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The ABC’s of a longer-lasting bike

One of my favorite rides is a 1980’s era road bike. Thanks to basic maintenance, it’s just as smooth now as it was decades ago. That’s the promise of a well-cared-for bike.

Fortunately, good maintenance is a lot simpler than many bike shops would have you believe. It starts with a simple ABC check: Air, Brakes, Chain.  If anything will go wrong, especially in moderate-usage situations, it will likely be one of these three things.

1. Air: Keep your tires properly inflated.

balloon losing air

Your tires are basically balloons, specialized for transportation. And like a birthday balloon, they deflate slowly. This doesn’t mean a defective tire or inner tube. It’s just the routine laws of physics, with individual gas molecules slowly finding their way through the chemical structure of the rubber tire.

two sizes

Why do bike tires need inflating more often than car tires? They’re skinnier, which means more surface area for the same volume and more interaction with the outside (also the reason that skinny people tend to get cold faster.)

Read the pressure listing on the side of your tire–typically between 60 and 110 PSI (pounds per square inch). Like with your car, properly pumped-up tires will be far more efficient at rolling. But unlike your car, you’ll notice the difference in your legs!

Good equipment to have on hand includes a tire pressure gauge and a tire pump that fits on your bike. If you have to do pump air more than a couple of times a month, then you have have a deeper issue.

NOTE: If you don’t have a tire pressure gauge, you can check approximate pressure by putting your thumb on the tire and pushing down on that thumb with your other hand. If your thumb compresses into the tire, it needs inflating. (…The tire, not your thumb…)

2. Brakes: Check your cables and pads for damage.

cable activated

Just like tangled lines make a mess here, your brakes require rub-free, clean cables for sensitive movement and effective stopping.

The big culprits to look for here are rust, fraying, and worn pads (the part that grips the wheel rim or disk). Rust occurs when the bike has been left outside, instead of storing it indoors. Fraying occurs when cables have been pulled sideways or rubbed–or because they have rusted. And worn pads can occur simply from riding your bike a lot. I never mind replacing brake pads, because it means my bike has gotten lots of use!

Complete lack of maintenance

This low-end bike has nearly unused pads, partly because the cheap front brake has broken apart, making the cable non-functional. There is evidence of rust. So… this bike was stored outside, was not used frequently, and cannot be ridden safely now. Not an investment in reliable transportation.

3. Chain: Is it fresh and flexible?

When you think about it, a bike chain is a remarkable device. It has over 110 moving parts, carries extreme linear stress (when you climb a steep hill), needs to flex sideways enough for you to shift gears, and bends tightly around small gears as it passes through your rear derailleur. Oh, and it needs to do all this well among rain, mud, and trail dust. It’s a miracle device!

It also requires some occasional love.

rusty chain

If your gears look like this, you don’t have a functional bike chain; you have a rusty, bent stick! This will happen through condensation even under a tarp on a dry deck. The importance of keeping a well maintained bike inside cannot be overstated.

First, keep your bike chain lightly lubricated. You’ll need to turn your pedals freely to do this, which means doing something different with your bike. The simplest thing–and what typically happens when people change a flat tire–is to turn the bike upside down. It’s floor-level, which is a bit inconvenient, but when sitting in a low chair, it’s not bad. (I have a small maintenance bracket that’s more convenient, and have seen others in the UK, Australia, and Hong Kong, but cannot yet recommend anything simple stateside. E-mail me if you know of one, OK?)

When lubricating, DO NOT use WD-40; It strips off the oil. Instead, use a bottle of chain oil from a bike shop, or get it online. You’ll wan to apply it gently to a single spot on the chain while pedaling your bike. (The coolest dispenser I’ve seen is the Cylion bottle, which applies the oil through its own built-in sprocket). Then shift through different gears to distribute the oil, and wipe off any extra oil with an old rag, so you collect less road dirt.

chain close up

Putting it all together…

Chances are, this will be just a safety check–no more time than adjusting your car mirrors and making sure you have gas. Pumping tires and oiling chains, if needed, is more likely to be monthly or less frequent. Even that keeps you from having to do deep-dive repairs like changing tires and replacing bike chains. But the number one thing you can do to keep all maintenance down is to store your bike indoors–whether you have a roomy garage or a full-size bike that folds in half to fit in far smaller spaces.

Ride safely, and we’ll see you on the bike!

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.


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