Bike Mechanics 101

How do you learn bike mechanics? At the beginning I guess I just kind of figured out much of what I know. A bike is really visible, so you can see what all the parts do. Brake pads not coming close enough to the rim? Obviously you have two choices (1) tighten the brake wire (2) fiddle with the brake pads. After lots of experience, I find that usually the second option is more likely to be useful, 'cause otherwise you end up with brake pads that don't align right on your rim.

I think that maintenance is mainly saying to yourself that you're going to do it, no matter how long it takes. You might do it and then find you did it all wrong, so you'll have to do all again. But you'll learn, and eventually you'll get so that you'll get it right the first time. It'll still take you longer than the pros in the shops, but so what?

But anyway, here are my tips

Keep the manuals that come with your bike. I learned how to adjust derailleurs (high/low screws, that kind of thing) with these. Keep the manuals that come with your parts (the instructions that came with my new V-brakes are really great) and tools (the chain tool box tells you how to do chains). I have a couple of bike repair books. The first one, Eugene Sloane's Complete Book of Bicycling, is a good general purpose reference for all kinds of bikes. Unfortunately the version I have was bought in 1989 or so, so it doesn't cover any of the new parts on my MTB. So I bought Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance, which gives me the lowdown on all the new stuff (suspension forks, SPD pedals, threadless headsets, V-brakes). It also includes good instructions on how to build a wheel.

You must already have a trail kit that includes tire levers, a spare tube, a patch kit, and a pump: if you ride without these things you're silly. A flat tire is by far the most common problem.

Tools for home. If you don't have a complete set of metric Allen (hex) keys, go out and buy them right now. An alternative (or maybe a complement) is one of these Y-shaped things with hex keys on the ends that fit the most common sizes. If you have an older bike that has lots of normal nuts and bolts (as opposed to bolts with recessed hex holes) you'll need a set of normal metric wrenches as well. You may need an adjustable wrench for those pesky non-metric nuts. The most useful size is 6". Of course you need straight and Phillips screwdrivers in a few sizes. You wouldn't believe the number of places you can use black electrical tape. A good knife (like Swiss Army or Stanley craft knife) comes in real handy too.

Pliers, both regular and needle-nose, are handy for holding things like cables. I have a heavy duty wire cutter, which more or less works to cut cable housing (eventually I'm going to buy a special cable housing cutter). A file is really useful for smoothing off things that you've cut (cable housing, etc). WD-40, or similar spray lube/penetrant/water dispersant comes in handy in a number of situations. Eventually (if you have a threaded headset) the big nut where your stem comes out of the bike tubes will come loose, so you'll need a wrench of appropriate size to put that back where it belongs. (This is the first cut! Actually adjusting headset nuts is tricky, so you should really read this for more info.)

Of the specialized bike tools I have, the most useful is a brake/derailleur cable cutter. It's very useful to have a floor pump (with pressure guage) at home, 'cause then you can inflate your tires just right. A chain tool is also useful if you want to replace your chain. I have one but rarely use it. Some people manage to break chains on the trail/road, but I never have (probably because I'm not too heavy and not very strong). Also I'm far too lazy to remove the chain to clean it. But if you get a chain tool, it's best to get a big beefy Park or Shimano one, since this makes it much easier to push the pivots out of the chain.

Grease is a great thing. Whenever you thread a bolt into something, or put a nut on a bolt, put some grease on the threads. This will make it much easier to get off later.

Cleaning your bike. Another thing that's awfully useful is stuff to clean your bike. Get a bucket and a car-washing brush (works better than a sponge). When you come back from a muddy ride, wash all the junk off your frame, derailleurs, chain, and rear sprockets. Let it dry a awhile, and spray the front and rear sprockets and chain with WD-40. That will prevent it from rusting. Then before you ride again, put some chain oil on. It will work lots better clean than dirty.

If you don't get muddy when you ride (requiring the wash described above), you'll eventually build up gunk on your chain. The best way to clean your chain is to take it off the bike and slosh it around in some degreasing solution. If, like me, you're too lazy to do this, here's how to clean the chain on the bike: take some paper towels, grab your chain with one, and pedal backwards, whiping off the chain. Add some oil to the chain, let it soak in, whipe again. Repeat until your chain looks pretty clean. To clean your back sprockets (cassette or freewheel) scrape the junk off with a small screwdriver. Also clean the junk off the derailleur pulleys.

Getting grips on and off (courtesy of Paul Whitaker). When you're taking your old grips off, try inserting a thin screwdriver, and squirt in some WD-40. They should slide off esily. WD-40 is good for this application because it comes in an aerosol can with a small plastic pipe that attaches to the nozzle, so you can get it into the gap between grip and 'bar. It also evaporates and doesn't leave an oily residue. You can clean and dry the inside of the grips before putting them back on, but I use WD-40 to make it easier to side grips back on, relying on the fact that it evaporates so the grips won't turn when it dries.

Pedals are easy to take on and off, but you have to remember this crucial bit of information: the left hand pedal (when viewed from you sitting on the bike) has a left hand thread. This means that instead of tightening it by turning the pedal shaft clockwise, you tighten it by turning it counterclockwise. The right pedal has the usual right hand screw (tighten clockwise, loosen counterclockwise).

Here's my favorite method for removing a pedal. Lean the bike against a wall with the pedal you want to remove away from the wall. Put the cranks horizontal, with the pedal you want to remove pointing to the front of the bike. Attach a wrench (any wrench that fits, most of my pedals use a 15mm wrench) to the pedal shaft, aligning it with the crank as well as you can, so it's pointing roughly backwards. Make sure you get the wrench as tight as you can on the shaft, if it's an adjustable one. Now if you push down on the wrench you'll be pushing it counterclockwise if this is the right pedal, and clockwise if it's the left, i.e. this is the correct way to loosen it. Now, if your pedals have been replaced recently and threded with grease, you just push down with your hand to get the pedal loosened up. If not, then it may take more pressure. Stand on the wrench. Bounce up and down a few times.

If that doesn't work, you need two things. First, more leverage. Buy a pedal wrench (spanner). It's a wrench over a foot long that has a 15mm slot on one end. Or stick a pipe on the end of your wrench. Second, the pedal needs support so you don't knacker the bottom bracket. Prop up the pedal with bricks or chunks of wood. Reattach spanner. Bounce up and down a few more times, and you can try hitting the end of your wrench (spanner) or wrench with pipe with a sledge hammer.

If all else fails, take to the bike shop to get them to loosen up your pedals.

You should get in the habit of removing your pedals every now and then to make sure they don't screw themselves in too tight.

Wheels aren't that hard to build. Really. If you want to give it a go, get yourself a truing stand and (if you like) a dishing tool. Read Sheldon Brown's instructions, then read the following list of tips. These tips contradict some of what Sheldon says, so don't read his article without reading the additional tips. If you want to read on paper, the book Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance has good instructions for wheelbuilding (with lots of good pictures), and of course there's Jobst Brandt's definitive reference The Bicycle Wheel.

Replacing spokes. It requires a bit of attention and fiddling, but you can do it yourself. Here's how.

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