11th October 2012

Maintain It and Retain It – An easy guide to looking after your bike

Bike maintenanceAt the Bike Co-op we believe that the bicycle is a classic 19th Century invention that remains more relevant than ever in the 21st century.

One of the charms of the bicycle is that it wears its major mechanisms on the outside. This makes a bicycle more fixable than almost anything else produced today, while offering further proof of the bicycle’s green credentials. You can fix or finesse even a one or 2 decades-old bike to work to its full potential.

Looking after a bike is rather like tending a small garden. Do nothing and the rust/weeds take over. Spend a little time on it at regular intervals and your bicycle will blossom.

Keeping on top of bike maintenance is especially important in winter when wet, salted, gritted roads can accelerate wear and tear.

Cleaning your bike

Cleaning your bike with a bucket of soapy water and a dishwash brush will help prevent salt corrosion taking its course.

However, domestic detergents and cleaning agents can contain abrasive salts so you might want to consider trying out bike-specific cleaners and degreasers which are guaranteed safe to use on your pride and joy.

Bike cleaning solutions are biodegradable, water soluble and easy to use. Spray the bike cleaner on to the bike, give it a light scrub, then rinse the cleaner off with fresh water. Fast and simple.

Revolution Tune Up Workstand

Revolution Tune Up Workstand

As with most bike maintenance jobs, it’s much easier to wash the bike when it’s on a workstand.

For instance, to clean a workstand-mounted bicycle’s back wheel, scoosh the rim with bike cleaner. Then turn the cranks forward to spin the back wheel while holding a rag or brush against the right-hand side of the rim. Walk round the bike and clean the left-hand side of the rim the same way. Rinse off with water. The wheel which was mucky a minute ago is now pristine, and your brakes will work all the better for it.

Usually, the dirtiest part of the bike is the chain and all she touches. Cleaning and lubing the chain therefore deserves its own chapter. Here’s one we prepared already.

Once the bike is cleaned, dry it off with a rag. Then treat the brakes, gears and exposed cables to a shot of a light, water-dispersing Teflon-reinforced lube such as GT85. If you’re feeling very keen, buff up the frame with a blast of Mr Sheen or a bike-specific polish.

Aesthetics and common sense aside, another compelling reason to clean the bike is that it’s a perfect opportunity to check that everything is working properly. (A mud-encrusted frame or part won’t reveal cracks or flaws.)

Bicycle Check List

Wheels and Brakes

Once you have washed your wheels, check they are spinning freely.

If the bike comes with rim brakes, do the brake pads rub the rims at any point? You can sometimes solve this problem by simply undoing the wheel by loosening its nuts or quick release, re-centring the wheel so the rim is equidistant from each brake block, then re-tightening the wheel.

If the brake pads rub some sections of the rim, but not others, the wheel needs trued.

If the wheel runs true so it clears the brake pads, but it still doesn’t spin freely, or if it displays side-to-side play, the wheel bearings need adjusted.

Over time, brake blocks wear down rims. The rim’s profile which starts off flat will gradually become concave. When this happens, consider a wheel rebuild or replacement. If you see the slightest crack, don’t just consider a rebuild/replacement, just do it. I (the Bike Co-op’s Ged) learned this lesson the hard way when my ignored, worn rim ‘exploded’, taking the tyre with it. Luckily I was on a quiet road and I didn’t come off the bike, but it was a scary moment. I check my rims at least once a month now. Some rims have wear indicators that make it apparent that it has reached the end of its life cycle.

Talking of wear indicators, some brake blocks boast this intelligent feature too. If your brake blocks don’t have indicators, just keep an eye on pad wear. If you apply the brakes and hear a rasping metal-on-metal sound, this indicates that the pad has worn down to the metal. If this happens, try to finish your ride without using that brake, then change the pads before your next ride. Otherwise the brake shoe’s metal will score the rim and you risk the exploding rim experience described in the previous paragraph.

As the man said, a fix in time might save your ass.

Sometimes a rasping sound from the brake is caused because the pad is glazed, or because it has picked up a shard of metal or because the pad has a raggedy edge. If the pad is not too worn, all these maladies are curable. Sandpaper or a scouring pad will deglaze a brake pad. Embedded shards and so on can be removed with fingernails, tweezers or needle-nose pliers. A Stanley blade will deal with raggedy edges.

With any bicycle brake, the pads should contact the rims and release without hesitation. Moreover, you shouldn’t have to pull the lever till it bottoms out on the handlebars to apply the brake.

Assuming the brake pads are sound, brake problems are almost always cable problems. Smooth-operating braking power can be restored, simply by lubing and tightening the cable. If the cable is rusting or fraying, replace it. If the housing is shot, broken or kinked, replace it. You can pick up cables and pads for a few quid. Best not skimp on these potential life savers.

Check that the brake pads are equidistant to the rims. Whether your bike is a mountain / hybrid bike with V-brakes or a road bike with sidepulls, the brake arms will probably sport ‘spring adjusters’. Simply loosen or tighten these adjusters (usually with a Phillips screwdriver or a small, probably 3mm, Allen key) to restore balance.

If your bike is equipped with hydraulic disc brakes, congratulations. Hydraulic disc brakes often require zero maintenance between annual services, beyond cleaning the rotor with a disc brake-approved solvent.

If the performance of your disc brakes deteriorates, they probably either require new pads or they need bled. Pad fitting/removal and bleeding procedures vary between different makes of disc brake. Many brake manufacturers publish their technical documents online. To find out how to service your disc brakes, Google your specific model of brake and all should be revealed.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to do your own bleeding, we’ll bleed for you. Simply phone 0845 257 0808 or 0131 331 5010 to book a hydraulic disc brake (or any other type of) overhaul.


Tyres are your contact patch with the ground. Ensure they remain so by checking them for cracks, tears, embedded sharps and excessive wear.

The single best maintenance habit you can get into is to inflate your tyres regularly to compensate for the fact that inner tubes imperceptibly leak air, sometimes by as much as 10 psi per month.

Running your tyres hard minimises rolling resistance – the key to easier riding – and maximises the tyres’ performance and longevity.

How hard should a tyre be? Its recommended pressure is almost always printed on the tyre sidewall. A mountain bike tyre is typically between 35 and 65 psi. A road bike’s 90-120 psi. A hybrid bike tyre is, typically, somewhere inbetween. If you can’t read these numbers on your tyres, it might be time to refer to the previous section and clean your bike.

If you are a heavy rider, running tyres at maximum pressure makes sense because all that air prevents the tyre bottoming out. Hard tyres should prevent pinch flats, AKA snakebite punctures, when you hit big bumps.

If you are lighter, you can get away with running tyres a little softer.

As with anything to do with bikes, it’s all about balance. Harder tyres can help you ride faster with less effort. However, riding tyres at the lower end of the recommended tyre pressure spectrum can offer a more cushioned ride. Softer tyres also offer more traction. This can be particularly useful in sketchy / icy / snowy conditions.

If you find inflating your tyres takes more effort than riding the bike up a steep hill, you owe it to yourself to invest in a track pump. Also known as a floor pump or a workshop pump, the track pump is one of the bicycle industry’s best-ever impress-your-friends inventions, because it makes light work of inflating tyres – even huge-volume 29 x 2.4 inch mountain bike monsters or super hard 140 psi road racing tyres.

Tyre Valves

Presta and Schrader valvesThere are 2 types of tyre valves (or to put it more precisely, inner tube valves) in common use on bikes, Presta and Schrader.

Schrader valves AKA car-type valves are most commonly found on kids’ bikes, BMX bikes and cheaper mountain bikes. Their robust familiarity means people rarely have problems inflating Schrader tubes.

Nearly all road bikes and better mountain bikes have skinnier Presta valves for 3 reasons.

  1. Presta valves are easier to inflate with a hand pump because you’re not having to overcome the resistance of a valve spring, as is the case with Schrader valves.
  2. Creating a bigger hole for the wider Schrader valve would over-weaken a road bike’s narrower wheel rim.
  3. Some road bike rims and tyres are so skinny, fitting a tube with a fat Schrader valve to one would be, at best, challenging, at worst, impossible.

Presta valves can be more delicate and fiddly. If your bike is fitted with Presta valve tubes, we suggest you spend a little time practicing inflating them when you first acquire a track pump. If you have lots of bikes at home, inflate everyone’s tyres and amaze your house-mates. If you have only the one bike, inflate the tyres then deflate them, then repeat the process a few times till you reach the point where you agree that inflating Presta tubes with a track pump is, in fact, incredibly simple if you follow these guidelines.

  1. To inflate a Presta valve tube with any pump, you must remember that you you have to loosen off (but not remove) the Presta valve’s top nut to let air in or out.
  2. Once you’ve undone the top nut, press the top of the valve. If you hear air escaping you can be confident the valve is open and will accept air. Let inflation commence.
  3. If no air escapes, screw the valve’s top nut down, then back the nut off again till it reaches a point where pressing it opens the valve. This can be a trial-and-error process at first. With experience, you usually get it right first time, every time.

Pumping your Presta tubes will then be a life skill you will be happy to employ once or twice a month for the rest of your natural.


Excuse us for repeating ourselves, but keeping the transmission clean and lubricated (as covered here) is the second rule of smooth gear shifting. (The first rule is to adopt a mindful approach to gear changing. That is, avoid extreme big-ring-to-big-cog gears, don’t shift under load and change smoothly into lower gears before the hill hurts.)

Just like a brake, a derailleur will only work properly if the cable can move it. Check your cables for rust, kinks, fraying and contamination. If lubing and tightening the cable doesn’t restore sweet shifting, a new gear cable shouldn’t break the bank.

Nuts and Bolts

Go over every nut and bolt you can see on the bike (apart from the derailleur stop bolts which are set to limit the mechs’ travel) and ensure that they are snug.

Apologies if that last paragraph sounds patronising. However, we know that even the most accomplished bike mechanic occasionally neglects this most obvious check.

Use Your Bike

Among the saddest sights we see in our workshops are bikes that have been dragged out of their sheds in early summer, their last outings having been the previous autumn. If that last ride was on a wet evening, the bike might not be going too well.

If you don’t have the luxury of warm indoor bike storage, and the bike is kept in a damp, salty environment (AKA the British Isles) taking it a ride a few times a week will help warm it up and dry it off. (If you don’t believe riding a bike warms it up, try gingerly touching a wheel rim at the bottom of your next long, fast downhill.)

Just as riding a bike helps keep you supple, the very act of being ridden helps prevent the bicycle seizing up too. Unlike Thatcher, bearings were made for turning. Regular application of brakes and gears keeps them working.

Final Thoughts

Zinn & the Art of Road Bike Maintenance by Leonard Zinn

Zinn & the Art of Road Bike Maintenance by Leonard Zinn

Having read all this, you might be worrying, this bike maintenance malarkey is going to take up all my spare time!

Believe us. With practice, cleaning and lubing the bike, inflating the tyres and doing all the bike checks we have advised need only take half an hour. (Naturally, it will take longer if your checks reveal that, for instance, the cables need stripped down and lubed, but these extended sessions tend to be the exception rather than the rule.)

Once you get into tuning the bike, you’ll find these half-hour sessions enjoyable and satisfying.

Your reward will be a safe, tight, sweet-running bicycle that works to its full potential.

Another advantage of regular tune-ups is that becoming familiar with the workings of your bicycle might hold you in good stead if something goes wrong with it when you’re far from home (as can happen, even to Tour de France riders who employ some of the best mechanics in the world.)

We hope you have found this blog a useful introduction to the wonderful world of cycle maintenance. If you want to explore this topic further, get hold of one of these books.

To gain hands-on experience under the watchful eyes of one of our mechanics, you couldn’t do much better than to enrol onto one of our day classes in cycle maintenance.

Some Do and Some Don’t

A survey of our staff bike parks reveals two approaches to bike cleaning. Some do it. Some avoid it. Both are right. We’ll leave you to decide whose example to follow. (Though if you want to eventually sell your bike, we’d recommend Gary’s approach.)

Andy our Buying Manager’s Bike

Andy's bike

There is a cleaning gene, and I can say categorically that I don’t have it.

Whenever I go on a ride and get dirty, by the time I get home the last thing on my mind is cleaning bikes.

Within 30 minutes of arriving home, I go from shower to sofa with a plate of whatever I can rustle up to refuel.

Most of my bikes do make a noise or two, but I think it adds character.


Gary our Senior Graphic Designer’s Bike

Gary's bike

It might be a designer thing or a touch of OCD but I do like my bikes to be clean.

I store my bikes in the garage, where wet and dirty bikes seem to rust before your very eyes. Not what I want for my precious.

Keeping it clean allows me to easily check for any damage, as well as ensuring the bike always rides like new.

The down side is when I take it out people often comment, ‘New bike?’

When you explain it is 3 years old they look at you as if to say ‘You don’t get out on it much do you?’ (when in reality I am out on the trails nearly every week).

Is it really that wrong to take cotton buds to clean those hard-to-reach parts?

Are you an Andy or are you a Gary?

Please share your bike maintenance thoughts and tips by leaving a comment below.

Shop maintenance tools

Shop cleaners, degreasers, wipes and polish

8 comments on “Maintain It and Retain It – An easy guide to looking after your bike

  1. varshaa on

    I’ve had two of those chain cleaning devices and won’t go back to them. The brushes just get gunked up quickly and smear the grease and grime around no matter what type of degreaser or cleaner I used.

  2. Lee Clark on

    That’s been really helpful and as I’m reading it on my lunch break at work have already emailed my personal email with the link so I can do through it when I’m in the garage with my bike this weekend.

    I’m currently an Andy but am hopeful using some of these tips that next week i’ll be more of a Gary 🙂


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