Thursday, January 13, 2011

Do it yourself bicycle maintenance

If you are like me, you love bikes.  However, bikes are only fun when they are working right.  Nothing is worse than riding down the trail/road and having your bike shift badly or sound like it is about to self-destruct.  A simple twist of a screw may make all the difference between a great ride and walking home in frustration.  The trick is in knowing a little about how bikes work and having the right tools.  Once you get started I think you'll find it is really interesting and fun.

Now you are probably thinking, "what does bicycle maintenance have to do with either technology or saving money?"

While a bike may not be "tech" in the same way as a computer, don't underestimate how much technology has been incorporated in modern bikes.  New bikes are now using aerospace grade materials and alloys (carbon fiber, titanium, scandium), radical frame designs (with endless suspension variations), ceramic bearings, etc.  New bikes definitely have more than their share of "tech" features to keep your inner nerd happy.

Furthermore, saving money isn't obviously a great reason to fix your own bikes (there are far better reasons).  You need to invest a bit into tools and spend some time learning.  As with a lot of things, paying someone else to do it might seem cheaper at first.  Nevertheless, doing your own maintenance can more than pay for itself in the long run.

To get started with "do it yourself bicycle maintenance", I'll talk a bit more about recent bike technology advances, go over the real reasons why you should do maintenance yourself, and finally show you some of the tools and other stuff you will need.

Let's start first with technology...

Bicycle technology is evolving rapidly

It has been about 15 years since I last seriously looked at mountain bikes.  Back then I bought what I thought was a pretty high end bike (a  1996 Gary Fisher Paragon).  It had an aluminum frame, front shock, clipless pedals and weighed a mere 26 lbs.  It was (and still is) a fun bike to ride in the dirt.  As advanced as the bike was at the time, it still was basically a traditional diamond frame bike with bigger tires.

Recently, I figured it was about time to upgrade so I started shopping for a new mountain bike.  After getting over the initial shock over the (dramatically) higher prices, I started realizing just how much things have changed.  I ended up getting a pretty good deal on a lightly used 2009 Gary Fisher SuperFly.   Here is a summary of what is new and cool over my old bike:
  • Frame, seat post, and cranks are now made out of carbon fiber (now only 23 lbs!)
  • Wheels are 29" (3 inches larger for better traction, stability, etc).
  • Tires are tubeless with sealant (self healing, better grip and no more pinch flats)
  • Crank spindle is now hollow (less pedal flex, more power, better bearings)
  • Suspension fork is fully adjustable (stiffer, lighter, and has a full lockout)
  • Hydraulic Disc brakes (AMAZING stopping power, no loss of braking in the rain/water/mud)
  • 9 speed rear sprocket (huge 34 tooth rear gear for climbing steep hills)
There are also now an amazing array of specialized bikes (Full suspension bikes, downhill specific bikes, Fat tired snow bikes, Single speed bikes, etc.)  If you love biking, there has never been a better time to get back into the sport.

With all this technology, you'd think that the average person probably has no chance of working on their bikes themselves.   Actually, it really isn't that hard as long as you have the right tools and knowledge.  Fortunately, both are readily available on the Internet.

Why do bike maintenance yourself?

If you are like me, you might have some minimal mechanical skills (maybe you can fix a bike flat).  However, when it comes to adjusting a derailer, you'd probably prefer to take it in to a "professional".  I did this several times recently and was frankly disappointed.  Each time I ended up with something not quite right and had to "fix" their repairs myself.   By the time I got my bike working correctly, I could have done it far quicker myself.  Here are a couple of real examples:

My road bike was making a "grinding" noise from the front wheel.  I took it into a bike shop and after about 5 minutes of examining the wheel off of the bike they determined that the bearings were bad.  I'd have to order new ones.  I didn't want to be without my bike while they ordered the parts, so I left.  Out of curiosity, I tried another bike shop on the way home.  They listened to the noise and determined that the bearings were actually fine, and only needed some grease.  So for a small charge ($30), they regreased both front and back hubs.  I left pleased knowing that I it was a simple fix.  At home I discovered that the front wheel was still making grinding noises (wouldn't even spin twice!).  Nothing like a little bit of anger to motivate you to do something yourself!

I took the front hub apart and realized that it was an incredibly simple design.  There is just an axel, two sealed bearings, spacers, and covers.   Grease was smeared everywhere (thanks to the last shop), but was totally unnecessary.  Since the bearings are sealed, grease on the outside doesn't help and just ends up attracting dirt.  I discovered that the grinding noise was actually coming from the covers pushing against the hub itself.  After cleaning off the excess grease, I simply spaced the covers away from the hub.  My front wheel was now absolutely silent and spun freely.   My bearings were totally fine.  Both bikes shops were wrong and I wasted a bunch of time and money.  The fix was free and I learned a whole lot more in the process.

There is yet another reason to do maintenance yourself and it is directly related to technology.  With all of these exotic materials being used, very specific procedures are now required.  For example, if you use too much force on a bolt, you can destroy (or damage) the underlying part.  Even worse, that damage might not be immediately apparent until it fails (with catastrophic results!).  This isn't as scary as it sounds as long as you have the right tools and take the time to do it right.  Each manufacturer specifies the proper torque (tightening force) and all you need to do is look it up.  I'm sure many bike mechanics know this, but I'm not sure that on any given day the person working on "YOUR" bike will take the time.  The bottom line is that no one cares about your bike more than you do.  More importantly, no one has more to lose than you do.

Finally,with all the moving parts (shocks, bearings, chains, shifters, etc) on modern bikes, you'd be amazed at how often you might need to take your bike in the shop for regular service or trivial adjustments.  If you have a family and/or multiple bikes you can just start multiplying the cost.  Bike service isn't cheap (nor should it be if done right).  However, this adds up fast and the time and money invested on doing it yourself starts to make sense and pay off.

Perhaps the most important reason of all: working on bikes is fun!  All the modern technology is cool and really, really interesting.  Doing it right (and knowing you did a good job), is truly a great feeling.

What do you need to get started?

Okay, ready to do some shopping?  You might have some of these tools already (and you might not need them all), but I'll go over what I have and recommend.

1. Essential bike repair book.

A good bicycle book is without question your best investment in both time and money.  You can buy one, learn a bit and decide if you are ready to go further.

I read a bunch of reviews on different books and ended up with Park Tool's Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair (rev 2) - ($20).  This book has chapters on each of the major sections of a bike, clear pictures, and great advice.  It is really easy to use as you simply skip to the relevant chapter.

Like with any general bike book, I also recommend going to the manufacturer's websites for specific service procedures.   No book can cover it all (or be up to date), but this is probably the only book you will need and it is both a great reference and helpful tutorial.

Highly recommended for those with beginner to intermediate skills levels.

2. Bike repair stand

Nothing is more frustrating than working on a bike and holding it at the same time.  inevitably it falls over, breaks or dings something.  A good bike stand will keep your bike steady, keep it at a convenient height, and make it much easier to work on.  You can even wash your bike on it.

I selected a more modern design that doesn't clamp onto easily damaged frame or seat post parts.  The Park Tool PRS-20 Team Race Stand - ($172) only requires that you remove one wheel (front or back) and folds up for storage.  You can adjust your work height and it rotates 360 degrees.  I even got it to hold my (highly unusual) recumbent bike!  It is super sturdy and highly recommended.

3. Essential tool set

Sadly, new bikes require special tools.  It is also true that well made tools are often expensive.  So it makes sense to buy a set of tools together so you can at least get a break on the price.  You may not need all of these tools on day one, but running to the bike store to pay retail for tools one at a time gets old real fast.  If you haven't notice already, I like Park Tools.  They have an excellent reputation for providing quality tools.  Sure you can get cheaper sets, but it is also true that cheap tools can ruin your expensive bike parts pretty quick.

Since I didn't have many bike tools, I picked up the Part Took AK-37 Advanced Mechanic Tool Kit - ($215).  It has 37 common tools for all kinds of bikes - see here for a description.  It isn't complete, but it should have 90% of what you need and is a great place to start.

4. Floor pump with guage and dual head

Everyone need a good floor pump.  The Topeak JoeBlow Sport II - ($35) has a gauge, will go up to high pressures, and has dual head supporting presta or schrader valves.  It even has adapters for filling soccer balls, air mattresses, etc.  It is stable and has a comfortable handle.  This is the best floor pump I've owned and I've had a few!

5. Torque wrenches and socket set

Torque is the force needed to tighten bolts.  With modern lightweight materials used on bikes, it is more important than ever to use the right torque.  If you tighten something too much you risk stripping the bolt or nut.  You could also literally "crush" the material in the bike itself.  Stripping a bolt isn't the end of the world, but some fasteners are molded directly into your bike frame (e.g. the bottom bracket shell).  Strip that and you are looking at buying a new frame (ouch).  Conversely, if you don't tighten a bolt enough it could fall off later (I think you can understand why this could end badly).

Sounds scary or complicated?  It isn't really, if you have the right tools.  You simply use a special wrench designed to measure the force used on a bolt.  You just tighten a bolt to the specification determined by the manufacturer of the part.  Please don't use a automotive torque wrench!  Torque settings for cars are much higher than bikes, so you need a different tool.

I use two wrenches:  the Park Tool TW-1 ($36) and Park Tool TW-2 ($43).  They are (respectively) used for low and high torque applications.  These are "beam-type" wrenches which never need calibration (nice), bi-directional (also useful), and are very sturdy.  I also bought a set of sockets that come in very handy when using the wrenches: the Park Tool SBS-1 ($28 Amazon).

Some will tell you that you can just "feel" when a bolt is too tight.  That may be true for highly skilled mechanics, but I'd rather "do it by the book" and know that it is right.

6. Lube, anti-seize and thread locker

While working on your bike you are bound to need a general lubricant for a variety of applications.  The Park Tool AK-37 kit already contains some grease and lube.  Additionally, I like and use TriFlow (high quality) in both aerosol ($6) and drip bottles ($7).  The aerosol is good for tough to reach places while the drip bottle is good for chains or brake / shifter cable housings.

Old school bike mechanics will tell you to put grease on things that might seize or gall (i.e. stick together - preventing you from taking them apart again).  A far superior product to use is anti-seize ($6).  This is the same stuff you use on car spark plugs and it won't dry out like regular grease.  You will need this for pedals, bottom brackets, etc.

Finally, some bike bolts might need a little help in staying put/tight.  For these applications you can use a medium strength thread locker ($7) - also known as Loctite 242 "Blue".  The bolt can still be removed with tools and is less likely to vibrate loose.

7. Cleaning supplies

Bikes get greasy and dirty so you are going to need a good degreaser/cleaner.  I like Simple Green ($11) and having it in a spray bottle makes it super easy to use.  It is non-toxic and biodegradable.  If needed, pour it in a jar for soaking really dirty parts.  Note:  remember to dilute consentrated Simple Green with water by 50% when soaking parts or you may risk "etching" the metal parts.

You could use rags for cleanup, but I find paper towels simpler and easier.

Cleaning your frame and other parts requires a set of brushes that you don't mind getting dirty.  I bought this set by Finish Line ($12) as they nicely compliment the one brush that already comes with the AK-37 tool set above.  Any car washing soap should be fine for cleaning your bike frame, just be sure to NEVER spray water on or near bike bearings.  It could force water inside the bearings (which would be bad).  Just gently wash the bike (or better yet, use a bucket).  Warm water works best.

For the final, show room look you might try a bottle of Pedros Bike Lust ($9).  It is a silicon polish that will make your bike look better than new!

8. Third hand tool (great for cable adjustments)

If you have ever tried to adjust a brake cable, you can probably appreciate that it often takes three hands to do the job.  Two hands to tighten the cable pinch bolt and one to hold the cable taut.  The latter is what Avenir's Third-Hand Cable Puller ($12) is used for.  There are other ways to get the job done (e.g. vice grips), but none work as well as this tool.  This tool isn't a "must have", but it sure is a nice to have!

9. Measuring tools

Like it or not, bikes have become precision machines.  Often you need to measure a part to know if it will fit.  Installing the wrong size part can easy damage something.  A good set of digital calipers is handy for this and many other household jobs.  I especially liked the Park Tool DC-1 ($34) because it can measure in inches, mm, and even inch fractions (e.g. 1 1/8in)!  Okay, I admit it, I think it is just so cool that I can measure something to 1 / 1000 of an inch or mm!

It is also cool to have a shop scale.  If you get really weight conscience about your bike, every gram counts.  You could try the Park Tool DS-2 ($32), but really any scale will do.  I happen to use this cheap digital postage scale.  It works, but isn't the most accurate (+/- 5 grams or so) and only displays in ounces.

Enough for now...

Now that you know what I have in my shop, In the next few posts I'll go over some bike projects that I've been working on with these tools.  Stay tuned.


  1. Very nice! It's great to see quality tools in use! Keep up the great work.

  2. Maintenance is necessary for any vehicle.And used good quality tool for your vehicle.


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