Yesterday, six days into the season of spring, I taught a workshop at the Rippowam Labs makerspace called “DIYBIKING.COM Presents: Fix Up Your Bike For Spring.”
It snowed all day. And I thought Mother Nature and I had settled on a safe word.
I had already committed to biking to the class pulling along the bike trailer I made with my work stand and other bike tools on board (a nearly identical set to what I had during Red Hook, New York’s Bike Rodeo last year).
I also decided to ride my city bike - and ride it completely untuned from when I rode it last back in early January. I know some skeptics don’t think waiting three months to ride a bike a long period of time to go between tune ups, but many of them did not live through The Day After Tomorrow-like winter Connecticut lived through.
So I rode the bike to class without tuning it first. I don’t recommend doing that - I just wanted to create a teachable moment that hopefully wouldn’t be too teachable.
I arrived slowly but safely, got my gear inside, and soon enough was able to talk about a subject I enjoy. But as a service to my readers who didn’t attend here’s a short list of rules I follow when fixing up your bike for spring.
Clean the Bike
The first thing to do is clean off the bike. There will be road grime - and depending on what you transport in the bottle carrier, smoothie stains or coffee stains.
You don’t need to be all toothbrush/detail oriented, but be thorough. If you take a rag or disposable cloth and wipe down the dust or road dirt from a bike, not only does it look a lot better but it gets your face close enough to the frame so you can see the components better. That way if something is amiss you can fix it before you go riding. If you don’t check the bike out first (as I don’t sometimes) trouble can result. Dangerous trouble, like walk-your-bike-along-a-gravel-trail-for-a-third-of-a-mile-hunting-for-a-missing-bolt trouble.
That’s me on the left adjusting a limit screw on a rear derailleur on a bike someone had brought to the class. You'll notice I'm wearing rubber gloves since I think it's important not to be afraid to get your hands dirty but pack rubber gloves anyway.
It was around this time I talked about how a whole lot of stuff that needs to be done on a bike that needs an adjustment or tune up after a long period is subtle. It’s like R2-D2 fixing the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive by turning a tiny part a little bit to the right.
If a bike chain rattles through the gears on the lowest or the highest, you need to adjust a limit screw. As I showed with my major overhaul of the recumbent, a tiny turn with a screwdriver is all that’s needed. And do not underestimate the importance of doing that: if a chain jumps between the gears and the wheel it can be bad. When it happened to me I could have ended up a road pizza but was lucky enough just to have to push the bike home - and replace the chain and wheel.
Check for Cable Stretch
Brake and derailleur cables go through extraordinary abuse and have to deal with so much force they stretch. Cyclists often don’t notice this until one can’t stop or they have to squeeze the brakes all the way to to the saddle to make the bike stop. Just squeeze the handle and check to see how much distance the brake pads need to travel before the hit the rim. If there’s a lot of space (and assuming your brakes are similar to mine) loosen the bolt holding the cable, pull maybe an eighth of an inch (remember subtlety) of cable through, and retighten. If you don't know how to do this, find someone who does.
With Lubrication, Less is More
When I was a kid I remember spraying WD-40 on my BMX chain like I was fumigating a house for termites.
There’s a reason we grew out of such techniques.
After cleaning a chain, it’s much better to apply lubricant (NOT WD-40) drop by drop on each of the rollers. It takes a bit of patience but it is worth it - and I demonstrated it in the class: I took two pieces of identical bike chain, made the one marked with green wire ties wet, and sprinkled both with the contents of my welding room dustpan. The gritty sand and other debris stuck to the green chain, which means that it would travel through the derailleur and cogs and wear out both quickly - to say nothing of wearing out the chain. Get a small bottle of lubricant at your local bike store and it’ll last all season or longer if you apply it right.
Don’t Take Chances With Tires
In the maintenance class, I talked about changing tires but I talked even more about ways to keep tires from going flat to begin with. That means keeping them properly inflated at all times (I’m talking to you, co-founder of Bike Stamford) and checking the tire itself for wear.
On a trip to California last month I failed to do that, and you can see the photo above as evidence: I pedaled from Redwood City to San Francisco and back (more on that and why I was there in another post) but carelessly I did it on tires on last summer's bike trip in Brazil. I may not have gotten a flat during that punishing day, but nicks showed up in the tires and I ignored them.
Until on the tail end of last month’s San Franscisco/Redwood City trip I suddenly felt a thump-thump-thump-thump sound and noticed my back tire looked like it was digesting a small animal. Thankfully, a mile from Chain Reaction Bicycles, I was able to buy a new tire before the old one could explode through the tread.
Know When You’re Out of Your Depth
This is a lesson I still need to teach myself sometimes. Few DIYers can fix absolutely everything and there is no shame when something is above your intellectual pay grade. Not only that, but if there is something really complex that needs to be done (i.e., truing a wheel, replacing a bottom bracket, etc.) it often involves very specialized tools. You have to true a bike wheel quite a few times to come out even on the cost of a good truing stand. So find a local bike shop and bring the bike in.
So with temperatures in Stamford creeping above freezing, I wish you all the best getting your bike set to go and taking a long ride to cure yourself of this toxic cabin fever. And if you missed my bike maintenance class, pass this link along - and check out the Rippowam Labs class schedule. You'll definitely find something you like. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.