On a sunny March afternoon, Mike Wagner pedals his mountain bike down one of Mt. Washington's steep hills. Today's two mile-long tune-up ride is helping him get in shape for the 40-mile rides on the Northern Central Railroad Trail, in northern Baltimore County, that he plans to undertake later this summer.
"I tried to ride in the snow but the mushy snow is hard," says Wagner, who lives in Mt. Washington. "Plus my bike is aluminum and I didn't want the salt to hurt it."
For Wagner and other local cyclists, spring is the season for getting themselves — and their bikes — back into the swing of riding. For many, that includes taking their bikes to a local cycling shop for a maintenance check-up.
"It's similar to cars — some people do their maintenance on a regular basis," says Ron Metzger, owner of Lutherville Bikes. Despite Baltimore's record one-day snowfall in January, Metzger says many people have already brought their bikes in for spring tune-ups.
"Even the big snow storm only slowed us down for a week or so," he said. "We are starting off to a really good season."
Ensuring that the bike's tires are at the right pressure is an important part of getting a bike ready to ride after its been sitting all winter, according to Metzger.
"Most people don't know how much air to put in their tires," he said, adding that, just like car tires, a bicycle's recommended inflation pressure can be found on its sidewalls. He cautions people about over-inflating tires, which can lead to more flats.
"Buy a pump with a built in gauge," he advises. "Most floor pumps have them."
Riders also have been bringing their bikes for spring check-ups to Joe's Bike Shop, in Mt. Washington, owner Joe Traill said.
Although bikes "don't suffer for sitting in the same way that cars do," Traill advises people to have bikes examined by an experienced mechanic before hitting the road or trail.
When it comes to bike maintenance, "we tell people to follow their ABCs," Traill added. That means ensuring that tires are inflated to the correct air pressure, checking that brakes don't stick or rub, and that chains run smoothly when the pedals turn.
Getting a bike properly adjusted is the key to forestalling injuries later in the riding season, said Johnny May, the owner of Twenty20 Cycling, in Hampden.
"A lot of people think, 'It's just a bike, how complicated can it be?'" May said. "But there is a lot that needs to be attended to on a bike."
"The bike is infinitely adjustable," added May, who uses a 2.5-hour process and physical assessment to ensure that riders have a perfect fit on their bikes.
"Most folks don't think much about alignment until they have an issue," he said. "Many people ride with their saddles too low. That will result in knee pain."
For those who don't want a professional bike fitting, May suggests following a rough rule of thumb for correct saddle height: Sit squarely on your saddle. Put your heel on the pedal. The leg should be straight and the center of the heel should be in line with the pedal's spindle.
Children's bikes also should be properly aligned in the spring, according to Traill.
"Kids grow over the winter," said Traill, who advises parents to check not only their child's bike, but also their child's helmet. "A helmet's effectiveness is 100% dependent on its fit," he said. "Most bike shops are more than happy to check that your helmet fits correctly."
"We get a lot of people who have 10-year-old helmets," May added. "Old helmets are not safe because after about four years the expanded polystyrene lining wears out. Also helmet technology has changed. I'm shocked at how much people will spend on other things but not on a helmet. They money you spend on a helmet will protect the most important part of your body."
First taste of freedom
Even experienced riders can benefit from a spring riding tune-up, said Gordon Peltz, the former president of the Baltimore Bicycle Club.
To that end, Peltz, an attorney in Towson, has been leading the Baltimore Bicycle Club's Instructional Ride Series for the past 31 years. Now in its 32nd year, the 2016 event will take place on April 17 at Towson University.
The event draws more than 50 cyclists of all ages and abilities, Peltz said.
"We have fathers and sons, mothers and daughters," he added. "It's multi-generational. We have people who come back every year because they like riding with the new people."
During the orientation, cyclists learn bike-handling skills, how to do basic repairs, such as changing tires, and watch a short video on cycling safety. Baltimore Bicycle Club members also are on hand to perform a pre-ride bike check. Riders can practice bike-handling skills in a parking lot before participating in a short ride.
"We encourage people not to go out and buy a new bike until they go through orientation," Peltz said. "We help them decide whether they want a road or trail bike."
The two biggest reasons why people don't ride are because their bikes either don't work properly or don't feel right, May said, adding, "We can fix that."
In the end, cycling experts say the most important thing an owner can do with a bike is simply to ride it.
"Almost everybody knew how to ride a bike as a kid," May said. "It's the first taste of freedom most of us experience."
Where to ride
Here are five top road and mountain biking spots in the Baltimore area.
*Northern Central Railroad Trail. Twenty miles of flat, hard-packed dirt that extends from Cockeysville to the Pennsylvania state line. "Good for low-key and family riding," Traill said. "Safe and scenic."
*Dulaney Valley area near Ladew Topiary Gardens and Boordy Vineyards.
*Baltimore & Annapolis Trail. A 13-mile paved trail that begins at the Cromwell Station Light Rail in Glen Burnie and ends in Annapolis. The trail connects to the BWI Trail Loop around the airport.
*Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. A 184-mile-long, hard-packed path. Excellent day rides start from Harper's Ferry, W. Va.
*Loch Raven Reservoir and Gunpowder Falls State Park. "Excellent for mountain biking," Traill said. "Riding in the woods is a great way to enjoy spring."
Source: Joe Traill, of Joe's Bike Shop.