Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance

Posted by James Anderton on January 9th, 2019

Anton Chekhov once wrote 'It is a bad thing if a writer tackles a subject he does not understand'. Sorry Anton, here goes. There is a common misconception that people who cycle around the world know all there is to know about the mechanics of bicycles. This is not the case. I can fix a puncture. Not a lot else. I always assume when I come across a fellow cycle tourer that they will be able to tell me what's wrong with my bike. They rarely can. I'm not the only one. Maybe it adds to the adventure not really knowing what you would do if you were to break down in the middle of the desert. I did once attend a bicycle maintenance course in London but I was hungover and couldn't concentrate. It hasn't proven to be a problem to be honest. I just muddle on until I find a bicycle shop. Only once in Ecuador have I ground to a standstill and had to hop on a bus. Don't do as I do though. Understanding your bicycle is always a good idea. I have picked up a few things along the way and here are a few tips to keep you on the move. What I don't know I will refer you to someone that does. I will assume you know how to fix a puncture.


One thing I am always forgetting is which way to turn the pedals when removing/installing them. Something you will have to do when flying with your bike. The right side pedal has a right-hand thread (removes counterclockwise, installs clockwise). The left side pedal has a left-hand thread (removes clockwise, installs counterclockwise). Many pedals are stamped “L” and “R” for left and right. I never carry a wrench with me. When flying with a bike, you will need to go to a bike shop to get a bike box so they can remove the pedals for you. When reassembling the bike you can tighten them with your hands. The act of cycling will fix them securely.

Annoying squeaks

The million dollar question. How to get rid of that annoying squeak coming from somewhere on your bicycle? There is no easy answer. The best thing I can suggest is the Ctrl+Alt+Delete approach. Take your bike apart and put it back together again. I was suffering with an unidentifiable high pitched squeak in India. I then flew to South Korea put my bike back together and it was no more.

Cleaning your bike

This is one thing I am good at. I ensure that the moving parts get a good clean and lube every week and after a downpour. I use warm water, a dry cloth, wet wipes, a toothbrush and a standard all in one bike lubricant (Finish Line). Don't use WD-40.

Use a wet toothbrush to scrub the chain. Work your way into each chain link. Run the chain through a dry cloth. Then brush the chain to remove any dirt and finally run it through the dry cloth again. Use toothbrush to clean the rear sprockets and derailleur. Use tooth brush to get in-between each sprocket as there is likely to be a lot of trapped dirt in there. Use a wet wipe in a flossing motion to get in-between each sprocket and remove any dirt. The chainrings can be cleaned in a similar fashion. Use the toothbrush to get to the hard to reach places. The wheel rims and brake pads I clean with wet wipes. Avoid using cleaning liquid on the frame as they contain salt which can rust your frame.

To lubricate the bike spin the chain and apply one drop per pin of lube as it spins between each chain link. Spread the lube by shifting between all the different gears. Don’t apply too much lube on the jockey wheel as it gets a lot of it from the chain. Brake and shift cables also need lubricating. Remove the cable from its housing and work in a tiny bit of lube with your fingers. Use your fingers to work in some lube in on the front and rear derailleur. Give the lube 5 minutes to dry and then use a wet wipe or dry cloth to wipe away any excess. Any lubricant that is needed will have sunk in and the rest will just gather dirt. Also apply a bit of lube to your cleats if you have them to avoid getting stuck in your pedals.

Check for chain wear

Long cycle trips you will eventually wear out your chain. A heavily worn out chain will cause major damage to the drivetrain which is expensive to replace. Therefore it is worth checking for chain wear and replacing the chain before problems occur. You will need a ruler. The easiest way to measure for chain wear is to measure the length of 12 links. These should measure 12 inches. Place the 0 mark at the centre of one the pins. Then count 12 complete links.If the pin is less than 1/16th of an inch (1.6mm) past the mark then the chain is fine. If it is between 1/16th of an inch and 1/8th (3.2mm) of an inch then it needs replacing. Any more than 1/8th on an inch and you may need to replace the chain and rear cogs.

Adjusting brakes

This I am rubbish at. It is fiddly and I tend to make matters worse before I make them better. Eventually I get it right more by luck than judgement. Brakes need adjusting when they are squealing, they have worn out, the stopping power is reduced or they are touching against the rim as the wheel spins round. I always try to carry a spare pair of brake pads exactly like my current ones. You can't rely on finding ones exactly like your own whilst out on the road. The following is for V Brakes:

Loosen the bolt holding the brake pad in place then remove it and the washers. Fit the brake pad into position and add the remaining washers to the other side. Then loosely tighten the nut with your Allen key. This will allow you to manoeuvre them into the correct position at a later stage. Set the position of the brake pad so that it does not touch the tyre and it does not hangoff the side of the rim when the brakes are applied. Also the pad should meet the rim at 90 degrees. You may also need to do something called “toeingin”. Where the front of the pad which faces in the direction the bike travels should be slightly closer to the rim than the back. Not all v-brakes require toeing in; you only need to do so if they squeal when applied. To toe in the brakes simply push the front of the pad further in than the back before tightening the nut.

Finally tighten the nut firmly. Tightening the nut can be tricky as when you are tightening it the pad will attempt to move. Try holding it in place with your other hand. Test it is tight enough by trying to twist the pads by hand. If you can twist them then you need to tighten it further. If the wheel is touching the rim as it spins round due to the new pads then you need to adjust the brake cable tension. Usually the rim should sit 2-3mm away from the pad. If only a small adjustment is needed then this can be done by twisting the barrel adjuster. You should adjust the cable tension so that when the brake levers are applied halfway the brakes are fully engaged. If more adjustment is needed than the barrel adjuster can provide then loosen the cable clamp bolt. Then either release cable or pull more cable in. Finally retighten the bolt and test the wheels spin without touching the pad. It may take a while before the brake pads reach their full braking potential. At first cycle slowly to work them in. You should also test the brakes a few times after replacement to be sure they are tightly fastened and working correctly. It is also worth wiping down the rim surface to be sure they have a good braking surface. Always aim to have a clean brake pad and rim surface as otherwise both will wear prematurely.

Fixing a Stiff Link

A common cause of gear shifting problems is having a stiff link in the chain. You will know a stiff link has occurred because as you are cycling the pedals will slip forward regularly. Finding a stiff link is easy. Turn your bike upside down. Change into the lowest sprocket on the rear and the largest chain ring on the front. A stiff link can be identified by seeing which one struggles to pass through the derailleur. Spin the chain round a couple more times to be sure of the offending link. Then flex the stiff link backwards and forwards using your thumbs around the troublesome link. If this doesn't work you will need to use a chain tool.

Position the chain in the slot of the chain tool that is nearest the handle. If one side of the chain pin is protruding more than you should place that side nearest the handle. Line up the chain pin precisely with the chain tool handle. This is important so that the chain pin is pushed out smoothly. Then turn the chain tool handle until it reaches the chain pin. When it does give it only a 1/3 of a turn. Remove the tool and move the chain around to see if it is still stiff. Try to compare this to the other links. If it is still not moving around freely repeat the process but on the other side of the chain.

...or just watch this video.

Truing Wheels

If your wheel is not going through straight then it is likely that you have damaged your spokes or the wheel rim. The wheel will need 'truing'. This is a tricky business and one best left to the professionals. A person who tries to "touch up" a slightly out-of true wheel without proper knowledge could turn an imperfection into a disaster. If you want to give it a go yourself this page offers some excellent advice.

Fixing Derailleurs

Fixing front and rear derailleurs is something I'm not qualified to write about. If either breaks you will need to visit a bike shop. This site gives good advice on how to get yourself to that bike shop if your front or rear derailleur breaks when you are miles from anywhere.

Chain/Cog not going through straight

You will probably need to visit a bike shop and get a new bottom bracket.