Bikes are simple machines, and though they might look like some crazy assemblage of gears, cables, and levers, there really isn’t that much going on — especially when you compare them to something like a car…or a Saturn V rocket. And since you won’t need a NASA contract to work on them, you’ll be able to save a whole bunch of cash by learning to do the simplest and most common things yourself. Below we’re going to cover cleaning your chain, fixing a flat and adjusting your shifting, all of which are relatively easy and will get you out of most mid-ride debacles. It all takes about 10 minutes and would cost about $30 in labor at a bike shop.
You’ll notice we’re not covering brakes, fit or in-depth part replacement because there are some things that should be left to the pros until you feel comfortable with them (a good way to start is with a respected maintenance book). For now though, these fixes will keep your bike running smoothly and save you from getting stranded 20 miles from home. Just add tools.
Lube Your Chain
Odds of Breaking Something in Frustration: 1000/1
One incredibly simple way to keep your bike running smoothly is lubricating your chain. What’s even better is that it requires exactly zero tools. Here’s what to do:
Clean: Just wipe the chain down with a rag and a bit of soapy water followed by a dry rag to clean as much existing grit off the chain as possible.
Apply Lube: Drip a quality chain lube like WD-40’s Bike line over the entire length of chain. Don’t go too crazy — just aim for the rollers (the spots where the chain articulates).
Wipe: This is the bit that most people ignore, resulting in a grimy chain and stained legs. Wipe off the chain to get rid of all excess lube. We’re only concerned with the stuff that gets inside the chain.
Fix A Flat
Odds of Breaking Something in Frustration: 50/1
This is essential knowledge if you plan to ride solo or care what your fellow riders think of you. All you need in advance is your spare tube, a tire lever and some means of inflating the tube — CO2 or a hand pump if you’re on the road, floor pump if you’re at home.
Remove the Deflated Tube and Tire: Slide your tire lever in between the bead of the tire and the rim opposite the tube’s valve. Unseat the tire and then work your way around until half of the tire is completely off the rim. Push the rest of the tire and tube off the wheel; it should be loose enough to remove by hand.
Check the Tire: Carefully run your fingers along the inside of the tire, checking for sharp objects that may have popped your tube. While you have the tire removed, check the wheel for anything sharp that may have caused the flat.
Partially Inflate New Tube: Give the fresh tube just a couple pumps of air to give it some shape.
Re-Seat the Tire: Pop half of the tire back on the wheel then insert the tube’s valve into the wheel. Work around the wheel, pushing the tube between the two sides of the tire.
The Final Push: Work the remaining side of the tire back onto the wheel with both hands starting at the valve hole and moving each hand in opposite directions. The point where both hands meet is usually where the tire will be the toughest to get on, but be persistent and try to fight the urge to use your tire levers.
Check and Check Again: Once you hear that glorious snap of the final part of the tire seating itself on the wheel, do a quick inspection around the tire to make sure the tube isn’t caught between the tire bead and the rim. If it looks good, inflate your tire to about a quarter of its final pressure and then do another check to make sure the tire is seated evenly around the rim with no low or high spots.
Fully Inflate: Finally, re-inflate the tire to full pressure and put the wheel back on the bike.
Adjust Your Shifting
Odds of Breaking Something in Frustration: 100/1
This is a pretty specific quick fix, but there’s nothing more frustrating than sluggish or unresponsive shifting when you’re on a ride. Luckily, fixing it usually only takes a simple turn of a knob.
Shifting is all about how tight the cable is that runs between either the front shifter or rear shifter and its respective derailleur. If your bike won’t shift to a bigger cog or chaining, you likely need more tension in the system, and if it won’t shift to a smaller cog or chainring, you likely need less tension. The key is to find the perfect balance between the two where everything operates smoothly.
Adjusting the Rear Derailleur: To adjust cable tension on the rear derailleur, turn the small knob on the very back of the mechanism by hand. Counter clockwise will add tension (and aid upshifting), clockwise will remove it (and aid downshifting). To find the right balance spin the pedals and shift the bike until it moves quickly and smoothly both up and down at your command.
Adjusting the Front Derailleur: Adjusting the front is almost exactly the same process except the barrel adjuster will likely be either on the left side of your frame where it first meets the fork or somewhere along the cable between the shifter and the frame. Luckily, after that it’s the same process: counter-clockwise to add tension and help the derailleur move outwards and clockwise to decrease tension and get it to move inwards.
Troubleshooting: Shifting can be fickle. If you can’t quite get it right with these steps, bring your bike into a shop and mechanics will be able to check if it needs more thorough adjustment or even a replacement part.