There are two kinds of triathletes: those who love, treasure and spend hours caring for and maintaining their bikes; and those who see their bike as ‘just another piece of equipment’ and only pay attention to it when something goes wrong.
However, many people in both groups share one thing in common: a belief that they don’t have the ability to assess and repair their bike themselves. If that statement applies to you, there’s something you need to know before you read on: that belief is wrong.
Anyone can perform the maintenance required to keep a bike in top condition. And most, if not all, of this can be done at home without the need for specialist tools.More serious jobs, or those that do require professional skills or equipment, can be taken care of by your local bike shop. But as you get more confident at knowing what needs to be done and how to do it, you’ll find you come across fewer and fewer of these sorts of jobs.
More maintenance = better racing
It’s fair to say that your bike is the bit of kit that could stop you finishing your race, if it’s badly maintained. It’s also the item that could most impair your performance if it’s not running in first-class condition.
Preparation and routine are key to keeping it in top shape. So checking and maintaining your bike is something you should do regularly. However, if you’re only going to do it a few times a year then do it in the weeks preceding your races. It should become as important a part of your pre-race preparation as your training. And like your training, the easiest way to tackle it is by breaking it down into more manageable parts…
One month to go
So it’s one-month until the big day: your first race of the season. Let’s assume that you’ve been training hard all winter, especially on your bike. Now’s the time to take a step back and think about things from your bike’s point of view.
Modern bikes are hugely reliable, but unlike bikes of old, some components, especially your drivetrain, and specifically your chain and cassette, wear much faster than in previous years. So with one month to go, your drivetrain (chain, chainrings, cassette and bottom bracket) is the area to concentrate on. It’s also wise to pay attention to your headset now, too.
Chain and cassette
The drivetrain is the lifeblood of your bike. It’s also one of the most commonly neglected areas. Any bike ridden regularly should have its chain replaced every six months, as it will become worn and stretched.
If your chain is stretched, there’s a good chance that your cassette will be worn and need replacing, too. There’s no point fitting a new chain on a worn cassette as it won’t run smoothly and will damage the new chain.
There’s a very simple test to see if your chain needs replacing. Put your chain on the largest chainring at the front and the smallest sprocket at the rear. Then pinch the chain at the 3 o’clock position and gently pull it away from the chainring.
If you can lift the chain more than 2mm from the chainring and there’s movement at the 12 and 6 o’clock positions, then your chain is worn and needs replacing. You can produce the same effect with a new chain, or one with very little wear, but you’d have to pull significantly harder than you would with a worn chain.
Replacing a chain and cassette requires specialist tools and so, as this is a feature on basic maintenance, I’d recommend getting your local bike shop to change them for you. It’s a simple operation and should only take a couple of minutes.
You could try making a deal with your local shop along the lines of ‘if I buy all the parts I need from you, will you fit them for free?’ If that doesn’t work, spend some time searching the web to buy the parts yourself, as prices vary widely and you could save enough money to cover the labour charge.
Changing the chain and cassette regularly will keep your drivetrain running smoothly. Get into the habit of replacing them every six months and at the same time giving the parts associated with them (your mechs and chainrings) a really good clean and lube.
The bottom bracket on almost all bikes costing more than £300 is a sealed cartridge unit. Cartridge bottom brackets require no servicing; you just replace it when it wears out. However, it does need regular inspection. If the bearings inside the sealed cartridge are starting to wear or break down, it can seriously impede the performance of your bike and your times.
Checking your bottom bracket is another very simple procedure but one that few people ever actually do. All that’s required is to stand beside your bike and put your cranks in a vertical position (so one’s pointing up to your saddle; the other to the ground). Then grab the cranks at the pedal end (but not the pedal itself) and try to move them from side to side (perpendicularly towards and away from the frame).
If you feel a gentle knocking then there’s play in the bottom bracket’s bearings, which means it’s worn. You would probably also feel this wear when you pedal: there might be a clicking noise or a notchy sensation as you apply pressure.
Another way to test for it is to remove your chain from the chainrings completely and spin the cranks either forwards or backwards. You need to make sure the chain is completely clear of the teeth – try hooking it over the bottom-bracket shell. The cranks should spin around freely. If they feel rough or stiff to turn, then the bearing is on its way out and needs replacing.
Bottom brackets should last years and are complex parts to change so, if you need to change yours, I’d recommend another trip to the shop for the time being.
Headsets are another area of the bike many people have a tendency to avoid. Like your bottom bracket, most modern headsets use sealed bearings. You can easily remove the forks to access the headset, but as the bearings are sealed in a housing, all you can do is replace rather than service them.
It’s fair to say a decent headset should last years as long as it’s regularly checked to ensure it’s functioning properly. Checking your headset is simple.
Stand on one side of your bike and hold the bars as if you were riding it – with both of your hands on the drops or the brake hoods. Fully apply the front brake only and keep it on as you gently rock the bike back and forth. If you feel a knocking, then your headset is loose and the play in it needs to be removed.
To remove the play, loosen the two Allen key bolts that secure your stem in place. On the top of your stem is another Allen key bolt that tightens through the stem cap and when you tighten this bolt it compresses the bearings in your headset. This results in the play being removed.
Only tighten the stem cap bolt on the top in small increments. The smaller the knocking, the less you’ll need to tighten; in some cases, it can be as little as quarter or half a turn. Tighten it too much and you place too much load on the headset bearings, which prevents you from turning your handlebars freely and makes it difficult to steer.
Once you’ve tightened the top Allen key half a turn, do up the two Allen key bolts on the side of your stem (ensuring your handlebars are straight) and repeat the rocking test. If there’s still some play, repeat the steps above until the play has been removed. You may need to repeat the steps a few times until the adjustment on your headset is spot on.
All of the above steps should be checked regularly and become part of your pre-race routine. Once you become comfortable doing them, they’ll only take a few minutes but the peace of mind, not to mention the time they could save you on the big day could be great.
One week to go
With a week to go before your event, you should be confident that your bike is in full working order. All the checks, repairs and adjustments you made with a month to go should have been fully dealt with and your bike thoroughly ridden and tested since then.
Now’s the time to start thinking ahead to the day of the race and, perhaps more importantly, how you’ll be getting there. It pays huge dividends to pay close attention to how you intend to travel with your bike.
Let’s assume your race is in the UK and you’ll be driving to it. How will you be carrying your bike? Do you have a rack of some sort or will your wheels need removing and your bike need fitting into an already packed boot?
Get bike packing
This may sound trivial but you’d be surprised at the number of athletes who throw their kit and bike in their car in a mad rush with little or no thought to the end result. Pack your bike poorly and you can arrive at the race only to find you’re unpacking a broken bike or one that’s missing vital parts, like one or possibly both wheels.
In one piece your bike is a strong, durable piece of kit. But it becomes vulnerable and fragile once you remove the wheels and it’s lying on its side. Pack heavy items on top of you bike and cables can be snagged, resulting in poor gear or brake function; mechs can be bent and forks and stays can get damaged.
The best thing to do is take some time to figure out exactly what you need to bring with you and practise how you’re going to fit everything in the car safely. It’s not the most glamorous job but you only need to do it once to learn how to do it right. Besides which, it might save you a lot of stress, not to mention money, by ensuring you get to the race site with all your equipment intact.
Have you practised removing and replacing your wheels? Removing your wheels using quick-release mechanisms causes a great deal of anxiety for a lot people, not just beginners. It needn’t; it’s a simple job and one you can get confident at doing very quickly. Once again, all you need is a little practice.
Before you can remove your wheels you need to open your brake callipers so they’re wide enough to allow your tyres to pass through. On Shimano and SRAM callipers you do this with the little lever on the brake calliper itself. Campagnolo brakes have a button that runs horizontally through the brake lever on the handlebars.
Next, you undo the quick-release skewer on the front wheel. You’ll then need to loosen off the nut a little to open them up enough to pass over the safety catches on the fork dropouts. Once loosened, you simply lift the front of the bike and the wheel will drop out of the forks.
To reinstall the wheel, follow the same process but in reverse.
To remove the back wheel, first change gear so the chain is on the smallest chainring at the front and your smallest sprocket at the back. Open the brake callipers (using the lever on the callipers or button on the brake lever) and then undo the quick release. (There are no safety tabs at the back so undoing the quick release will produce enough movement to free your wheel.)
Next, lift your bike up by the saddle. The wheel will drop but won’t fall all the way out, as it’ll get caught on your rear mech. Keeping the back end of the bike up, pull the mech backwards and your rear wheel should drop out completely.
Again, reinstalling the wheel is the same process but carried out in reverse. You’ll become more confident and quicker at doing this the more you practise and it’ll make packing your car a lot easier.
Brakes and tyres
Taking the wheels off gives you a great opportunity to check on the quality of your brake blocks.
If they’re worn, you need to get them replaced. You’ll be able to gauge how worn they are by checking how much of the blocks’ material extends beyond the wear line (usually found on the top of the brake blocks themselves).
Brake blocks also have grooves cut into the braking surface to help displace water. Use a small knife or tip of a screwdriver to clean out any debris that may be caught up in them and could damage your rims.
Now is also the time to have a really good look at the condition of your tyres. I’ve been team mechanic at over 30 World and European Championship events and, from my experience, the most common cause of DNFs is punctures.
You may not be able to prevent a puncture but you can take precautions. Invest in a decent pair of tyres and only use them for racing. Use your normal tyres for training but keep your good ones for when it matters. Keeping a pair of tyres for racing only will keep them in better condition, and the better condition they’re in, the less chance there is of them puncturing.
There’s another benefit to swapping between your training and racing tyres too – it gives you more reason to practise removing and reinstalling your wheels.
Dusting off your race bike
If you race regularly, chances are you have at least two bikes – one to train on and another for racing. This is a good idea, as one bike will take a huge amount of punishment acting as winter training/commute bike, while the other can be kept for competition. Investing in a second bike is always worth the expenditure if you do race a lot.
When you come to dust off your race bike for your first event of the new season, all of the checks mentioned above still apply, and you’ll need to perform all of them. However, there are a few other things you need to think about if you haven’t touched your race bike since last year.
You may have raced all last season and then stored the bike without replacing any parts or having it serviced (shame on you). If so, it’ll need a thorough going over. A good clean and lubing should be top of the list.
Before your race season is also the time to ensure your race bike is set up comfortably, in terms of your saddle height and handlebar/aerobar position. Your body will have got used to the set-up on your winter bike and even small differences in saddle height and or bar reach could cause discomfort. Take the time to measure and match your positions on both bikes, as being this close to race season you don’t want to ride in discomfort or risk straining a muscle.
Once your race bike is back in full use, you can semi-retire your winter bike until the end of the season. When you do this check your winter bike and replace and service any parts that may have become worn or damaged over the long, wet winter months.
Back to basics
There’s a lot more you can learn about maintaining your bike but the checks outlined above are the ones that will make the most difference to anyone who's not only new to the sport, but also new to bikes and bike components. They’re the simplest and easiest to ones to make sure your bike is in working order when it comes to race day.
The thing to remember is to keep practising. It’ll help you get to know your bike and get better at maintaining it and will also help you keep it in top condition.
Dan Goodburn has been British Triathlon's age-group mechanic since 1997
You’ll have enough on your mind come race day without the extra burden of trying to remember if you’ve packed and done everything for your bike. So take the hassle out of the process by writing down what you need to do and bring beforehand. Then you can simply work through it and tick things off on the day…
Remove the parts (if required) to fit your bike into/onto your car. (Remember to put any parts you’ve removed into the car as well; you’d be surprised how many athletes you’ll see running around at races trying to borrow wheels.)
Pack your bag with your helmet, cycling shoes, eyewear, clothing, pump, race belt, spares and any drinks, bottles, gels and food you’ll need. Extras like sun protection and anti-friction cream are also useful.
Get to the site with plenty of time to allow yourself to register and find and set up your transition area.
Once you’ve got yourself sorted do your final bike safety checks: tyre pressures, brakes and gears… Then go out for a short ride. This is key; so many athletes reassemble their bikes and then don’t ride them. This is a big mistake as you don’t need the hassle of jumping on your bike straight after the swim only to realise you haven’t secured your wheels properly. A quick 2min ride after reassembly will ensure everything is functioning correctly.
The things most likely to be affected by transit are your gears. If, during your 2min check ride, you find they’re not shifting smoothly, you can fine-tune them using the barrel adjusters on the downtube (or rear mech itself). If you’re overshifting (jumping across more than one gear per shift), your cable is too loose and needs tightening. Turn the barrel adjuster a quarter turn anti-clockwise and try shifting again. If it’s undershifting (not changing gear with each shift), your cable is too tight and needs loosening. Turn the barrel adjuster a quarter turn clockwise and try shifting again. Repeat this process, making small adjustments, until your gears shift smoothly and precisely.
Once your bike and transition area are set up, give some thought to which gear you need to be in to start the bike leg. If the transition exit is at the bottom of a hill, you’ll need to be in an easy gear to help you get started. I won’t mention names but one of the elites I worked with always knocked their chain off when they left transition because they always left it on the biggest chainring and biggest sprocket.