Spring Bike Tune-Up Checklist

Donny Green manages the Red Shed Bike Shop and a related bike-themed summer camp in Providence's Olneyville neighborhood. (Kevin Proft/ecoRI News) 

Donny Green manages the Red Shed Bike Shop and a related bike-themed summer camp in Providence's Olneyville neighborhood. (Kevin Proft/ecoRI News) 

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

OLNEYVILLE, R.I. — Spring has arrived and it will soon be time to wake the old two-wheeler from its winter slumber and set off on another season of carbon-free commuting and recreation. Before you hit the road or trail though, be sure to give your bicycle a once-over. Doing some basic, up-front bike maintenance will reduce your chance of a blowout or mechanical problem, and increase the longevity of your bike’s parts.

Donny Green, manager of the Red Shed Bike Shop at Riverside Park, recently shared a checklist of manageable maintenance items every rider should go through in early spring. The shop is part of the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, the group that maintains the Woonasquatucket River Greenway.

Each summer, the Red Shed Bike Shop organizes week-long bike camps, where youth, ages 8-14, learn about bike mechanics and go on group rides. The Red Shed Bike Shop also restores and sells used bikes and offers low-cost bike repairs and bike maintenance workshops. The shop opens for the season May 1 for repairs and advice.

The following are Green’s bicycle-readying recommendations:

Wash your bike. As dirt, grit and grease build up in your bike’s moving parts, it negatively impacts performance. Using dish soap and water, clean your bike from the top. Wipe off the frame, clean the wheel rims where the brake pads make contact, and scrub the braking mechanisms and drive train — the chain and accompanying cogs. A toothbrush is a handy tool for scrubbing hard-to-reach crevices.

Check for loose bolts. These include, but are not limited to, the bolts on the handlebar, the bolts in the center of the wheels, the bolts that hold the brakes to the frame, the bolts that maintain the tension on the brake and shifter cables, and the bolts that hold the seat in place. Be aware that in some instances tightening the brake bolts too much can stop them from working.

Inspect the tires. If the tread is low or the sidewalls are cracked, it’s time for a new set. Tires are relatively inexpensive — as little as $20 each — and worth the money, as they prevent a blowout while riding. When replacing the tires, consider buying new tubes at the same time. Tires are relatively easy to change, and the process is made easier if you buy a pair of tire levers, which help prevent the tubes from puncturing during removal and installation.

If you don't replace your tires, you will probably need to be re-inflate them to the recommended pounds per square inch (PSI) as noted on the sidewall of each tire, especially if the bike has been sitting for any length of time. Most bike shops provide a community air pump and gauge. Don't ask the NFL for help.

Check for wobbly wheels. Hold one wheel off the ground and spin it so that it rotates freely. Watch the wheel spin from above, in front of or behind the bike. If it wobbles, it may need to be adjusted. According to Green, most casual riders can survive with a slightly wobbly wheel, but a more serious wobble can damage the wheel and interfere with riding.

A wobbly wheel should be addressed if it brushes against a brake pad during each rotation, or if the wobble is visible as you ride the bike. A wobble can be fixed by adjusting the spokes of the wheel, but this requires a special tool. Green recommends having this done by a mechanic at a bike shop.

Check the hub and axle for play. With the wheel off the ground, place your hands on opposite sides of the tire and check for any play in the hub, which is the tube around the axle at the center of the tire. It should be snug. If there is excessive play in either wheel, Green recommends having a bike mechanic determine if a repair is necessary.

Inspect the brakes. If any of the four brake pads are worn out, buy and install new ones. Align the brake pads so they are centered on the metal braking surface on the wheel's rim. The brake pads shouldn't hang below the metal or be so high that they rub the tire.

Squeeze each brake handle and check that the brake pads fully contact the rim. Be sure the brakes squeeze the wheel tightly enough to stop it from rotating. If need be, the breaks can be tightened by removing slack from the brake cable.

Add a few drops of lube to the brake springs. These release the brakes when the brake handle is released. Be sure not to get lubricant on the brake pads as they rely on friction to stop the bike. 

Inspect the cables and cable housing. A bicycle's brakes and gears are operated by cables that tighten or loosen when you shift gears or squeeze the brake handles. These cables usually sit in a plastic housing to keep them from deteriorating. Over time, they can rust or stick within the housing, negatively impacting performance.

Check the brake cables and housing by squeezing and releasing each brake handle. When the brake is released, the handle should spring into place quickly. If the handle releases slowly, there could be friction in the cable housing. The cable can be removed from the housing and inspected visually, but keep in mind that if the end is frayed, or if the housing is blocked up, it may not slide back in. If you determine that the cables are damaged or your housing is clogged, measure the length of the cable and housing in question and purchase new cable and housing at a bike shop, then replace it. Before feeding the new cable into the new housing, put a few drops of lubricant into the housing.

To check the shifter cables, test drive the bike and attempt to shift through each gear. It should shift easily, without applying significant pressure to the shifter. If it doesn’t shift easily, it could be because the cables aren't sliding through the housing smoothly. If this is the problem, replace the cable and housing. Shifting issues can also occur if the shifter cable is loose or too tight, or if the stops — two small screws on the derailleur — aren't adjusted correctly. Green recommends having the stops adjusted by a bike mechanic.

Check the bottom bracket for play. The bottom bracket is the part of the bike that attaches to the crank, or pedal arm. Grab each crank and check the bracket for play. It should be snug. If there is significant play, have a bike mechanic inspect it. It could require basic tightening, new bearings or replacement.

Inspect and lubricate the chain. As a chain ages, it stretches and can damage the cogs of the drivetrain. These parts are more expensive to replace than a chain alone, which generally costs $10-$40. Sometimes, a worn-out chain will skip as the bike is pedaled.

To determine if your chain is worn out, visit a bike shop and ask the mechanic to inspect it. The mechanic will have a measuring tool to determine if stretching occurred. A worn-out chain should be replaced to prevent damage to the rest of the drivetrain.

Installing the chain requires a special, inexpensive tool that removes the pin that connects adjacent chain links. Once the old chain is removed, the new chain can be fed around the cogs of the drivetrain.

Remove excess chain links as recommended by the chain manufacturer, then reattach the two ends of the chain using the chain tool.

If your chain is in good condition, simply apply lubricant. Chain lubricant can be bought at any bike shop and generally comes in a small squeeze bottle. Apply a small amount to each link in the chain. Let the lubricant sit on the chain for an hour or so, then wipe away the excess.

Green said it's fine for a chain to have rust as long as long as it is well lubricated and not skipping. For casual riders, or commuters who travel only two or three miles per day, a chain can last years, he said.