Before you rally your bike out for the first ride of the spring, make sure you clean that bad Larry up and get it ready to shred proper. Ryan Dunfee photo.
Most of us north of the Manson-Nixon line leaned the horse against the (inside) garage wall for a couple months way back in December. Some of us gave it a wash and lube, and some of us… not so much. Now spring is here and we’re all psyched to ride.
Not so fast.
Before you pick up where you left off, a few minutes of maintenance and care will maximize the quality of those early rides, not to mention the life of your bike. Sure, shops run specials and can tune the heck out of your bike for $50 to $75 bucks, and that’s not a bad investment. But get proficient at a few simple repairs and you also save money and gain a sense of pride.
#1: New Stans In Those Hoops!
It comes in peace, but will slow you down. It also won't help you with flats. Stans photo.
If you ride tubeless, your Stan’s tire sealant (or Orange or Slime) probably is one big gob of sponge-y space alien goo about now. I know it’s a pain, but take the tire off, wipe it out and remove that - whatever it is. Pull off the nasty, snotty bits around the bead and pour in 2.5-3.0 oz of new stuff. Reseat the tire and pump up that jawn. You‘ll be glad you did. And if you run tubes, well, stop doing that.
#2: Install A New Chain
Chains wear out at least once a season, so it's a good idea to replace yours before spring riding starts in earnest. Ryan Dunfee photo.
Make sure you buy the right replacement chain for your drivetrain, of course. 9-speed, 10-speed, XX1, Eagle, whatever. And a chain tool. though you might have one already on your multi-tool. For what it’s worth, I’ve never noticed too much difference between a cheap chain tool and an expensive one.
Also, if you haven’t yet, clean the cassette with soapy water, a nice brush, that gear floss stuff or just a rag, some degreaser, and let it dry. You don’t want to put a new chain on a dirty cassette. Voila, you are now ready for a new chain.
Take the old chain off by pushing the two ends of the quick link together while wiggling it a bit. This can be annoying, like a bra strap, but with practice you’ll get better at it. Sure, they make a tool for this, but you’re not going to be carrying that on the trail so get used to doing it without (FYI, you should carry a spare quicklink in your pack when you ride).
After you get the quicklink off, gently thread the chain out of the derailleur and lie it down straight on a relatively clean surface. Then lie the new one up next to it. The new one will, obviously, have more links in it. Carefully mark the number of links the old one has onto the new chain with a marker or something. Measure twice. Please.
Take your chain tool and, if you haven’t worked on a chain before, practice popping pins out of the old chain’s links, removing and reattaching them before messing with your new one. Once you’re comfortable, remove the pin on the correct link in the NEW chain, and save the excess links in a ziplock bag. Rethread the new chain through the derailleur pulleys, over the chainring and attach them together with a quick link. Getting a quicklink on is easier than getting it off. Just remember to give it a nice hard tug to set the pins. Don’t rush the first time you do it. There are a lot of videos that will tell you how to do this.
And, now that your chain is new, remember to clean it regularly.
#3: New Shifter Cables And Housing
Remember how you took something apart when you were young, then put it back together by doing everything in the exact reverse order of how you disassembled it? This is kinda like that. Though there’s a bit of separation between those of us who have internal cable routing and those who have external.
If your cable housing is fine, not kinked, split or crappy, then don’t replace it. Shift the bike into the smallest cogs/chainrings. Detach the old cable from the derailleur by loosening the pinch bolt, then unscrew the cover on your shifter housing on the handlebar (it’s often underneath, so rotate it on your handlebar so it’s facing up – for god’s sake, be careful not to drop screws or displace any springs – slow and carful wins the day here), and gently lift out the head of the old cable from the shifter. Then pull the cable out through the housing.
Take the new cable, seat the head end into the shifter housing first, and replace the covering. Then carefully thread the new cable back into and through the housing the way it came out. It may require a wiggle or two around bends in the housing, or taking it out and doing it a second time. Again, patience and care win the day here. Shop guys do this all in 90 seconds, but they’ve done it a million times.
After the cable is though all the housing, pull on it to remove any slack until it’s relatively taut. And reattach the cable to the derailleur. You may need to turn the barrel adjuster on the shifter to get the shifting back to perfect, but it shouldn’t be off by much. If you want to get fancy, put a cable end on the cable and crimp it with pliers.
If you do need to replace housing, buy good housing – it makes a difference. My understanding is Shimano sp41 is the gold standard. Replace housing the same way you’d replace a bike chain. Take off a section of the old housing, measure the old piece against the longer new piece and cut to size with cable snips. Don’t strip everything off at once and then try to remember what goes where.
Truthfully, if you put nice new cables and housing on your bike, your derailleur will magically seem to work much better. Again, slow and careful with this stuff pays dividends. Know that the cable may stretch, and that after a few rides you will have to give the barrel adjuster a turn or two. Once you’ve replaced cable a few times, you’ll be a pro and probably switch cables on a whim.
Internal cable routing requires taking routing ports off the bike and pulling housing through the frame of the bike. Not tragic, but it exponentially increases the fiddling time. DEFINITELY try to just replace the cable first by sliding it in and out.
If you’re looking to service Di2 shifting, then you make enough money to have a mechanic do it. And you should have a mechanic do it.
#4: Reset the Sag of Your Fork & Shock
Eat a little too much over the holidays? Exercised like crazy or did a successful diet? Riding with a spanky new helmet and pack you got for Christmas? Then you probably weigh more or less than you did in the fall, so don’t just pump the suspension up to last year’s numbers and head out. 5-10 pounds actually makes a remarkable difference in performance.
Take a minute to reset the sag on your fork and shock. Depending on manufacturer and rider preferences, sag can be between 20% and 30% of total travel. While you’re at it, take note of how many clicks of rebound and compression damping you have on there, because you probably forgot. And try some small adjustments on your first couple local rides.
#5: Get your fork and shock tuned
Getting your suspension serviced once a year will make a massive difference in your ride quality. MTB Suspension Experts photo.
There’s plenty of instruction out there online, but I just can’t bring myself to pop open my suspension components and go poking around. Too much fluid, too much at stake, too much space-age engineering in there.
However, this is on our list because it IS critical you get it done once a year or so. Get your shop to pull the fork and shock off your bike (or do it yourself, it’s not hard – but please remember to take the air out of the shock before you start unbolting it) and send it off to MTB Suspension Experts, Push Industries, or somebody like that.
Yes, it’ll take a week. Yes, you’ll pay over $100. But how much is your time worth? And how much is that cost against improving a whole season of riding? I’ve been citizen-wrenching my bikes for years and I can’t imagine learning, sourcing the right parts, and doing it right would take me less than 25 hours – and probably a lot more. And there’s no way I’d do a tenth as good a job as they would.
#6: Check Your Headset, Make Sure It's Tight
This one always sneaks under the radar. Suddenly I’m riding along and things feel rattle-y. Daf uq? Check the through axles on the wheels, wiggle the wheels to check the bearings, check the stem. What the hell? For some reason, the headset is the last thing I think about.
Check it now, in your garage or basement, and check it every other week or so thoughout the season.
To check it, grab the front brake and place your other hand on the head tube, covering the junction of the head tube and headset with your thumb and fingers. Keeping the front brakes on, and the tire on the ground, rock the bike back and forth a bit. If you feel a loose rattle or small clunking, your headset is loose.
It’s an easy fix with one hex wrench. First, loosen the stem bolts holding the stem onto the steerer tube. Not all the way out, just loosen them up a bit. Then turn the headset bolt, located at the top of the steerer tube, clockwise. What you want is to tighten it enough to take the rattle out, but not over tighten it to the point where the fork resists turning. Tighten in small increments and do the rocking test until you get the clunk out. Then tighten the stem bolts back up (if you’ve got a fancy carbon steerer tube or stem, use a torque wrench to ensure you don’t crack anything). Make sure your handlebars are straight before tightening them all the way down.
#7: Change Your Brake Pads
A new set of brake pads can’t hurt. In fact, the hardest part of doing this is making sure you buy the right ones.Really, it’s one screw out, dropping in new pads, and one screw in. If you can make toast, you can change brake pads.
Once you’ve changed the brake pads, before replacing the wheel, spread the pads back out with a plastic wedge or something like that. You are re-seating the distance from the pads to the rotor. As pads wear, they move closer to the rotor, and now that you have a new one with more meat on it, you’ll want them back out.
One other quick note before putting the wheel back in: while working, don’t squeeze the brake lever without the wheel in place. If the pads touch each other and not the metal brake rotor, they will stick together. I don’t know why they do this – it’s ridiculous and embarrassing when it happens – but it happens. Jam some cardboard or something between the pads while you’re working on it if you want to be safe.
If anything gets too complicated or you realize there are larger problems than you can handle, head to your local shop.
Happy first ride!