The School Sport South Australia Mountain Bike Championships are just around the corner and we expect to see over a thousand primary and secondary school students flock to compete at the Craigburn Farm trails, over two days in Term 2. Some students are well versed in mountain bike competitions and will undoubtedly have their race-face on while others will be dusting off the old steed and enjoying the friendly two wheeled competition with mates, for a day off school and a healthy dose of banter. In this, the first post in a series that will help students, teachers and parents prepare for the event, I will cover three simple but essential things to check on your bike to ensure it is fit for the starting line.

The frustration and disappointment that follows a preventable mechanical issue or mishap at an event is near unbearable, for the participant as well as their team. I have seen my fair share of heartbreak at these events and the thing that drives it home is how easy it may have been to avoid, but they simply didn’t know. The following advice is intended to help you identify issues. I will provide some simple steps to remedy some issues at home, however if you are unsure of what to do, I strongly recommend that you seek help from a bike shop or experienced bike mechanic.

Gears

This is one of the big ones! If a bike’s gears are not functioning properly, it can be prone to chain slips, gear skips and even the complete destruction of your derailleur (the thing that moves the chain from side to side to line up with the gears). The consequences range from a slight nuisance while riding to kissing $80 to over $1,000 goodbye. There are a few things you can check here to identify whether you need to engage the help of a mechanic or not:

– Alignment

Start riding in gear 1 and, one by one, change through all of your gears then back again. Do they do what they are told? Is there any hesitation or excessive clicking noises? One click of the lever on the handlebars should equal the chain moving over one chain ring. If the chain moves over more gears than you click on the lever, or doesn’t move at all, you should get your gears tuned. You may also want to get them checked if they hesitate for more than a second or two.

– Cable Condition

Look at the gear cable, where it inserts at the derailleur. Is it frayed? It isn’t such a big deal if the very end is frayed, so long as the part of the cable that does the pulling is in good condition. Cables fray over time and will eventually break. Checking this before the race, and replacing if needed, can avoid you being stuck in the hardest gear at the bottom of the hill!

– Limit Screw Adjustment

Checking the “limit screws” on your rear derailleur is getting technical, but with a bit of guidance you can check to see if they are adjusted properly. It is their job to ensure that the chain cannot move off of the easiest gear, and into the spokes, or off the hardest gear and jam on the frame.You will need to get someone to help you by lifting the back wheel off of the ground to do these checks.

Firstly, put the bike into the easiest gear, which is the cog closest to the spokes. While the wheel is in the air, pedal it slowly and push the gear lever as if you wanted to go into an even easier gear. If you can hear any clicking or the chain starts to move off the chain ring (and into the spokes), stop the wheel immediately! Your limit screw needs to be adjusted and that is a job for a mechanic.

If you passed the first test, proceed by placing your bike into the hardest gear. As you pedal it with the wheel in the air, give the derailleur a very gentle pull towards the outside of the bike. You are testing to see if the chain can be coaxed off the small chain ring and onto the frame. If it can be, it’s off to the mechanic for you!

These tests may seem technical, but they are a relatively simple way to determine if your gears are working correctly. Fixing any issues, however, is not so simple and we recommend seeking help from a professional mechanic. Our main goal is ensuring that you don’t find out you have a problem on the day of the race!

Brakes

There are a few things worth considering when checking your brakes, most importantly is that they actually work! A good way to do this is to stand next to your bike and check each one separately by squeezing the lever and rocking the bike back and forth. If either wheel rolls with the brakes applied, you may have some fault finding to do. Next, jump on the bike and test each brake while rolling in a straight line. Be gentle, you will soon know if your brakes are working well or not.

Some other considerations are:

  • Are the brake levers set in a comfortable position (not too close or too far away from the handle bars. This can usually be adjusted.
  • If you have cable brakes (where the line between the lever and the calliper is a metal cable), do they return to the neutral position after being used? If they do not, they may need a tune or some new cables.
  • If you have hydraulic brakes (where the line between the lever and the calliper is filled with hydraulic fluid), do they feel spongy, or pull all the way into the handle bar with little brake engagement? This is a clear sign that there is air in the cable and they need to be bled, which a mechanic will be able to do for you.
  • Do they make excessive amounts of noise? Some squeaking is often acceptable, particularly in the wet, however excessive noise can be a sign of contamination on the brakes that can be detrimental to their performance.

Water Bottle Cage

Have you seen the funky designs that water bottles come in these days?! Well, I have and no, your 2L miniature Piccaldilly bottle will not fit in a bike’s water bottle holder! Even if you can make it fit, it may not stay there for long, particularly rattling down a rough trail. It seems so simple, but if you intend to carry water on your bike, and we recommend that you do, you should make sure that you have a water bottle that is compatible with your bottle holder (also known as a bottle cage). Some frames, particularly on dual suspension bikes, have limited space and you may need to find and carry a smaller bottle.

Hydration backpacks are a great option worth considering as they allow you to carry some tools and a spare tube as well as your water.

That’s It!

Ensuring your bike is in top-notch condition is crucial for a successful and enjoyable experience at the School Sport South Australia Mountain Bike Championships. By paying attention to your bike’s gears, brakes, and water bottle cage, you’re taking proactive steps to prevent potential issues during the race and you will be a step ahead of much of the competition!

This won’t be the last you hear from us, we have more posts on the way to help you prepare for the event. Keep your eyes peeled and if you want a heads up when the next post drops, you can subscribe to the updates here.