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First, the obligatory disclaimer: as the title suggests, the following article is a guide. It is not intended to be considered ‘gospel’ (ie. there’s more than one way to do most tasks), contains numerous subjective instructions (ie. I’m just telling you how I prefer to do things) and is in no way concise. I’ve read the guide myself and had a couple of other people read it before it was posted here, making corrections and revisions where applicable, and I’m pretty pleased with the result. The guide is intended as a basic introduction, a means of familiarising the reader with their bicycle, not as a step-by-step instruction. The idea is that people can start to develop their ‘inner wrench’ as they become more confident.
I would always refer beginners to the manufacturer’s instructions when installing components. If you’ve bought something new, the instructions should be included. For used stuff, check out the manufacturer’s website as most carry downloadable versions of product manuals. Forums and interweb randoms (like me!) can be a great source of information, but you’re usually guaranteed to get perfect instruction straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Even experienced wrenches need to refer to manuals sometimes.
It’s much more fun getting your bike dirty than it is getting it clean, but keeping it clean and well maintained goes a long way to making sure that your riding experiences are more enjoyable. Paying close attention to detailing means you’re getting up close and personal with your bike’s components and are much more likely to spot potential problems. Cleaning and maintaining can also mean a longer life for components and so better value for your hard-earned cash. Most important, though, is the confidence that the machine you’re sitting on is in top condition; think smooth, quick shifting; tight, responsive brakes; quiet drive-train…
Although I’ve tried to keep things in a general order, I’ve deliberately made this guide non-sequential, so don’t expect to be led through a complete maintenance session in order. Each section is pretty much stand-alone and it is left up to you to combine the described tasks in a regime that suits yourself based on your own priorities at the time.
Please remember that this guide is intended for folk who are reasonably new to bike maintenance. I could have gone into much more detail but felt that I needed to strike a balance of information and keep coverage simple. Although upgrading and replacing components can mean that items such as derailleurs are simply switched out at end of every season (in some cases), it is of course rarely necessary, as you’ll discover if you start maintaining and servicing your bike yourself….
Since originally posting this guide I’ve received some questions about how often to clean a bike. The truth is, only you know. If you’ve been out in mud* and rain all day then it’ll be obvious, but dust and grit can easily build up and start causing unnecessary wear on moving parts. How often you clean your frame is down to how bothered you are about having shiny stuff. A dirty frame makes no difference to anything. How often you clean and lubricate your components will notably affect their performance and life-span. Remember though, that MTB frames can take quite a beating out on the trails and cleaning back the muck will allow you to check for stress fractures or accident damage.
(*remember to ride responsibly on wet trails; soft ground is easily damaged)
Over time you’ll come to recognise when a chain needs re-lubing (squeak, squeak!). If you stick to a particular lube for a few months you’ll learn how long it lasts and what its strengths are and its weaknesses, too. Sometimes it takes the lesson that if you’d taken more care of your chain, you wouldn’t have to be paying out for a new cassette quite so soon.
So, I guess it’s all about paying attention to your bike’s components. There are few things as frustrating as getting well into a ride only to have something go wrong with your bike, so it’s a good idea to develop some simple checks before, and indeed after a ride to keep on top of potential ride-spoilers…
- Check quick release (QR) skewers are correctly tightened. Open the lever, confirm that the axle is straight and firm inside the dropouts and then close the lever again. ‘Tight enough’ is when the end of the lever has left a mark in your palm. Remember to ensure that the closed lever points either straight up or towards the rear of the bike to decrease the likelihood that it’ll be prised open should you catch it on something while riding.
- Go over all bolts and check that none are loose. When you first start doing this, the challenge is simply to remember all the possible bolts, but it’s an excellent way to familiarise yourself with the anatomy of your bike.
- Flip your bike upside-down and slowly rotate each wheel. Properly set up and functioning bearings should roll almost effortlessly and the rear wheel should be brought to a stop by the pawls of the freehub; click, click, click, stop.
- Spin each wheel a little faster and watch the tyre at the point where it meets the rim to confirm that the bead is correctly seated. If it isn’t release enough air from the tyre to enable you to manipulate the bead into the correct position before inflating the tyre back to pressure.
- Move up the tyre and check for bulges that may signify damaged sidewall, or, more obviously, scuffs and scrapes that have made it through the rubber casing.
- When the wheel spins, can you hear any unusual noises? Visually check that rim brake pads are an equal distance away from the rim. Disc brake users, does the rotor pass through the caliper without catching the pads? Again, visually check the pad/rotor alignment; misaligned rotors are the main cause of disc brake squeal.
If you come across any problems that aren’t dealt with or linked in this guide, you could visit Park Tool, who have a comprehensive set of repair and maintenance procedures.
Turn the cranks to get the rear wheel going and feel for any crunching or stiffness. Remember that you can also do this when the chain is off to check the BB bearings. From the side of the bike, grab one crank arm in each hand and try to wobble them back and forth using the BB as a pivot. Any movement (usually feels definite, like a ‘clunk’) most likely signifies either worn bottom bracket bearings or loose crank bolts (if applicable).
Once you get into regular maintenance, rather than diving into your local bike shop (LBS) whenever something doesn’t work, you’ll get a feel for how often stuff needs doing. Bicycles are basically very simple machines (even the rear mech!) and need a relatively small amount of maintenance per mile. A basic multi-tool along with a small flathead and small Philips-head screwdriver should be all you need to get you through this, although it’s also possible that spanners from 10mm to 15mm may be required. Check out the section on using and choosing tools a little further down the page. It’d be worth reading through a section before you wade in, just to make you’re suitably tooled up…
If you’re using a SRAM chain or a Powerlink then no special tools are required, otherwise you’ll need a chain-pull. 9 speeders beware; you’ll need a replacement pin if you open your chain. For splitting a chain that doesn’t use a Powerlink, there’s a description and photos further down the page in the Chain Cleaning section. If you don’t already use a SRAM Powerlink, or similar (like a KMC Missing Link), I’d highly recommend that you get one.
(A 9 speed (gold) SRAM Powerlink will fit 9 speed Shimano and KMC chains. The KMC Missing Link will also fit all three brands of 9 speed. An 8 speed (silver) Powerlink will not work with 8 speed Shimano chains, although the 8 speed KMC link will.)
The chain and drive-train can be cleaned much more effectively and efficiently with the chain off the bike and a Powerlink makes this task simple, especially for those of us who use 9 speeds. There are many other checks and maintenance procedures that are made easier by being able to completely remove the chain from the bike. Identifying and eliminating drivetrain noises (clicks and creaks) can be made easier if the front and rear components can be isolated.
Check your nuts and bolts…
That’s pretty much it, at least for now. I think there’s a fairly good foundation to get you up and running, or rather sat down and wrenching! To fly back to the beginning, whenever you’ve done a job on your bike, try to be methodical and go over the nuts and/or bolts you’ve been working on to make sure that everything that should be tight is, and that everything which should spin does. As your bike becomes more familiar you’ll start to know what to check before and after every ride and what can be left until, say, after every other ride.
Thanks to the folk who loaned me their bikes to work on, fix, and photograph, and you’re welcome!!
If you’ve done everything listed above your bike should be in excellent order. Now would be the perfect time to go and get it absolutely filthy all over again. Good dirt everyone, and enjoy the ride…
This guide and the photographs contain within it are my property and as such are covered by copyright. Please feel free to provide links to this guide, but do not copy or reproduce any part of it without my permission.