Fall Bike Maintenance Tips


Whether you’re breaking out your cold weather gear or getting ready to hang your bike up for the season, fall is the perfect time for some basic bike maintenance. Here are a few basic tips to make sure your chain, chainring, and cassette are ready for your next ride.

Your chain is the most important component on your bike. Not only does it have the most moving pieces, it has a direct impact on the lifespan of the rest of your drivetrain components. Despite all that, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen bikes brought in for shifting issues that I solved with chain lubricant and no further adjustments.

Your chain should never look like this.

Your chain should never look like this.

Touch your chain with your fingers. If it’s wet and leaves a little schmutz on your skin, you’re good to go. If it’s dry to the touch or if you heard some squeaking on your last ride, it’s time to break out the chain lubricant.

Chain lube comes in a few different flavors for different environments and riding styles (ask your friendly neighborhood bike tech which kind is right for you). Regardless of the kind you get, you apply it the same. Simply shake it up and drip it over each link roller. I like to lean my bike against a wall, hold the bottle upside-down over the chain, and pedal backwards as I drip the lubricant down onto the links. A few rotations of the crank should get ample coverage.

Not sure which type of bike lube you need for your style of riding? Just ask!

Not sure which type of bike lube you need for your style of riding? Just ask!

Now, take an old rag and wipe off as much lube as you can, especially on the outer plates of the chain links. All that really matters is that you get some in between the links in the tiny hard-to-reach places. Over lubrication will attract dirt and form that nasty gunk that dirties up your gears and makes a mess of your calves and anything else that comes into contact with it. PRO TIP: Don’t let the basic task of wiping down your chain cause you to daydream or lose focus, especially if you’re turning the pedals to speed up the task. The last thing you want is to get your fingers sucked into the drive train.

If you’re still experiencing poor shifting performance, you may have a “stretched” chain. Chains don’t actually stretch, but as the rollers on each link wear out over time, the space between the links increases which creates more contact with the teeth on your cassette and chain ring which is not good. Your local bike shop will have a simple tool to measure the amount of wear on your chain (they might even sell you one for a few bucks), or you can use a ruler. Most manufacturers recommend replacing your chain if you are at about .75% to 1% worn or 1500-4000 miles, depending on how messy the riding conditions are. Slop, grit and rust will wear your chain down more–hence the need to keep your chain clean and lubed.

The cassette is located on the rear wheel. The cassette is located on the rear wheel. Despite the dirt and rusty chain, this cassette is in pretty good shape.

Your cassette is the next most likely component to wear out and cause poor shifting. Look at the peaks of the teeth as well as the valleys between them and check for signs of wear and gaps.

If your eyeball test is inconclusive, you’ll know you need a new cassette if you’ve installed a new chain and the gears keep slipping. You should get anywhere from two to five chains’ worth of use out of each cassette, depending on riding conditions. Mountain bikers in New England might have to change their parts out more frequently than road cyclists in Arizona.

Finally, your chainrings need some love. Aluminum chainrings can last anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000 miles before showing any wear. They have more teeth and are under less stress than cassette cogs, so they tend to last much longer. Usually the bigger chainring is the first to go, since it’s used much more. You can tell it is starting to wear out if the teeth have taken on a shark-tooth-like appearance.

Flat topped teeth = good, rounded/sharkfin teeth = bad.

Flat topped teeth = good, rounded/sharkfin teeth = bad.

It’s important to note that you should perform inspections like this throughout your riding season. This is especially true of your chain. Give it the old finger test every time you pump up your tires and make sure it’s clean and well-lubed before you ride. Just as cars last longer with regular oil changes, bike components last longer when a clean, well-lubed chain runs through them. And as every bike tech knows, the longer your components last, the more money you have for post-ride libations. Have fun out there!


Forrest Cutrer

Forrest Cutrer has been with EMS SoHo since 2009 & has been a bike technician in the shop since 2010. Born in the swamps of Louisiana and raised in the Phoenix area, Forrest studied Political Science at Arizona State University where he was a sitting board member and educator at Bike Saviours, a local bike cooperative. He is madly in love with bikes of all types, especially the three currently in his stable, and rides probably more often than he should. Forrest enjoys running long distances and biking longer distances and wishes he had a pig.