As winter tightens its grip, I’m seeing a lot of bikes that are ‘plain tore up’, as one of my favorite old mechanics used to say. Your bike or fleet of bikes have seen a lot of hard hours and miles this year, and this is a smart time to get your equipment tuned up. Why now, instead of riding your worn parts through the winter? Because “through the winter” is another four months and your parts are likely a lot more worn than you think they are.
Road and mountain bikes are a lot more complex than they have ever been. Tolerances are tighter and materials are not as forgiving of abuse. Even more important is the fact that failure to maintain small parts can lead to excessive and premature wear of much more expensive parts. An additional problem I have noticed is that as bikes have become more complex, the average rider’s ability to confidently inspect and maintain his or bike has declined. You may have been able to overhaul your bike 10 years ago, but now with internal routing, disc brakes, carbon wheels, advanced suspension systems, and electronic shifting systems, it’s harder to spot the problems, let alone fix them.
Here are some of the big maintenance items you want to tackle now on high-end bikes:
Chain wear is probably the most overlooked maintenance issue. As your chain wears and stretches, it doesn’t sit as deeply into the cog. It rides up on the back edges of the teeth, wears that edge down and widens the space between teeth. When you add grit from dust, gravel roads, trails, and rainy days, and you can wear out a chain quickly. The longer your ride that chain on your cassette, the more damage you do to the cassette. A quick look at CompetitiveCyclist.com illustrates the consequences. A new 11-speed SRAM or Shimano chain costs between $30-$50. Retail price on a new Shimano Dura Ace cassette is $250 and the top-of-the-line SRAM road cassette costs about $220. On the mountain bike side, a SRAM XX1 cassette costs $428 and a Shimano XTR cassette is $259. The moral of the story is: chains wear faster than you think and are a heck of a lot cheaper to replace. Check your chain for wear, or have your mechanic check it, and replace your chains frequently!
More and more athletes are riding on carbon wheels with carbon braking surfaces. It is important to monitor your brake pads so they do not get too worn. It is also crucial that there’s nothing like metal shards, gravel, or anything else embedded in your brake pads and gouging or sanding down your braking surface. Again, brake pads are cheap compared to repairing or replacing damaged carbon rims.
If you are riding wheels with aluminum rims, especially if you have an older set of wheels you’ve been riding for several years, check the aluminum braking surface to see if it is still flat or if it has worn down and become concave. Not only is braking performance diminished when the braking surface is worn down, but eventually the rim will crack. I saw it happen this year during a gravel event. Years of riding dusty gravel roads had sanded down a rider’s braking surface until the side of the rim simply collapsed.
I finally wore out a disc rotor. It was honestly something I had never really considered, but disc rotors get progressively thinner as they wear and they have a minimum safe thickness. The initial thickness and minimum safe thickness varies from brand to brand, but typically start out about 1.8-2.0mm and have minimums ranging from 1.4-1.5mm.
Disc brake pads are an obvious wear item, and cyclists can go through several sets of pads in a single season, depending on riding conditions. What can be tricky, however, is the fact that disc pads are somewhat hidden inside the caliper. Every mechanic has stories of bikes coming into their shop with pads worn all the way down the steel/aluminum backing plates. This is not only bad for your rotor, but it also means the brake pistons are extending further and further. When this happens you are inviting dust and grit to get into the piston, which leads to brakes that stick or stop working properly.
The other hidden maintenance issue you should address at least once a season is the fluid in your hydraulic brake lines. Hydraulic brakes need to be bled to remove air bubbles that may be in the line. This will improve brake performance, especially if you are experiencing intermittent brake fade. It is also important for your brake fluid to remain clean, but you won’t know if your brake fluid is dirty until someone services your brakes. So have your brakes bled, and perhaps flushed if the fluid is dirty.
Sweat is corrosive, and even if you have a carbon stem, bars, and steerer tube, the fasteners are likely steel or aluminum. They need to be checked for corrosion. If you spend a lot of time riding an indoor trainer, you are almost certainly dripping a tremendous amount of sweat onto your stem bolts. If you are riding an aluminum handlebar, take this opportunity to unwrap your handlebars, check for corrosion from sweat, clean off any accumulated salt, replace your bar tape, and replace the bar if necessary.
If your bike has mechanical, cable-actuated shifting dirt and grime eventually penetrates into your cable housing. This leads to drag and poor shifting performance. This puts more pressure on your shifters because you have to push harder on the shift lever to pull on the cable. Also be sure to check the cable guide under your bottom bracket (if you have one) for grit that can add drag. New cables and housing can completely refresh your shifting experience. If you have electronic shifting with wires, inspect the wires and connections for signs of wear, kinks, cuts, or corrosion.
As far as I’m concerned, suspension forks and rear shocks operate on magic. I have no idea what happens inside them and no desire to take them apart. What I do know, however, is that the seals that keep dirt out of them wear over time. When dirt gets into the magical world inside, it starts to sand down the surface of your fork’s stanchion tubes. When they get rough, they don’t slide smoothly and suspension performance suffers. I had my fork serviced earlier in the summer and didn’t realize how badly it needed it until I got back on the bike afterward. If you have a full-suspension mountain bike, also have your mechanic inspect the pivot points and pivot bearings for wear.
As you might be able to discern by now, some of the recommendations above are time consuming. That’s another reason this is a good time of year to take care of them. My favorite opportunity? When there’s a snowstorm in the forecast. It’s a good time to take some time off the bike and let the local bike shop have my bike for a few days.
Remember, a clean bike is a fast bike!
CEO/Head Coach of CTS