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Keeping Your Bike Out of the Bike Shop.
By Tom Demerly.

I own a bike shop.  Each year our revenue from service is a high six-figure amount.  Since about 80% of the service we perform is due to a lack of preventive maintenance, I would prefer you stop reading this article now.  If you read it and pay attention, it could cost me thousands.

The bicycle is an inherently simple device, but they have become increasingly intolerant of things like dirt, poor maintenance and minor damage.  There are three areas where preventive maintenance will keep your bike out of the shop and save you money.  If you keep your bike spotlessly clean, maintain proper tire inflation and don’t use too much lubricant on moving parts you will avoid most common technical problems. 

In each of these three areas, bicycle maintenance should become a habit.  For every hour you spend on your bike riding, you spend several minutes maintaining it.  These maintenance standards are used not only by top professional cycling teams like Mapei, Saeco and the U.S. Postal Service Team, by also by the U.S. military to maintain complex equipment like helicopters.  Preventive maintenance prevents costly repairs.

Think of the modern bicycle as a stringed musical instrument.  Since the bicycle depends on tensioned cables to control the transmission (gears) and brakes, when something effects the adjustment of these cables, there will be problems.  Additionally, metal parts that move on one another create friction.  This is where dirt comes in.  As a key part of their maintenance program top cycling teams in the Tour de France end their daily maintenance routine with a bike wash.  Bicycles are washed like a car, soap and water, gently hosed off.   Solvents are used to remove dirty lubricant film.  The bike is rinsed, dried, lightly lubricated and checked for mechanical function.  This is the daily maintenance.  For every one hour the bike is on the road, approximately 15 minutes of preventive maintenance is performed.  Consequently, mechanical problems are rare. Mark Trzeciak, a nine year veteran professional bike shop mechanic, says simply “Keep your bike clean and it will treat you right”.

Master wheel builder, Ken O'Day, checks spoke tension on a neglected wheel. The wheel was rebuilt, costing over $130.00. Preventive maintenance would have prevented this job.

Have you ever finished a long road ride on a dry day and noticed the fine grit on your skin.  Picture the cumulative effects of this grit drawn into the drivetrain cable housings of your bike.  This grit invades all moving surfaces where metal contacts metal.  This effects how smoothly your inner cables slide through the housings.  Once these have dirt and grit in them, you have shifting and braking problems.  Dirt is what accelerates the wear of components.  Keep the dirt off, and your equipment lasts longer.  Modern bikes have adequate bearing seals so that gentle washing will not cause water to get into bottom brackets, headsets and hubs.  Stay away from the power washer.  If you maintained your bike regularly and kept it clean, it will not need powerwashing.  According to former Motorola Cycling Team Mechanic Scott Parr, author of “Tales from the Toolbox”, “Pro team bike mechanics are glorified bike washers.”  In addition to keeping the bike clean, washing the bike makes you inspect it: Are your tires worn? are your cable ends frayed? Are your quick releases on correctly?  A good bike wash also provides a good safety inspection. Keeping your bike clean is the cornerstone to making it run correctly and keeping it out of the shop.

According to National Bicycle Dealer Association surveys, the best selling bicycle accessory is the tire pump.  If this is true, cyclists are not using them. Air your tires every time you ride.  Not every other time, not once a week, but every single time.  Especially with road bikes, tires have a very low volume of air at very high pressure.  For mountain bikes, tire pressure needs to be adjusted for trail conditions. In high-pressure tires, pressure can fall 30% in 24 hours.  Tire pressure is your primary defense against rim damage.  The majority of rim dents are from low tire pressure, and the inability of a soft tire to protect a rim against impact.  Although not the major cause of flat tires (punctures are), low tire pressure also leads to “pinch flats” where the inner tube is crushed between the tire and the rim. 

Mark T. checks a headset on a new bike avoiding possible headset and fork damage.

This creates small punctures that create flats over time.  Keep tire pressure up and you will prevent rim damage, pinch flats and improves the performance of your bike.  Replacing your tires when they are worn, but before they are worn out, also helps prevent flats at an inopportune time and insures safe, predictable tire performance.  Checking your tire wear is one of the things that can be done while washing your bike.

The third critical area of preventive maintenance is chain lube.  Before I start, let me say this is an area of considerable controversy.  Different mechanics will tell you different things, but your own experience is the best guide.  Gaining that experience may be a costly affair however.

Almost every good mechanic will agree that with chain lube, less is more.  Too much chain lube attracts and holds dirt.  The dirt is pulled through your chain, cogs, chainwheels and accelerates wear.  Especially with aerosol chain lubricants, consumers have a tendency to over-apply them.  The over-spray on rims, brake pads, etc. create problems.  Also, as over-applications of chain lube accumulate, it becomes more difficult to keep the bike clean.

The controversy comes when you ask, “Which chain lube is best?”  The safe answer is that different lubes should be used for different conditions.  So-called “all conditions” lubes usually fall short of manufacturer’s claims.  Heavy wax-based lubes tend to build up and get sticky, trapping dirt.  New “self-cleaning” wax based lubes only work if applied in strict compliance with manufacturer’s instructions.  If your initial application is not on a clean chain, you’re in for trouble.

With the exception of extremely dirty, wet conditions such as rainy mountain bike rides and cyclo-cross, I prefer a lube called T-9 Boeshield.  This is a light, aerosol or drip lubricant that stays clean and washes off easily once dirty.  T-9 Boeshield can be used near plastics, rubber and ceramic pulley bushings (as found in some rear derailleurs) without damage.

Mike O'Donnell builds Sheila Taormina's Olympic bike.

Cleaning the lubricant film off your drivetrain is best accomplished with some type of solvent.  When I raced in Europe, our mechanics used diesel fuel to strip chain lube.  This was smelly, dangerous (flammable and toxic) and environmentally irresponsible.  Modern solvents such as Simple Green are biodegradable, less toxic and non-flammable.  Citrus-based solvents are highly effective, but more powerful than most people give them credit.  Shimano has warned that citrus solvents can cause “swelling” of pulley bushings.  I feel citrus solvents are best avoided since Simple Green is so inexpensive and works so well.

If you practice these three maintenance procedures regularly your bike will run perfectly most of the time.  It is incredible that keeping a bike washed, airing the tires regularly and keeping a light application of clean, fresh chain lube will prevent most major maintenance problems.  Most big repairs come from neglect in one or all of these areas, and most mechanical failures are a result of a failure to perform this preventive maintenance.

My experience has been that most people neglect maintenance or diminish the importance of maintaining their bike.  They feel that regular, everyday maintenance including washing, airing tires and keeping chain lube fresh and clean is excessive and not required.  It doesn’t take long to discover that 15 minutes of preventive maintenance done regularly will prevent hours of costly repairs.  But almost everyone ignores it.  My living depends on that.



© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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