6 Bike Maintenance Problems You Need To Tackle Right Now!


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!

Rim Brakes

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.

Disc Brakes

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.

Cockpit Components

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.

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Derailleur Cables

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.

Suspension Systems

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!

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS


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Comments 13

  1. Your article gave me a couple ideas I had never thought of before. Thanks for sharing these topic regarding bike maintenance.. You’ve done a great job!

  2. Checking tires and thread wear is also important. I have noticed inner tubes sticking to tires when I decide to change tires.

    1. Nigel,
      Have a plastic bag with baby powder in it near your “flat changing station”. Put your new tube in the bag and give is a shake. The tube will then be coated with powder which is great for allowing the tube to slide easily into position within the tire/rim confines which will reduces tube/tire hysteresis.

    2. Nigel,

      Shake some talc, baby powder or corn starch into the tire, rotate it to make sure you have the entire inner surface covered, and then install first bead on rim, install tube and seat second bead as usual. No more tubes stuck to inside of tires.

  3. You raise some excellent points. Here, where temperatures will get below -40°F (with the wind chill) even Fat Bike riders take a break. I use a “smart” indoor trainer which, with simulated climbs, means I’m standing a lot more than I did with a rear tire, friction trainer. The result is that I’m sweating all over my front hub and brake rotor – a bra stretched across the frame keeps my headset dry but I’m having to put a rag over my front brake to keep that clean and dry. The “chains are cheaper than a cassette” mantra reminds me of the old compression braking adage….”brake pads are cheaper than a clutch….”. I just change my chain every year.

  4. Most chain wear measuring tools do not measure from like point to like point (center to center, or front edge to front edge, etc.), and thus do not provide an accurate reading. Also, most of these tools do not measure a long enough section of your chain to get a good reading anyway. As Robin states, use a ruler.

    A nice trick to possibly extend the life of your aluminum bars is to lightly spray paint them prior to installation. It will be under your bar tape, so just use any old paint you have left over from some other project. You will need to be quite careful not to chip or scratch the coating when you install the bars into the stem, and the brake levers onto the bars, but this can help prevent sweat corrosion.

    You can use a candle to drip a few drips of wax onto your bolts before and after installation to seal them up. As you likely know, wax does not attract dirt like grease or oil, and it is easy enough to remove if/when you want to access the bolts.

    Unless you have money to burn, save your exotic, expensive parts for the racing season, and use 105 parts on the trainer. If you do have money to burn, contact me, I’ll help you burn it. 🙂

  5. For indoor training I have a spare rear wheel with a matched cassette (to my good rear wheel)mounted with beater tire. I replace my chain every year. I wonder how long my Roval carbon rims will last before the braking surface becomes questionable. During the season I don’t ride my carbon wheels all of the time.

  6. You don’t need a chain measuring tool, just use a ruler, a good chain is going to measure from center to center pin 12 inches, 1/16 over replace chain, 1/8 over chain AND cassette.

  7. To save a buck or two during the winter, don’t be afraid of doing a 105 or Ultegra chain/cassette combo. DA cassette; $250, Ultegra $50; pretty much the same precision but less “exclusive” materials. For your trainer wheel (you have one right?? I do, until the Tacx Flux shows up), again, consider 105 or Ultegra cassette.

    Park Tool has a cheap chain wear indicator or you can get a digital one from KMC.

    if you do ride a lot in rain, sleet and grime during the winter, i would have expected swapping bits and pieces in the spring as well.

    1. Thanks for the advise, I’m a noob and thought you should not mix parts so the the drive train will work well, now I know I can save money.

  8. I work in a bike shop and would like to add a couple of things:

    We’ve had two bikes in our shop on which we’ve had to replace the bars because they corroded all the way through the aluminum and broke. Both bikes were “trainer slaves” that had been drenched in sweat over and over. The bar tape was pretty aromatic, too. 🙂

    The bolts that hold on the stem plate and bottle cages, as well as the ones that tighten the stem to the steerer, are usually the same thread though they come in different lengths. You can get them in stainless steel from any shop that sells fasteners (Fastenal is the one where I live). The size is M5-0.8; 12mm ones work for bottle cages, and 16mm ones usually work for all the bolts on the stem.

    1. Are you sure the use of stainless fasteners on an alloy stem won’t create a galvanic corrosion due to the dissimilar metals?.

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