How To

    You’re Ready to Ride–Is Your Bike?

    As a mountain biker, you should learn basic maintenance and how to spot signs of bigger problems.

    If you grew up in the Schwinn Stingray era, all you needed for bike repairs and maintenance was a crescent wrench and a can of WD-40. Modern mountain bikes are complex machines, so it’s time to step up your game in the maintenance department if you want to get the most from your bike.

    It’s easy to head to the bike shop if it’s not working perfectly. But wait a minute–you can do basic bike maintenance. There are simple things that will keep your bike in top shape, and having basic knowledge about how your bike works also helps you talk intelligently to a mechanic and spot small problems before they turn into big ones.

    Scrub a dub

    The first thing you should do is give your bike a good cleaning, so let’s start there.

    Grab a hose and a bucket of warm, soapy water. Dish soap is fine. If your chain looks like it’s been through the La Brea tar pits, you might need to use a degreaser, too.

    Citrus-based solvents or Simple Green work well and won’t damage your bike’s finish or plastic parts if used properly. Rinse well afterward. Beware of heavy-duty auto degreasers that have harsh chemicals.

    Use a scrub brush or a stiff toothbrush to clean the chain. Chain scrubbers are available at bike shops that make the job easier. It’s a good investment for a smooth-running bike.

    Drive train

    Pay special attention to the chain, front chain rings, rear cassette (sprockets) and rear derailleur. Those can get gunked up and affect how your bike pedals and shifts.

    If the drive train is really dirty, it may be easier to remove the chain and wash it separately, which also gives you better access to the rest of the drive train.

    Take the chain apart at the master link or use the chain breaker on your bicycling multitool. Adding a master link will make the job easier in the future. After the drive train is squeaky clean, relubricate the chain.

    Spring for some chain lube from a bike shop, not whatever general purpose lubricating oil you have in the garage. Most bike lubes don’t get greasy, so they collect less grit and grime, and it will be easier to keep things clean.

    Use lube sparingly, about a drop on every link, and don’t worry about the outside plates. Let the lube work in by rotating the chain backward, then wipe off the excess with a clean rag.

    If you’ve kept your bike in reasonably good condition, this may be all it needs to be ready to ride.

    Test ride

    Cruise through your neighborhood, hopefully where there’s little or no traffic. Shift through all the gears front and back. Shifting should be quick and fairly quiet. If you hear or feel rattling, ghost shifting, jumping between gears, clunking, or any binding, you’ve got work to do. It’s time to head to the bike shop unless you’re comfortable working with derailleurs, which can be tricky devices.

    If you decide to do it yourself, the problem could be as simple as increasing or decreasing the tension on the cables by adjusting the barrel adjuster on your shifter. If your cable tension is off, a twist or two on the adjuster may be all you need.

    Turn your barrel adjuster a half turn at a time and try shifting again. If it doesn’t improve, try another half turn. Try that several times and keep track of how much you’ve turned the barrel. If you still get no results, or it gets worse, go back to where you started and try in the opposite direction. That’s the laymen’s adjustment because you don’t have to know how your derailleur works, but you can still make a minor adjustment.

    If it doesn’t work, twist the barrel back to where you started. Several things could be causing the problem, and it may take a mechanic to figure it out.


    To test your brakes, ride at moderate speed and gradually apply brake pressure. Obviously they should stop you, but it should be smooth and without excessive vibration or squeaking. If your brake lever touches the handlebar or comes close, you may need to make adjustments. For minor adjustments, tighten the brake cables by twisting the barrel adjusters on your levers. If that doesn’t do the trick, you probably need to replace your pads.

    If you have rim brakes, check to make sure they’re contacting the rim evenly and with no part of the pad hanging below the rim.

    For hydraulic disc brakes, there are no barrel adjusters, but you can adjust the brake lever on some models, or adjust the calipers near the disc.

    You may also need to replace worn pads or bleed your brake lines. If you don’t know how to do those things, it’s time for a trip to the bike shop. But if you’re mechanically inclined, you can figure it out by checking your owner’s manual, or go online with your brake model and find that information.

    More checks

    If your drive train and brakes are working properly, you’re probably ready to ride, but there are more things to check if you want to keep your bike cruising like a missile.


    Do a visual inspection and look for signs of worn tread or cracked sidewalls. If you have tubes with sealant that has been in your tires for a couple years, the sealant may no longer work. If the tubes are holding air, don’t worry about them, but carry a spare tube with you and use it if you get a flat.

    You might also consider converting to tubeless tires. There are kits available, and also homemade kits you can put together yourself that include replacement valve stems, tape for the rim, and tire sealant.

    Tubeless tires and sealant can be as effective in preventing flats as tubed tires with Slime or similar sealant, and going tubeless also gives you the option of running lower tire pressure for better traction without risking pinch flats.


    Spin your wheels with the tire off the ground and watch the rim for wobble.

    Grab each spoke and give it a wiggle. The tension should be the same on each one. If you feel loose spokes, snug them up with a spoke wrench (they’re cheap, and you should have one), but don’t over tighten or you can make your wheel wobble worse.

    If you find several loose spokes, it’s time to head to the shop because your wheel is probably out of true.


    It should come as no surprise that a full-suspension mountain bike requires more maintenance than other bikes. An entire article could be written about suspension, and most suspension repairs require a mechanic, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore basic adjustments. Having your suspension tuned to your weight and riding style will dramatically improve how your bike handles.


    You will need a shock pump for this, and you should own one, especially if you own a full-suspension bike.

    Start with your owner’s manual for your suspension fork. It gives you a recommended air pressure based on your weight. Use that as a starting point and adjust it to your preference. More air pressure will mean a firmer ride and less air pressure makes it softer.

    Do a zip-tie test to see if you have the right amount of “sag” and ensure the fork is using its full travel. Snugly fit a zip tie around the fork leg so the zip tie moves as the fork goes through its travel. Gently get on your bike and put your full body weight on it. You may need someone to help you keep the bike steady, or touch a wall with your hand to keep you steady. Where your fork settles when your body weight is on the bike is the amount of sag.

    The proper sag is typically 20 percent or 30 percent of the fork’s travel, depending on your preference and the amount of travel your fork has. Short travel forks (80 mm to 100 mm) are probably better in the 20 percent range, and longer travel forks about 30 percent.

    After setting the sag, ride the bike and weight and unweight the fork, pop wheelies, hit bumps and mimic the type of hits your fork will encounter on a typical ride. Or better yet, go ride a short trail. The zip tie on your fork should show the fork is using all its travel without thunking at the top or bottom of the travel.

    If your fork doesn’t move smoothly and silently throughout its travel, or if there’s any sign of oil leaking, take it to a bike shop.

    More tuning

    Higher-end forks have more adjustments, typically compression and rebound, and possibly a blow-off if it has a lockout switch. Don’t be freaked out about making adjustments. You can always put it back to the way you had it before. Use your owner’s manual to figure out how to make adjustments, or again, find that information on the Internet.

    Only adjust one thing at a time until you’re comfortable with it, then make other adjustments. Also, start in the middle of the range of adjustment, then adjust in one direction or the other until you start feeling a noticeable difference. Try it under real riding conditions to see if you have improved the feel of the fork.

    It may take several rides to get your suspension fork dialed in, but it’s worth the effort, and it will make you confident to make other adjustments.

    Rear suspension

    Each full-suspension frame is designed a little differently, so air pressure and other adjustments for a rear shock vary from bike to bike. Same as with your fork, check your owner’s manual or the Internet.

    Like your fork, start with the manufacturer’s recommendation for air pressure for your weight and also the amount of sag you should be running, then make other adjustments to suit to your riding style.

    Like the suspension fork, the adjustment varies between different shocks. Higher-end shocks typically have more adjustment than inexpensive ones.

    Make it pay

    Full-suspension mountain bikes are wonderful machines, but they cost more and they’re heavier. You’re paying for the suspension in money and the extra exertion you expend by pedaling a heavier bike. If you want to get the full benefit, spend some time dialing in the suspension. It’s a learning process, but you will be rewarded by having a bike that’s custom tuned to you.

    If you’re not comfortable doing it yourself, you guessed it: head to your local bike shop and have them help you. It’s money well spent.

    You also should have your suspension periodically serviced. That might mean annually if you do lots of riding, especially in dusty or muddy conditions. If you’re a casual rider, it probably only needs servicing every two or three years.

    Creaks, squeaks, and clunks

    They could just be annoying noises, or they could mean you have a problem. Finding the source of the noise can be trickier than you think. Your bike can be a bit of a ventriloquist, and you may swear you’re hearing a creak in one spot that is actually coming from another. Pedals, seat posts, cranks, headsets, suspension pivots and bearings, wheel hubs, bar clamps and forks can all be sources of annoying noises.

    Speaking of seat posts, pull yours from the frame and put a light coating of grease on it, which will keep it from getting stuck in your frame.

    Long-term care

    Every part on every bike has a life span, and they will eventually wear out, even the frames. Most moving parts are visible so you can see signs of wear, or you’ll feel it when you ride.

    Others may be out of sight–and so, out of mind–such as bottom brackets, bearings, frame pivots, etc. But they also should be periodically inspected and maintained. How often depends on how much you ride and in what kind of conditions. But realize that ignoring those hidden parts, especially if you suspect something is wrong, could lead to costly repairs down the road.

    Repair or replace?

    That’s always a tough question. You may see your bike repair bills quickly add up, especially if you have to repair or replace major components, and you will pay labor charges on top of new parts.

    If you like your bike and can repair it for a reasonable price, it’s probably worth spending the money. But bicycle technology, especially mountain bikes, is evolving at a rapid pace, and bikes get dramatically better every few years as high-end technology trickles down to lower-priced bikes.

    Buying a new bike usually costs a lot more than replacing some worn out parts. But when you factor in the upgraded technology, possibly lighter weight and a more comfortable bike, you may find replacing your old bike with a new one is actually a better investment.

    This article originally appeared on Idaho Statesman and is republished with permission.

    Image courtesy Roger Phillips

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