At-Home Bike Maintenance 101

I’m not a particularly handy person. I’m not one to change my own car oil, or even fix my leaking faucet. So when it came to bike maintenance, my thoughts immediately went to “I’m expected to do what??”

Don’t get me wrong – bike maintenance is extremely important to ensure successful bike commuting and urban cycling. I dutifully get my bike checked and tuned up every year at my local bike shop, because making sure my bike is appropriately maintained means an investment in a safer, more comfortable ride. But I never thought I would be able to do it on my own!

However, over my years of bike commuting, I have come to realize that basic bike maintenance is not as hard as it seems, and there are certain tools and skills that even the most DIY averse person should have on hand and know how to use.

 Read on for The Smart Cyclist’s straightforward, easy-for-anyone-to-accomplish Guide to At-Home Bike Maintenance 101! 

A for Air: Keep Your Tires Properly Inflated

Keeping your tires properly inflated not only helps your bike ride smoothly, but also helps prevent flats. An underinflated tire is susceptible to “pinch flats.”

A pinch flat happens when your underinflated tire hits a bump or obstacle and compresses all the way to the rim, causing two small holes in the tire. 

Photo Credit: David Malan/Getty Images

Every tire has a recommended range for tire pressure (PSI). The best part is, you can find that range right on the tire! Look on the side of either tire and you will find a range of numbers etched into the rubber. 

  • Higher pressure = less rolling resistance. When you ride on a tire inflated to its maximum PSI, you ride faster and will find inclines and hills easier to manage since there is less resistance as you move. 
  • Lower pressure = more grip. Conversely, when you ride on a tire at a lower pressure, you experience more rolling resistance, but in exchange, you get more grip. This makes it safer and more comfortable to ride in rain or snow or on rougher terrain. 

Your tires’ ideal PSI depends on your riding conditions and comfort. I tend to ride closer to my tires’ maximum PSI since my commute has some intense hills; however, when it’s particularly rainy or snowy I will ride at a lower pressure. Check your PSI weekly and, at minimum, you should ensure your tires are not underinflated!

B for Brakes: Check Your Brake Cables and Pads

Before you head out on your bike, you should always make sure to squeeze both the front and rear brake levers to make sure your brakes are engaging properly and working smoothly. 

Your brakes include brake pads and cables. 

  • Brake pads – these pads clamp down on the rim of the tire when the brake lever is pressed. When you squeeze the brake lever, both pads should hit the rim at the same time, symmetrically; there should be an equal amount of space above and below both brake pads. You do not want your brake pads to be hitting the rubber on the tire or the wheel spokes.
  • Brake cables – these cables allow the brake lever to communicate with the brake pad. The cables should not be too loose or too tight. Your bike’s cables are too loose if there is little to no resistance and the brake lever hits the handlebar when pressed. Similarly, your cables are too tight if there is too much resistance and the brake lever is difficult to move when pressed.

Check out this amazingly helpful resource from WikiHow that provides clear instructions (and very helpful GIFs) for how to adjust rim bike brakes and cables if needed. For those who feel  handy enough to adjust your own brake pads, this page will be a huge help!

Disc brakes are a different beast, and adjusting them is something I would personally leave for my bike mechanic! If you are wondering what the difference between these types of brakes are, read more about that here.

C for Chain: Keep It Clean

(And D for Drivetrain if we’re getting really fancy with the ABC theme)

The drivetrain on a bike includes the chain, chain wheel, cassette and rear (sometimes front) derailleur. 

ABCs of Bike Maintenance (C for Chain and D for Drivetrain)

These parts all work together as you pedal to move the wheels. In car terminology, think of your feet as the engine and the drivetrain as the transmission. A clean, well-lubricated and well-maintained drivetrain means a smoother ride and longer-lasting bike. 

However, since the drivetrain is open to the elements, it will inevitably get dirty. Dirt and grime not only makes shifting gears and pedaling more difficult, they also act like sandpaper against the drivetrain components and wear them down over time. 

As result, it’s important for all riders – no matter where or how much you ride – to keep up on drivetrain maintenance! To be honest, I’m not performing deep cleans with water hoses – I leave that to the professionals – but I do try to keep my chain clean and well-lubricated. 

I know it’s time to give my chain some TLC whenever my bike starts to squeak or make other obnoxious sounds as I pedal or brake. You will need:

  • Rag – an old t-shirt or towel will do
  • Degreaser – this is a solvent that acts like soap to clean grime but won’t clog or ruin the chain. It’s easy to find on amazon or most bike stores. 
  • Lubricant – There are different types of lubricant that work for different climate/weather conditions. Read this post from Total Women’s Cycling that gives an excellent breakdown!

As you use one hand to crank the pedals of your bike, take the rag and degreaser and  thoroughly clean your bike chain of any dirt and grime first. Then take your lubricant and apply drops slowly onto the chain as you continue to crank the pedals of the bike. Let the lubricant dry then make sure to wipe off any excess on the chain so it doesn’t attract more dirt. 

ABCs of Bike Maintenance - Bike Lubrication

That’s what I do for spot cleaning until I can get my bike to the shop for regular maintenance; however, if you’re interested in going the extra mile check out this link (WikiHow to the rescue again) for tips on giving your bike a deep clean! 

That’s it! The absolute basics of bike maintenance involve: 

  • AIR: Keeping your tires inflated
  • BRAKES: Checking and adjusting your brakes as needed
  • CHAIN: Making sure the components of your drivetrain (especially your chain) are clean and grime-free! 

Check out all the posts in Getting Started 101 for all your intro to urban cycling needs!

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