8 Checks to Get Your Bike Ready for the Season (and PBP)

8 Checks to Get Your Bike Ready for the Season (and PBP)

Whether you are going to ride a brevet with an eye on qualifying for Paris-Brest-Paris, whether you plan to ride a century or race, or whether you just want to enjoy exploring this season, having your bike in good condition is the best way to guarantee success. If you are confident in your bike, you can enjoy the ride without worrying whether you’ll make it to the finish. Here are 8 things to look at:
1. Clean your bike
It’s much more fun to work on a clean bike, so the first step should be to clean your bike thoroughly. This is a good opportunity to check for cracks. Components and frames don’t fail suddenly (unless you jump off a huge cliff), but cracks form and grow until there isn’t enough material left, and the part breaks. Finding a crack before it grows and breaks can prevent a crash. Check for cracks especially on the cranks and rims. On the frame, inspect the area around the bottom bracket and the rear dropouts.
Also check that fenders, racks, lights and other bolted-on parts are tight. This is best done by checking each bolt, but if you are in a rush, just give each part a firm wiggle.
Once your bike is clean and found to be generally sound, it’s time to inspect individual components.
2. Tires
Are your tires worn? How do you check? The best way is to remove the tire and flex it with your hands. Is the center part of the tread thinner than the shoulders? Then your tire often shows a groove in the center when you flex it. Replace the tire now, rather than risk having multiple flats – or worse, a blowout – during your brevet. Cut the old tire in half, so you can see how much tread remained. If there is 1 mm of rubber or less (not including the casing) in the center of the tread, then it was high time to replace. If there is much more, you could have ridden the tire a bit longer. It’s good to know for next time.
3. Brake Pads
Are your brake pads worn out? Modern pads often seem to be made entirely out of rubber, but in reality, there is a metal carrier embedded in the rubber. When that gets exposed, it will score and ruin your rim. Most pads have a “wear line” molded into them that show how far you can wear them down.
Also make sure the pads hit the rims squarely. Check the pad itself. If a ridge has worn into the pad either at the top or bottom (photo above), then it doesn’t hit the rim correctly. Remove it, file off the ridge, then reinstall it with the correct alignment. Poorly aligned pads can cause blowouts if they hit the tire (with sidepull and centerpull brakes) or they can dive underneath the rim, causing a complete loss of braking (with cantilever brakes).
4. Rims
The second part of your braking system are your rims. They abrade as you brake, and eventually, they get so thin that they can explode from the tire pressure. Many modern rims have wear indicators, either a groove or a dot that are machined into the sidewall. When these wear indicators disappear, it’s time to replace the rim. On rims without wear indicators, look whether the sidewalls have become concave. That shows you how much wear has occurred. Worse, if the sidewalls start splaying outward near the tire bead, they are so thin that the tire pressure forces them outward. Replace them immediately!
If you replace the rim with a similar model that uses the same spoke length, you can just swap the spokes from one rim to the next without completely rebuilding the wheel. (For detailed instructions, refer to the “How-to” article in Bicycle Quarterly No. 50.)
5. Cables
Check your brake cables: Pull on the brake levers and feel whether the action is smooth. If you feel grinding or extra friction, then the cable is probably fraying. Replace it now!
If you have downtube shift levers, you can see whether the cables are fraying – it usually happens where the cables wrap around the shift lever. If you have bar-end or brake/shift levers, you may just replace the cables as a precaution at the onset of the season. If the rear shifter cable breaks, you’ll be reduced to your largest gear – not much fun during a long ride.
6. Wheels and Spokes
Are your wheels true? Spin them and look at the distance between rim and brake pad. It should remain constant within 2 mm. Also squeeze the spokes in pairs and see whether any are loose or broken. You can also twang the spokes like guitar strings. The pitch should be similar for all spokes on the same side of the wheel.
If the wheel isn’t true, or spokes are loose or broken, either fix it yourself or take it to a qualified wheel builder. If you have broken two or more spokes in one wheel, it’s a sign that all spokes are getting fatigued. Rebuild the wheel with new spokes now, rather than having to deal with more broken spokes during the season.
7. Bearings
Check whether your bearings are in good shape. Remove the wheels and feel whether the axles spin smoothly. On modern sealed bearings, some resistance is fine, but it should be smooth, without any catching or roughness as you turn the bearing. Bearing play is best checked with the wheel on the bike. Push and pull on the rim and see whether you can feel play in the hub bearings. (Sideways movement is fine – wheels aren’t very stiff laterally – but there shouldn’t be a “knocking” feel.)
Check the bottom bracket the same way after dropping the chain to the inside of the cranks, so it rests on the frame’s bottom bracket shell. For the headset, turn the handlebars 90°, lock the front brake, and rock the bike back and forth. You should not feel any play. (If you don’t turn the handlebars, you may feel play in the brake and mistakenly conclude your headset needs adjustment.) Don’t forget to check the pedal bearings by turning and wiggling the pedals.
Worn bearings won’t slow you down significantly, but they make riding the bike less pleasant. Eventually, they’ll pack up and stop turning altogether. And then your ride is over!
8. Drivetrain
Make sure that all gears can be shifted smoothly. Check whether your chain has lengthened because the bushings have developed play. There are gauges that show how much your chain has “stretched”, but you can also measure it with a ruler:
Pull the rear derailleur rearward to tension the chain. Take a ruler and hold it against the lower chain run. Line up the 0 with a chain pin. The 12″ (1 foot) mark should line up with another pin. If it is more than 1/16″ off, the chain has worn and should be replaced. Unfortunately, it’s likely that your cassette cogs are worn out, too. If you have a big event coming up, test-ride your bike to make sure the new chain meshes smoothly with the old cogs. Pedal hard in each gear for a block or two. If the chain skips over the cog, the cassette is worn out and should be replaced.
Now you know your bike is in good condition. Unless you ride huge distances, it shouldn’t require much maintenance during the season. Check the chain wear every thousand miles or so, keep an eye on the brake pads and tires, and you should be fine. That allows you to enjoy the cycling season confident that your trusted steed won’t let you down. Now it’s time to plan your rides!
What other pre-season checks do you perform on your bike?
Also in this series:

Correction (3/27): The post has been edited to reflect that play in the hub bearings is best checked with the wheels installed (see comments).

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Comments (24)

  • Harald

    If your rim doesn’t have a sidewall indicator, you can quickly measure rim thickness with an Iwanson gauge/dental calipers, available for less than 10 bucks. See my blog post on the topic.

    March 27, 2015 at 5:25 am
  • Bill Gobie

    If the rear derailleur cable breaks and you have no replacement the situation is not quite as dire as described (only “largest gear”). You can fix the rear derailleur in a middle gear, either with the upper limit screw, or by pulling the derailleur into position with the cable and tying the cable around a bottle cage or the frame. To inspect shift cables with integrated levers, release the cables from the derailleurs (or separate the cable splitters) and push the ends out of the shifters. Erratic shifting often indicates a cable is partially broken inside a shifter.

    March 27, 2015 at 7:33 am
    • Charlie

      You could also rig the rear derailleur into a lower gear by jamming a stick into the parallelogram. Not quite shifting with a stick, but close.

      March 28, 2015 at 8:36 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        I once did that, but I used a small rock. I put it between the limit screw and the point where it touches the parallelogram, allowing me to ride in a reasonable gear. (Just adjusting the limit screw didn’t get me very far on that bike.)

        March 28, 2015 at 7:27 pm
      • Bill Gobie

        That would be “deralleur repair with organic carbon fiber.”
        Tying off the cable lets you trim the derailleur with the adjuster barrel, and even “shift” into other gears.

        March 29, 2015 at 10:41 am
  • Mark Schneider

    I’m curious on headsets for low trail bikes, having just built my first. Do they need to be tighter than usual. It seems my headset is either loose with a clunk when I hold the front brake, or very tight compared to other bikes. I’m using a NOS Stronglight with needle bearings.

    March 27, 2015 at 7:40 am
    • Conrad

      I’ve had that problem with cheap cartridge bearing headsets. If you go with a cartridge bearing headset, get a Chris King, it is worth it. I have a Miche needle bearing headset on my Boulder that works well. I haven’t used a Stronglight.

      March 29, 2015 at 9:33 pm
  • nic

    Hubs with a quick release , when the wheel is off the bike, axle better have a slight play. Closing the quick release binds the bearings and the play disappears. A LOT of cyclists ride with their bearings too tight, slowing them and causing premature wear. Have you ever made the test? Take a “perfectly” adjusted hub (not a complete wheel), place it in a fork and close the quick release. By spinning the hub shell between your fingers you can really feel the increasing drag. By the way, if, like me, you try to adjust this hub optimally, with the right amount of play that makes it smooth with a closed Q/R, you’ll have a surprise… Building the wheel, the spokes put enough stress to “expand” the cups, all your careful work was useless… I’ve found that the best way to adjust a cup and cone hub (with a quick release) is to feel the play at the rim, near the brake. Hang your bike, spin your wheels…. It’ s a joy to see them spinning forever.

    March 27, 2015 at 8:14 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You make a good point. It depends on the hub. If your hub has cup-and-cone bearings (and an “undersized” axle), then it’ll compress/bend under the load of the quick release, and it should be adjusted ever-so-slightly loose when it’s off the bike. If your hubs has a large-diameter axle, then it won’t compress with the quick release… I changed the post to reflect that you best check hub play by rocking the wheel.

      March 27, 2015 at 4:42 pm
      • nic

        Thanks Jan, I’d like to add that with large flange hubs spoke tension don’t distort much the cups.

        March 31, 2015 at 10:14 am
  • Charlie

    If you’re going to check the tension of a spoke by plucking, hold down its crossing spoke in order to dampen its vibration. This will result in a truer pitch from the plucked spoke.

    March 28, 2015 at 8:44 am
  • Chris Lowe

    Technically not part of the bike but something you should still check is your shoes/cleats. I spent several as a mechanic working on dozens of multi-day supported rides (think 2-3000 riders and 3-7 days) and some of the most common problems we saw were cleat related. Most common was cleat bolts coming out shoes. This makes it REALLY hard to get out and often resulted in a slow motion fall and sometimes twisted ankles. Also common were cleats worn to the point that they no longer securely engaged the pedal. This would usually become apparent on a steep hill.

    March 28, 2015 at 12:12 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Good point. Another issue are worn SPD cleats, or worse, worn retention mechanisms on the pedals. Suddenly, you start to unclip every time you try to pull up as you climb a little rise…

      March 28, 2015 at 7:28 pm
    • nic

      It’s obvious you have experience. I’ve also noticed how often it’s difficult to remove old spd cleats. Screws get frozen by rust, the plastic sole get somewhat thinner and once the cleat starts to move it chews the sole thus ruining the shoe. Prevention is as simple as greasing the threads. More than rust protection, you get a very solid cleat…
      Have you ever tried WL chain lube on cleats? It works like magic. I spread it with a small paintbrush and over the retention mechanism also.

      March 31, 2015 at 10:27 am
  • Jon Blum

    Excellent recommendations. If in the Northeast, first shovel the snow off your bike. If in California, dig a well so you’ll have something to put in your water bottle.
    Seriously, I think it’s also a good idea to lube the pivots in clipless pedals’ release mechanisms. Seems to make release easier.
    As a bike ogler, I often notice something wrong with other people’s (usually strangers’) bikes on the road. Sometimes I give unsolicited advice, as nicely as I can, but this is not always appreciated. Today I told a guy in front of me that his rear tire was shot (the tread was worn completely through). He said he was trying to get his money’s worth from it. I supposed he’ll know he got that when he hears “BANG, thumpa, thumpa.” I did not press the point; I’m not the tire police.
    My usual practice:
    Loose wheel QR, unzipped rear bag, dangerously damaged tire, loose rack strut – point it out.
    Partly released brake – maybe point it out (but usually they seem to want it that way).
    Out of true wheel, very noisy unlubed or maladjusted drive train, too-low tire pressure – usually say nothing.
    I don’t want to be rude, but I will point out anything that looks really dangerous. I am curious what others do.

    March 29, 2015 at 2:44 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I found that rubbing some beeswax onto the spd cleats under your shoes makes it much easier to clip into the pedals…

      March 29, 2015 at 8:15 pm
    • Michael

      Once I was in my car, stopped at an intersection when I saw a guy with his front wheel QR hanging open as he was riding through the crosswalk. I hopped out and closed his QR for him.

      March 30, 2015 at 7:02 am
  • bob

    Corrosion between the cable and housing is another cause of brake friction and sluggish, erratic shifting (for those using indexed gears). This is often easily remedied by pulling the housing out of its stops, putting a couple drops of a light lubricant on the cable, and twisting/sliding the housing to make sure the cable stays protected. I see it a lot on bikes that have been ridden throughout the winter. It’s most visible in extreme cases when it manifests as a dry, white powder when the cable inside the housing is revealed. I preemptively lubricate my cables at the beginning of each season (and after particularly rainy or salty rides) to keep the friction down inside the housing.

    March 29, 2015 at 4:30 pm
    • bob

      Also, for those of us who ride on salty roads and wet conditions frequently, don’t forget to pull and lube that seatpost!

      March 29, 2015 at 4:33 pm
  • Ford Kanzler

    @bob, et-all who ride steel frames, greasing the seat post annually prevents a cold weld developing between the post and frame. Probably not a bad idea for aluminum frames as well. If you really want to fight potential corrosion, shoot your tubes’ interiors with some kind of rust prevention. I use LPS-3 or Boeshield T-9. There numerous other concoctions for this including thinned motor oil.

    March 30, 2015 at 8:17 am
  • David Pearce

    It’s nice that you can blog about maintenance things we can do to our bikes, and doubly nice that we can do most of it ourselves (if not all).
    What about my poor car?! I can’t work on it! I need to take it to a darn shop. It is a 2000 Volvo v70 station wagon with 175,000 miles. It’s pretty much fine, with four new tires and many aftermarket parts from ipdusa.com. But the clunking in front end, due to the PARLOUS state of our roads! (and, perhaps, unintended consequences: I wonder if the IPD heavy duty front roll bar is over stressing the normal duty “end links” that seem to need to be replaced every year!).
    My god, the urban roads here in the D.C. area after this past winter!! They were hardly repaired after the winter of 2013-14, and then potholed even further by this winter 2014-15. I am SO SICK of roads and infrastructure not being kept up because of no will to raise / allocate the funds and do the hard work to make the roads SAFE again.
    Carlton Reid wrote the book “Roads Were Not Built for Cars!”, using a phrase that has been used many times before, because it is certainly true.
    And now, by god, it’s truer than ever! The roads today really are not built for cars!!

    April 1, 2015 at 8:48 am
  • Michael

    If you haven’t turned them in a while, check that your valve stem nuts still turn and aren’t galled/corroded to your rims.
    I once had to use pliers to break mine free.

    April 2, 2015 at 9:28 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You can also remove the valve stem nuts entirely. They don’t serve a purpose beyond preventing the tube to get pulled into the tire if you ride without air (which you shouldn’t do anyhow). They also protect the rim from contact with metal pump heads, but that is all.
      Many tubes don’t even have nuts and threads – the old Michelins come to mind, as well as most tubes used for tubular tires.

      April 2, 2015 at 11:54 pm
  • Michael

    Ps- there was an aqua patina on the rim around the nut. Like the Statue of Liberty patina color. Good thing I was home and not on the road trying to fix a flat or I would have been stuck. You can’t remove your tube if your valve stem in immobilized to your rim by a galled/corroded nut.

    April 2, 2015 at 9:33 pm

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