The Chainlink

Get Your Bike in Shape for Chicago Bike Week

By Brett Ratner

As you may know, from June 10 through June 17, the Active Transportation Alliance is hosting its 25th-annual Chicago Bike Week. It includes a variety of activities designed to get people out riding and otherwise enthused about cycling. This includes the 25th-annual Bike Commuter Challenge.

By now, hopefully, you've dusted off your trusty steed (or better yet, rode through the winter). But if you haven't yet ventured out on two wheels this year, now is most certainly the time.

To lend a hand, we've assembled a quick checklist to help make sure your first ride is a pleasant one, and doesn't end with a long walk home due to mechanical failure.

Tires:

Needless to say, after many months tucked away in the corner of your garage, your bike tires will be partially, if not totally, deflated.

So, the first thing you need to do is pump them back up. Ideally, you have a tire pump with a built-in pressure gauge. And likely you know how to pump up a tire/inner tube with a schrader valve (the same fat, stubby-looking valves you have on your car tires). If your tires/inner tubes have presta valves (the longer, skinny ones), inflation is a little less intuitive, but easy once you know how they work. This video provides a good demo:

Regardless the type of valve, make sure to inflate to a pressure recommended on the side of each tire. Typically, it will show a range delineated in "psi" (pounds per square inch). This is not to be confused with "Psy," that dude who sang about Gangnam style a few years back.

I'd recommend steering clear of motorized gas station pumps, as these are quite powerful and can cause a bike tire to explode if you're not careful. A hand-operated floor pump is usually the best way to go.

Once inflated, check for leaks (you might hear a hissing sound). Also check for any cuts or other damage to either tire, as well as any "dry rot," which is cracking of the rubber due to age. If you notice any of these problems, take the bike to a local shop to get the tire and tube replaced.

Photo by Chainlinker William P. Goodwin

Chain:

Like your car engine, you bike needs lubrication. Fortunately, most of the moving parts on your bike have sealed bearings of some sort. These you need not worry about, outside of having a trained bike mechanic inspect them periodically.

Your chain, however, DOES require you to give it some lube (preferably preceded by a good cleaning). After a full winter collecting dust, your chain most likely will need some attention.

First off, make sure to use actual bike chain lubricant. Don't have chain lube on hand? Well, depending on who you ask, WD-40 will work just fine, or it will practically set your bike on fire.

I'm not a chemist, and as such don't have an educated opinion, but here's what WD-40 says...

"While WD-40 Multi-Use Product is not a grease, it is formulated with strong lubricating oils and other ingredients, and is a terrific product to use for bike maintenance. It does not attract dirt or moisture to metal surfaces – just be sure to wipe off any excess WD-40 Multi-Use Product before riding.

"For long-term lubrication and other specialized bicycle maintenance needs, check out WD-40® BIKE. Developed specifically for cyclists and mechanics, this high-performance line of bicycle care products is sure to become a mainstay in the toolboxes of bike mechanics for decades."

Regardless what product you use, make sure your chain is cared for. Here's a video to show you how to clean and lube it:

Too much work? Consider a product like Scottoiler Ultimate Bike Solution, which cleans and lubes at the same time. It also claims to protect the rest of your bike from corrosion and road salt between washes, and make the bike easier to clean by repelling dirt. The company recently sent us a sample, and after a few uses, we think it's a nice option for regular commuters, people who frequently ride in bad weather, and people like me who don't wash my bike as often as it should.

Brakes, Wheels, and Shifters:

Check that your brakes aren't rubbing by giving the wheels a good spin. While they are spinning, check to see that your wheels are not "out of true" (wobbling from side to side). Give the brakes a couple squeezes to make sure they are opening and closing smoothly.

Photo by Chainlinker Mat

Also, suspending the rear tire off the ground, spin the crank by hand and run the bike through its gears to make sure both the front and rear derailleurs are shifting properly. 

If you are noticing problems in any of the areas mentioned above, take the bike to a qualified mechanic.

Photo by Chainlinker S. Presley

Loose Bolts and Quick-Release Skewers:

You definitely don't want something falling apart while you are riding. So it's a good idea to go over the entire bike and check for anything that is loose. Also, pick up the bike an inch or two off the ground and drop it on its tires. If you hear anything rattle when it lands, that means something needs to be tightened. Locate the source of the rattle and fix it.

The quick-release skewers are REALLY something you don't want to come undone, so make sure those are tight. Not sure how they work? Watch this quick video for a primer:

Another thing you can do is (with the tires firmly planted on the ground) hold the front brake and move the bike forward and backward. Things will flex a bit, but if you feel any play in the fork/handlebar area, that means the headset is loose, and your frame is at risk of permanent damage if you ride the bike. At this point, I'd take it to a mechanic for an inspection.

A Professional Inspection and Tuneup is Your Best Bet:

This quick checklist will certainly get you rolling, but it's no substitute for having a pro inspect and adjust your bike. Fortunately, Chicago has many great shops featuring talented mechanics, including Chainlink sponsors Boulevard Bikes, and Roscoe Village Bikes.

If you're mechanically inclined, and open to occasionally purchasing a special tool, another option is to take advantage of resources like Park Tool's Repair Help section. For me, this has been great for learning to perform common, basic repairs and adjustments. For more difficult repairs, particularly those requiring expensive, job-specific tools, I like to leave those to the pros.

We hope this helps, and that you log lots of miles during Chicago Bike Week!

About the Author

Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) has been a professional journalist for more than 25 years. He has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Chicago TribuneThe Nashville TennesseanThe Nashville SceneGuitar Player, and Musician. Brett began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping, and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he occasionally races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums, and gravel for The Bonebell.

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