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
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
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.