Repairs and Maintenance on Your Bike
For a long while, I thought that this was the one article that I would never write. I see myself as rather inept when it comes to bike repair and maintenance as I am reluctant to work on my bike, slow to finish a task, and unknowledgeable about the latest gear. In fact, I don't even know many of the terms. And my bikes usually look as though they need some work. However, I have gradually come to recognize that I do have a little ability. I have made almost all of my own repairs, have built three sets of wheels, have completely repainted my traveling bike four times (which required removing and reinstalling all of the parts), and have repaired other people's bikes for them on the road. The following suggestions, then, are not for those with a great deal of repair experience -- who wouldn't need this help anyway -- but for those with even less experience than me who have never attempted to repair or maintain their own bikes.
There are many times when making repairs on the road has saved me from disaster. In 1988 on a bicycle trip to Pennsylvania, I broke a spoke on a wheel and ended up rebuilding the wheel and replacing spokes on numerous occasions before getting back home (the spokes I had rebuilt with were inferior). In 1990 while in the Land Between the Lakes, I had to retrue my rear wheel while camping out. In 1995 at the beginning of a trip to Canada, the wrong size bearings had been put into the front hub, so I had to clean out the broken bearings enough to keep traveling back to the bike shop. In 1996 on a trip to Pennsylvania, a pedal kept coming off because the bearings were seizing. And in 1998, I wobbled across the border into Canada because of broken bottom bracket bearings. In addition, I have suffered a broken axle on several trips. Each of these problems could have terminated the trip if I had not been able to deal with them to some extent myself.
I am not going to try to explain how to perform every repair for two very good reasons: First, to do so, I would have to write an entire website or a book, not a short webpage. Second, I don't know how to fix your bike, only my own. I highly suggest getting a book on bike repairs that is current with the age of your bike. There are also some good websites indicated in the right column, and I have pointers to specific pages below. Then what is the purpose of this page? It's purpose is to encourage cyclists to be less fearful of working on their own bikes and to show what few operations need to be done. If I, a klutz, can perform most of my own repairs, so can you. Keep in mind the following points:
1) You don't have to be highly skilled to repair and maintain your own bike. I am proof of this point because I am generally left-handed about everything I do. (This statement is not prejudicial because I am left-handed.)
2) Most repairs are minor and do not take long. You can generally fix your bike and be on your way in much less time than it would take to visit a bike shop. In fact, the word "repair" is a bit of a misnomer, as most work nowadays consists of lubricating, tightening, adjusting, or replacing parts.
3) Most repairs don't require special tools but instead can be made with small and inexpensive tools.
4) Doing your own maintenance will stop some problems before they ever develop.
5) Only a few bike problems will be discovered at home. Most will occur on the road, and you will need to be able to get the bike into shape in order to get back home.
All this being said, there are some repairs that I wouldn't attempt because they require special tools, such as those needed to replace a headset. Most of my tools fit into one small bag.
Tools and Spare Parts Required to Fix a Bike
All tool and spare parts kits should not be alike. First, the tools and parts required for different bikes will not be the same. Second, there is little sense in purchasing tools you don't know how to use. And third, the choice of tools and parts is partially a matter of taste, as more than one tool can often perform the same task and which spare parts will be needed (if any) is uncertain. Here is a reasonable list of tools and spare parts:
For Tire and Wheel Repair
Patch kit, extra glue, tire irons, spare tube, folding tire, spare rear spokes, freewheel or freehub remover, spoke truing tool, cone wrenches (size varies -- only for use with adjustable cones), a rear axle (for freewheel-equipped bikes only)
For Attachments and Adjustments
Large blade flat screwdriver, large blade Phillips screwdriver, small blade flat screwdriver, small blade Phillips screwdriver (all screwdrivers carried on the bike should be short in length to reduce weight and bulk), set of four or five Allen wrenches, metric wrenches 8mm through 10mm, a small adjustable wrench (for non-metric bolts and when two wrenches of the same size are required), and extra nuts, bolts, and screws. Check Allen wrenches and metric wrenches against your bike to make sure you have the ones you need.
For Chain Repair and Maintenance
Chain tool, extra links, WD-40, grease
For Brakes, Cables, and Shifters
Needle-nosed pliers, small wire cutters, two extra rear derailleur cables, one extra rear brake cable, (and some use a third-hand brake tool). On a long bicycle trip, carry rear cables because the rear cable is more likely to break and because you can always cut a long cable shorter, but you can't cut a short cable longer.
For Bottom Brackets and Headsets
With bottom brackets, use a crank extractor and either a bottom bracket tool or a bottom bracket extractor, depending on your bottom bracket. A very wide wrench can open or tighten the headset nut, allowing access to the bearings. I don't try to replace a headset myself, although the tools can be purchased, just like any others.
When I was on my first Canadian trip in 1966, I started breaking rear gear cables, one after another. I blamed the cables, and I blamed the derailleur, but I did not blame myself, and I was the one at fault. Because I had allowed the chain to become too dirty, shifting was straining the cables too much. Paying attention to the bike can prevent many serious problems from occurring. Watch and listen for trouble before it begins. By saying this, I do not mean that you have to keep your bike looking like a million bucks all the time; that is your choice; I'm not so picky. What I am saying is that you have to catch minor problems before they become serious. Good maintenance is well worth the small amount of time it requires. Here are some causes of trouble that are easily corrected in advance, listed according to frequency of inspection.
1) Check the inflation of tires every day before starting to ride and from time to time while riding. Avoid both underinflated and overinflated tires. An underinflated tire can get pinch flats and sidewall cracks plus the edge of the rim may be damaged. On the other hand, in recent years, it has become customary to inflate all tires as hard as a rock. This overinflation can cause spoke breakage, rim cracks, and rim damage at the spoke holes. How much the tire should be inflated is not a hard science, so I never use a tire gauge. The tire should be somewhat soft and should distort somewhat from the cyclist's weight; however, it must have enough air in it to prevent excessive distortion. Over and underinflated tires reveal themselves best by hitting too hard on bumps, cracks, and rocks.
Besides checking your tires, be sure to carry an extra tube, a patch kit, and some tire irons on every trip out of your neighborhood.
2) After any rain, watch for rust. There are two kinds of rust: red and black. Black rust is actually good, as it will protect the steel from further corrosion, while red rust will flake away, leading to additional damage. Rust on the frame can be removed with sand paper and then the frame can be touched up with spray paint, model paint, or even fingernail polish. Rust on the cables can be controlled somewhat with WD-40, oil, or grease; usually that treatment will turn red rust into black rust.
3) After riding in a hard rain, the bike chain should be cleaned and greased to avoid rust. The rain has washed out most of the dirt, and the rest can be quickly cleaned by spraying with WD-40 and using rags, paper towels, and/or a toothbrush to remove grit, then drying and adding a very small amount of grease. It's important that the chain is not sticky; otherwise, it will quickly attract dirt.
There's a great deal of argument about the best way to clean and grease a chain. Undeniable is the need to remove all the old dirt. Greatly contested is the best lubricant, with advocates for oil, grease, WD-40, White Lightening, Tenacious Oil, hot oil, hot wax, and others. (Note that the process of creating and applying hot oil and hot wax involves strong risks of fire and burns. If you attempt this, work outside, heat oil and wax in a container of boiling water, keep a bucket of cold water handy, and be very careful to avoid getting the oil or wax on you.) After any treatment, avoid a tacky or sticky chain.
The chain will stretch after many thousand miles, and any skipping and jumping while using seldom-used cogs or chainrings is a sign that stretch has taken place. A new chain will skip on well-worn teeth after such wear has occurred. While I can get 10,000 miles out of a chain-cogwheel combination, after that number of miles, they both have to be replaced and perhaps a chainring as well. Most advocate changing the chain much more often to extend the life of the cogs. The most cost-effective solution depends on the cost of your cogs and chain.
4) At all times, be aware of any rattles and noises from the bike. A misadjusted part or a loose bolt can be the cause of such noise. If the rattle is ignored, the nut and bolt will fall off and be lost, and an injury, lost parts, or damage may result.
While the location of the noise will often be obvious, often a little detective work is needed. Ask yourself questions while riding along. Is the noise periodic or continuous? If it is a periodic noise, does it match the speed of the chain or the speed of the wheels? To see if the noise comes from a pedal, I take turns riding with first one foot and then the other hanging free. To see if the noise is connected to the chain or crank, I coast for a while. I check the wheels by stopping the bike and spinning the wheels separately. If it is a random noise, it is probably something connected to the frame or fenders.
5) After the bike has been stored for a while or before beginning a long trip, check all of the bolts that hold racks on the bike for tightness, replace worn brakepads, cables, freewheel/freehub cogs, and a worn chain. If the bearings haven't been greased and if any parts need adjustment, do that too. It is easy to test bearings to see if they are adjusted properly. The pedal, cranks, and wheels will spin slowly and maybe stop if too tight. There might be a noticeable roughness. If too loose, there will be a slight side-to-side wobble. Wheels should turn so easily that the weight of the valve stem will cause the wheel to turn when the bike is held up or turned upside down.
As I have already stated, "repair" is a bit of a misnomer. At one time, most bicycle components could be taken apart, the broken parts replaced, and put back together. However, even then it was difficult to obtain the replacements. Now, most components cannot be disassembled at all, so "repair" amounts to replacing, adjusting, greasing, and tightening.
There's one special trick that a repairman knows that could save a do-it-yourselfer a lot of grief: the repairman tightens all the bolts down flush, and then he gives them an extra turn, overtightening them to lock them in place. If a bolt is attached to the nut, the nut must be firmly held or even rotated in the opposite direction to allow the bolt to lock.
Of course, some bolts can be overtighten, such as the one that clamps to a cable. In this case, the bolt must be tightened enough that the cable can't slip but not enough to damage the cable. The adjustment screws on a derailleur don't need additional tightening, of course.
Components of a Bicycle Which May Need Attention
NOTE: This is just a list, as thorough details would take an entire website. As I have the time, I am going to add additional links to good explanations.
1. Handlebars have foam or rubber grips or handlebar tape which can work loose from time to time.
2. Hand brakes have a screw and clamp which keep them from moving around. They also have a cable that may need adjustment or replacement. On some bikes, the brakes can be adjusted on the handlebars and with other, they must be adjusted at the brake. Some bikes lack adjustments, and the cable must be loosened and retightened. See Cables, Articles about Brakes, and Adjust the Brakes.
3. Shifters are often mounted on the handlebars and otherwise on the downtube. They have an attaching bolt, a cable which may need attention, and an adjustment for cable tension (which may be on the handlebar or at the other end of the cable).
4. A bolt connects the handlebar to the stem; if this is loose, the handlebar can rotate.
5. The stem is connected to the downtube with a large bolt connected to a wedge. The handlebar will shift from side to side or even come out if this is loose. See Adjust the Headset and Check the Handlebar Stem.
1. Some seats have a bolt to adjust tension.
2. The seat has a clamp underneath which keeps the seat attached to the seatpost and which also can be used to adjust the angle.
3. The seatpost is secured to the frame by a bolt. Besides keeping the seatpost from coming out, this bolt keeps the seat at the right height and facing straight ahead.
The parts which connect the frame to the front fork is called the headset. There are cones and bearings at the top and bottom of the headset, and there is a large nut which locks the unit together. Problems can include:
1. The nut can come loose. This is a common problem, and the nut is usually too large to allow carrying a tightening wrench. However, the nut can be tightened by hand until you can encounter a wrench.
2. The bearings may need to be regreased. This should be done every year or two, depending on mileage. See Adjust the Headset.
3. These bearings can be damaged after miles of use, especially on a touring or mountain bike.
See Articles about Brakes and Adjust the Brakes.
1. Brakes are connected to the frame by a bolt which may come loose (which could cause the wheels to lock).
2. Brakes have brakepads which might need to be adjusted or replaced. Some brakepads can be adjusted only by moving them up and down or rotating them, and others (as on cantilever brakes) can be adjusted in and out too.
3. Brakes have clamps attached to their cables and may have adjustment screws as well.
4. With caliper brakes, there will be a hanger mounted to the frame above the brake with an adjustment screw. There will also be a yoke (Y-connection) between the hanger and the brakes which also includes an adjustable clamp.
1. The crankset has one to three chainrings held in place by bolts.
2. The crankarms are bolted into the bottom bracket. See Cotterless Cranks.
3. The pedals are screwed onto the crankarms.
4. The pedals have bearings on the inside and outside.
5. Some pedals have clips and straps attached; others have locking cleats.
6. The bottom bracket has a locking nut.
7. The bottom bracket has bearings on each side. See Bottom Bracket Ajustment and Bottom Bracket Cups.
See Chains and Chain Repair.
1. A chain can be dirty and needed cleaned and greased.
2. It can stretch over time and need to be replaced.
3. A link may bind or come loose.
Derailleurs and Internal Hubs
1. The front derailleur is attached to the seat tube. It is usually attached with a clamp, and if the attachment is slightly loose, the derailleur can hit the chainrings or become misaligned. The derailleur must be parallel to the chainrings and must clear the large chainring by about half the height of the chain.
2. The rear derailleur is attached to a hanger which can be part of the frame, bolted to the frame, or attached at the fork blade.
3. The rear derailleur usually has a cable adjustment and always has a cable clamp.
4. Both derailleurs have two set screws which stop the chain from jumping off of the chainrings or cogs on either side. Over time, they will gradually move, causing the chain to fall off or making a shift difficult or impossible to make. See Adust the Rear Derailleur, Adjust the Front Derailleur, and Derailer [sic] Adjustment.
5. An internal hub shifter will have an adjustment device along the length of the cable as cable stretch can make shifting impossible. Some internal hubs require oil periodically. See Three-speed Hubs.
1. Wheels have tires and tubes which must be kept inflated and in good condition. Repairing a tire is a frequent chore. See How To Fix A Flat.
2. Spokes can become loose, causing the wheels to wobble. See How to True a Wobbly Wheel.
3. The freewheel or freehub can become worn, needing to be replaced. See Bicycle Freewheels or Shimano Cassettes.
4. The wheel can move from side to side on the hub or bind on the hub, plus it may need to be regreased. See Cone Wrenches, Adjust the Front Wheel Bearing, and Adjust the Rear Wheel Bearings.
5. The bolts or quick releases that hold the wheels in place can become loose and need retightening. See How to Use a Quick Release.
6. On an older bike with a five or six speed freewheel, the axle can break.
1. Fenders, racks, water bottle cages, and any clamped or attached accessories may need to have their bolts or clamps retightened.
That's it, unless I forgot something, and I'm sure someone will write me if I did. As you can see, on a bicycle tour most "repairs" will simply consist of retightening stuff that's gotten loose or out of adjustment. In every case, the repair will either take much less than half an hour or will be impossible to make, due to the need for a replacement part. Even when the bike has an unrepairable problem, temporary repairs can be made that will allow you to get to the next bikeshop. So, I highly recommend spending some time familiarizing yourself with your bike.