Spring Bicycle Inspection

Spring Bicycle Inspection

The beginning of the season is a good time to check our bikes carefully. The last thing we need the evening before a ride is to find out that our chainrings are too worn to work with a new chain, or that our bottom bracket is about to pack up. A poorly maintained bike might leave us stranded on the road, or worse, cause us to crash.
I start by going over my bike as I clean it. Not only is it much more pleasant to work on a clean bike, but problems like cracks are easier to see. I wash my bike with water and soap. After it dries, I rub car wax on all metal parts (except the chain). As I wax the bike, I look for cracks and other problems. After the bike is clean, I inspect the following areas:
I inspect the brake pads. Are they worn down? Pads that slip into a metal holder (above) must remain at least a few millimeters exposed, otherwise, the holder will touch the rim when the pad compresses under hard braking. (The pad in the photo above needs to be replaced!)
Pads without separate holders have a wear line molded into them. Don’t try to use them beyond that line, as there is a metal stiffener inside the rubber that will score your rim if it is exposed.
Are my brake pads aligned correctly? Do they hit the rims squarely? Is there a risk of hitting the tire (sidepull and centerpull brakes), or of diving under the rim (cantilevers)? I make sure there is a little margin, as the brake shoe will compress during very hard braking. If the pads have a ridge worn into them (above), they need to be adjusted.
It’s also a good idea to “refresh” your brake pads from time to time. The rubber can “glaze over,” resulting in much-reduced braking power. I use a coarse file to expose fresh rubber. Try it, and you’ll be amazed how well your brakes work again!
The rims also form part of the braking system (unless you have drum or disc brakes). Have the sidewalls become concave from the abrasion of the brake pads? If yes, I measure the remaining wall thickness. If it is less than 0.8 mm, it is time for a new rim.
If possible, I unhook the brake springs and move and wiggle the arms. Do they move smoothly and without too much play? Are the bolts tight?
I replace my chain on a regular schedule, so I don’t need to check whether the bushings have worn so much that it no longer meshes cleanly with the freewheel/cassette cogs. If you are in doubt, place a ruler against the chain with the zero on one chain pin. At the one-foot mark should be another pin.

The chain above is almost new, so each link still is exactly one inch long. If the pin is more than 1/16 inch beyond the 12-inch mark, the chain has worn (“stretched”) so much that it should be replaced.

When the chain is off, I spin the cranks to see whether my bottom bracket turns smoothly. There should not be any grinding or catching, but just a smooth spin. I also spin my rear derailleur pulleys to check that they still turn smoothly.
The wear of the rear cogs is difficult to inspect visually. I know they are worn when I install a new chain, and it skips on some cogs under hard acceleration.

Chainrings are easier to inspect. Worn chainrings have a “shark tooth” profile, if the old chain has been used for too long. I replace my chain regularly, so the teeth just get thinner as they wear. When the teeth have visibly “thinned,” I replace the chainrings to reduce the wear on the chain and to keep my drivetrain running smoothly.
If the chain feels “rough” when I pedal, I check whether my cogs still have all their teeth (above). On my Urban Bike, I have stripped teeth off high-quality Dura-Ace 6-speed cogs. That bike sees a lot of torque when starting from a stop with a load of books on the rack.
Derailleurs and Cable
Derailleurs don’t usually suffer from much wear. Trouble usually comes from the shifter cables, which eventually fray and break (above). With downtube shift levers, it’s easy to check the cables at the shift lever. With modern brake/shift levers, it is harder to see whether the cable has frayed where it bends the most. I suggest taking the cables out and checking them once a year. A broken shifter cable will convert your bike to a single-speed, and not with the gearing you’d want!
I also check the brake cables. If the cables are frayed or have broken strands, they should be replaced. With broken strands (or worse, broken cables), look for the cause. Is there a burr over which the cable runs, causing it to flex more than necessary? It’ll need to be smoothed so the new cable won’t fail in the same spot.
I also inspect the housing. Is it in decent shape and without kinks? If your bike still has unlined housing, you can replace it with modern housing, which has a plastic liner inside that greatly reduces the cable friction.
I check that my wheels are still true. Minor deviations don’t really affect your bike’s performance, but if a wobble is visible to the eye, it should be trued. Often, it’s just one spoke that has come loose (or broken). I find that spoke by plucking each spoke like a guitar string. Without removing the wheel from the bike, I tighten the loose spoke and see whether the wobble disappears. If the problem isn’t limited to a single spoke, then it’s time to rebuild the wheel to make sure the spoke tensions are even.
The days when we had to repack our bearings annually are over for most of us. But even modern bearings with good seals do wear over time.
First, I check the bearings for play. I push the rims sideways to check the hub bearings. It’s normal that the wheel flexes, but if I feel a rocking motion, then there is play in the bearings. On many hubs, this can be adjusted. On others, you just have to live with it.
I push one crank toward the chainstay to check for play in the bottom bracket. For the headset, I turn the handlebars 90° and then rock the bike back and forth. There should be no play in the headset.
Then it’s time to make sure that my bearings still spin smoothly. I remove the wheels and turn the axles by hand. A little resistance is normal with sealed bearings. If the bearing catches at one (or several) spots during each revolution, the bearings are either adjusted too tightly, or more likely, are pitted and need replacement soon. I drop the chain off the chainrings (or remove it entirely) and spin slowly the cranks to check the bottom bracket. I put my bike on the stand, remove the front wheel, and turn the handlebars to check my headset.
I also check the pedals, both for play and for smooth bearings.
Riding with pitted bearings is not recommended. Eventually, the bearing can “pack up” and stop rotating. This will leave you stranded on a ride.
Last, I check the tires. If the tread has worn so much that it is smooth in the center (above), then the tire is getting close to its replacement point. I take it off and feel how much thickness remains. If the tire tread is almost as pliable as the sidewall, then there is hardly any tread left on top of the casing. Replace your tires before the tread wears through entirely! If you can see the casing through worn patches in the tread rubber, then you should replace the tire immediately. You are only a few miles away from a dangerous blowout!
What other parts of your bike do you inspect before you start your cycling season?

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Comments (34)

  • Gert

    Sadlebolts and their torque. It is a dangerous part to have come apart during a ride and almost impossible to torque to tigthen without a torque wrench.
    Apart form that I am more on a standard replacement pattern based on 8-10.000 km a year.
    chain and cassette yearly, brake pads at least yearly, wheels (cheap wheelsets, campagnolo scirocco, fulcum 5) every other year. and headset, chainrings and cables every four years. usually 1.000 kms befor P-B-P.
    I check the above things as You as I clean the bike, but the standard replacement pattern usually fits my needs

    April 9, 2013 at 2:04 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Scheduled replacements do make sense for some parts, like chains and tires, which wear at a predictable rate.
      I am surprised how many parts you replace regularly. My wheels last at least 40,000 km, and then I just need to replace the spokes (rear) and rim (front). My freewheels last at least 60-80,000 km, but I do replace my chain every 1600-2000 km. I’ve not yet replaced a roller bearing headset. Especially on the wheel front, you might save money by investing in a good hand-built wheelset.

      April 9, 2013 at 5:24 am
  • Bob

    Replace the handlebar tape (and take the old stuff off down to the metal). This provides opportunity to inspect the handlebars for corrosion and possible cracks.

    April 9, 2013 at 6:10 am
  • Gert

    Well some of it is probably also weight related. I am sadly on the wrong side of 200 pounds.
    I have had good hand built wheels, but have been inept at maintaining them, so I switched to the cheap wheelset, with fewer aerodynamic spokes and still enough for my weight. I still have a hand built set, I need to tune the bearings right, which is where I have had some problems and worn bearings out.
    I also started with replacing the chain only at about the same rate as you, but I found that gearswitching became raw, and it also skipped some cogs. I must admit that probably more tha 80% of my riding is on the 19 and 17 cogs, so Ishould actually order some single cogs from Miche in stead of bying an entirely new cassette from Campagnolo.
    I have a monthly bicycle budget of a little less than 200$, which includes bicycle-clothing and saving up for a new frame so the regularity fits me

    April 9, 2013 at 6:18 am
  • Greg

    Good advice. I think the thing that many folks often miss is the idea of frequent chain replacements. I note with interest your aggressive chain replacement schedule, and I think that: A) gives you consistent, crisp shifting over time, and B) makes your freewheels / cassettes last a very long time indeed! We do chain replacements about every 3000 km (2000 miles), which I thought was pretty frequent, but as chains are relatively cheap, maybe we will go to even shorter intervals! Our bikes almost all have freewheels, which are getting harder to find in many sizes now, as the current ones are only available in ‘standard’ ratios, and the supply of high-quality NOS vintage ones is becoming ever-smaller….

    April 9, 2013 at 7:03 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      My bikes use freewheels and 6- or 7/8-speed chains. The chains are inexpensive, and the freewheels almost impossible to find. So it makes sense to replace chains frequently.

      April 9, 2013 at 7:28 am
      • Andy

        I’ve switched over to a method of wearing the chains and cassette together over more time by swapping out chains in small intervals. I bought 3 at the same time, and wear them in small increments before moving to the next chain (and saving the used one). Once they all reach the same amount of wear than I go back to the first chain, and so on.

        April 9, 2013 at 8:45 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          When I was in college, we theorized that this might be a good idea. I am pleased that somebody is organized enough to put it in practice.

          April 9, 2013 at 8:55 am
      • don compton

        While I live in Lodi, Ca. and almost never in rain, stuff still wears out. We have a lot of dust. All of our bikes are Campy 10sp. I have been using KMC chains and keeping my chains clean and my cassettes just seem to have no wear. I see marks on the teeth, but their performance has not declined.

        April 9, 2013 at 7:50 pm
      • Paul Knopp

        IRD now makes a very nice freewheel ($50). Check with your LBS and they can order them from Merry Sales in SF. http://www.interlocracing.com/freewheels_steel.html

        April 10, 2013 at 1:52 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          It appears that the latest versions of the IRD freewheel are better than the first few iterations, but at $ 50, you cannot expect the quality of an old Dura-Ace freewheel or similar.

          April 10, 2013 at 2:10 pm
  • Jim Gustafson

    Thanks for putting all that useful information out there for us. Especially since my bike tends to become a bit grimier over the winter. I printed out your instructions (hope that’s ok) and I’m going to go over my bike this weekend. All the best – JimG.

    April 9, 2013 at 8:37 am
  • Chris L

    Check every bolt – stem, water bottle cages, cables, cranks, chainrings, etc. I hold the wrench with just two finger tips so I’m only checking that the bolt is still tight and not over tightening it.
    Also check cleat bolts. When I worked as a mechanic on week long charity rides one of our most common mechanical problems was cleat bolts falling out, especially on SPD type pedals. It was so bad that on larger rides (2,000+ riders) we would bring a bag of spare cleat bolts. Actually not a bad idea to carry a spare cleat bolt in your bag. They can often double as spare bottle cage or cable bolts should one of those fall out. Also check your cleats for wear. Nothing worse than having your shoe come out of the pedal during a hard effort.

    April 9, 2013 at 8:45 am
    • Andy

      A few tips for cleat bolts: once in place, I ride for a week and then tighten the bolts again as they tend to loosen a small amount in the very beginning as the cleat sets into the show. At that point, I also fill the allen bolts with hot glue, as well as any remaining gaps on the shoe sole around the cleat. That makes reusing the cleats very easy as I can pop out the glue at any time with any pointed tool like a screwdriver bit, without having to deal with compacted rock fragments that are much more difficult to pry out, especially if a roadside adjustment was needed. Part of my annual tune up is to re-glue any missing spots.

      April 9, 2013 at 9:00 am
  • Jon

    I suggest removing and greasing the seatpost during annual maintenance. Perhaps do this more frequently if you ride in damp conditions. It only takes a minute and beats dealing with a seized post.

    April 9, 2013 at 9:31 am
  • Paul Ahart

    Reading the remarks of these previous posters, I find they are all good recommendations. The first poster spoke of wearing out rims prematurely. This is most common on bikes used by regular commuters, who ride in the rain and don’t think much about their machines. Regularly cleaning the rims and the brake pads with a garden hose and rag gets rid of most of the road grit that grinds into the braking surface like sandpaper. Good brake pads, like Kool Stop salmon-colored pads, also will extend the life of the rim.
    Bikes with integrated brake/shift levers should have their derailleur cables replaced yearly if the bike is ridden very much. The cables always break inside the shifter, and can be nearly impossible to remove. Far better to spend 10 bucks on a couple of cables every year or so.
    Many cyclists find the cones in their wheel hubs wearing out quickly, getting pitted and noisy in as little as a few hundred miles. Quick-release skewers, when tightened, slightly bow the axle, causing the cones to tighten. I always adjust them with a tiny “click” of play on the bench, then install on the bike, tightening the quick-release barely enough to hold the wheel to the frame. The rim should wobble slightly from side to side. Then, when the QR is tightened, the “play” should go away. Ideally, the weight of the tube valve stem should be enough for the wheel to rotate on its own, placing the valve stem in the “down” position. This probably won’t happen on a rear wheel. A word of warning: most new bikes for sale in your LBS have cones adjusted way too tight!

    April 9, 2013 at 9:32 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      A word of warning: most new bikes for sale in your LBS have cones adjusted way too tight!

      We noticed that on my son’s bike. The front wheel is incredibly notchy, and it had only a few hundreds miles before we replaced it with new wheel built around a generator hub.

      April 9, 2013 at 9:35 am
    • Conrad

      When I adjust cup/cone hub bearings, I place a tight quick release skewer on the hub to simulate the hub being clamped in the frame. The tightened lever also gives you a nice handle and reference point for making small adjustments.

      April 9, 2013 at 9:52 pm
      • RickH

        My choice too. I purchased Ultegra hubs and was bewildered why they come from the factory so tight. My guess is that the wheel builder should know their tolerances and adjust accordingly.

        April 10, 2013 at 6:02 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          When IRD started making freewheels, they found that it was impossible to find workers who could adjust bearings. It’s not a skill that is readily available among unskilled labor in third-world countries. My guess is that rather than having the bearings loose, they err on the tight side at the Shimano factory. (The alternative would be to train the workers, but the whole idea of cheap labor is that it requires relatively little skill and easily replaced.)

          April 10, 2013 at 7:59 pm
    • Conrad

      RickH- I have noticed the same thing with dura ace road and track hubs that I bought new. When I built the wheels up, the notchiness disappeared. Maybe from the tension on the flanges? That made me think that the new hubs from Shimano were actually adjusted perfectly straight from the factory and I was impressed. Have you built up those ultegra hubs yet?

      April 10, 2013 at 9:15 pm
  • lawschoolissoover

    Don’t forget to check the electrical system every so often. A good dyno system should last, well, nearly forever–but sometimes cables and/or connectors fail. And if it’s the tail light, you’re probably not going to notice it right away. I do a spin test before each ride to check for correct functioning.
    Funny that the first thing you mention is brakes, because I *just* replaced my rear pads (like many of us, I probably rely too heavily on the rear brake) after noticing how far the lever had to travel when I was descending a very steep hill.
    Shifters should also be checked carefully. Even simple units like down tube levers can use cleaning, grease, and adjustment every so often.

    April 9, 2013 at 11:57 am
  • Matt R

    Jan, you mentioned that you replace the spokes in your rear wheel. I’ve been told that you can’t (or maybe just shouldn’t) reuse a rim when rebuilding a wheel. Is that not correct? I’ve got a set of bombproof Weinmann ZAC-19 hybrid rims that I’d love to rebuild with good road hubs and double butted spokes. Is it feasible to reuse those rims?

    April 9, 2013 at 12:03 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I don’t see any reason why rims cannot be reused. In fact, my rear rims don’t wear, since I so rarely use my rear brake. When I have broken 2 spokes in a wheel in relatively quick succession (say within 5000 km), then I replace all the spokes in the wheel. The last time I did this was on my Singer in 2006, I believe.

      April 9, 2013 at 12:12 pm
    • Paul Knopp

      I think shops don’t like to re-use rims because they take longer to get true and time is money. Also, a good shop guarantees their work and they like to guarantee new stuff. If you’re doing it yourself, have at it.

      April 10, 2013 at 2:03 pm
      • Bruce (@Sacchoromyces)

        I had a shop refuse to build me wheels from my old hubs. All I wanted was a set built in another wheel diameter from my hubs. They could have gotten money for labor, spokes, and rims from me. I just wanted to keep my Shimano 600’s (pre Ultegra hubs-silence when coasting is golden).
        In the long run I ended up selling those whells and using that money for my new 650b wheels and 105 hubs. Not as quiet, but sweet enough nonetheless.

        April 12, 2013 at 6:41 am
  • John

    There are many ways to do everything. I’m always interested in a rather mundane aspect of bike maintenance: cleaning. Can you elucidate on favored methods of cleaning the bike? Not just the frame, but the moving parts and etc.? Which types of soap? Degreasers, if used? What type of cleaning implements? Water temperature?

    April 9, 2013 at 12:13 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      For me, it’s very simple: Water from the rain barrel. Some car soap I bought a decade ago (a little goes a long way). A terry washcloth (don’t use a sponge, it traps dirt and scratches the paint). If the bike is getting cleaned for a photo shoot, maybe an old toothbrush for some nooks that are hard to reach otherwise.
      I don’t use degreasers much, as I don’t have much need. When I clean the chainrings or rear cogs, I just use a paper towel and “elbow grease”.

      April 9, 2013 at 12:21 pm
      • Tim Evans

        Regarding the photo of the hand holding the brake shoe – it might take degreaser to clean those fingers!

        April 9, 2013 at 6:23 pm
    • Paul Knopp

      The Johnson and Johnson Company has perfected a spray for cleaning a bike and I have used it in my shop for years. In one or two minutes I can make a bike look like I spent an hour slaving over it. Pledge. Or, if you’re a tightwad, you can go to the dollar store and buy generic furniture polish. All of them have a gentle degreaser and leave a waxy film behind that will keep your bike from getting dirty in the first place.

      April 10, 2013 at 2:01 pm
  • Cory

    What about cleaning light colored sidewalls? I’ve found a magic eraser to be very useful. I was told there is no harsh chemicals so no damage should be done.

    April 9, 2013 at 10:06 pm
  • Gert

    As for cleaning Your fingers and hands. Use coffee grounds (after You have made coffee)together with a little soap. It is very efficient

    April 10, 2013 at 2:32 am
  • GuitarSlinger

    Living at altitude as I do ( once again ) any and all rubber/plastic parts ( tires , tubes , brake pads cable housings etc ) for cracks due to the dryness as well as excessive exposure to UV/IF here ( more often than not the brakes on my wife’s bike crack well before they’re worn ) Also all the adjustments for my Brooks saddle as well as checking over the rest of the leather along with giving those a good cleaning and Brooks leather treatment . Finally the condition of the tools in the tool roll along with the spare tube etc .and a check on the overall fit ( to make sure nothings slipped out of position ) and all the nuts n’ bolts holding the thing together .
    Spring ( bike ) cleaning . Is there anything more satisfying in light of the anticipation of the spring/summer/fall rides to come ? ( not to mention the next set of winter days in CO over 45f and sunny )

    April 10, 2013 at 1:47 pm
  • Jon Blum

    I’ve seen the most trouble with loose bolts on water bottle cages (not so bad), racks (bad if they go into the spokes) and crank fixing bolts (really bad, esp. the right side, since most people don’t carry a metric socket wrench around).
    One other item: Shoes, not just the cleats but the laces and soles. Stiff soles put a lot of stress on the joint between sole and upper when you walk in them, and I’ve had several pairs separate at the heel (especially Nike cycling shoes, thankfully not made any more). Shoe Goo and a C-clamp make them stronger than new in 3 days. So check for separation.
    Regarding freewheels, I have had good luck with the very inexpensive Shimano ones currently for sale (Harris has them). For $20, my expectations were low, but no trouble so far. They are also very quiet. I am neither heavy nor strong, and rarely ride in the rain, so those of you who place more demands on equipment might fare less well with these. As far as durability goes, I’ve replaced them prophylactically every once in a while when replacing the chain; at this price, I don’t mind.
    Finally, someone mentioned cleaning oneself (hands). Those cracked fingers in the photo have probably seen a lot of soap or solvent and not much moisturizer. Nitrile gloves can save a lot of wear on the skin, are much more durable and solvent-resistant than vinyl or latex, and are non-allergenic. They are less stretchy than latex, so be sure to get the right size. Degreaser will strip the oils from your skin, so better to keep the grime off, or at least moisturize afterward.

    April 10, 2013 at 2:56 pm

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