Have you ever looked at your bike and thought, “it can’t be that hard to figure out,” but then paid $20 for someone else to fix your latest flat anyway? It doesn’t have to be like that. Bikes are pretty easy to understand, and knowing how to do basic maintenance is an important skill for every cyclist—whether you race competitively or just ride to work to live a little greener. Here, we’ll cover three basic bike issues and how to deal with them; by the end of the article you should have a decent grasp on how to keep your bike clean, change an inner tube, and take care of your chain. Let’s get started!
Make A Clean Start
Keeping your bike reasonably gunk-free is the easiest and most important part of bike maintenance. Dirt and grit cause corrosion on all bike components, and a chain encased in last year’s grease always runs rough. If you don’t clean your chain on the regular, you’ll notice a huge difference when you start wiping it down once a week and giving it a thorough scrub once a month. A rag, and old toothbrush, and regular soap and water work great on most parts of your bike, but your chain needs a degreaser to get really clean. Most bike stores stock a range of degreasers for different chains and conditions, but lighter fluid on a rag works in a pinch. To start cleaning, first turn your bike upside down, so it’s resting on the seat and handlebars. Coat part of a rag in the degreaser of your choice and lightly pinch down on the chain as you turn the pedals with your hands, allowing the chain to run through your fingers in the rag. After your chain is clean, lube it up with a lubricant designed specifically for bike chains (no substitutions here—using the right lubricant is important).
Don’t Get Stranded with a Flat
Flat tires are an inevitable part of biking, so it’s best to learn how to deal with them on your own. If you like to take long rides, keep a tire repair kit on your bike so you’ll never be stranded. This kit should include three basic items:
A new tube
A small hand pump
Two or three tire levers, which you’ll use to pry the tire from the rim
If you’re changing your tire at home, save some money by using a patch kit to fix your leaky tube rather than replacing it with a brand new one. Either way, the first and last steps are the same: remove the wheel, remove the tire, and then take off the tube. Replace or patch the tube, reassemble the wheel, and reattach it to your bike. If the source of the leak is obvious and you want to use a patch, deflate the tube all the way, inspect it for any sharp objects that could cause another leak, and follow the directions on your patch kit. If the leak is hard to find, submerge the tube in a bucket of water or half-full bathtub—deflating it as you go. The air bubbles will point you right to the leak.
Keep Your Chain in Check
Bike chains don’t last forever. A new chain begins to stretch on its very first ride, and it wears down your bike’s drivetrain as it stretches. Eventually, the chain will slip, and this can cause some real damage to your bike and maybe even an accident. Replacing your chain before it stretches too much will help keep you safe and save money on replacement parts.
You can use a ruler to check whether or not your chain needs to be replaced. Center one of your chain pins under the “0” mark on your ruler and then count out twelve complete links. A complete link includes an inner and outer component. If your chain’s in good shape, links 1 through 12 should line up exactly with the marks for inches 1 through 12 on the ruler. If your chain is between 1/16″ & 1/8″ off the inch marks, replace it soon. If it’s more than 1/8″ off its marks, you’re in luck—you get to change your chain right away.
Changing a chain is oddly satisfying. The first step is figuring out how long of a replacement chain to get, and this varies with how many gears your bike has. Your local bike shop will be able to help you out with this, or you can count the links on your existing chain and go from there.
Next, you’ll need to know if your chain and your replacement chain each have a master link. A master link will make your life easier and save you the cost of buying a chain break tool. Using a chain break tool is super fun, though, and it’s a handy skill for every cyclist to have. If you have a choice, try a master link the first time—but be sure to learn the chain tool eventually. Once you’ve got all that figured out, you’re ready to go. Remove your old chain, put on your new one, make sure its two ends are securely fastened together, and be on your way.
The amount of wear you’ll get from your chain can vary from 2,000 to 20,000 miles, depending on terrain and conditions, so check your new chain every few months to make sure it’s okay. Removing your chain is also a great opportunity to give it a better-than-average cleaning. And that’s it—basic bike maintenance using just a few inexpensive, easy-to-find tools. Performing your own maintenance will take a little getting used to, but after you’ve done it a few times you’ll wonder why it took you so long to learn. Keep trying and you’ll get it in no time.
Good luck, and stay safe out there this summer!