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What You Need to Know About Bicycle Maintenance

By Laurel-Lea Shannon


illustration by Emily Eschner

You don’t have to be a bicycle mechanic to have a smooth-running bike. Doing routine maintenance is easy, and it can save you money as well as extend the life of your bicycle. After all, road bikes are expensive and should be treated as an investment.

To get a few tips on bicycle maintenance I visited Sport X in Smiths Falls, Ontario, one of the largest bike stores in the Ottawa valley, and talked with Greg Earl, who owns the store with his wife Jenn Bon. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that a bicycle is made of components that wear out just like with a car,” says Greg. “No one would drive their car and never do any maintenance on it, but some people treat their bikes that way.” Regular bike maintenance will keep your road bike in top form. Neglect your bike and you could be in for expensive repairs down the road.

There are many small problems you can anticipate before they escalate into expensive repairs. Even if you have zero mechanical smarts, by looking and listening before you get on your bike and while you ride, you can spot the small stuff yourself.

Here’s Greg’s list of easy bicycle maintenance tips:

1) Noise: Lift your bike a few inches off the ground and gently drop it. Pay attention to any unusual noises or anything that rattles. Anything out of the ordinary should be investigated. Sometimes it’s just a loose screw on the water bottle cage, but if you can’t nail what it is and fix it on your own, take it to your local bike store (LBS). Also, if you hear any clicking sounds while riding your bike, don’t ignore them hoping they’ll go away. Check them out.

2) Cables: Check for rust and wear on brake and gear cables. If the cable ends start to fray, get them replaced.

3) Handlebars: To test the headset and forks, check for looseness in the frame. You can do that by locking on the front brake and jiggling your bike. If there’s any play in the headset, take your bike into a shop and have it checked. That’s the part of your bike that steers, so delaying a repair can lead to a serious fall while cycling. The screws in the headset may need tightening or the bearings in the headset could need replacing. Read more about headset and fork safety checks.

4) Brakes: Apply your brakes one at a time. There should be space between the brake lever and the handlebar. If there isn’t, take your bike into your LBS. When you  apply your brakes you shouldn’t be able to move your bike forward.

5) Tires: Regularly check your tires for:
* proper air pressure—this should be done every few rides (the PSI is written on the tire wall)
* cracking on the sides
* extreme wear
Back tires will wear faster than front tires. To extend wear, rotate your tires. Also, when you pump up your tires, don’t overtighten the valve nut. Leave it loose. Overtightening the valve nut can create a split at the point where the valve meets the tire. These kinds of flats happen frequently and are second only to pinch flats, caused when an underinflated inner tube gets pinched by the rim of the wheel when you go over obstacles like railway tracks or a pothole.  While you’re checking the tires, make sure the nuts and quick release on your wheels are tight enough.

6) Chain: Clean and lube your chain! I see folks riding with dirty chains all the time. It’s really bad for your bike. Grit and dirt on the chain wears out the chain rings and prevents your bike from shifting smoothly. How often you clean and lube your chain depends on the road conditions you ride in. But if your chain has grit on it or it’s getting black, it’s time to clean it. Need help? Read “How To Clean a Bicycle Chain”  and “How To Lubricate a Bicycle Chain”.

Check regularly for chain wear. A stretched chain will wear out your chain rings and derailleurs. Replacing a bicycle chain doesn’t cost much but replacing parts of your drivetrain will. Bike shops have a nifty tool that can quickly tell you if your chain is stretched. Depending on how you ride your bike, for example if you grind away in the large gear a lot, your chain may need replacing approximately every 3,000 Km (1,800 miles). I’ve had them last longer but it’s a good idea to at least have them checked for wear every 3,000 km. Most bike stores won’t charge to do that.

7) Tune-ups: At least once a year take your bike in for a tune-up. It’s a good time to do that now, before the outdoor cycling season starts. If you’re aware of any problems with your bike or if it has any odd noises, tell the mechanic when you bring it in.

Bonus tip: Washing your bike on a regular basis not only extends the life of the moving parts on your bike but you’ll start to notice if parts become loose. Getting up close and personal with your bike also gives you the opportunity to check for any cracks in the frame or signs of wear that could cause problems down the road.



Twelve years ago Greg Earl and Jenn Bon opened Sport X in SmithsFalls, a full service shop and one of the largest bike stores in the Ottawa valley. Great shop, nice folks!

Sport X
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1 comment to What You Need to Know About Bicycle Maintenance

  • Debbie

    I am fairly new to riding and this article was a great resource to get me started on learning how to maintain my bike. I ride by myself a lot and I want to make sure that I am as self sufficient as possible. Thank you!

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