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How to Do Basic Bike Maintenance

These DIY maintenance tasks will prolong the life of your wheels and help keep you safe on the road.

Every cyclist should know how to do these straightforward tasks and repairs.

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As we all look for ways to avoid crowds and get some exercise during Covid-19, there's never been a better time to bike. Whether you've inherited a hand-me-down single-speed for your child, dusted off that cruiser languishing in your garage, or purchased a carbon road bike, there's a basic maintenance routine that every cyclist should know.

Sylvie Froncek, the programs director at the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, recommends an “ABC Quick Check” before every ride. The acronym is a helpful way to remember the most essential safety features: air, brakes, chain, quick-release elements, and a final once-over. After you get the hang of it, you should be able to perform a speedy safety check in less than a minute. It also makes a great checklist for a more thorough tune-up.

Here's how to make your bike last longer and keep yourself safe in between annual professional tune-ups.

1. Prepare your workstation.

A bike stand is helpful, but it's easy to make due without one. Simply flip your bike upside down, putting a rag under the seat and handlebars to protect against scrapes and dirt. If you prefer to stand and don't have a table or counter of an appropriate height, some vehicle bike racks can work as makeshift bike stands.

Though it's not necessary to clean your bike before working on it, it’s a good opportunity to remove grime, something you should be doing regularly to prolong the life of your parts. A rag dipped in a bucket of diluted dish soap is ideal, but a hose works, too—just take care that you don't spray water into any of the moving components that might have grease packed in them, such as the hubs and the headset.

Properly inflated tires make pedaling easier.

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2. Check tire pressure.

Low tire pressure can give you pinch flats and make pedaling significantly more difficult. Jess Nolasco, a professional bike mechanic, recommends topping up tires once a week if you ride consistently. "Rubber is a porous material," she explains. "Even if you have no holes, air is escaping little by little."

The best way to check pressure is with a gauge, but you can do a preliminary check with your hands. Give each tire a squeeze—if it's squishy, break out the pump. Many pumps are compatible with both common Shrader valves (the same kind that's on car tires) and the narrower Presta, which will have a nut near the tip that needs to be loosened before filling (these are used mostly on road bikes). When inflating, rely on a built-in gauge on a pump―not touch—to get as close as you can to the recommended PSI for your tires. If you stop too low, “you're way more likely to get flat,” Froncek says, and overinflating makes your tire and rim more likely to give out.

Inspect your tires for leaks and damage, especially if the bike has been sitting on its wheels in one place for a long time. "You'll see cracks in them, and when you pinch them you'll see little cuts and holes," Froncek says. If you see can bits of fabric, it's definitely time for new tires.

Most bike brake pads can be replaced with just an Allen wrench.

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3. Inspect the brakes.

To check your brakes, squeeze the brake levers halfway and observe whether they make effective contact with the rim or disc, depending on which type of brakes you have. "If you feel like you have to pull them all the way back to make them responsive at all, that means that something needs to get adjusted," Froncek says. For coaster brakes, which you might find on a single-speed child's bike or cruiser, simply pedal backward and ensure that the wheel stops. Brakes can be easily adjusted at home, but you should seek professional help if you don't have a cable puller or if you're otherwise unsure—you don't ever want to play it fast and loose with brakes.

"Look closely at the pads to see that you still have some of the rubbery thick pad left on them," Froncek says. You should still be able to see the grooves on the pad. If not, it’s time for new ones. Even if there's plenty of rubber left, old brake pads that are rock hard should be replaced so that they don't wear out your rim, Nolasco says.

Changing the pads on rim brakes is straightforward, but disc brakes are best tackled by a professional bike mechanic if you're inexperienced. Oil from human hands can prevent disc brakes from having the grip necessary to stop. They can also be tricky to adjust, and some contain a corrosive hydraulic fluid that's difficult to safely work with and dispose of properly. Always take your bike into a shop if the brakes are leaking.

4. Test your chain and gears.

Chains wear out every 2,000 miles or so, and it’s important to replace them on time. An old chain can damage more expensive components, such as the cogs or chainrings. If you don't have a bike-chain wear-indicator tool, shift the chain up onto the largest chainring and tug; if you can pull it high enough off the chainring that you can see the tops of the teeth, the chain is stretched out and needs to be replaced.

Next, spin the pedals and shift through all of the gears to ensure that the chain is smoothly catching on all of the cogs and the chainrings. Skipping gears demand expert attention, as do chains that fall off and derailleur issues.

Smart Tip: Run into trouble on a ride? Your AAA Membership includes towing for your bike in case you find yourself with a flat tire or broken chain.

Chains that frequently slip off may need to be replaced or brought to a bicycle mechanic.

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5. Clean and lubricate the chain.

Aim to clean and grease your chain and the corresponding parts, known as the drivetrain, every thousand miles or so. If you ride sporadically or don't know how long it's been since the chain was serviced, wipe it and see what sloughs off. "If it's got kind of a black-gray, light kind of filament with a greasy feel to it—that's a good sign,” Froncek says. “If you get thick black stuff coming off or if it feels totally dry and rusty, both of those mean that the chain needs to get cleaned and lubed," she says, as does any stiffness.

Rotate the pedals with one hand while you use a rag or brush (an old toothbrush works) to apply degreaser to the chain, cassette (the metal discs your chain moves around as you pedal), and chainrings (the spiky discs by your pedals). Alternatively, a specially designed chain-cleaning tool that contains the fluid and snaps over your chain will keep things neater, and it can be helpful when your chain is extra dirty.

Smart Tip: Some bikes have chain guards, and you may be able to do a cursory job without removing it. However, you can typically remove it with a Phillips-head screwdriver for a deeper cleaning.

Once the chain is clean and the degreaser is removed, daub chain lube directly from the bottle on top of each link and remove excess with a clean rag as you go. For general around-town riders, the cheapest chain lube you can find should do the trick, according to Froncek.

Check quick releases before you head out on a ride.

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6. Tighten quick releases.

Next, ensure any quick releases are fastened tightly. Because these are frequently fiddled with, they're likely to be loose and can pose serious safety hazards. You may have quick releases on your seat post or on the rod that attaches your front tire to its axle, and some road bikes have quick-release switches that loosen the brakes in order to get the wheels off.

7. Do a final test.

For the final element of the ABC Quick Check, set your bike upright. "Give it a little bit of a bounce and shake and see if anything makes noise, falls off, or seems loose," Froncek says. Ensure that there's no lateral movement on things that rotate forward, such as the crank arms or wheels, and tighten anything else that needs it, such as a rattling bottle cage, front basket, or other accessories.

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