11 things you need to maintain your bike

Do you shy away from maintaining your bike? Do you find yourself coming up with an excuse for not looking after, or checking, your pride and joy? No workshop? No garage? Don't know what tools you need? Stop with the excuses, it's easier than you think, AND it could extend the life of your bike(s) and the parts on it.

Shimano Chain breaker
(Image credit: Andrew Sydenham)

Anyone can learn the basics of maintaining a bike. The simplest thing is to keep it clean - doing this can extend the life of parts like the chain, cassette and tyres by months.

If it's a complete overhaul you need, or more complex jobs like truing a wheel, we recommend taking your bike to a good bike shop. For the more simple tasks, you really should try it yourself.

There are a few basics that you'll need, a bucket, sponge and some rags (old t-shirts or bed sheets are the best. Don't use new material though, the more something has been worn and washed the better it will work as a rag) are an absolute must and will only set you back a few pounds. Here are a few other things we recommend you purchase, you'll make back the cost of these by extending the life-span of your bike parts.

1. Brush set

A clean bike works better, especially when it comes to the moving parts. Imagine how many thousands of times your chain comes in to contact with the cassette during a two hour ride. Now chuck a bit of grit in there and think how quickly that can wear those parts out. A rub with a rag and some WD40/GT85 will get a lot of muck off the chain and disperse water, but it won't clean between the links where the grit can gather. A brush will. The bigger brushes are also perfect for getting in between the brake callipers, behind the front mech, and in to the jockey wheel cages.

Why? - Extends life of chain, cassette and other moving parts. Gets to places that a sponge doesn't.

Don't - Use them in front of a nice white wall. They will flick mud a grease around

2. Cleaning products

Cleaning a bike is an art form. Take care of your bike and it will ride better, last longer and will be safer to ride. There are various cleaning products on the market many of which will work perfectly with a sponge and old rag. Degreasers, water repellents, silicon sprays and more are available but not all are needed. You can do a lot with water and a sponge, but these products will do a more thorough job and sometimes make cleaning your bike a bit quicker. The most important item is a water repellent type spray (like WD40 or GT85) to spray on your chain, cassette and derailers after cleaning. This will stop rust forming on those parts. Be sure to take off any excess before applying a lube.

Why? - A clean bike rides better and lasts longer.

Don't - Let your bike (especially the chain and cassette) sit around unloved after a wet, dirty ride. It will massively reduce the lifespan of some parts. Don't use a pressure hose either, it can damage bearings by thinning out the grease.

3. Chain checker

Did you know that a chain stretches over time? It does this for a number of reasons and will stretch/wear at different rates depending on amount of use, type of riding, type of rider and the conditions the bike is ridden in. Because there is no standard for how a chain will wear, there are no exact guidelines for when to check or change it. You can check if a chain is worn by putting it on the big ring, and then pulling it directly away from the teeth. A general rule of thumb is if you can see daylight between the chain and the teeth of the chainring it's time to replace. A chain checker  will take the guess work away from the process. If you replace your chain before it gets too worn you might get away with running the new chain on the old cassette. Let it get too worn and you'll have to replace both (see numbers 6, 7 and 8)

Why? - A stretched chain will wear a cassette down quicker and gear changes won't be as slick

Don't - Ride on an overstretched chain, it can be dangerous if it jumps or slips when you put pressure on the pedals.

4. Allen key set

A cyclist's best friend is a 5mm allen key. Fact. You will also need 4- and 6mm allen keys, and maybe even an 8mm, making a complete set an important purchase. We'd recommend a heavy duty set for your toolbox/shed/workshop/garage over a multi-tool as there will be occasions when a bit of leverage is required. The plastic handle on this set improves leverage by improving the grip, but it's not essential. The long arm allows reach, the short more torque.

Why? - A bike is built with bolts that have allen key heads. You WILL need allen keys at some point.

Don't - Round off bolt heads. Always ensure an allen key is properly inserted in to the bolt head. Keep it perpendicular to the bolt when turning and apply a little downward (on to the bolt) pressure when turning.

5. Track pump

Okay, this isn't really about maintaining your bike, but it will make your ride safer and more enjoyable. You'd be amazed how quickly your inner-tube valves leak air. We're willing to bet that if you went and checked your tyre pressure right now it would be somewhere between 60 and 80 psi. Give yourself a pat on the back if it's higher. Tyres work best when inflated to the recommended levels shown on the side wall (usually around 110 psi - it's okay to use a little less in the wet, perhaps 90 - 110 psi depending on your weight). Properly inflated tyres will ride better, corner with more assurance and help - in a little way - to prevent punctures. Get in to the habit of pumping up your tyres every time before heading out on a long ride.

Why? - Improves ride quality and performance of tyres.

Don't - Let your tyres go more than a week without pumping them up.

6. Chain tool, 7. chain whip and 8. cassette tool

Other than tyres and innertubes, the chain and cassette are the parts likely to need changing with most frequency. You've checked the chain and found it has stretched, therefore you need to replace it. Chances are you'll need to replace the cassette too. These two parts wear together. As the chain stretches it wears down the teeth on the cassette so the two continue to mesh together. Just putting a new chain on doesn't work as it won't now mesh with the old cassette.

(Image credit: Andrew Sydenham)

Chances are you'll need to replace both. For that you'll need these three tools. the chain tool breaks the chain, and then puts the new one on (you could also use super links that come with SRAM chains). The chain whip holds the cassette in place while the cassette tool (held by an adjustable spanner) undoes the lock ring. The lock ring unscrews in the same direction the freewheel rotates, which is why you need the chain whip to hold the cassette and stop it from turning.

Why? - It's a simple job that you don't need to pay a mechanic to do.

Don't - Destroy the lock ring. Make sure the cassette tool is fully inserted so it doesn't slip out and churn up the slots in the locking.

9. Torque wrench

If you've splashed out on a bike with lots of carbon parts (stem, handlebars, saddle rails etc.) you need to protect them. One of the easiest ways to damage these parts is to over-tighten a bolt that clamps another part to them. Most parts will come with recommended maximum tightening levels (in Newton metres) and the only way to stick to them is with a torque wrench. Using this will prevent you from giving a bolt 'just one more turn' that might end up crushing your carbon.

Why? - It will protect your expensive carbon parts

Don't - Take it out and put an allen key in to give it 'one more turn'.

10. Pedal spanner

nine times out of ten a six or eight mm allen key will do the job of taking pedals off. That one other time you'll need a 15mm pedal spanner. When attaching pedals to the crank be sure not to over-tighten them. There's no need. It's also worth checking the thread is clean of grit. If pedals are on tight, a pedal spanner with long handle may be the only way to get them off. Remember the threads are different too. The right hand thread will be standard (tightens by turning clockwise), the left-hand pedal will tighten the opposite way (untightens by turning clockwise).

Why? - Because pedals have a habit of getting stuck firmly in the crank.

Don't - Turn the wrong way and accidentally tighten the pedal further.

11. Cable cutters

Replacing cables on a bike is easier than it looks (although internal cabling has made it a little tricker on some bikes) and can drastically improve the performance of your brakes and gears. A stretched cable, maybe with some grit in between that and the protective outer cable, can make brakes feel spongy and gears miss-fire. Cables should last several thousand miles, but this does depend on the conditions. Long wet rides will see them wear out more quickly. Fitting cables is worthy of a whole new article (at least for those not familiar with the process), but whatever you do, don't try and cut them with a blade on an old set of pliers, it will fray the cable. One clean cut with these will keep the cable end neat so a cable stop can be slotted on before being squeezed on to the cable. Sharp, powerful cable cutters will also cut through an outer cable without compromising it.

Why? - A frayed cable will have to be replaced, if left, you're bound to stab your hand with it at some point. Like a paper cut, this is disproportionately painful.

Don't - Try and make do with an old set of pliers

All these Pro and Park Tool items are available from www.madison.co.uk

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Simon Richardson
Simon Richardson

Editor of Cycling Weekly magazine, Simon has been working at the title since 2001. He fell in love with cycling when channel surfing in 1989 and happening across the greatest ever edition of the Tour de France. He's been a Greg LeMond fan ever since. He started racing in 1995 when moving to university in North Wales gave him more time to train and some amazing roads to train on. He raced domestically for several years, riding everything from Surrey leagues to time trials, track and even a few Premier Calendars. In 2000 he spent one season racing in Belgium with the Kingsnorth International Wheelers. 

Since working for Cycling Weekly he has written product reviews, fitness features, pro interviews, race coverage and news. He has covered the Tour de France more times than he can remember along with two Olympic Games and many other international and UK domestic races. He can still be seen at his club's evening races through the summer but he still hasn't completed the CW5000 challenge!


Road bike: Pinarello K8S with Shimano Dura Ace

TT bike: Specialized Venge road bike with FFWD wheels and Easton Attack TT bars

Gravel bike: N/A

Training bike: Rourke custom hand made with Reynolds 853 steel