Off the Chain

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There may be no better way to bask in the rejuvenating aura of spring than riding your bike. Cruising along in the open air gives you an intimate view of blooming flowers, blossoming trees, fresh air, and sunshine. It’s also a great way to stay healthy or kick-start a new exercise regimen—biking can help improve cardiovascular health and flexibility and can decrease stress levels.

Before you get started, though, don’t forget to give your bike a little spring-cleaning. After all, it’s been cooped up all winter, just like you, and it may need a little tune-up before venturing out in full spring and summer form. These five steps are quick and easy, and they’ll get you out on the road in no time.

1. Clean your frame.
Dirt, grime, and road debris aren’t just cosmetic concerns; they’re some of the most common and potentially harmful enemies your bike will encounter. According to Andy Quandt of the BikeMobile in Madison, WI, “Dust, dirt, and grime from roads and gravel will stick to your bike’s lube and work their way into pivot points like the derailleurs, creating more friction and increasing wear.” Giving the components of your bike a bath is one of the best ways to prevent damage and improve your ride’s function and life span.

“Grab detergent and bicycle polish at your local bike shop,” Quandt suggests. Start with the frame. With a dry cloth, toothbrush, or regular brush, remove any caked-on dirt, mud, or grime; then use a spray cleaner and rag to finish. If your bike is exceptionally dirty, use soapy water, a sponge, and a hose to give it a good scrubbing. Make sure you use gentle pressure with the hose, as you don’t want to force water and dirt into the bearings or other areas that can get clogged. “Follow it up with some fresh Teflon-based lubricant to avoid rust,” Quandt says.

2. Clean and lube the chain.
“A bicycle chain is made up of hundreds of tiny parts. All of these parts are steel, rubbing against steel. Without proper lubrication, the steel will wear out. A worn-out chain will then cause extra wear on the gears and derailleurs, which leads to very expensive repairs. A $10 bottle of good bicycle-chain lube is the most valuable tool you can get,” Quandt says.

To clean the chain before lubing it, remove any large pieces of debris with a brush or rag. If things are very dirty, a soft bristled brush and a light detergent can really help. Make sure there’s no residual cleaner on the chain—solvents can break down the new lubricant you’re about to apply.

To apply that lubricant, turn your bike upside down or put it on a bike stand so the back wheel is off the ground. Put the tip of the lubricant bottle against a spot on the chain and apply, slowly turning the pedals about five or six times to ensure the lubricant hits every spot. Wipe excess lubricant off the chain with a rag by holding it against the chain and turning the pedals again.

3. Inspect and clean the rest of the drive train.
Check the gears and gear teeth for excessive wear and make sure the bottom bracket is tight and smooth. Next, have a friend hold the bike off the ground. Spin the wheel and shift through all the gears. Gears should shift smoothly and easily; if they don’t, take your bike in to have the derailleurs adjusted.

Finally, scrub the derailleur pulley wheel, cage, and gears, using a toothbrush and solvent to remove debris, dirt, and dust. When rinsing, make sure to tip the wheel so that water doesn’t get into the bearings.

4. Inspect the brakes.
Check the brake pads for cracks, embedded debris, and wear. If the latter is noticeable or uneven, you may need to replace your brake pads. Next, squeeze the brake handles while watching the brake pads. They should hit the rim simultaneously; if they don’t—or if you notice too much slack in the wire during braking—you need to adjust the brake tension in the wires.

5. Inspect and inflate the wheels.
Quandt reminds riders that even if your tubes are in good shape, your tires will lose air over time, especially if your bike’s been in storage.

Clean the wheels with a dry cloth and check the rims for dents or other damage. Pick the back of the bike up off the ground and spin the wheel—it should move smoothly. Do the same for the front wheel. If either wheel is wobbly, take it to your local bike shop and have it adjusted with a spoke wrench. It’s a simple fix, but not one you want to do yourself unless you are an expert.

Finally, Quandt suggests swinging by the bike shop for a final look-see. “If you’re pretty sure nothing is broken, and everything seems to be doing what it’s intended to do, most bike shops will check things out at no charge. It’s always a good idea to have an expert look at things, especially something that you wear a helmet to use.”

Jonanna Widner lives in Portland, OR, where she writes about sports, music, travel, and fitness.


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