Getting Ready to Roll

The Baltimore Sun

On sunny spring days, I feel the urge to wheel my bicycle out of winter storage and go riding. Recently I wondered, however, if my old bike was in shape for a new season.

The answer, it turned out, was probably not. It had not had a tuneup recently. According to the big wheels of the biking world, giving your bike an annual once-over before you take it out on the road -- making sure its drivetrain, brakes, and steering systems are running smoothly -- increases the chances that you will enjoy the ride.

At this time of year, local cycle shops fill up with bikes that get seasonal surgery. Procedures range from $20 for basic work to several hundred dollars for an overhaul. Several places offer clinics where experienced technicians teach a basic course in bicycle maintenance.

Recently, I spent a morning watching Joe Hopkins, assistant store manager at REI in Timonium and avid cyclist, as he gave a bike a tuneup. Hopkins assured me that many of the procedures, such as cleaning and lubricating the chain, checking the tires and brakes, and tightening parts, could be done at home, by guys like me.

I believed him, mostly. In addition to knowing what he was doing, Hopkins possessed another advantage: He had a bike clamp. This is a device, found in many bike shops, that holds the bike in air with its wheels off the ground. When I work on a bike, I have to turn it upside down and let rest, precariously, on its seat. Usually, I push a chair up against the bike to secure it.

The bike Hopkins had in the shop was a Novara, about 10 years old. It was a road bike, he said, with 18 speeds, double chain rings and skinny tires -- a bike built for speed and distance. "It is the type of bike you will see flocks of guys riding along the roads in Greenspring Valley," Hopkins said.

The readiness procedures he was putting this bike through would, he said, hold true for any bike, whether for a kid, for a weekend plodder like me or for a racer.

The first of these steps was cleaning the chain and the sprockets. Hopkins applied a degreaser, a solution sold in most bicycle shops for about $10, to the chain. The degreaser can be applied directly to the chain and cleaned off with a rag. Hopkins, however, put his degreaser in a chain scrubber, a plastic device that bathed the chain with solvent as links of chain moved through. The degreaser Hopkins used had a citrus base and smelled a bit like lemons.

"The idea is to loosen the dirt and grime that has accumulated on the chain and the sprockets," he said. "Dirt and grime create friction which produces wear and tear on the components ... just like dirt in your car's motor oil."

Next, he cradled the slack part of the chain with a rag and slowly turned a pedal of the bicycle. As the chain moved through the rag, the rag grew dark with grime. He repeated this procedure several times, changing the position of the rag until virtually no grime appeared on it. To clean the rear sprocket, a toothy-looking device, he used a sprocket-cleaning brush. An old toothbrush also works, he said.

When Hopkins was satisfied that he had removed all of the grime, as well as all of the degreaser, he was ready for the next step, applying fresh lubricant to the dry chain.

The key word here, Hopkins said, is "lubricant," not "oil."

"You do not use oil because it is a magnet for dirt and grime," he said. Instead, he applied a synthetic lubricant, one that had Teflon in it. Synthetic lubricants, which come in bottles and sprays, are sold in bicycle shops for about $5 to $10, he said.

Once the chain was cleaned and lubricated, Hopkins turned his attention to the gears and brakes. To check the gears, he simultaneously worked the gear shifter on the handlebars and watched as the derailleur moved the chain in and out of the series of cogs on the rear sprocket.

"You don't want any hiccups," he said. There were no problems with this bike's gears. If there were, he would have made adjustments by slightly turning the knob on the derailleur. The key here, he said, is that adjustments are extremely small. I doubted this was an adjustment I was ever going to attempt.

I had the same feeling a few moments later when Hopkins fine-tuned the brakes, turning a knob clockwise to tighten the brake's grip on the wheel rim and counterclockwise to loosen the grip. Again, Hopkins said, adjustments should be minimal. Again, I knew I probably wouldn't try to make them.

I would, however, make sure that the brakes worked. If you squeeze a brake lever and nothing happens, that means the steel brake cable that connects the lever to the brake has either come loose or needs to be replaced, Hopkins said.

Checking for loose parts was the next step. Hopkins removed the bike from the clamp. Holding the bike between his legs, he lifted it a few inches off the ground, then let it fall.

He listened for jangling sounds, an indication of a loose part. Hearing none, he picked up a multipurpose tool, sold at bike shops for $10 to $30, and set to work on the handlebars and seat.

"You want the handlebars good and tight," he said as he secured bolts that held the handlebars to the stem.

He tightened two spots on the seat. First, he worked on the collar that holds the seatpost, the tube that extends from the frame to the seat saddle. Then, peering under the seat, he tightened the saddle clamp that held the seat level.

He checked the pounds of air pressure in the tires. Properly inflated tires create less resistance, which makes for smoother, faster rides, he said.

Hopkins had a nifty air gauge, one that adapted to fit the Schrader air valve found on most conventional bikes and the Presta valve found on mountain and road bikes.

The recommended pounds per square inch, or psi, is usually printed on the side of the tire. Most bikes for kids require 45-50 psi, mountain bikes usually hit 60 psi, and road bikes range from 80-130 psi, Hopkins said.

Finally, he said, bikers should take a few steps to ensure their safety.

He showed me various flashing lights, reflectors and mirrors that can help cyclists navigate traffic.

Then we looked at helmets. A good brand-name helmet, made by Giro or Bell, for example, costs from $30 to $65, he said. "Any helmet that looks like a beer cooler" -- that is, as if it's wrapped in foam -- should be replaced by a newer, safer model, he said. Even a good helmet does not last forever and should be replaced every five to 10 years, he said.

One of the biggest mistakes a cyclist can make, he said, is hopping on a tuned-up bike without putting on a helmet.

Bike clinics

Cyclists who want to get greasy can attend these free clinics on bike maintenance.

Clinic on hubs, 7 p.m.-9 p.m. Monday. Velocipede Bike Project, 4 W. Lanvale St. This is the first of several free clinics on bike maintenance held on alternate Monday evenings. Call 410-244-5585 or go to

Bike Maintenance 101, 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Friday. REI, 63 W. Aylesbury Road, Timonium. 410-252-5920.

Do it yourself

Tools and supplies for a backyard bike tuneup:

Degreaser: About $10 a container

Chain lubricant: $5 to $10


Gear-cleaning brush with stiff bristles and sprocket-cleaning feature on handle. $4.50. Or you can use an old toothbrush.

Multipurpose tool set. $15-$30, depending on the number of inplements it holds. Or you can use hex-head wrenches.

[Source: Joe Hopkins of REI]

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