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 some 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 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. I’m going to help you avoid the agony by taking you through eight things to check and do to take care of your bike and get it race-ready.
The following advice is mainly intended to help you identify issues. I will provide some simple steps to solve some issues at home, however if you are not aware of how to remedy the following issues, I strongly recommend that you seek help from a bike shop or experienced bike mechanic.
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:
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!
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.
Wobbles (not the speed ones!)
Bikes have many moving parts and are prone to develop wobbles. Sometimes these are caused by wear and other times they are caused by parts becoming loose over time. Here are some things you can check and potentially solve for yourself:
Axels / Hub Bearings: Gently wobble each wheel from side to side in the frame. If you can hear or feel any clicks or movement, your axel may be loose. If you check the axel and it is indeed tight, your wheel bearings may need to be adjusted or simply replaced by a mechanic.
Head Stem: Stand next to your bike, holding the handlebars as you would if you were riding and apply the front brake. Now gently wobble the bike back and forth. If you feel or hear any clicking or movement, you may have a loose headset. Try to identify if the movement is coming from the front suspension (where the upper post inserts into the lower post). This movement can be normal in some forks, however it may indicate that the fork’s internal components are worn. If the movement seems to be where the handle bars pivot through the frame, your headset likely needs to be tightened.
Pivots: If you have a dual suspension bike, check the pivots by standing next to your bike and very gently lifting up on the seat. Lift just enough so that the rear wheel nearly (but not quite) comes off the ground. If you can feel or hear any clicks or movement during this process, you may have some loose bolts so you should go through and check them. Be sure not to over tighten them, you don’t need to apply all of your strength, just ensure that they are not loose. If they are all tight and the movement still exists, you may have some parts that need replacing. Usually, this is a normal and simple process that a mechanic can help you out with.
Chains do a lot of the heavy lifting when you are riding and you should treat them well! They are prone to rust and gather mud and gunk if not looked after and that just makes pedalling harder than it needs to be. Further, they can be damaged through poor gear shifting technique or when hit on trail obstacles.
Firstly, make sure you lubricate your chain with a quality bike chain lube. I recommend a wax-based lube that you can get from a bike shop. These don’t attract too much dust in summer and work well in wet conditions too. They can require a bit of preparation for first time use (wax won’t stick or work on top of other lubricant types so the chain generally needs to be thoroughly cleaned before the initial wax application) so visit a mechanic to help you out if you haven’t used a wax based lubricant before and want to. A well lubricated chain prevents excessive wear of the drivetrain, saving you money, and ensures efficient power transfer to the rear wheel, saving you energy!
Secondly, check to see if your chain is damaged. Take a minute or two to look at every single chain link (this can be tedious but worth it!). The plates that form every link should be perfectly parallel with each other and the pins that hold each link together should protrude slightly outside of the link. If you can see a link that is not parallel or is popping off the pin, you must get it fixed or replaced. The chain will be snapping very soon and you don’t want to be standing up powering when it does!
Looking after your suspension is simple. After every ride, use a rag to clean the dust from the narrower tube that inserts into the fatter tube (front and rear suspension). Make sure to clean the rubber seal well too. Dirt acts like sandpaper (surprise!) and will erode your suspension away with every bump. Keep your suspension clean and it will not only keep your bike feeling and working great, but save you money too!
If your suspension is leaking oil or making funny sounds, it really should be looked at by a mechanic. If the shock absorber is damaged, it may operate more like a pogo stick which can put the rider at significant risk when all that absorbed energy is released at once.
I will go deeper into setting correct tyre pressure when we talk about bike setup, but for now I recommend checking that your tyres are at least holding air before you leave for a ride. Pump them up the night before and make sure that they have not lost any significant amount of pressure in the morning. If you are not organised and simply pump them up when you leave for your ride, you may find yourself with a several kilometre walk later in the day.
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! It seems so simple, but if you intend to carry water on your bike you should make sure that you have a water bottle that is compatible with your bottle holder (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.
If you have got tubeless tyres set up on your bike (you will probably know if you do) it is well worth topping up your sealant if you haven’t done so in the last three months. Sealant won’t last forever and it will dry up inside your tyre after a little while. If this is the case, you have very little protection against punctures which are all too common when you are pushing yourself in a race.
It might take you 30 minutes or more to cover all the points above initially, but with practice you will likely be able to accomplish it all in just a minute or so. You can also get to the stage where you are so in tune with your bike, you will simply feel, observe or hear that something needs attention and you will not need to explicitly check everything. I know that most bikes I come across need some TLC simply by picking them up to load them onto a trailer! You can easily feel and hear the movement in the components. Over time, you can also learn to fix all of these issues in your own backyard with a twist of a dial or by spinning an allen key a few times.
For now, I wish you the best with your preparation and look forward to seeing you at the SSSA Mountain Bike Championships!