re-inflate the inner tube.

Tune-up task #6: Check the cables.
Cables are made of tightly coiled metal wire surrounded in plastic housing. Cables connect the shifters and brakes on the handlebars to the derailleur and brake pads. Cables connected to the shifters assist with moving the chain from one gear to another via the derailleur, while those connected to the brakes aid in stopping the bike when the lever on the handlebars is used.

What to do: Inspect the cable and surrounding rubber housing for cracks, crimps, rust, dirt and looseness.

New cables make shifting and braking smooth, which increases bike performance. If you notice damaged or worn out cables, get t hem replaced at your local bike shop. Unless you're well trained in this task, changing bike cables can be tricky and time consuming. Schedule replacement of cables every 2-5 years based on use. If you ride your bike year-round, consider replacing your cables yearly.

Tune-up task #7: Add lubricant.
Oil lubricant coats the chain and other components of the drivetrain, helping them last longer and work more efficiently. Lube also reduces accumulation of dirt and grime, which helps increase performance of the moving parts.

What to do: Apply lubricant evenly to the chain while slowly rotating the pedals in a counterclockwise direction. Also, remember to lube moving parts on the derailleur, the pivot point on the brake levers and any exposed cable wire. Remember to wipe off any excess oil with a clean, dry rag, especially on the chain.

A properly lubricated bike makes shifting and braking smooth, thereby increasing performance. You can fix minor rust spots by rubbing them with steel wool. You may want to wear work gloves to protect your hands as steel wool can cause splinters in your skin. It is usually too difficult to remove rust from certain components (e.g., the chain), which should be simply be replaced.


A Pre-Ride Checklist
Now that your springtime tune-up is finished, you're almost ready to ride. You should inspect your bike before every ride to avoid potential problems on the road. Use the following quick checklist before each ride to improve biking efficiency while maximizing safety.
  1. Let your bike fall. Pick your bike up 4-5 inches off the ground and let it drop. Investigate any rattling or odd noises when it hits the ground. They could be signs of loose parts.
  2. Test the brakes. Engage the brake levers to make sure they are functioning properly. They should snap back after letting you let go.
  3. Tires OK? Make sure the tires are inflated according to the specifications on the side wall of each tire. Check for cuts, tears, and rips and replace if necessary. This step only takes a minute, but it is one of the most important steps you should take to ensure safety and efficiency before every ride.
  4. Spin the wheel. It should spin freely without wobbling and there should be no contact between it and the brake pads.
  5. Secure the wheel. Most bikes contain quick release levers, which are levers located at the hub (center of the wheel) that allow for easy removal or adjustment of the wheel without using a tool. These should be securely tightened.
  6. Secure the headset. The headset is the short tube located at the front of the bike connecting the forks and the bike frame. Your handlebars slip into this tube, which pivots to allow steering. To test if the headset is secure, apply the front brakes while gently tilting the bike forward and back (your rear tire should raise up and down). Listen for clicking, which is a sign of a loose headset. Tighten if necessary.
All this maintenance means one thing: You have earned the right to mount your bicycle for the spring and summer season! For bike rides of any distance, make sure you wear a helmet. For longer rides, bring along something to drink and eat. Regardless of distance, always remember to follow the rules of the road. Most importantly, enjoy the exercise and fun that comes with this German-inspired mode of transportation.

Source list:
Downs, Todd. 2005. Bicycling Magazine's Complete Guide to Bicycle Maintenance and Repair: For Road and Mountain Bikes. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

How to Repair a Bicycle, from the Editors of Consumers Guide

Rules of the Road, from the League of American Bicyclists