I Am A Lousy Learner

Summer has hit Central Texas with a vengeance. It’s been hot, yes, but because of more rain than I’ve seen in several years, it’s been humid, too.

I was out on a club ride last weekend when suddenly my derailleur started acting up. I had trouble shifting from the big ring down to the small ring. I stopped to fiddle with it a bit, and got the problem straightened out.

But then during the past week, it cropped up again. I put the bike up on my stand and went after that derailleur. It took me two hours to do what a competent bike mechanic could do in 10-15 minutes, but the adjustments worked, and later that day I did a local 21-mile ride.

The next morning though, it was balky again. Not shifting from the big to the small ring. Again, some less than gentle ministrations and I was rolling, but this time, I decided to take it in to our club mechanic.

I explained to him about the derailleur adjustments I’d made, and how my ham-handedness probably screwed things up. He didn’t comment, but put the bike up on his stand and flicked at the front derailleur cable.

“Did you lube the pivot points?” he asked.

“Ahh, that’s about the only thing I didn’t do,” I replied.

Then the light went on. “Are they gummed up from my sweat?” I asked.

He moved the derailleur with his hand. “Looks like it,” he said. “Summer’s here, and up until about a week ago we didn’t have to worry about it too much. But now, we sweat on rides. And the front derailleur is a prime target for sweat.”

I did a face palm. We’d been through this before. But as he said, we’ve had nice conditions for our morning rides until just recently, and I hadn’t been sweating much.

He got the derailleur moving nicely between the big and small chainring. I paid him his usual pittance, and red-faced with embarrassment, loaded the bike into my car.

This morning, we did a hilly club ride and I was using all my gears constantly. The derailleur performed flawlessly.

I sweated like I was in a sauna. The first thing I did when I got home was wipe the bike down.

I’ve had this lesson before. Somehow, I just didn’t retain the information.

Bike Maintenance Poll Results

The results are in. My goal at keeping the bike repair poll open for three days was to try to reach 100 respondents. Final n: 108.

There’s a nice split between those who do basic maintenance, such as replacing tubes and chain lubing, and those who are more sophisticated and do the work on their hubs and bottom bracket. Here are the results:

(Click to embiggen.)

This, of course, is not a scientific poll, since the respondents were not selected at random. Therefore, the results cannot be generalized beyond this poll.

The consensus seems to be that wrenching is not something to be afraid of. The tools are simple, the mechanics of a bike are straightforward, and there’s plenty of online material — especially videos — to get you going.

Just as I started the poll I ran into a dilemma that required a trip to the bike shop. I was switching out the pedals from my bike to my friend David’s steel bike, but the left side pedal on mine was stuck fast. No amount of pulling with an Allen wrench would get that pedal to budge. I explained the problem to the bike shop guy, who took out a monster pedal wrench and freed it up. In this case, it was not a matter of not knowing how to do the job, or being skittish about doing the job — it was about having the right tool for the job.

So the next maintenance chore I’ll face on my bike will be to replace the chain and rear cassette. It’s not something I need to do right away — the bike is still shifting acceptably — but I’ve gotten more use out of both than I have any right to. I’ll acquire the tools for the job, and tackle it with confidence after reading some of the comments from you folks. Thanks for your participation.

I’m planning another poll along similar but different lines in the near future.

Do You Fix Your Own Bike? (Poll)

I’ve been putzing with my bike more than usual lately. Just this evening I pulled off its pedals to move them to the steel bike my friend David lent me. If you’re a regular reader, you know that I am not Mr. Mechanic, so anything I do maintenance-wise is a departure for me.

But that got me wondering…how many of you like to mess with your bike? This time, instead of just soliciting answers in the comments, I’m going to try something new. I’ve created a poll.

I put the answers to the single poll question in ascending order from least mechanically inclined to most mechanically inclined, as I see it. Because of the way WordPress polls work, you’re limited to a single answer — so here’s what I’d like you to do: Pick the answer that covers the most involved repair or maintenance task that you do. If you adjust the limit screws on your derailleurs, pick that answer — and we’ll assume that you also lube your chain and fix your flats.

I’ll let the poll run a few days, then report back. Ready? Here goes!

Bike Checks

Earlier this week, Pat and I were about to take a short ride in the neighborhood. While I waited with the bikes in the driveway as she finished putting on her shoes, I glanced down at the rear wheel of the bike — and I was stunned by what I saw.

The left-side brake pad was sitting at a right angle to the wheel rim. I put my fingers on it, and it was very loose. If I had ridden the bike that way, I would have had no stopping power in the rear brakes — and could have been in for a serious on-road problem.

I grabbed my Allen wrench set from the garage and quickly put the brake pad in place and made sure it was tightened down. Then I did a careful inspection — as careful as I could given the few minutes available — to make sure no other bolts were loose, and that everything was working as it should.

What bothers me about this incident is that I’m pretty good at doing the ABC Quick Check. I hadn’t done it yet this day, but would have before Pat came out. But on the previous ride I did, I didn’t catch the loose brake pad. Maybe it didn’t come loose until the end of the ride. Maybe something caused it to come loose while it was sitting in the garage for two days without being ridden (yeah, right). Maybe I had done last Sunday’s club ride with a loose brake pad. I get shivers just thinking about it.

But although I do the ABC Quick Check, I am negligent at doing a more careful inspection of the bike at a regular interval. Things like my tires, for instance. I know I should check them after every ride to make sure nothing got caught in the tread that could lead to a puncture, or if I have any new cuts or gashes in the tire. But I don’t. I check them when I think about it. I just don’t think about it near enough.

Since that experience with the brake, I’ve been over-diligent about checking out the bike. I suppose that’s a natural overreaction, but over time, I’ll ease up on doing it. Instead, I found a nifty little bike checklist, courtesy the folks at Active.com, that I’ve printed out and tacked to the garage wall near the bike. Now, I’ll have an ever-present reminder of the kinds of checks I need to do on the bike to prevent any other easily-detected problems from cropping up.

How about you? Do you have a bike inspection routine you normally use? Share it with our readers.

Watch That Sweat!

The oddest thing happened on my Sunday ride. I was about six or eight miles from the end, when suddenly, I couldn’t shift from the big ring down to the small ring.

This was problematical, because at the time, I was approaching the crest of a hill, and I needed the easier effort the small ring would give me to get over the top. I back pedaled — something I never do — and downshifted the rear cogset. That did the trick, and I was in the small ring again.

But the same thing happened throughout the rest of the ride, until for the last two miles, I kept the thing in the small chainring, even when I had an inviting downward grade.

The next afternoon, I took the bike over to our club mechanic’s house. (It’s nice to have a “club mechanic” — in this case, a member with over 20 year experience “making money off of fixing bikes” who at one time was wrench for a pro team.)

“So, won’t shift down to the small ring, huh?” he asked.

His next question startled me.

“Are you a heavy sweater?”

I did a double take.

“Yeah, I am,” I replied. “Does that have something to do with it?”

He got the bike up on the stand and checked it over.

“I’m already seeing some corrosion on the brakes,” he said. “And here on the front derailleur, too.”

“That’s really strange,” I said. “It was shifting fine, and then suddenly, I couldn’t get it to shift down.”

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he retorted. “You thought it was shifting just fine, but it probably wasn’t. You’d just gotten used to it.”

There might be something to that. I’ve had some balky shifts in recent weeks. But I thought that was my lack of shifting technique, not my sweat. I watched him as he took out a bottle of lube and went to work.

“Front derailleur, front brakes, bottom bracket, rear brakes, in that order,” he lectured. “That’s what’s most affected by sweating. The rear derailleur rarely, if ever.”

He squirted some lube on the brake pivots.

“Pay attention to the pivots,” he said.

He shot some lube into the brake grip pivots, then pulled loose the brake and shifter cables and applied a light coat of grease to them. Then he cranked the pedals and started shifting through the gears — snick, snick, snick. Now it was time for the moment of truth — he changed hands to shift the front derailleur.

Click, click, it went. He shifted between the large and small rings several times. Each time, the shift was smoother than the previous.

“I think that’s got it,” he said, wiping his hands on a clean rag.

“So the trick is to keep everything clean,” I observed.

“I recommend that everyone at the very least wipe down their bikes at the end of the ride.”

I paid him for his trouble (he charges a pittance, compared to the LBS), loaded the bike into the car, and headed home.

This morning when I got home from my ride, I found a clean towel and went over the bike.

Choosing the Right Style of Bike Repair Stand

Bike Noob is happy to feature a guest post by Sam Walker, for those of us interested in working on our bikes.

When I first started learning about bike repairs, I began with learning how to fix a tire.  That wasn’t too tough, and all I needed were a few minor tools.  As my knowledge of repairs evolved, so did the tools.

Sooner or later, if you are into bike mechanics, you start researching how to hold your bicycle while working on it.  Turning it upside down is a rather poor option for both your bike and your back.  Many of us make do with something at home in the beginning, but investing in a good bike repair stand sets the framework for all your bicycle maintenance.

A bicycle repair stand is useful for a few reasons:

  • It holds your bike at any height you need
  • It keeps your bike stable while you work on it
  • It allows you to work on your bike without putting pressure on any of your bike’s components

There are various types of bike repair stands on the market.  Which one you choose will depend on the type of bicycle you ride, the type of mechanic you are and how much space you have at home to do your bike tinkering.  In short, there are four main styles:

Racing Stands

As the name suggests, a racing stand is designed for people who are racers and therefore own a racing style bike.  They are also good if you own an ultra thin and light frame bicycle that you want to be extra careful you don’t do any damage to that light frame.

Racing stands are built light.  They are designed to be taken with you on the road or to the track and consequently are extremely portable.  They can also hold your bike without grasping it by the frame tube or seat post so as not to do damage to the ultra thin frame.  They are pretty nifty, but if you don’t fall into the category of owning a racing style bike, then it may not be the best option.

In order to make a stand super portable, you need to sacrifice on some of the stability and you should only do this if you really do need it to be that portable.  With that said, they’re building them better and better these days so that even a racing stand can hold your bike pretty stable if you get a good one.  Of course, you will pay for that quality.

Home Mechanic Repair Stands

This is probably the style that will suit most people.  A home mechanic stand is specifically designed for home bike mechanics that work on the average road cycle as well as mountain bikes.  They usually have a tripod base, and adjust to any height.

Home Mechanic stands are great because assuming you get a good one, they can hold your bike rock solid, rotate your bike 360 degrees and be folded up and put away after you are done with it.  If you buy one with a good wide base, it will allow you to work on your bike outside on uneven ground.  I wrote a comprehensive review of the Park Tool PCS-10 Repair Stand because it was a good example of having all the features that a home mechanic stand should have.

Most home mechanic repair stands have one of two styles of clamps.

Spring cam-style clamp – This is the most popular as it allows you to clamp and unclamp your bike in one swift clamping action.  It is good for all normal bikes and mountain bikes as the clamp is fully adjustable.

Screw-down clamp – This option takes a bit more work, as you need to hold your bike into the clamp while you screw it closed.  However it can be good if your bike is very lightweight and has thin-walled tubes, as you have a lot of control as you adjust the pressure.

Either style clamp will work well, but read the reviews before you buy and make sure you are getting a quality home mechanic repair stand.  They are not all built the same and the quality of the clamp makes a lot of difference.

Incredible Hulk Shop Stands

Okay, I added in the incredible hulk myself to emphasize the point, but heavy duty shop stands are the style of stands you would likely find in most bike shops, but some home mechanics choose them too.  They are for the real hard core mechanics… the handy types that know how to build a bike from scratch and spend a lot of time working on it.  They will generally hold any bike, and they will hold them completely solid no matter how hard you crank on them.  However, they are not portable, and you often need a parking space for it in your garage or basement.

Miniature Stands

These are my least favourite but some people like them.  Miniature stands are small and lightweight stands that can be used for average bikes that don’t have any unusual designed frames or accessories.  This style of stand is chosen by some who are low on space such as living in a small apartment and by those who want  something very lightweight for very minor maintenance or cleaning.  Basically they will only hold the bicycle upright.  They cost less, which is also why some people go for them, and they do the job, but they don’t do the job well.  For normal bike repairs they are not a good way to go.

A better way to go is to get a bench or wall mount stand if you have a place to screw it in, as it also doesn’t take up much space.

Learning to do your own bike repairs can be a fulfilling and worthwhile investment towards our sport. Putting a little love and care into your two wheeled vehicle can also go a long ways to help your bike live a long and healthy life.

About the author: Sam Walker works as a reviewer at Gear Reviews Online where he reviews quality gear for outdoor enthusiasts.

Doing Bike Maintenance

One of the things I had planned to do in 2010 was to learn more about bike maintenance.  Besides fixing a flat tire, I’m not good for much.  But for some reason, I never really got around to it.

Yesterday though, I threw an old junk bike into the back of my vehicle and drove over to Austin’s Yellow Bike Project.  The Yellow Bike Project is a community-supported non-profit that relies on volunteers to fix up old bikes.  These bikes are made available to people without the means to get their own bikes.  In addition, it provides space for anyone to work on their own bike for free, as long as you also donate an hour of your time for each hour you work on your own to fix up other bikes.

Once in the shop, a coordinator got me entered into their computer system, and had me take my junk bike over to a stand and work table.  One of my biking friends, Tim, was working at the stand opposite.  He looked over my bike and suggested I start by repacking the hubs.

It probably took me three times longer than it should have – anything involving tools usually does – but Tim was always there to answer my questions and guide me through the process, even though he was working on a bike at his own work station. I got the front hub done just a few minutes before the day’s shop hours ended.  Tim put the wheel on a truing stand, explained how that worked, and decided that the wheel didn’t need any truing – it was good enough.

I’ll be back to Yellow Bike.  Yes, I’m a volunteer, but I’ll probably get more out of my participation than they will by having me around.  At least I’ll  be better versed on different techniques for handling my own bike repairs, which is what my goal is.

Organizations similar to Yellow Bike can be found all over.  You might have one near your home, and don’t even know it.  Check the links at the bottom of this page – they’re for other bike repair co-ops.

That same evening, I had signed up for a bike maintenance class at Mellow Johnny’s bike shop in downtown Austin.  The topic was the drivetrain, and I was looking forward to it, even though the shop’s email said it would be a pretty basic class.

Four of us showed up, and one of Mellow Johnny’s mechanics took us through the basics of the drivetrain.  The main part of the class was on chain cleaning and lubrication.  Okay, I clean and lube my chain pretty regularly (although not as regularly as I should, it turns out), but I still got some interesting tidbits out of it.  Because the main part of his presentation ended early, the mechanic entertained questions on any aspect of bike maintenance, and the answers were helpful.

My wife had been complaining on recent rides that her bike didn’t seem as smooth as it had in the past, and asked me to bring it over to our club’s mechanic.  But I figured that, based on what I’d learned at Mellow Johnny’s, her drivetrain just needed cleaning.  One look at the cassette told me I was right. I gave it a thorough going-over this afternoon, and took the bike on a test ride afterward.  Smoothness.

My own bike could use some work too, so I cleaned and lubed its chain and cleaned off the cassette, which was way overdue for some attention.  I’ve always thought that I lubed it at reasonable intervals, but it turns out that I’ve been letting it go too long between jobs.  After today, it’ll enjoy my ministrations much more frequently.

Shining like new!

And of all things, I needed to replace some zip ties that secure my speed sensors for my bike computer.  One actually broke during my afternoon ride, and I wasn’t getting any speed or cadence readings.

I’ve always thought cyclists should have some basic knowledge about bike maintenance.  If you need some work in that area, check with your local bike shop to see if they offer any classes like the one at Mellow Johnny’s.  But hands-on is always better, so be on the lookout for ways to do your own wrenching.  Now that I’ve had a taste of Yellow Bike, I hope I’ll be able to move beyond the basics.