Spend enough time working in a bike shop and you’ll see just about every type of bike in just about every stage of disrepair. Most shop employees tend to think about bikes and bike related subjects for most of their waking hours. It’s part of why we do what we do. One of the more interesting things to think about is trying to decide which point in time it is when someones brand new shiny “baby” becomes a neglected, poorly shifting, corroding piece of metal and rubber. This phenomenon is not solely held to cheap department store bikes. No sir. We often see what were once very expensive, high end machines in various stages of neglect as well. For a bike shop mechanic it can be like a trip to the local animal shelter. These once proud machines stare back at us forlornly, their silent voices whispering “save me”.
Bicycles are amazing machines. Bearings and sprockets and chain links spin and whir literally thousands of times an hour as our bikes carry us to work, the grocery store or along the rail trail on a Sunday afternoon. Bicycles are built up of many wearable components and all of this repetitive activity slowly takes its toll. Unfortunately one thing is certain. Bikes do not heal. They stay worn out and broken until their owners take action.
All is not lost! Every bicycle can be saved from a horrible fate. Some simple routine maintenance and an awareness of which components WILL wear over time is all that is needed. It takes surprisingly little effort to keep your bike running smoothly and looking great for many years.
We hate flats. We’d rather avoid the walk home in the hot sun. The solution is to buy a floor pump and routinely top up the air in your tires before each ride. It’s surprising how much air loss can take place over the course of a weeks time, and over an even shorter time for road racing bikes. Harder tires generally roll better and resist becoming punctured. Follow the recommended air pressure on the side of your tires.
The subject of lubricating your bike is an interesting one. Too much oil can attract dirt and turn a chain into a grimy black mess, which causes sluggish performance. Too little can invite corrosion, and a dry chain is much harder to pedal. Use a good quality oil made for bicycles. Lightly oil the chain and wipe off any excess lube after a few minutes. You can also add a dot of oil to your brake lever pivots as well as the ones on your brakes and derailleurs. It’s best to keep lubrication away from disc brakes.
It can be a good idea to periodically remove the seat post from your bike and add a thin film of grease to it. You can also remove your pedals and add a small amount of grease to the threads before screwing them back into the crank arms, bearing in mind that the pedals have opposite threads. This will prevent galvanic corrosion which causes these parts to become permanently stuck over time.
Rail trail riding will soon cover a bike in a decent layer of dust. This dust is very abrasive and works its way into the various pivots of your drive train, causing premature wear. What to do? It isn’t necessary to constantly wash your bike. Taking an old towel and dry wiping the dust off of your bike is often enough. If you DO find it necessary to wash it, a bucket of water and a sponge or a garden hose with a regular gun attachment will get the job done. Towel dry the bike afterwards. Pressure washers or the local car wash will force water into the bearings of your bike, ruining those components. After cleaning your bike, whether by wiping or washing, lubricate it as mentioned above.
It’s also a good idea to routinely check the various nuts and bolts of your bike, especially those that were used to attach racks, mirrors and fenders.
What about “wearable” components? How do bikes age? As was said before, those thousands upon thousands of rotations that occur as we ride end up taking their toll. You might remember the performance of your bike when it was brand new. Everything was silky smooth and felt tight. The bike rolled forever. As certain parts wear, the performance of the bike degrades. But as was said, all is not lost. Replace these wearable pieces, and the bike will feel new again. Sometimes this can be difficult to perceive when living in a throw away society.
Modern bike chains are only designed to last for a given mileage. Once they wear to a certain point, the freewheel on the rear wheel starts to wear as well. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to replace both of these affordable components each spring if the bike sees regular usage. Tires become thinner as they wear. It doesn’t take much force for the smallest item to punch through. Couple this with under inflation, and you can easily guess why your flat tire occurred.
Gear and brake cables can oxidize and become dry over time, especially when coated with trail dust. They won’t slide as easily through the outer casings. This causes very sluggish braking and shifting and leads to the most frustration. It’s very cost effective to change cables. The ones made of stainless steel are highly recommended due to their high resistance to corrosion. Lastly, brake pads are quickly worn down. Checking and replacing them not only improves braking performance, it is also important for safety reasons.
Those are the most basic of the wearable components of your bike. Taking it a step further, you could also consider your handlebar grips or tape as well. Ditto with your saddle. Replacing your grips or tape is the fastest way to make a bike feel new, due to them being a direct touch point. The foam and gel inside your saddle ages and hardens. It breaks down over time not unlike a bed mattress. If it doesn’t feel right any more, replacing it will usually help. Not to mention, there are constant improvements in saddle technology.
As you can see, it’s really easy to get many more years out of your bicycle investment by following a simple maintenance regimen. All it costs is some time. Your bike will spend less time in the shop or the corner of the garage, and more time out on the trail. That’s a good thing!