You can avoid many inopportune mechanical failures and make your road bicycle function much better if you’d only remember to do some simple, routine maintenance. But…you don’t. Most of us would rather ride than wrench.
The modern road bicycle is a wonderful, efficient machine that needs minimal upkeep to be reliable and enjoyable to ride. But just because road bikes don’t generally need a lot of attention doesn’t mean they don’t need any attention at all. You should probably check most of the following parts of your bike regularly; maybe not as often as you pump your tires, but regularly.
Speaking of pumping your tires, which most of you do before every ride, you should slowly spin each tire under bright light to check for wear, cuts, exposed cords, and pieces of sharp what-nasties sticking out of them. Replacing a damaged or worn tire in your garage is more desirable than doing it halfway up Utah Hill. Have spare tires, tubes (if you still use tubes) and sealant on hand.
This suggestion is almost too obvious, but keep all moving parts clean and lubricated. I see riders show up to group rides with chains that appear to have been coated with primordial sludge from the La Brea Tar Pits. Sometimes a rider will be going in the opposite direction, and from 100’ away I can hear his (or her) chain squeaking and creaking like a vintage International Harvester Farmall MD baler. If you ride with a filthy drive train (gears, chain, pulleys), you can be wasting as much as 10 watts of power. That can equate to 4% of your power during a sustained, hard effort, and that’s noticeable.
Most people buy new cleats only when their old ones will no longer hold their pedals. It’s a good idea to change your cleats every Spring, before the cleats actually fail. Worn cleats will accelerate wear on your pedals, and you are far more likely to pop out of your pedals when you uncork one of your vicious 18 mph sprints. Replace your cleats, and a few rides later, retighten the bolts and screws. They tend to loosen up after a few miles. When you come to your first stop after installing new cleats, remember that getting out of the pedals will require more effort the first few times. Also, check the tightness of your cleat bolts or screws every few weeks. If you feel a cleat becoming loose during a ride, make sure you fix it first thing when you get back home. If not, you’ll forget and do your next ride with an even looser cleat.
Cassettes wear out and have to be replaced. I keep my drivetrain very clean, and I can get as much as 15,000 miles out of a cassette. If you don’t often clean your chain and cassette, you can wear them out in half that time. It’s a good idea (and often a necessity) to buy a new chain when you buy a new cassette. Often a new cassette with an old chain will chatter and skip. And while you can measure your chain and find it’s become longer, chains do not “stretch.” That’s an old wive’s tale. What happens is the pins wear, and the cumulative effect of 114 slightly worn pins extends the length of the chain enough that it won’t match up properly with a new cassette. Also, check the teeth on your chainrings for wear, or have your local shop take a look.
Recently I found I was not able to adjust my rear derailleur so the chain didn’t chatter in the middle gears, and I no longer had an 11. (I can’t push an 11 anymore, but that’s not the point.) I also noticed shifting required more effort. The problem turned out to be the cables and housing. With 11,000 miles on them, they needed replacement. Cables tend to stretch and the housings load up with road gunk. The cables also can fray at the ends under the brake hoods. Replacing brake and shift cables and housings every two years is a good idea. Your bike will shift and stop much better…if you’re into that kind of thing…
Your wheels merit frequent inspection. Spin each wheel slowly by hand and see if they need truing by how much lateral movement there is between the brake pads. There should be none. If a wheel is slightly out of true, it will never get better, and it will always get worse, so deal with it immediately. Once a month check the rims and spokes under a bright light. Look for damage; dings, warps, cracks, etc. Look at your hubs for any visible damage. Have your shop check your bearings for wear and relube them, especially if you ride in dust and/or water.
Headsets and bottom brackets need periodic inspection and/or adjustment. There should be absolutely no binding in your headset, but also no appreciable play.
Check all bolts and screws for recommended tension. A small torque wrench comes in handy. And you may need a torx set for tightening chainrings. Check your seatpost binding bolt as these tend to loosen up. Use the bike frame manufacturer’s suggested torque setting to tighten this bolt as not to break it, your frame, or your seatpost…because that would be bad. Check your bottle cage bolts, which will usually alert you to their looseness by virtue of an annoying rattle. If you aren’t that adept, (I am not), a tune-up at your bike shop will check out all these pieces of hardware.
If you happen to be involved in a crash on your bike, take it to your local shop to have it checked out. A rider in my neighborhood was taken down hard by a dog running loose, and he managed to ride his bike home, after a terse discussion with the dog’s recalcitrant owner. It was later that he discovered both carbon chainstays were cracked. The frame was a total loss.
Although bar tape is not mechanical, it deserves mention. Replace your tape at least once a year. It gets filthy and loses resiliency, and new tape is really comfy, it looks nice, and you’re unlikely to contract Ebola virus from it. And if you have white tape like I do on one of my bikes, clean it vigorously with a clean terrycloth towel and some all-purpose spray cleaner. My white tape is a year old, and you could eat off of it. (Okay, you don’t really want to do that, but you catch my driftage.)
We tend to ignore our machines if they’re working well, and we avoid maintenance. Your car runs just fine with 10,000 miles on its old engine oil, but that’s not a good long-term plan. And before modern cars all had tire pressure monitors, did anyone think to check their tires until one looked almost flat? Respect your machine and it will serve you well, whether it’s your car or your bike. Routinely check out all the little things, and take your bike in for a professional tune-up once a year. It’s a vehicle, like your car, and it deserves the attention. Now lube your chain; the squeaking is driving the rest of us nuts…
Written by Paul Scarpelli