An Expert Guide to Basic Bike Maintenance

Published on 05/12/2023 · 8 min readCycling Expert Adam L. details the basics of at-home bike upkeep to keep your wheels riding in tip-top condition, as well as a few easy-to-do repairs!
Adam L., Cycling Expert
By Cycling Expert Adam L.

Photo by Anton Savinov

Keeping your bike clean and in good working order is one of the most important parts of bike ownership. Nothing is worse than getting set to ride, or making it out on the road, and discovering something wrong with your bike! Of course, random accidents can always happen, but a little preventative maintenance goes a long way to keeping your ride in tip-top shape.

With so many different types of riding out there, it’s hard to give a firm number on when you should perform maintenance tasks. For example, a Seattle commuter riding in wet conditions will have different maintenance needs than a road rider in the Northeast who only rides on dry summer days. Like all machines, regular maintenance is better than waiting for things to break before fixing them.

If you’re mechanically inclined, bicycles are easy machines to work on. There are tons of resources online, and the Park Tool YouTube channel has just about everything you need to know. I’ll cover the very basics here that every bike owner should know and make part of their routine. If you’re interested in learning more, it’s not the worst idea to take a class at a local bike shop or co-op too!

The Basics

Be Kind

The first rule of bike maintenance is to do no harm. Be kind and courteous with your bike. If you ride in the rain, dry it before putting it away. The rear derailleur is one of the most sensitive areas of the bike. If you need to put your bike down or lean it against something, do it non-drive side down, i.e., not resting the bike's weight on the derailleur. And, if you use a roof rack, don’t try to drive into your garage with the bikes on top (please don’t ask me how I know not to do this).

Pay Attention

Keep an eye on the bike, and if something feels, sounds, or looks weird, get it checked out. Often minor problems can be simply and cheaply addressed, but if not fixed, they can become major problems or safety issues. When in doubt, check it out. You can ask a buddy or drop by a local shop for a second opinion on what might be wrong. Remember that new bikes often have a break-in period as cables stretch and mechanical parts settle. After 50-100 miles, a minor tuneup can get everything working like new.

Do These Two Things Before Every Ride

Photo by Tim Foster

When heading out to ride, you should check your tire pressure. Tires, especially tubeless models, can slowly lose air when sitting. Use a floor pump to be sure they’re at the correct PSI (check sidewalls or consult the Sram Pressure Guide for optimal PSI). You should also check your brakes by spinning each wheel and ensuring a squeeze of the brake lever quickly stops the wheel.

If you’re giving your bike a regular pre-ride look-over, you’ll also spot anything unusual or different that may pop up. It may seem quite simple, but you’ll also learn to notice worn parts (like brake pads and tires) as they get close to needing replacement.

Pedal Pro Tip

Pedals are one of the most frequently installed/removed items by home mechanics. Use a thin coat of grease or anti-seize on the threads when installing. The next person to remove the pedals will thank you.

To Clean or Not to Clean, That Is the Question

Photo by Flowizm

Whether it’s on roads, trails, or bike paths, riding makes bikes dirty. That’s a good thing. They’re meant to be used, and dirt and grime are a reminder of a ride well-ridden. Keeping your bike clean is one of the best ways to keep it in good working order and maximize the performance and lifespan of its components. That being said, a study by Santa Cruz found regular cleaning leads to MORE wear on parts, not LESS. What gives?

Santa Cruz found that many home mechanics were blasting away with high-pressure hoses and driving water deep into places it wasn’t supposed to be (into bearings and behind seals). What can we learn from this? First, frequently washing your frame is not essential (UNLESS you are riding on salty winter or coastal roads. In that case, it’s a good idea to rinse and dry your bike frequently to protect metal parts from corrosion). I like to keep my frame shiny and in Instagram-ready condition, but there’s not a big performance impact one way or another. Second, whether you’re cleaning the frame, drivetrain, or the full monty, please stick to a low-pressure hose. (Soak and Shower are usually good settings on a standard garden hose).

Whether or not you like to wash, wax, and polish your frame (no judgment here), you should wash your drivetrain and keep it clean. The drivetrain includes chainrings, derailleurs, chain, and cassette, all of which attract dirt and grime while riding. That grime builds up and wears down components like gross wild-caught sandpaper. Thankfully, drivetrains are designed to be resilient, but regular cleaning is essential to remove the crud and maximize lifespan. Your bike will also be quieter and more efficient—possibly 5% more efficient with a clean chain than a dirty one.

To clean the drivetrain, I like to use a combination of brushes for cogs and chainrings, along with a chain scrubber for the chain itself. After a quick rinse to knock off surface debris, I load up the chain scrubber with a degreaser and spin the chain a few times. While the degreaser soaks in, I take my brushes and scrub each cog on the cassette, along with the derailleur pulley wheels and chainrings. If I’ve been lax with cleaning lately or have been riding on particularly gnarly roads, I might repeat the process with a fresh degreaser until all traces of grit and grime are gone.

After rinsing again with low-pressure water, it’s best to wipe with a dry rag and spin the chain a few times. Then I let things dry completely (sunshine is great for this) before applying my chain lube of choice. I leave the lube on for a bit before wiping the excess off with a dedicated rag. Right now, I like Muc-Off Dry Ceramic Lube for my road bike and Finish Line Dry Lube for my mountain bike, but there are tons of quality options out there. Check with friends, your local shop, or your Curated Expert for some ideas on the best lube for your local conditions and riding style.

Photo by Alex Tredz

About every 1-2 weeks is probably the right frequency to do this, or whenever the drivetrain is visibly dirty. Again, regular maintenance will make this a lot easier. Personally, I like cleaning my bikes each Sunday afternoon in the summer. As long as I’m organized and know where my necessary tools are, I can clean a drivetrain in five minutes or so. I use an old shower caddy to keep all my cleaning products close at hand and easy to transport from the garage to the hose. It’s a relaxing ritual to end the weekend and ensure my bikes are ride-ready during the week.

Cleaning Pro Tips

  • If you’re riding disc brakes, avoid spraying degreaser directly onto the rotors. It can affect braking performance.
  • Avoid spraying directly onto components if you’ve got an electronic drivetrain (Shimano Di2, Sram AXS). They’re designed to be waterproof, but better to avoid testing that capability!
  • Bike-specific scrubbers and degreasers are great products, but you don’t need to make a big investment. Dollar store sink and toilet brushes and a degreasing dish soap work well too!

Special Considerations for Dirt Shredders

If you’re mountain biking, there are a few more maintenance items to keep an eye on. First, you’re probably riding more frequently in rougher conditions. Check your components more frequently since riding offroad is more of a strain, and parts will wear faster. Clean your drivetrain after muddy rides.

If you’ve got an air suspension fork or shock, you should check the air pressure in there once every few weeks or more frequently if you go through large temperature swings (like moving the bike from a warm house to a cold early-morning ride). I use an analog Fox Shock Pump, but some nice digital options are available now too.

Whether you have a coil or air suspension, you’ll want to wipe down the stanchions after every ride. Doing so keeps dirt and grit from getting into the seals and inners of the suspension components and reduces scratches on the stanchions themselves. I use a dedicated microfiber cloth for the task and gently spray a little soapy water on the stanchion before wiping it clean. Before each use, I quickly check the cloth for any embedded grit to ensure I’m not rubbing it into the stanchions.

Bigger Fixes

Larger maintenance items include hub, headset, braking, and shifting adjustments and replacements. The frequency will again vary widely depending on riding style, conditions, and product design, but riders can expect a full tune-up from a local shop once per season or so, depending on how frequently they ride. The nice thing is that regular home maintenance will make bigger fixes less frequent and easier to do when required. Ask any mechanic. It’s a lot more pleasant to replace a chain that’s been regularly cleaned than one that’s encrusted with a few thousand miles of road gunk.

Conclusion

It might seem like a lot of work, but for one minute of your time pre-ride and an occasional deeper cleaning session, you can keep your bike happy and ensure many smooth miles ahead. As the old saying goes, happy bike, happy life! If you have more questions about keeping your new bike in tip-top shape, check out the Expert Journal here on Curated for more cycling related articles!

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