Bike Care?
April 3, 2013 11:07 PM   Subscribe

I need a schedule for automotive care and maintenance....but for my bicycle.

If I don't set up a weekly/monthly bicycle care schedule on my calendar it'll never get done. I also find all of the crazy bike gear confusing, even when I google it half the time.

How often should I check the air in my tires? How often should I oil/lube up my bike? -Where- am I supposed to apply the oil anyway? Is there anything else I'm supposed to be checking? How 'bout them chains?

Should I be cleaning my bike once in a while like my father told me to clean my car, because it makes sure "she's taken care of"? Also, my bike sits outside year-round and I ride it in all weather. Is there anything I need to worry about as far as really hot, really cold, or various elements that could somehow make it non-functional?

I adore my bicycle (even though I'm thinking of switching from a commuter to a road bike), more so than any car I've ever driven, and I don't just want to ride it into the ground, so to speak. Thank you for your help!
posted by DisreputableDog to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Air in tires: When they give under pressure from your hand, it's time for a top-up. I find that I can often tell by the way the ride feels if they need a little air (sluggish, in a word), but if you don't have anywhere to stop to get air along the way, that can be inconvenient. I'd say give your tires a squeeze before setting out on long rides far from shops or gas stations or other sources of tire air.

Lube: goes on your chain. In my understanding this only needs doing if your chain starts to squeak as you ride, but I could be wrong. I had bikes for years without ever oiling the chain.

Chain: I've had bikes for years with no issue. I don't think they suddenly go kaput, though I have had chains slip off (annoying, but easy enough to get them back on, usually a problem with gear shifting rather than the chain itself). Like the air, this is something I'd check in advance if you're doing a long tour in a remote area where you couldn't easily get help in the event of a problem.

Cleaning: I have a habit of wiping down after riding in the rain, and a good dust off before the first ride of spring (I'm not a wintertime commuter). In a climate where you have other issues besides damp and mud/road sludge, I'm not sure. But it's kind of a no brainer. If it's dirty, clean it. Especially around the chain, gears, and other important moving parts. The only "elements" I can think of that you'd need to worry about are rain and damp, because bikes are made of metal and they can rust. This is usually not a huge problem if you're storing it out of the elements, but if you keep your bike outdoors you might want to keep an eye out for rust.

Another thing worth keeping an eye on, especially if you ride an older bike or have big gaps in riding (over the winter, say), is to keep an eye out for dry rot in your tires. This won't be an issue with newish tires, though. But it's always been on my own radar as someone who rides vintage bikes.
posted by Sara C. at 11:20 PM on April 3, 2013

Check air before every ride. You can do this by simply squeezing the tires. If you have an idea how they're supposed to feel fully inflated, there's no need to break out a real gauge.

Cartridge bearings generally never get lubed if they're sealed. Older style cup and cone bearings can be done once a year under normal circumstances. This is a fairly cautious approach. Some bikes never get this kind of service and survive decades of use.

Oil the chain lightly every couple weeks or so if you ride everyday and she lives outside. If rain is heavy, lube more often. Lube simply by dripping oil along the chain. Replace the chain yearly and clean the sprockets/cogs with a solvent dampened rag while the chain is off.

For a bike that lives outside, to be extra safe, replace the cables once a year. They can corrode and snap unexpectedly. Keep brakes and derailers/shifters adjusted. Make sure brake shoes/pads and braking surfaces are not suffering excessive wear.

Surface rust doesn't bother me much, and is generally just a cosmetic issue. Touch up paint can be used before rust spots appear, if you wish. My bikes live outside year round, and are generally rust buckets, but structurally solid.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:29 PM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think you might find the Park Tools maintainance page helpful.

I usually lube the chain and check my tyres once a week, before I go on my big weekend ride.

Sun exposure will cause vinyl components like some saddles to age. You might want to invest in a cover.

Rain can cause rust. If it's going to live outside, keep your chain lubed with something suited to wet weather.

You can get rust off chrome by lightly scrubbing it with moistened scrunched up aluminium foil.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:30 PM on April 3, 2013

when my bike was outside 24/7 the chain needed to be lubed all the time. Go get a big bottle of triflow lube, and a couple shitty rags from goodwill. Lube it like once a week.

-Where- am I supposed to apply the oil anyway?

Is it a modern bike? if it's newer than say, the 80s, and not a schwinn or something almost all the bearings will be sealed. Meaning you pretty much only have to lube the chain, and if anything else starts squeaking it just needs to be replaced(generally, only ever the bottom bracket, which is not a terribly expensive part unless this is a $4000 racing bike.. but i don't think you'd be asking this question then)

I rode the same midrange french 1960s bike for many years. My mom had rode it all through the 70s into the 80s, then my uncles wife rode it, then i got it back. I changed out the tires once, and the brake pads another time. It stayed outside 24/7. It took a huge crash into a drainage ditch, being hit between a bus and a car, and some other serious damage to finally kill it. the weather and hard riding just couldn't stop it. I've had similar experiences with newer bikes as long as they were of decent quality. Everything from a bike you could pick up for $200 on craigslist(IE a 90s trek road bike or something) to $$$$ stuff. There's a reason they ride bikes everywhere in all those developing countries where people probably couldn't afford to do much maintenance. Shits pretty reliable.

Is there anything I need to worry about as far as really hot, really cold, or various elements that could somehow make it non-functional?

Honestly, not really. I rode my bike all the time through the driving rain and shit almost every day to work, and on longer rides in seattle. It would sit in the sun, sit in the rain, and deal with temperatures from the low 30s up to the 80s in the summer.

All i ever lubed was the chain. Everything still worked perfectly smoothly. Especially with modern sealed components, basically all you have to care about is the chain.

However, a steel bike will rust outside and often in little internal places you can't see. Mine had bits of surface rust here and there and i just ignored it. It never got bad enough to cause any sort of structural or functional problems, and i just regarded it as "patina"

I'd check the tire air pressure once a week, and lube the chain a couple times a month if it's stored outside.

Honestly though, the best thing you could do is store the bike indoors at night if it's at all possible. That bike got weathered, not just mechanically, but also cosmetically. It wasn't just random bushings going out or little joints in the derailleur getting stiff from moisture corrupted lube and dirt getting in them... but the paint got tired and there was random surface rust. My current bike is from the late 80s and looks like it was just made since it was a "garage queen". It's been stored indoors unless someone was on top of it since it was built.

The other good thing to remember about a bike is that it's really hard to cause the kind of not-worth-repairing expensive damage like you can on a car by not keeping it up. Everything with bearings on a modern bike is sealed, and most stuff wears over use... not from weather. I have a pretty damn high end bike, and i can't think of a single components on it that could fail which would cost me more than $200 to replace, and most would be around $100 or under. On a basic bike it would be even cheaper.
posted by emptythought at 11:47 PM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

How often should I check the air in my tires?

Every day, give the ties a little push. Adjust as desired.

How often should I oil/lube up my bike? -Where- am I supposed to apply the oil anyway? Is there anything else I'm supposed to be checking? How 'bout them chains?

Every day, follow whatever manufacture's product you're using - they all have different instructions. A few drops may be all you need, more if you rode through crappy weather.

Should I be cleaning my bike once in a while like my father told me to clean my car, because it makes sure "she's taken care of"? Also, my bike sits outside year-round and I ride it in all weather. Is there anything I need to worry about as far as really hot, really cold, or various elements that could somehow make it non-functional?

Keep it inside, please. Things like water w/salt aren't very good on things that rust, you know. I wouldn't be *aggressive* with your cleaning, as you can get water in things where water shouldn't go (say, using a power washer), but keep it looking reasonable, ya know?

I adore my bicycle (even though I'm thinking of switching from a commuter to a road bike), more so than any car I've ever driven, and I don't just want to ride it into the ground, so to speak. Thank you for your help!

Whoa, time to get serious! I'd suggest taking EVERYTHING apart and trying to put it back together, again.

Or schedule a yearly bike tuneup, at your helpful Local Bike Shop, about this time of the year (like everyone else is doing!). They'll fix what needs to be fixing and with minimal effort on your part (pump up the tires, lube the chain, keep it mostly dry - DUDE!), you should be good to go.

It's terribly hard to destroy a bike, but it's not the hardest thing to make it suboptimal. But it's also not terribly hard to make it better. Just like in a healthy sex life, lube can make the difference between an OK ride and WHOA SPECTACULAR!!!
posted by alex_skazat at 11:59 PM on April 3, 2013

Here's my schedule (I bike ~20km daily in a wet climate):

Daily: check that my tires don't need air
Weekly: pump up tires as needed. Check that the breaks don't need to be replaced. Wipe down the chain and apply a bit of lube. Check that there are no loose spokes.
Monthly-ish: clean grime and grit out of the gears as best I can. Clean and lube the chain. Check for wear in the tires.
As needed: replace brake pads.
Whenever I'm at my local shop: ask for their opinion on my drivetrain, get them to tune my derailleurs (I could do this myself but I'm terrible at it).

How often you clean your bike and oil your chain really depends on how often it rains where you live. If you keep your bike outside and want it to last you should probably be erring on the side of caution.

Keep in mind that the drivetrain is constantly wearing down. Generally the chain and the rear gears wear down together while the front gears (the chainring) is a bit more robust. A reputable bike mechanic might recommended replacing your chain and rear gears before you might even notice a problem. They're not trying to scam you, they're trying to save you from ruining your chainring which can be quite expensive while the chain and rear gears are cheap to replace.

I really can't recommend enough going into an independent bike shop and asking them this question. They'll be able to answer you based your bike and your local conditions. There may be bad apples out there, but I've never had a bike mechanic at a local shop try to sell me something I don't need and I've even had them talk me out of buying useless stuff.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 12:03 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I’ve always liked this overview (PDF) from But in practice I don’t really have a regular maintenance schedule; I’ll top up the tyre pressure when I have to pedal like there’s headwind every day, adjust my brakes or change my brake pads when I start to feel leeway in the levers, lube the chain if I feel like bystanders might silently judge me for the embarrassing noises it’s making, and so on. Since I ride all year, I do always carefully clean everything at the end of road salt season, but that’s the only time every year. I second the recommendations to store your bike indoors if you can.
posted by wachhundfisch at 4:31 AM on April 4, 2013

There are good resources online for this if you search "bicycle maintenance schedule." Some guides will recommend waxing the bike. I usually consider that a high-end roadie thing, but if you store the bike outside in a wet climate you might consider it.

To contradict a few earlier posters, I do not recommend checking tire pressure by squeezing the tire. Most road tires recommend 90-120 psi and even mountain tires rarely go below 60 psi. If you look at the surface area of your thumb and do the math, you'll see that you cannot produce anywhere near enough force to tell if a tire is underinflated. Get a pump with a pressure gauge and top it off every week.
posted by d. z. wang at 4:58 AM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm biased because I own a bike shop, but really, a yearly tune-up can save you a headache down the road. We check chains for wear, and we get a lot of bikes in that haven't seen service in years that have such worn chains that they wear down the cassette/freewheel to the point where that also needs replacing, and that $ starts to add up. If you're riding every day, you might want to invest in a cheap chain-checker tool that tells you when to replace your chain.

Tires lose something like 15 psi a month if I remember correctly, so pump them up accordingly. I'd say every 2 weeks-ish.
posted by kpht at 6:17 AM on April 4, 2013

Before every ride do the ABC: Air, Brakes, Chain.

Air - Top up your air frequently. Under inflated tires create drag and tire wear. Also, incorrectly inflated tires are more prone to pop while you're riding.

Brakes - Look at your brakes and check the tension. Are the pads down and engaging correctly? Especially if you've pulled your wheel, make sure you've reengaged he brakes.

Chain - Is it dirty? Is it squeaking? Brush out any big clumps for dirt and give it a drop of chain lubricant when needed. To check if you need some chain lubricant, rotate your peddle - if it's noisy, then a few drops will help (drops - not a bath). Not taking care of your chain is hard on the chain, hard on the derailleur and cogs. Also, it makes for noise riding which is annoying.

ABCs and a helmet - the building blocks of safe cycling.

(Also, I HIGHLY recommend REI's free bike maintenance clinic. I still fob big bike repairs off to my husband who knows more about bikes than I do. But when we get separated on a ride I can do most roadside repairs myself. That REI clinic was a huge confidence builder for me.)
posted by 26.2 at 11:51 AM on April 4, 2013

There is a bike shop in my building. I get a run-through every 6 months. Sometimes stuff needs replacement - most often brake-cables, because I live in an area where frost and thaw changes very often throughout winter, and it invariably leads to water in the cables and snapping brakes. There is always a bottle of lubricant in my office, and I use it every time I remember, or if the bike is very squeaky.
The bike I have now is a cheap model, and I've already used more on maintenance than it cost originally. (Not at all a problem, in my view, it wouldn't be cheaper with an expensive bike, and it makes my cheap bike last forever). The difference is that when I had a great bike, I waxed it twice a year out of vanity and respect for the makers.
posted by mumimor at 12:56 PM on April 4, 2013

Your fingers are actually a pretty terrible judge of air pressure. Get yourself a decent floor pump with a gauge (can be had very cheaply) and use it fortnightly or thereabouts.
posted by puffmoike at 2:47 PM on April 4, 2013

This is the pump you want - cheap and good.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:41 PM on April 4, 2013

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