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Beginner's Guide to the Most Common Bike Repairs
Psyched to take advantage of the crisp fall air with a bike ride? Before hitting the streets, make sure every bit of that faithful steed is prepped and ready to go. A regular tune-up keeps bicycles safe, steady, and trouble-free. Without having to spend time and money at the repair shop, imagine the places you’ll go! Here’s a checklist of the top five bike maintenance skills that every cyclist — from training wheel-maven to Tour de France beast — should know.
Rock n’ Roll — Your Action Plan
First off, every cyclist should own a basic toolkit to deal with possible mid-ride breakdowns. Make sure to include a bike tire pump with a built-in pressure gauge, Torque and regular wrenches, tire levers, spare inner tubes, a tire patch kit, a chain tool and a few extra links, and lubricant. (Sounds pretty serious? Look for miniature versions to lighten the load!)
If and when something goes wrong (as they inevitably do), be sure to always start with a scrub-down. Trying to tighten bolts on a muddy or wet frame is a recipe for frustration; so make sure everything’s clean and shiny before getting the wrenches out. Not sure where to start? For inexperienced cyclists, fixing a bike at home (or out on the road) can seem outright impossible. Here is Greatist’s guide to the top five most common bike repairs.
1. Fix a Flat
Droopy wheels? Check the tire pressure before looking for holes. To make sure the tires are inflated correctly, find the intended air pressure range for each tire, which is usually printed on the smooth side of the tire (not the treads). Use a bike pump with a built-in tire pressure gauge to find the sweet spot. And unless exploding tires sounds like a fun time, avoid gas station air pumps, which are very powerful and can easily blow out smaller bicycle wheels.
If the tires start sagging right away, it’s time to deal with a puncture. It’s a good idea to always travel with a spare inner tube, just in case. Here are six steps to get bike wheels bouncing again.
- Most road bikes have a bicycle wheel quick release, which makes it easy to pop a wheel out of the frame without any tools. Open the lever, remove the wheel, and let the remaining air out of the tire by opening the valve. Then, push the metal valve up into the tire so it doesn’t stick out on the inside of the tire.
- Next, wedge two or three tire levers under the edge of the tire, until it pops out of the wheel rim. No levers? No problem. Removing a tire without tools just requires dexterous thumbs and a bit of elbow grease.
- Take out the inner tube*, being sure to lift the tube over the valve. This is a good time to find the hole — a piece of rock, glass, or tree branch sticking out of the tire is usually a good clue. Just be careful when removing sharp objects — anything that cuts a tire can easily cut a finger, too.
- Take the new inner tube and inflate it about halfway, so it has some shape. Reverse the process by sliding the inner tube into the outer tire.
- Again, use those thumbs to stick the tire edge back into the rim, and use a bike tire pump to re-inflate the whole shebang to the correct pressure.
- Don’t forget to shut the quick release valve. And that’s all, folks! Time to roll on.
*Note: if you’re unlucky or just unprepared and don’t have a spare inner tube, a patch is the way to go. The process is pretty similar; instead of grabbing a new tube find the hole by gently inflating the inner tube, slap on a patch, and stick the repaired tube back into the tire. Sometimes patches don’t stick well to high-pressure road bike tires, so this is definitely a short-term solution for a tire puncture.
Total Money Saved: Up to $15. Inner tubes cost around $10, while a patch kit will set you back roughly five bucks. Mechanics charge for the materials, plus about $20 for labor.
2. Reattach a Slipped Chain
A slipped-off chain can turn a pleasant jaunt into a ride from hell. But putting the chain back on is pretty simple and requires no tools at all! Here’s what to do:
- Usually when a chain falls off, it falls out of the rear cogset and/or the front chainring (part of the crank).
- Place the chain back in the bottom groove in the rear cog first.
- When the chain is attached to the cog, drape the chain over the teeth on the top of the front chainring. The last step is to reestablish the connection between rear cogset and front chainring. Once the chain is in the right place, slowly turn the pedal forward, which will pull the chain around the entire chainring and back to the cogset.
If the chain keeps falling off, it’s probably too long for the bike frame. To remove extra chain links, or to fix a broken chain, check out these further instructions:
- The first step is to get rid of the broken links using a chain tool. Put the pin through the broken link and clamp down until the chain breaks apart. Make sure the pin is still partway through the link because it’s very difficult to re-insert a pin that has been totally removed.
- Remove the broken links.
- If spare links are available, this is when they come into the picture. Attach the new links to the chain, using the chain tool to push the pin into the links.
- Make sure the chain has one “female” end and one “male” end so it can seamlessly link together again.
- Lacking links? For a short-term solution, it’s ok to just remove the busted chain and link the remaining ends together. This will shorten the chain, which affects the quality of the ride and also puts stress on the derailleur over time.
- Thread the chain back over the crank set and through the derailleur with the end of the pin sticking towards the outside of the bike.
- Lastly, use the chain tool to push the pin back through both parts of the chain and then use hands to loosen up the new connection.
Total Money Saved: $15-$40. A very basic chain tool goes for $15, although more expensive models can run you $100 and up. Many bike shops will replace a slipped or broken chain with a brand-new one, which can get pricey. Even if the tune-up just re-attaches the old chain, expect to pony up for the cost of labor.
3. Tighten Up Loose Bolts
Bicycles are held together entirely by nuts and bolts, so before heading out on a two-wheeled jaunt, make sure all hardware is secure — but not too tight. The main problem areas are the handlebars, stem, and seat post, where pressure and friction can loosen bolts. Overtightening can round the bolts and ruin the threads on the bike, making for a pricey repair job. Instead, invest in a torque wrench, which is super-accurate and takes the guesswork out of tuning. These wrenches have measurements so the user can control the amount of force applied. Check in the bike’s manual for information about bolt tightening, and then attach everything correctly the first time. Once the bolts are torqued, leave them alone! There’s no need to re-tighten every ride, or even every week — just keep an eye (and an ear) out for loose or rattling parts.
Total Money Saved: At least $10. A Torque wrench is an investment — the cheapest models go for around $30. It costs around $20 a pop to replace stripped nuts and rounded bolts — the math doesn't lie.
4. Loosen a Stuck Seat
As everyone who has ever had a hand-me-down bike knows, there’s nothing worse than dealing with a stuck seat that is too high or too low. The first step is to loosen the binder all the way and remove the collar and bolt. Soak the whole problem area with WD-40 and leave it alone overnight so the spray can work its magic. If the seat still won’t budge, grip the saddle and try to twist the post free. If it’s still stuck, get a clamp and some pliers and start twisting and pulling the pieces apart.
Want to avoid this problem altogether? To prevent a sticky situation, keep the post and tube clean and well greased. Mark the right height on the post with electrical tape, and then remove it from the tube. Wipe down the post and tube with a clean rag, slather some grease in the tube and on the post, and put everything back together.
Total Money Saved: $15. The materials for this quick fix (wrenches, WD-40, and pliers) cost around $10 bucks each, and most people already have them on hand.
5. Wrap Drop Handlebars
After a season of cycling adventures in rain, mud, and sleet, a road bike’s handlebars can get gummy, stinky, and worn out, making for an unpleasant cycling experience. Luckily, rewrapping the handlebars in fresh new tape is a breeze! Start by peel off that nasty old tape, using scissors if it gets stuck. Most tape kits come with two extra scraps of tape — stick those under both brake levers so there’s no gap between the brake apparatus and the handlebar. Take the tape and start on the bottom of the dropped end of the handlebar, with the edge of the tape on the underside. Wrap up and over the top of the handlebar tightly and smoothly in a clockwise direction. Make sure to overlap the edges as you go so there are no spaces in the wrapping. When you get to the brake levers, flip the plastic covers up and wrap carefully around the handlebar — because the tape scraps are already on that part of the bike, there should be no gap in the tape. Cut off the tape when one side is covered in tape to the center point of the handlebars and secure the edge by wrapping it once or twice around with electrical tape. Repeat the process on the other side, and hit the road!
Total Money Saved: $5-$10. The cost will vary depending on the brand and style of handlebar tape, but a mechanic will usually charge around $20 for the work.
Still confused? Find a professional if these common solutions don’t do the trick or when dealing with a specific problem. A good bike shop has the right equipment and knowledgeable mechanics to solve more complicated conundrums.
Repairing a bicycle at home sounds scary, but the most common problems are easy to fix with just a few tools. With these easy bike repairs, every cyclist can spend more time out of the garage and in the fast lane.
What’s your go-to bike fix? Respond in the comments below or tweet Sophia @sophbreene.