Regular bike maintenance—and fixing your own flats—is easier than you think

Up Your DIY Game

by Neighborhood Bike Works Staff

To many people, bicycles represent personal freedom. As a means of transportation, biking means self-sufficiency (and in Center City Philadelphia, it usually means getting there faster than by car). Gaining the knowledge and experience to perform basic bike repairs oneself can take that self-sufficiency to the next level: Everyone loves a great bike mechanic, but learning the basics is just common sense. Here’s some expert advice from the staff at Neighborhood Bike Works, which is dedicated to getting more Philadelphians out on two wheels.

Fix a Flat
The key to repairing a flat tire is to be prepared. Whatever type of riding you’re doing, carry a pump, two tire levers, a patch kit and a spare tube when you’re on your bike. Make sure you’re comfortable removing either wheel from your bike, so that you’re not trying to figure it out for the first time on the roadside, in the dark or in the rain. Once the wheel is off, use the two tire levers together to remove the tire from the rim. Hook the first tire lever around a spoke before using the second lever to work the tire off the rim.  Once the tire is off, inspect the tire for holes, rips, or shards of glass or metal lodged into the tread.

If you carry a spare inner tube, use it so you can patch the old one later, when you’re not late for work. Before installing the tube and tire back onto the rim, inflate the new tube just enough to give it a round shape. Then place the tube inside the tire, making sure to first insert the inner tube’s air valve into the rim, and then install one bead of the tire.

The second bead is trickier to install. Take a moment to ensure you won’t pinch the tube between tire and rim as you push the last bit of the tire onto the rim. Avoid the temptation to use your tire levers for this part—that will often rip the tube. As you inflate the tire, check every few pump strokes to see that the tire is properly seated on the rim. Remember that practicing this skill beforehand will give you confidence to fix a flat later, when you need it.

Adjust Your Rear Shifting
Being able to adjust your gear shifting while on a bike ride can greatly add to your comfort and confidence. Nothing is worse than failing shifting during a long, hot, tiring bike ride. The good news is that it’s pretty simple once you’ve taken the time to learn the basics. Try riding slowly and looking down at your shifter cables as you shift your rear derailleur up and down through your gears. Notice that when using your right-hand shifter, tensioning your shift cable (or using the shifter to pull the cable toward the front of your bike, to the shifter) will shift your chain into a smaller, easier gear. 

Now, take a look at your barrel adjusters—you’ll have one, and often two, somewhere between your right-hand shifter and your rear derailleur. If you’re having trouble shifting into an easier gear, that generally means you need to adjust the tension of the cable. Use the barrel adjuster to increase or decrease the distance the cable must travel from the shifter to the derailleur. Try threading the barrel adjuster out (counter-clockwise) by a quarter-turn, and test your shifting again.

Maintain Your Bike Chain
A bicycle’s chain is easy to maintain, yet is often overlooked. A clean and lubed chain is more efficient, less noisy and will facilitate smoother shifting of your gears. Keep it lubricated by dripping one small drop of chain lube on each and every link of the chain. With the bike on the ground, do this by turning the pedal backward. Apply the slightest drop on each link—the smallest amount you can dispense from the bottle at one time. Once you’ve done the whole chain, then use a rag to wipe off any excess lube. To clean the chain, there are many chain cleaning products on the market. A simple solution, such as a clean rag, also works great. Pedal backward and vigorously wipe away as much grit and grime as possible. For especially dirty chains, use a degreaser (citrus degreasers are relatively eco-friendly) before relubricating.  And don’t forget the pulley wheels of your rear derailleur. These can get caked with grease. Try using a small flathead screwdriver while backpedaling to remove the grease.

Check and Replace Worn Brake Pads & Tires
Your bike’s brakes and tires are key to your comfort and safety when riding. To identify brake pads that are worn to the point of replacement, look for the wear indicators on the pad. These are notches in the material of the brake pad, found on rim brake pads and on some disc pads, too. When the pad wears to the point that the notch is no longer visible, the brake pad must be replaced. But try to anticipate when pads are about to go. Many bicyclists will replace pads when they’re about 75 percent worn, especially if the bike is being used for commuting, racing or long-distance riding. And keep in mind that pads will always wear much faster in rain, mud or snow.

Tires can wear out in two ways: either from long-term use through which the tire’s tread slowly wears away, or from nicks, cuts or tears that occur from sharp objects on the road or trail. Inspect tires after every ride or so to look for signs of the former (tread marks that are no longer visible, bald spots or threads of the inner casing that show through the tread) and the latter (holes or slices in the tread or the sidewall of the tire). In a pinch, it may be possible to “boot” a tire with a patch or a dollar bill if there’s a small puncture in the tire. But tires with larger cuts or with casing threads visible in the tread should be replaced immediately.

Find a Bike Shop You Trust
For any bicyclist, it would take a lifetime’s knowledge of bikes, and a houseful of bike tools, to match the resources of a good bike shop. The best shops will treat you and your bike knowledge with respect, and meet you where you’re at. And whether it means doing the work for you or empowering you to do it, the best shop will help you get your bike safe and performing at its best. Find a shop you trust, where you can develop a relationship with a mechanic who can, in turn, get to know you, your bike and your riding style.

About Neighborhood Bike Works:
For 20 years, the nonprofit Neighborhood Bike Works has educated and inspired youth and adults through bike-mechanics education and bike riding. Located on Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia, NBW aims to make bicycling more accessible for everyone - especially for youth, people of color, women and LGBTQ folks. Take advantage of out-of-school-time youth programs, adult bike repair programs and a full DIY bike repair workshop for adults. NBW also operates a community bike shop that sells quality, refurbished used bikes at affordable prices. Find out more at neighborhoodbikeworks.org