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Buying a Bicycle -- A Basic Guide: Routine Maintenance

By all means, take your bike back to the bike shop where you bought it for initial adjustments and major repairs.

However, I also suggest you keep a little maintenance work “in house.” It will help you understand your bike and its components, and that’s half the battle of getting the most out of it.

In this section, you’ll learn about a simple three-part maintenance program that you can carry out yourself and will ensure your bike is always in top shape. Even if you can’t correct some of the problems you encounter, at least you’ll know what needs to be done. This way, you’ll be able to communicate clearly to a bike mechanic to get it taken care of.

The maintenance program described here consists of simple checks to be carried out at regularly scheduled intervals:

-- Pre-ride inspection (each day you ride the bike)

-- Monthly inspection

- Seasonal inspection (just once a year if you only ride the bike during the summer months)

In addition to these three inspections, you’ll be shown how to clean the bike. That’s something I recommend doing at least with each monthly inspection, but preferably whenever you’ve ridden the bike in wet weather or muddy terrain.

You can do the basic inspections without any tools. However, you will need to refer to the “Tools and Spares” section of Section 5 for the tools you’ll need to make any required corrections. In addition, you’ll need cleaning cloths—one clean and dry, one damp, one greasy; brushes; thin penetrating oil in a spray can; special chain lubricant; bike polish; and a can of car wax.

Cleaning the Bike

Do this job whenever your bike gets dirty, preferably at least once a month, and before you take it to the shop for maintenance or repair service. It’s much easier to work on a clean bike, and sometimes it’s all it takes to solve a problem. Even this seemingly mundane job requires some thought, proceeding perhaps as follows.

Cleaning Procedure:


Check whether the tires are inflated as marked on the tire sidewall, verified with a pressure gauge.


Make sure the handlebars are straight, at the right height, and firmly attached. Check this by straddling the front wheel and trying to twist the handlebars.


Verify that the saddle is straight and level, at the right height, and firmly in place. It should not budge when you try twisting it relative to the frame.

1. If the bike is dry, wipe it with a soft brush or a cloth to remove any dust and other dry dirt. If the bike or the dirt that adheres to it’s wet, hose or sponge it down with plenty of clean water. Take care not to get water into the bearings of hubs, bottom bracket, pedals, and headset.

2. Using a damp cloth, clean in all the hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. Wrap the cloth around a screwdriver to get into hidden places, such as between the sprockets on the freewheel, between the chainrings, and around the derailleur pulleys.

3. Clean and dry the entire bike with a clean, soft, dry cloth.

4. Treat all the bare metal areas very sparingly with wax to inhibit rust, and rub it out with a clean, dry cloth.

5. Once or twice a year, it may be worthwhile to apply bike polish or wax to the paintwork as well.

6. To clean oxidation of bare metal, use chrome polish. For protection, the best thing to use is wax.

Pie-Ride Inspection

These are the things you ought to look out for whenever you take the bike out for a ride.

FIG. 1. Cleaning in tight corners, using a cloth wrapped around a screwdriver.

FIG. 2. Adjusting the brake cable tension, shown here for a mountain bike. On a road bike, the adjusting barrel is on the brake itself.

FIG. 3. Make sure the brake pads completely touch he sides of the rim this way.


Check the effectiveness of the brakes by verifying that each can block the wheel against your weight with the lever depressed, leaving about 2 cm (3/4 inch) between brake lever and handlebars, while you try to push the bike forward under your own weight.


Lift the rear wheel and, while turning the cranks, check whether the derailleurs can be shifted to reach all the gears.

Monthly Inspection


Check for broken spokes and wheel wobble. Lift the wheel off the ground and turn it slowly, keeping an eye on a fixed point such as the brake blocks. If the wheel seems to wobble sideways relative to the fixed point, it should be trued at a bike shop.


Adjust the cable tension as shown in FIG. 2 if the brakes don’t firmly stop the bike with about 2 cm (3/4 inch) clearance between the brake levers and the handlebars. Observe what happens when you pull the brake levers. The brake blocks must touch the sides of the rims over their entire surface. Adjust the brake pads as shown in FIG. 3 if they don’t.


Check the tires for external damage and embedded objects. Remove anything that doesn’t belong there, and replace the tire if it’s badly worn, or the tube if it loses air.


Using the crank extractor tool or the large Allen wrench, tighten the crank bolts, as shown in FIG. 4.

Overall Check:

Check all the other bolts and nuts on the bike to make sure they are tight. Verify whether all moving parts turn freely and all adjustments are correct. Repair or replace anything damaged or missing.


Lubricate the various parts listed here, using the lubricants indicated, and wipe any excess off afterwards.

Chain: After the chain has been cleaned and dried, use a special non-gummy chain lube in a spray can.

Brake levers, pivots, cable ends: Use a light spray can lubricant, aiming precisely with the little tubular nozzle installed on the spray head.

Exposed bare metal parts: After cleaning with polish if it’s tarnished, use car wax, applied with a soft, clean cloth and rubbed out to shine.

After lubrication, wipe off all excess lubricant, because exterior grease and oil deposits attract dirt and stain your clothes.

Seasonal Inspection

Although most bikes only need this work once or twice a year, you may have to do it more frequently if you ride a lot off-road in bad weather.


First carry out all the work described above for the monthly inspection, noting in particular which parts need special attention because they seem to be loose, worn, damaged or missing. Subsequently, work down the following list, getting anything that is necessary carried out at the bike shop (or learn to do it yourself with the help of a general bike maintenance guide, such as my Mountain Bike Maintenance or Road Bike Maintenance).

Do this work at least once a month during the time you use the bike. First clean it as explained. Then carry out the Inspections listed above, and do the following additional jobs.


With the wheels still in the bike, check for damage to the rims. Check the hubs for play, wear, and tightness. If there seems to be a problem, get it corrected.


For a quick check, place the chain on the largest chainring in the front and try to lift an individual link off the chainring as shown in FIG. 5. Replace the entire chain if it can be lifted off by more than 3 mm ( 1/8 inch). It means the chain is worn, which affects shifting and transmission efficiency. In addition, a worn chain also wears out the chainrings and cogs. If the chain is not badly worn, merely clean it with a general application of solvent applied with a brush. Wipe it off with a cloth and let it dry for no more than 15 minutes before lubricating it (it’ll start rusting if you wait longer).

FIG. 4. Tightening the crank bolt with an 8mm Allen wrench. FIG. 5. Replace The chain if/f can be lifted off The chainring as shown here.

Bottom Bracket: Check the bottom bracket bearings for play and freedom of rotation by grabbing the cranks and trying to twist and turn them. Get the unit overhauled or replaced if the spindle does not run perfectly smoothly or if there is noticeable play (looseness) in the bearings.


Check the pedals by holding them relative to the cranks and feeling them for play, then turn them to check for freedom of rotation. Replace or get them overhauled if they don’t run smoothly or are too loose.


Lift the front end of the bike by the frame’s head tube and check to make sure the steering system turns freely, without either looseness (“play”) or rough spots.

If it’s a conventional headset, you need special headset tools. First loosen the top lockring, then tighten or loosen the upper headset race, and finally hold that in place while tightening the lockring again. Check once more and let a bike mechanic take care of it if the problem isn’t solved.

If it’s an Aheadset type, undo the handlebar stem binder bolts, tighten or loosen the Allen bolt on top of the stem, and tighten the stem’s binder bolts again. Here too, get it fixed at a bike shop if you’re not able to solve the problem yourself.


Clean, check, and lubricate both derailleur mechanisms, making sure the pivots work smoothly and the pulleys of the rear derailleur turn freely. If necessary, let a bike shop take care of any required corrections for you.

Shifters, Levers, and Cables:

Try out the brake levers and gear shifters, and make sure they operate smoothly. Check the cables to make sure there are no kinks in the cable mantles (also called cable housings) or frayed ends on the inner cables. If lubricating and adjusting does not make these mechanisms work smoothly and predictably, get them overhauled or replaced.

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