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The essential 4-minute safety check every rider should know

The weather is warming, the outside is beckoning, and most of us are REALLY looking forward to dusting off the bike and enjoying some socially responsible freedom out of the house. Just hop on and go!

Not so fast…

flat tire

You’ll have a much better day if you check first for expected problems at home, rather than trying to do maintenance on the trail in the absence of tools and parts.

Here, in order of severity, are the top five general bike maintenance issues that you can check for with no tools:

1. Check wheel tightness and fit (30 seconds).

Quick-release wheels are super-easy to remove when you have a flat. That doesn’t mean that they should be loose and easy to remove the rest of the time. So the first safety check is to make sure your front wheel stays there!

THE TEST: For each axle, grab the lever and tug gently. Does it move?

disc brake

This is particularly critical with disc brakes. A quick release lever (A) that is not tightened against the fork (C) can get caught in the rotor (B), stopping the wheel.

If the release lever is at all easy to move, then open the lever, hand-tighten the nut on the other side, and close the lever again. Firmly. Your wheels are now secured for safe riding.

The same applies to older, or low-end wrench-nut axles. (I have vivid memories of, as a teenager, putting my front wheel back on just finger tight–I was going to get a wrench later–forgetting about it, and then jumping my bike into oblivion…).

A couple quick turns of the wheel is also enough to make sure your wheel doesn’t rub with each revolution. A crooked wheel is like riding with the brakes on. More on that later.

2. Check tire quality (30 seconds).

Tires are made from rubber, which dry-rots over time.

THE TEST: Look at both sides of both tires. Are they free from cracks or areas where the black has flaked off down to the white under layer?

cracked tire

A cracked or flaking tire is a ride-ending blowout waiting to happen.

If your tire isn’t road-safe, then don’t ride it. Any cheap replacement from Amazon, or your local bike shop if you don’t want to change tires, is an upgrade. While you’re going through the replacement effort, do you want something more flat-resistant? Continental Gatorskins have a Kevlar layer, and Tannus offers modern airless tires.

3. Check tire inflation (30 seconds).

Flats don’t happen just when we hit road debris. Sometimes they’re self-inflicted, and a little effort can keep that from happening.

Check your inflation. An under-inflated tire is not just more work to ride, but also can pinch the inner tube between the wheel rim and road, causing what’s known as a “pinch flat”. You don’t need a tire gauge to check pressure.

THE TEST:  Place your thumb on the tire and then push that thumb into the tire with the heel of your other hand. How much does it give?

checking tire pressure

How far your thumb should sink go into the tire depends on your recommended tire pressure, as listed on the side of your tire.

In general, high pressure road tires (110 PSI) will have almost no give, all-terrain and gravel tires (80 PSI) will have moderate give, and MTB tires (30-50 PSI) will have lots of give, depending upon whether you’re using your bike truly off-road or as a rough road bike.

When getting a bike pump for your bike, invest in a floor pump with a PSI gauge. It’s easier to use than a mobile pump, so you’ll start out better prepared, and won’t need to carry a pump.

4. Check brake effectiveness and straightness (30 seconds).

Checking brakes actually goes both ways. You want them to be loose enough that your wheel doesn’t rub, and yet tight enough to stop quickly in an emergency.

THE TEST: Spin your wheel and then squeeze your brakes. Does the wheel stop quickly and quietly without intermittent rubbing?

uneven rim brakes

These rim brake pads (as seen from the wheel side) are off to one side, and may squeak when used. To fix that, adjust the main bolt. To fix crooked individual pads, use the bolts on the side.

Rim brakes use rubber pads to grip the rim. If the rim is dirty, you’ll grind the dirt–actually small rock particles–into the rim.

  • Filthy rims? Wipe them quickly with a rag or sponge.
  • Do the brakes squeak? You may have a crooked brake or crooked brake pads.
    • For a crooked brake, loosen the main nut that holds the brake arm to the bike. Center, and retighten.
    • For a crooked pad: loosen the crooked pad at its main nut, squeeze your brake closed at your bars, and retighten the pad nut. Your pad is now straight and tight.


disc brakes end view

Disc brakes use a metal disc and tiny pads with tight tolerance–about 1-2 mm on each side of the disc–to grab the disc and stop the bike.

The most common issue is intermittent rubbing as the wheel turns. Here are three solutions:

  • Use the quick-release axle to re-adjust the wheel. Even a millimeter can make a difference. Then re-tighten.
  • If you have enough play in your brake handle, especially on the front brake, you can loosen the brake grip, either at the brake (with a counterclockwise turn if your brake has an adjustment) or at the brake handle.
  • If nothing gets rid of the rub, you may have a bent disc. You can attempt to straighten the disc or take it to a bike shop for replacement… or both! Try to fix the disc, ruin it, and then replace it like you were going to anyway.

5. Check shifting in all gears (2 minutes).

Any gears that you can’t get into won’t help you on a ride. That’s especially true of the lower gears, which can be the difference between riding up a hill and getting off and walking.

The test: turn your crank smoothly with one hand while using your other to shift gears on at a time. Does the chain drop smoothly into each gear without chirping?

Compared to everything before now, this is an advanced skill. An astute observer will recognize that it requires three hands: One for the crank, one for the shifters, and one to lift the rear wheel off the ground. This is one reason the shift check is often ignored by folks who don’t have a fancy bike stand.

cheap bike stand

You can literally get a bike stand for peanuts . . . or use a peanuts jar as your bike stand.

If you’re riding with someone else, you can ask your partner to lift the bike. And if you have no other tools–like out on the road–you might invert the bike, making the shifters more awkward to reach. But at Flatbike, we feel that the test should be convenient for one person and not in an inverted-gravity position. Putting your bike on a can or jar works just fine. (But if possible, don’t try to balance on two cans as shown here. Have higher standards!)

checking gearing

Clicking through 27 gears on a folding CHANGE bike…and a paper towel roll bike stand. Perfect if you get your fingers dirty while cleaning your chain.

As you’re shifting, remember that your chain is basically a component with 116 moving parts. Any link combination can get locked up by rust if your bike spends any significant non-riding time outdoors, even if just by condensation on an apartment deck–another argument for a full-size folding bike. A locked link joint makes the chain skip. You may oil the chain, but do not, under any circumstances, use WD-40, which is a degreaser!

If your bike does not shift smoothly into all gears, there are several possible reasons. The descriptions below are shorthand; if they’re not familiar, don’t start turning random screws! If you need those missing gears and the tips below seem foreign, a trip to your local bike shop may be warranted:

  • Loose cable? Maybe it stretched or came loose at the derailleur. Tighten, replace, or lengthen the housing.
  • Incorrect limit screws? Adjust as needed to move the chain as far as it should go and no more.
  • Loose chain? Tighten the tensioner bolt, if your rear derailleur has one.
  • Dirty chain? Scrape the caked-on black stuff from your derailleur cog, and possibly–if your have the right tool–remove the chain for cleaning.
dirty derailleur cog

That gunk in your rear cogs? It’s not supposed to be there. It won’t ruin your ride, but will make your chain–and you–work harder. You can pull it out with an old toothbrush.

And that’s all. Your bike is now road-worthy, and you’re far more likely to have a successful ride that you want to repeat.

After your beginning-of-season ride, you can ease up each ride and focus mainly on tire pressure, especially if you have a quality bike that stands up to regular use.

Be safe, and enjoy your rides!


Bob Forgrave's Signature

Bob Forgrave is president of Flatbike, an
ecommerce company offering full-size folding bikes
and kits to make any bike take up half the space.



One comment

  1. Mary Ann Padglick says:

    If you don’t have a bike stand but you transport your bike on a bike rack on a vehicle, the bike rack makes a good alternative bike stand.

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