bicycle repair - DIY or get an expert?
August 16, 2009 2:12 PM   Subscribe

Should I take my cheap bike in for a professional tune up, or try to do it myself?

I bought a Ross 'Adventurer' road bike on Craigslist in April for $40. I have no idea how old it is, but the guy who sold it to me had found it in his basement and was selling it for some extra money. I steel wool-ed off what rust I could and changed the grip tape and it's been great except a few problems - for example, the seat creaks and wobbles a little bit when riding due to a missing screw, and as of about a week ago the back brake lever won't depress at all (not that it worked all that well before...).

I love this bike though and have been riding around town constantly. I was able to fix the front brake's problems myself but can't figure out what's wrong with the back one. I don't know how much a bike tune-up would cost me, but I'm guessing it would probably cost the same or more than I paid for the bike. I would definitely prefer to fix things myself, but this brake thing seems to be way over my skill level, and an expert would most likely find other problems I can't identify (but which might cost me even more to get fixed?) I'm also not sure because it's getting late in the season (even though I plan on riding it as much as possible into the fall/winter) - and (this is silly) I'm slightly concerned about not having it for a few days (i might have to walk somewhere!) Would it be worth it to take this bike in to a shop for a tune-up? Or should I persevere in attempting to do it myself (and how?)?
posted by sarahj to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'd have a go at fixing it myself: you'll have to spend a bit on tools, but you'll know what to do if problems re-occur. I bought Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance, it's a great book that covers every single element of the bike, and I guess a lot of it is applicable to road bikes too.

If you can't afford the book, the Park Tool website has tons of tutorials of how to do things yourself.
posted by hnnrs at 2:35 PM on August 16, 2009

pick up a bicycle manual. Unlike car manuals, bicycle manuals don't have to be nearly so specific to each model. There's a reasonably finite amount of types and styles of parts (thank God). On my shelf, I have the Bicycling Magazine Bicycle Maintenance and Repair book. it's pretty good and basic. Working on your own bike requires very few specialized tools. A trihorn hex wrench (with metric size 4, 5, 6), a crescent wrench, needlenose pliers, vice grips, screwdrivers .. those'll all get you awfully far. some lube and some penetrant (breakfree stuff) is really useful.

If you live in a city, there very well may be a bicycle co-op, bicycle collective, or something like that around. In my town, we have a bike co-op (sorta), where you can check out tools on the spot, get advice from the mechanic there, and it's significantly cheaper than any of the bike shops.
posted by circle_b at 2:36 PM on August 16, 2009

I'd also say it's worthwhile to learn to do yourself if you're at all inclined. The late Sheldon Brown's site is still an amazing free resource.
posted by contraption at 2:42 PM on August 16, 2009

There's nothing wrong with having a mechanic take a look at it (my own personal m.o.: never buy a bike without a mechanic's checking it out). The rear brake could be as simple as relubing or replacing the cable or housing. As far as other, unseen or undescribed issues, you may not be able to fix them without knowledge or tools (e.g., repacking the wheel hubs, checking the bottom bracket). But as the others above have said, most bike maintenance can be learned with a little reading and practice, in addition to the proper tools.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 2:45 PM on August 16, 2009

Sorting the brakes out should be a priority. I'm not sure how we can tell you what you should do about it though?

It is possible to fix the bike yourself, but there are downsides. The cost of tools, parts, manual and of course your time. You could take it into the shop, but this also has costs.

He fact that the mechanic may catch other potential safety problems is generally considered to be a feature not a bug.
posted by munchbunch at 2:49 PM on August 16, 2009

A couple years ago I volunteered for a group that refurbished donated bikes for kids, and learned how to completely overhaul a bike. Mostly it was take everything apart, clean and regrease it. I'm sure everything on your bike could benefit from some new grease, but to just get the rear brake working again should be pretty simple. Unless the brake caliper itself is steel and rusted together, the most likely culprit is the cable/cover, which will sometimes rust together over long storage in a moist environment. You can buy a new cable and cover for the rear brake for about $5, and installing it without the full complement of specialized bike tools is possible if you have someone to help you. Look for a book on bike repair at your local library, and there are many bike forums on the net where you can get expert advice if you run into a problem. It is probably going to be easier to cut the old cable off at both ends (and that way you can ascertain if the lever and caliper are OK), and if it is froze up it will be no loss. If you do not have a cable cutter, you might be able to cut it with a diagonal cutter or a tinsnips. Good luck!
posted by ackptui at 2:51 PM on August 16, 2009

Depends on what's wrong with the brakes. I assume it's a single pivot? Could be seized or a broken spring, I'm guessing. Parts should be available somewhere, or you could pick up a working one on eBay for cheap and just swap it out.

As far as chain goes---assuming you want to give it a complete tune up---, it should run you $15 to $18 USD at a bike shop. New cables, $10 to $15. Brake pads, $10 to $15. Once you install all of this, do a derailer adjustment. The rest you can check on a case-by-case basis: headset, bottom bracket, hubs.

Use the Park Tool link above. It's really excellent and, system by system, it tells you how to replace and repair almost anything. But you will need some tools.
posted by luckypozzo at 5:26 PM on August 16, 2009

bicycle tutor . com is a pretty useful website, with easy to follow instructions and a personable instructor
posted by Think_Long at 8:06 PM on August 16, 2009

A number of cities have places that take and refurbish and repair old bikes and sell them for cheap or give them to people in need. (Pittsburgh, for example has Free Ride Pittsburgh)

They provide a service where you bring in your bike and they help you learn how to fix it up yourself. You seem pretty into the do-it-yourself repair, so having this sort of guided self-repair sounds like it might work out for you. But I don't know where you live, so I can't tell you if your city has this sort of thing available.
posted by that girl at 8:26 PM on August 16, 2009

is this a department store bike?

back when i was a bike mechanic, we usually refused to work on department store bikes. if yours has chromed, steel rims, stamped, chromed chainrings or any of those giveaways, we'd just say "no."

what inevitaby happens is, the customer squeezes the levers or tries the shifters of one of the bikes on the floor and assumes that their bike should feel like that when they pick it up. impossible. even in as-new condition, a department store bike is so pathetic next to a real bike that there's simply no way to make up the gap.

on top of that, sourcing parts for really cheap bikes is nearly impossible, and none of the parts are serviceable anyway. fixing a crap bike can be more expensive (in terms of labour) than fixing an expensive one.

so... i'm not trying to hate (too much) on cheap bikes here, but you'll really be better off doing it yourself. besides, it's easy (usually), fun (sometimes), and satisfying (if you succeed)!
posted by klanawa at 8:42 PM on August 16, 2009

You may want to pick up a good hobby-quality bike tool set, which will be cheaper than picking up tools one-at-a-time, assuming you get a set with positive reviews.

Also, you may have a local 'bike dump', 'bike coop', or other form of bike advocacy group in your community, where you can learn how to repair your bike/get it fixed inexpensively/use their tools.

Although there's something to be said for getting a good tune up done by experts, and then learning how to maintain it properly.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:48 PM on August 16, 2009

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