Bike Maintenance

Bike Maintenance Basics

by Paul Foley

Keeping your bike in good working order, means you are less prone to having a breakdown on the road. This article deals with simple Do’s and Don’ts, along with pointers on how to maintain your pride and joy.

Bike Parts Overview
Bike Parts Overview

Bike Storage

The simplest form of maintenance can be as basic as how you store, transport and treat your bike. Store your bike in a shed or garage. Leaving your bike outside in the elements, will mean problems such as:  premature rust, lubricants getting flushed from the drivetrain (chain, cassette, chainrings and derailleurs), water getting into the cables, rubber perishing, etc. When washing the bike, don’t use a high pressure hose, and avoid pointing the water jet at any bearings.

On a day to day basis, if you need to leave the bike on the ground, try to ensure that the drive side is facing up. This ensures that the derailleurs are not getting damaged, and will mean less gear-shifting trouble in the long run. Similarly, if leaning a bike against a wall or ditch, make sure the chain side is facing out towards you. If you transport your bike in the boot of your car or on a bike-rack, again make sure the chain side is free of any obstruction.

Tools and Spares

If you do have an issue out on a ride, a correctly stocked saddlebag will mean you have everything necessary to get you going again. The following items should be carried with you:  2 spare tubes, 3 tyre levers, pump, puncture repair kit, screwdriver, and an Allen key set. 

Spare Tubes: Carry the correct size and type of inner tube. Protect it from weathering by storing it in a polythene bag within the saddle bag. The most common type of tyre on a road bike is size 700 x 23c with a presta valve, so make sure your spare tube will fit the tyre (and rim). 

If your wheels are the deep carbon rim type (aero rims), double check that the valve length of your spare tube is long enough to show up through the rim of your wheels. You may need to buy a tube with a long valve (e.g. 60mm). Using a valve extension is an alternative option. 

Schrader valves are more common on mountain bikes. This type of valve is sometimes referred to as American Valve (AV), or Car valve. 

Tyre Levers:  You can get by with two levers, but three are recommended. Most are made of tough plastic. There is usually a slot at one end to allow you to hook the lever onto a spoke, thereby freeing up both hands for the next tyre lever. When removing a tyre, be careful that the tyre lever doesn’t spring back and hit you in the eye. 

Pump:  Mini pumps are very popular. They are lightweight, compact and mount easily to a bracket that shares the same bolts as the water bottle cage. Most pumps have a locking lever to allow a solid connection with the valve. (Make sure this lever is in the unlocked position before connecting to the valve.) Some types of pump also have a built-in pressure gauge, and a twin-head connector which allows connection to both types of valve. Be aware that some mini-pumps are “dual action”. This means that they pump air out, on both the extension stroke and the compression stroke. 

Puncture Repair kit:  Don’t leave home without one. The crayon is needed to mark the location of the hole, and the sandpaper is used to roughen the area around it. The tube of vulcanizing rubber solution (rubber cement), bonds the patch to the tube. The chalk can be grated over the patch after the repair, to prevent the patch from sticking to the inside surface of the tyre. See the section on how to repair a puncture at the very end.

An alternative to the traditional repair kit is the GP-2 Super Patch Kit from Park Tool. This is a glue-less patch kit that works like a band-aid. Find the hole, roughen the area and stick on the patch. 

Screwdriver: There are a couple of parts on a bike that have screw heads. The main locations are the derailleurs and the brake calipers. Limit screws on the front and rear derailleurs may need to be adjusted if the chain keeps falling off, or if extremity gears fail to select. On brake calipers, use the adjustment screw to centre the brake. This resolves the issue of one brake pad contacting the rim before the other. Carry a screwdriver if it’s not part of your multi-tool. 

Allen key set:  Allen key heads are found everywhere on a bike, especially in sizes 4mm, 5mm and 6mm. One disadvantage of Allen-key heads is that they hold water and dirt. If you find that it’s difficult to insert the Allen key, clean out the head with a small screwdriver (or an Allen key of a much smaller size). It’s important to get the head clean, as the key itself will not insert the whole way due to the dirt. This increases the risk of rounding out the head. Look over your bike, and take note of the different size Allen keys you need to carry with you. There are multi-tools available that contain all the common sizes. Some pedals require an 8mm key, so don’t be caught out. 
Note: using an imperial sized Allen key in a metric head can end up rounding out the head. For example, don’t use a 7/32 inch Allen key on a 6mm head. It will fit, but as soon as any pressure is applied, it will probably round out the head, leaving you with a bolt that you can’t open. The same logic can be applied to metric and imperial spanners. (E.g. to avoid deforming the head, don’t use a 9/16” spanner on a 14mm bolt.) Thankfully, most bikes these days all use metric bolt heads.  

If space permits, handy extras to carry in your saddlebag include: 

  • CO2 Canister
  • Tyre Repair Patch
  • Chain-breaker Tool
  • Spoke Wrench
  • Electrical Tape 

CO2 Canister:  
CO2 canisters (or CO2 cartridges) make for a fast puncture repair. It should be pointed out that, it’s a good idea to also carry a pump. A CO2 canister has a finite amount of gas in it, whereas a pump will keep giving air until your arm gives up. Wear gloves when using the CO2 canister, as the outside of the metal shell will freeze over due to the pressure inside decreasing. Your fingers will stick to the canister if gloves are not worn.

16 gram CO2 Inflator
16 gram CO2 Inflator

Tyre Repair Patch: A torn tyre is a rare problem to encounter. Nevertheless, it may prevent you from getting home. A damaged tyre could mean puncture after puncture, as the inner-tube will bulge out through the cut. Use the tyre patch (tyre boot) to repair a worn or cut sidewall. Take off the tyre, and apply the patch to the inside of the tyre. Ensure the patch doesn’t affect how the tyre sits on the rim. Replace the tyre as soon as possible.


3 Pack of Tyre Boots
3 Pack of Tyre Boots

Chain-breaker Tool:  Also known as a Chain Rivet Extractor, Chain Pin Extractor or simply as a Chain Tool. If you snap a chain, this tool can be used to rejoin the chain, enabling you to get you back home. The rejoined chain will be shorter. Until you get a new chain, it is recommended to avoid using the biggest ring on the front, and the biggest cog of the cassette at the back. Chain-breaker tools can also be used to remove any stiff links in your chain. Some chain-breaker tools will work on 7 and 8 speed chains, but will not work on 9 and 10 speed chains, so make sure you have the right tool for the right job. Some chain-breaker tools are compact, and will easily fit in your bag.

CT-5 Chain-breaker
CT-5 Chain-breaker

Spoke Wrench: A spoke wrench is a tool used to repair minor wheel buckles by adjusting the tension on certain spokes. If you have never used this tool before, practice on an old wheel before attempting any of your own repairs… It can also be a useful tool to have on you if you break a spoke or a spoke nipple, while out on a ride. A broken spoke will cause unequal spoke tension in your wheel. This will stress the adjacent spokes, as well as pull the rim to one side, resulting in brake-rub. To resolve this, use the spoke wrench to decrease the tension on the spokes running to the opposite side of the hub. Turning the spoke nipples located on either side of the broken spoke in a clockwise direction (as viewed from the hub end), should alleviate the pressure. One full revolution should do the trick. This is an emergency repair, so bring your wheel to a bike shop before riding the bike again.


4-sided BBB Spoke Wrench
4-sided BBB Spoke Wrench

Electrical Tape:  A roll of electrical tape is great to repair a worn rim strip. Tape can also be used to tie a loose spoke to a neighbour spoke. This would need to be done if you break a spoke nipple. (The spoke doesn’t have to be replaced in this case, so stop it flapping around by taping it down.) 

If you are serious about cycling and you want to get more involved with the servicing of your bike, consider investing in some of the following tools:

  • Chain Gauge
  • Floor Pump
  • Cassette Remover
  • Chain Whip
  • Chain Cleaning Tool

Chain Gauge: A chain gauge tool (chain wear indicator) will set you back about €10. This type of gauge is referred to as a “go-no-go” gauge. Most have two sides. One side will show you if the chain is almost worn out, and the other will tell you to replace the chain. The gauge works on the basis that as a chain ages it stretches slightly, and the rollers of the chain also reduce in diameter due to frictional wear. If the long side of the gauge can be physically pushed into the chain, then the chain should be changed. Read more about this in the segment on chain-wear.

Chain Gauge in use
Chain Gauge in use

Floor Pump: Also called a Track Pump. These are high capacity pumps (up to 160 PSI), and make for effortless tyre inflation. Because the pump body is connected to the pump head via a flexible hose, there is less chance of damaging the tube near the valve, as any rocking motion is eliminated.

Topeak Pump with Twin-head
Topeak Pump with Twin-head

Cassette Remover: A cassette remover is believe it or not.. used to remove the cassette from the freehub body! You would need to remove the cassette when changing a broken spoke on the rear wheel, or if performing maintenance on the wheel hub. Other times that you would take off the cassette is when putting on new one, or when giving a thorough clean to all the cogs.

Cassette Removal
Cassette Removal

Chain Whip: This tool is used in conjunction with the cassette remover. The chain whip prevents the cassette from spinning around while you are opening the lockring cap of the cassette. The whip is not needed to re-install the cassette.

Chain Cleaning Tool: The reservoir is filled with degreasing solution and the tool is snapped in around the chain. (There is no need to break the chain.) As the pedals are rotated backwards, the bristles and sponges in the cleaner will remove the oil and gunk from the chain. (If you are on a budget, a petrol-soaked rag will also get the job done.)

There’s no point in just cleaning the chain, so use an old toothbrush and a rag to clean the chainrings and cassette cogs as well. When everything has dried, you will need to add lubricant to the chain.

Chain Cleaner Kit in operation
Chain Cleaner Kit in operation

When it comes to choice of lubricant, any oil is better than no oil at all, but 3-in-1 oil tends to get messy very fast. In the summer/dry months, dry chain lube can be used. Dry lube dries to leave a wax coating on the chain. This forms a frictional barrier between the metal parts. In the winter/wet months, stick with a wet chain lube such as Weldtite Extreme Wet. This is very resistant to being washed off compared to dry lube.

Avoid getting oil or grease on the braking surfaces of the wheel rims. After applying the lube, pedal the bike through all gear combinations a few times. The next step is the step most novice mechanics forget; this is when you are to get a rag, and remove the excess lubricant from the chain. This is done by lightly wrapping the rag around the chain, and turning the pedals backwards. By removing the excess oil, you lessen the chances of dirt and grit sticking to the chain. The more dirt you can keep off the chain, the longer the chain will last.

Cycling Away from Home

If going on a touring holiday or a multi-day charity cycle, the following spares are good to have in your kit: Spare Folding Tyre, Inner Gear Cable, Inner Brake Cable, and a Replaceable Dropout.

  • Spare Folding Tyre:   These tyres fold up nice and neat, so will not take up a lot of space. Also known as a “foldie”.
  • Inner-cable:   Inner-gear and inner-brake cables rarely give trouble, but if you are on a touring holiday, a snapped gear-cable could mean a painful slog in a stiff gear until you can find somewhere to repair it for you. Being able to fix it yourself on the spot can save you this suffering. Just watch out that inner-gear cables and inner-brake cables are not the same. Brake cables are thicker and have different heads at the end of the cable. There are different kinds of cable heads, so make sure your spare cable will fit. 

Gear Cable (left) and Brake Cables (right )

Gear Cable (left) and Brake Cables (right )

Replaceable Dropout:   This is the small aluminium plate that your rear derailleur bolts onto. This plate in turn, bolts onto your frame. Replaceable dropouts were traditionally more popular on mountain-bikes, but are now found on many aluminium and carbon fiber road frames. They are sometimes referred to as a derailleur hanger. Think of the replaceable dropout as a fuse that protects your frame. The rear derailleur usually sticks out a bit, and if a large force is placed on it, it can bend or break your frame. The replaceable dropout is designed to snap before the frame is damaged, saving you the cost of a new frame.

Replaceable Dropout on Frame
Replaceable Dropout on Frame

Daily Checks   

Before each ride, be sure to check your tyres, brake operation, contents of the saddlebag, and that all quick release levers are fully closed.

When adding air to your tires, the pressure you should aim for will depend on your weight. Also, be aware of the maximum tyre and rim ratings. Usually, you should aim for a little more air in the rear tyre compared to the front. This is because more weight isplaced over the rear wheel. Like everything, there are tradeoffs regarding what tyre pressure you choose:

Lower pressures mean a more comfortable ride and better traction. The downside of running lower pressures are an increased risk of pinch flats (snakebite punctures), an increased effort required to pedal the bike, heavier steering, and increased rate of tyre wear. Note: having critically low pressure in the front tyre especially, can cause unpredictable steering and dangerous handling.

Higher pressures reduce the rolling resistance (making the bike easier to pedal), and makes the steering more responsive. On the flip side, it increases stopping distances and leads to a harsh ride. (One thing to watch if running very high tyre pressures, is that the tyre is more prone to popping on a very hot day, if left out in the sun. This is more of an issue in countries like Spain rather than Ireland.)

Sometimes it might take a few attempts to get a good connection between the pump and the valve. If you find that you are pumping but no air is getting into the tyre, make sure the knurled thumbwheel on top of the presta valve is open. Try pressing this in once, to break the seal. Another symptom of a bad connection is the needle on the pressure gauge going up way too fast. This pressure is not the pressure of the air in the tyre, but instead the pressure of the pocket of air trapped between the pump and the valve.

Monthly Inspections and Basic Maintenance  

The following checks should be performed about once a month. If you are not comfortable fixing any issue, bring the bike to your local bike shop.

  • Brake pads: Check the amount of wear left on all four brake pads. Sometimes the pad will have an indicator wear line. Pads that have worn down passed the water removal grooves, will not be as effective in wet weather, as the channels to guide water away no longer exist. Also look for unequal pad wear. If the left pad is wearing much faster than the right one, you will need to re-centre the brake caliper, re-centre the wheel, or both.
  • Wheel Hub Tests: Hubs handle very large forces, and from time to time the pressure against the bearings will need adjustment. Perform the side-to-side wiggle test – holding the frame (or front fork) with one hand, rock the top of the wheel left to right. If there is any play, the hub will need to be tightened up. In standard hubs, this means tightening the cones in against the ball bearings using a cone spanner. For the next hub test, lift the bike completely off the ground and spin the wheels. If any of the wheels stop rotating after only a few revolutions, the hub is too tight, and will need adjustment.
  • Headset Test: While standing over the bike, and with the front brake applied, rock the bike back and forth. If you hear a clicking/clunking sound or feel a notch, then the headset is loose. Now lift the front wheel off the ground by pulling up the frame. With your other hand, turn the handlebars left and right. The handlebar should flop easily from one side to the other. If there is any resistance, it’s likely that the headset is too tight. If this is not corrected fast, the bearing races will be damaged.
  • Bottom Bracket and Crank Test: Lean the bike against a wall. Rock each crank arm left and right. Movement in both arms would mean that the bottom bracket is worn, and needs replacement. (If you are not running a cartridge style bottom bracket, it may only need a tighten up.) If only one crank has lateral movement, you have a loose crank. Do not cycle the bike until this has been fixed.  
  • Stem Tightness Test: Stand over the front wheel looking back towards the saddle. Clamp the forks between your knees and very gently turn the handlebars left and right. 
    Note: be careful here as many modern components are made of carbon. If there is any handlebar movement that doesn’t spring back to centre, the stem is loose. Resolve before riding again.
  • Chain Hop Test: With the chain shifted into the smallest cassette cog, turn the pedals backwards. If the chain jumps up or fails to sit fully on the cog, then you have a stiff link. Use this opportunity to inspect the condition of the links too. Resolve any problems here, before indexing the gears.
  • Gear Indexing: Suspend the rear of the bike in the air. Rotate the pedals while flicking through all possible gear combinations. If some gears fail to select (or hesitate), you have a gear indexing issue. Make sure all the cable ends (ferrules) are firmly seated in the cable stops of the frame, and that the cable guides under the bottom bracket are clean. Use the barrel adjusters to tune the cable tension. Adjust by ¼ of a turn at a time. If you run out of thread on the barrel adjuster, you will need to open the anchor bolt on the derailleur and feed a few mm of cable through.
  • If re-indexing the gears fails to resolve the problem, you could have a bent dropout or a derailleur limit screw in need of correction. Also check that the shifter is compatible with the derailleur. Finally, a high level of friction between the inner and outer gear cables could be the cause of the shifting difficulties. If cleaning and lubrication still doesn’t fix the problem, then you need new cables.
    Note: Don’t worry if some gears make a slight clicking noise. In general, avoid using the smallest front ring with the smallest cassette cog. Likewise, spend as little time as possible in the largest front ring and largest cassette cog (this will reduce the clicking sounds, and prolong the life of the chain).

It’s also worth checking the following items a couple of times a year:  

  • handlebar clamp
  • condition of shoe cleats
  • chain wear
  • bottle cage bolts
  • mini-pump operation 

The pivots of both derailleurs and both pedals should be lubricated every time you degrease the chain (wipe off any excess oil). Do not lubricate the brake caliper pivoting points as it will only get washed down onto the brake pads. If you are adjusting the saddle height, observe the minimum insertion markings on the seatpost.
If swapping pedals, you should realise that the left pedal is reversed threaded (left-hand threaded), meaning that as you look in from the left-hand side of the bike, the pedal spindle needs to be turned anti-clockwise to tighten it. 

Drivetrain Problems  some drivetrain problems feel similar, but happen due to different reasons.

  1. Everything works ok until you put the power down. When you do put the power down, especially with the chain in a small cog of the cassette, the chain can’t lock into the teeth of the cog, and then the chain slips. This is called Chain Slippage. The main culprit is usually a worn cassette. Look for spiked teeth in the smallest three cogs. A worn chain is the next suspect part.
  2. You go to shift gear, but the chain only ends up clicking, or it shifts late. This is simply a gear indexing, limit screw or tension screw problem. Usually, no replacement parts are needed to fix this.
  3. You are pedalling away, and suddenly the cranks just lock up. You backpedal a little, and everything is fine once again. The problem may not happen again for a few hours. This problem is called Chain Suck. It happens when a chain and chainrings of unequal wear are used together. It usually happens when a new chain is installed, but very high mileage rings are left on the bike. The reason the cranks lock up is because the chain fails to release from the teeth of the chainring on the bottom of the revolution, and is “sucked” right around the chainring. The problem is usually fixed by replacing the worn chainring.

Chain Wear   there are two schools of thought regarding chain wear:

  1. Leave everything wear out together. Once chain slippage begins, replace the chain, cassette, chainrings and the rear derailleur pulley wheels together at the same time.
  2. Replace the chain when it has worn to a degree where a chain gauge tool says it’s time to replace. If the chain is replaced regularly, wear and tear of the cassette and chainrings will be minimised. You will go through many chains before needing to replace the cassette. Check chain wear with a chain gauge as described in the tools section.
    If fitting a new chain yourself, be aware that the new chain may need to be shortened to make it the same length as the old one. This is done by removing links.

Shimano and SRAM recommend different ways to join their own chains, so read all instructions carefully. Also note that different chains are different widths, and some chains are designed to be used with certain chainrings for improved shifting performance. Once again, if in doubt, bring the bike to your local bike shop. If your chain snaps while standing up and pedalling hard, the pedalling resistance will be removed instantaneously. You are either going to end up straddling the crossbar or having a tumble.