Bike Maintenance: A Beginner’s Guide

Basic bike maintenance

Bike’s aren’t exactly a complicated machine, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need a good amount of routine maintenance to keep everything running smoothly.

While it’s true that there are some more intensive repairs and maintenance that require more than entry-level knowledge, there’s still plenty of things you can do on your own in between visits to the bike shop.

Bike maintenance should be a main priority with your own bike, whether you routinely use a road bike, mountain bike, hybrid, or really whatever else.

With just a little bit of time before and after rides, you can ensure that your bike not only rides better, but lasts much longer as well. Oh, and your local bike shop mechanic will appreciate it too.

Everyone has to start somewhere, so we’ve taken the time to go over all of the necessary bike maintenance that you can easily do on your own, with just some basic supplies.

After reading this, you should be able to develop a maintenance plan that will keep your bike in optimal shape as long as you own it.

Before You Ride

We’ll start with the things you can quickly check up on and adjust before embarking on your ride. These are all core aspects that should be examined prior to using your bike for any length of trip. Doing so will help you ensure a safe ride, while also catching any potential problems before they arise.

For this section, you’ll need a standard bike multi-tool, a rag, chain lubricant, a tire pump, and a tire gauge -- all things you should already have as a bike owner.

Tires

These are your first line of defense between you and the ground. 

The condition of your tires plays a huge role in the ride quality of your bike, and also your safety, so everything starts with them. The first thing you need to do is thoroughly examine the tire for any punctures, or if anything is lodge in the tire.

The first thing you need to do is thoroughly examine the tires for any punctures, or if anything is lodge in the tire.

While a tire with low air pressure is a sign of a leak or puncture, sometimes the debris may be lodged in the tire, and is plugging the hole, only to come dislodged after you get on the road.

Once you’ve checked the tire, use your tire gauge to get a reading on the air pressure, and then use your pump to inflate to the proper tire pressure. If you don’t know it off the top of your head, you can find it somewhere along the firewall, usually next to the brand name.

After airing the tire up, check your quick release levers on each wheel to make sure everything is screwed in tightly and fully functional. Also make sure you have your extra tube and repair kit on you for the ride.

Brakes

Brakes are the next essential component to check. Examine your brake pads to see if they are smooth and in good shape, and squeeze the levers to make sure everything is working properly.

Be sure to watch where the pads land on the wheel’s rim when you squeeze the levers.

If they are uneven, unscrew the bolts on the pads and realign them to land squarely on the rim.

If your brake levers are too mushy, you can tighten the cables by rotating the screws on the ends of the levers where the cables come out.

Chain

A lubricated and clean chain is a healthy chain. If the chain is looking dry, or has dirt all over it, grab a rag, and hold it over the chain as you turn the pedal to remove excess dirt and dust.

After doing this, take some chain lubricant and turn the pedal while gently squeezing out the lube onto the chain. Do this until you’ve gone through one full revolution of the chain.

If there is any excess lube on the chain, crank it through one more time, using the other side of the rag to catch any of the excess.

Keeping a chain in prime condition makes the chain last longer, while also protecting you drivetrain from wear and tear. Is also ensures smoother shifting, and eliminates any annoying squeaky noises, which everyone will appreciate.

Bolts

Your bike and its components are held together using a number of bolts and such. Quickly check all the main pivot points, and also your seatpost, brakes, and shifters for any bolts that could be loose. If you find any, tighten them, but not too tight.

In Between Rides

Now that you know what to do before a ride in terms of maintenance, it’s time to go over all of the things you can do for your bike in between rides.

Not all of these need to be done at the same time, but if you ride frequently, it’s best to make sure you’re doing these maintenance checks every few months.

Before we get to all of that however, here is a list of tools and supplies that you’ll need to have on hand with you.

Basic Maintenance Supplies

These items will enable you to handle most cleaning and lubing tasks in between tune-ups and shop visits.

  • Clean rags: Rags are required for oil and wax-related tasks, and also for any general cleaning and drying you may need to do. Always keep plenty of clean around.
  • Brushes: These are needed when scrubbing and cleaning away grime in hard to reach places, or where the components won’t allow any openings. You’ll need more than a few shapes and sizes. You can use old (clean) toothbrushes as well.
  • Water: You'll need to keep water around for any cleansing purposes. A spray bottle is even better.
  • Soap / general cleaner: This is mainly for your frame, seat, and handlebars. You can use diluted dish soap, or even a specialized bike cleaner if you want to get real fancy.
  • Degreaser: This can help you get all the gunk off of your chain that builds up. Be sure to only use degreaser that is made for bikes, and make sure you dispose of it correctly.
  • Chain lubricant: We’ve kind of covered this one a bit already. Chain lube is a must, and it needs to be made for bikes. Also: avoid WD-40, don’t let it anywhere near your bike. It is not for bikes, and will do damage. Dry lube is for dry conditions, wet blue is for wet conditions. Wet lube is thicker and attracts dirt, so make sure you don’t use too much.
  • Bike stand: Very important. A bike stand will let you to position the bike at a comfortable height while it’s being worked on. It will also allow you to cranks the pedals or remove the wheels so you can clean all the moving and hard-to-reach parts.

Frame Care

Caring for you frame is relatively simple, and doesn't require a lot of time, or really any tools. You should clean your frame every few months or so, and more often if it’s gotten dirty from mud, dust, or whatever else.

Use your cleaner to gently remove all dirt and debris from the frame, and then carefully inspect it for any cracks, dents, or bending. If you’re trying to keep the bike looking brand new (common for road bikes,) you can always wax it as well.

Drivetrain Care

This is probably the most crucial maintenance you’ll do for your bike. The drivetrain needs extra attention, as it goes through the most use, and has many components that all rely on eachother.

Start with the chain. If your chain is relatively clean, simply use a rag and degreaser to get everything off. Dirty chains will require some extra work, as you’ll need to scrub the gunk off carefully.

When the degreaser has dried, you can then add your lubricant, slowly, ensuring that each link gets a full drop as you crank the pedal. If there is any excess left, use a clean rag to get it off. While you may not always need to lube your chain all the time, always inspect it to make sure it’s not looking dry, or wet.

Now for the front chainrings and rear cassette. Start by scrubbing the surfaces with a brush and your degreaser as you turn the pedals. If grime starts to build up, use a rag to get rid of it, and make sure you scrub the area again to get the rest out.

You’re all set.

Tires

While you should be checking your tires before every ride, you can really give them a good examination every few months. Carefully examine the tires and walls for any dry rot, and any small debris that may be lodged.

You can also check the tread to see if it’s worn down, as this can affect that smoothness of your ride, and also your bike's overall grip. If the tread is worn, it’s time for new tires, which should be bought in sets if you are able.

Cables

Cables are often overlooked with bikes, as most are concerned with the actual components that are connected to them, rather than the cable themselves. The thing is, cables can break, whether it’s from fraying, or rust.

Examine all of your cables, beginning where they are connected to your shifters and brake levers. Check for any fraying, and any rust. Do the same for the rest of any cables that are exposed, and then check where they are connected to your derailleurs, and your brake units.

You can also add lubricant to the entry points if the cables are feeling stiff.

If the cables are starting to feel loose when you brake or shift, or if they are visibly damaged, you’ll need to take the bike into a shop for get the cables replaced. Fortunately, this is something that doesn’t happen all too often, but still needs to be kept in check.

Wheels

Wheels are something you should always keep an eye on, but every so often, you should get them a thorough checkup. On your bike stand, spin each wheel and observe it from above, looking to see if it has any wobble to it. If it does, you’ll need to take it in to get trued.

Spokes can come loose from time to time as well. Grab each spoke and give it a tug to see if there is any give, or if it feels loose. In most cases, you can tighten the spoke, and if that doesn’t work, you can replace the spokes rather easily.

Be sure to check the sides of the wheels for any abrasions or wear as well.

Pedals

Pedals generally hold up pretty well for the most part, but you’ll still need to give them a little love from time to time, especially if they are clipless pedals. You should add lubricant to the area where the pedals connect to the crank arms every 6 months.

Also, if you use clipless pedals, check the pedals to see if they are loose at all, including the connectors on your bike shoes. You can easily tighten them back up in a minute or two.

Brake Pads

Just as with cars, brake pads on a bike will eventually wear down. Closely examine the pads to see if they are wearing unevenly, or if they’ve simply worn down too much.

There’s a good chance you’ll already be hearing some squeaking if so, and braking will seem rough as well.

Pads are easy to swap out, and take just a few minutes. Simply unscrew the bolt on the brake caliper, remove the pad, and put the new one on. Be sure that the pad is perfectly lined up with the sides of the wheel, and not clipping the actual tire wall in any way.

Specific Maintenance for Road and Mountain Bikes

For the most part, road and mountain bikes have the same maintenance process, although some components might need more attention than others. However, there are two main differences.

Handlebar Tape

Road bikes require handlebar tape on the entirety of the grip areas. This helps ensure a better grip, and also gives the bike a more alluring aesthetic. Handlebar tape is easy to remove, and easy to apply. Just make sure you do it evenly, and don’t add too many layers.

Suspension

The majority of mountain bikes have suspension forks in the front, and sometimes in the back as well. Suspension components need lubrication from time to time, and they may need to be tuned as well.

Conclusion

Bike maintenance doesn’t have to be complicated. We hope this guide gives you a good place to start, and a better idea of what to look out for, both short and long term.

Even if you feel confident in your mechanic skills, you should still take your bike in for a tuneup every 6 months if you are a frequent rider, and at least once a year if you are more casual.

You local bike shop can perform maintenance that requires special tools and skills, and keeps your bike in top form.

This post was last updated on November 20th, 2017 at 11:08 am

About the Author Max Shumpert

Over the last few years, I’ve taken my love of the outdoors, hiking, skiing, trekking and exploring to the next level by starting this site. I started a bike shop in Denver, CO, and have seen amazing growth over the last few years. Getting paid to do what I love has been a dream come true for me. That’s also what led me to start BikesReviewed.com. In my shop, I spend a large amount of time helping people find the perfect bike for them and the style of biking they’re going to be doing. It only made sense that I expanded my reach and got online, making it possible for me to help people all over the world. If biking and staying fit is your priority, too, you’ve come to the right place.

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