By Nicky Stevens

Basic bicycle maintenance isn’t difficult, and it will make your ride easier and greatly extend the life of your components. Simple things like a properly lubricated chain and keeping your derailleurs adjusted avoid wear that lead to replacing components early, which can be expensive.

Coupling basic maintenance with regular tune-ups at the local bike shop will insure that you spend more time enjoying the ride and less time fighting your bike. Today we’ll talk about a few indications that your bike needs maintenance and cover the how-tos in the next post. If you don’t know all of the jargon, stay tuned for an explanation in Part 2.

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What are some signs that my bike needs maintenance?

Did you hear that? I did… from 15 feet behind you on the trail! It’s your bike telling you something. I’ve found that my ears are often the first to pick up on maintenance needs. A properly tuned bike should be nearly silent while pedaling. What about when you take your bike off the rack? Did you hear a “thunk” as it hit the ground? That is another indication you should listen for.  

Here are a few common sounds and what they could mean (there are always exceptions).

  • “Chirps” like a flock of tiny birds near your back wheel. This typically means your chain is in dire need of lubrication. Lack of lubrication on your chain not only adds resistance to pedaling, but it also causes premature wear to the chain, cassette and chain rings.
  • A “clickity, clickity, clickity …” after shifting, as the chain moves from one gear to the next. If it makes this sound for more than about one second, your bike may not be shifting properly. Improper shifting can be caused by being out of adjustment, worn or damaged cables and/or housing, a misaligned derailleur hanger, or just worn out components like the chain, derailleur or shifter. Allowing this to go unresolved will also cause expensive wear over time.
  • If you have disc brakes, a loud squealing, especially when braking. A lot of entry level bikes come with mechanical disc brakes, as opposed to hydraulics. While some disc brakes squeal no matter what, a lot of the time it’s just an adjustment issue with mechanicals.
  • A “creak creak creak” like walking on an old wooden floor? This is commonly the bottom bracket but could also be the cranks or cassette. All of those adjustments require specialty tools that most people don’t have at home, but this should be addressed sooner than later.

Now lift your bike so that the wheels are 2-3 inches from the ground and drop it (but don’t let it fall over!). Did you hear an audible “thunk”, separate from the higher pitched sound of the chain possibly slapping the frame? If you did, this could be an indication of a loose headset, or a loose hub on one or both wheels. Both of those components are designed to have pressure evenly distributed along a bearing race, and too much play can create damage beyond repair.

But what about the feels? Things you can feel are typically more obvious while riding.

  • When you brake, does the brake lever come closer than a thumb’s width from the grip? This is a clear indication that you need to adjust your brakes. It is typically caused from housing compression and/or worn brake pads, and it’s pretty easy for even the novice to correct.
  • When braking, do you feel a pulse in the brake lever? This could be a wheel that’s out of true or a rim that’s bent. Wheels are expensive, but addressing small problems early can extend their life.
  • When braking or shifting, is the lever difficult to push or pull? With the exception of a front derailleur (which typically requires more force to shift), your brake and shift levers should be fairly easy to move. If there’s extra drag it could indicate worn or damaged cables/housing or a gummed up derailleur. Most of the moving parts in a shifter are plastic and not replaceable, and this added force can dramatically shorten their life span.

Now that you’ve got a lot to think about, it’s time to go for a ride!

Go out to one of the lesser used stretches of the Trinity Trail to avoid other noise and distractions and allow yourself to focus your attention on the bike. Glance over this list before and after your ride, and try to think about different aspects of your bike while riding. Bring a notepad and jot down any noises or feels that seem out of the ordinary while they’re still fresh on your mind.

This is the first in a three-part series on bike maintenance. Check back in for Parts 2 and 3 for a follow up on how to make the needed adjustments (or when to take it to the shop).

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