5 Basic Bike Maintenance Skills Every Cyclist Should Know How to Do

Jake McFadden travels over Tampa Bay as a mobile bike mechanic. He explains in this video how to maintain your bike. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

When gyms and fitness studios closed their doors earlier this year due to the pandemic, bikes started flying off shelves as people looked for ways to be active while staying socially distanced.

But just like cars, bikes require upkeep. Unlike cars, however, you can do a lot of basic bicycle maintenance yourself.

Jake McFadden is a bike technician at E-Mobilize Bikes, a mobile bike service in St. Petersburg, Florida, doing bicycle service, repairs and safety checks.

“The things we check during the safety inspection are also great starting points for your own bike maintenance education,” said McFadden.

Here’s how you can do your own basic bike maintenance at home.

A person pumps air into a bicycle tire after replacing the tubes.
Jake McFadden pumps air into bicycle tires after replacing the tubes. The recommended PSI range is located on the side of the tire. McFaddden recommends using a pump with an air gauge (right) to know you are within the range. Chris Zuppa / The Penny Hoarder

1. Check Your Bike’s Tire Pressure and Treads

Keep a close eye on your bike’s tire pressure and wear and tear on the treads. Taking proactive care of your tires will keep your bike rolling for miles to come.

“The first thing you want to do when maintaining a bike is to squeeze the tires,” McFadden said. “If you squeeze the tires and they’re soft or easily compressible, it’s a sure sign you need to pump them up.”

If you haven’t invested in a bike pump, you should get one. Pumps can be purchased for as little as $20 at places like your local bike shop, Target and Amazon.

You’ll need to find the PSI (i.e. pound force per square inch) range, which is printed on the side of the tire near the rim. Use this to determine how much air you need to pump into your tires, and be sure to close the valves when you’re done.

However, if the tire goes flat soon after you pump it up, you’re probably going to fix the flat, which means you’ll have to change the bike tube nestled inside the tire.

“If you’re confident, you can change a bike tube yourself,” McFadden said. “If not, a local bike shop can do this for you quickly and cheaply.”

Bike tires will wear down over time, too. McFadden said if you see the individual threads that make up the tire poking through the tread, glass or debris sticking through the rubber, or bubbles in the tire skin, it’s best to wait for new tires before taking your steed on the road.

Brake pads for rim-brake bikes are indented and grooved.
Brake pads for rim-brake bikes are indented and grooved. They can be purchased for around $10. “A lot of these things you can do yourself,” McFadden said. “Ultimately, you could save a lot of money by working on your own bike.” Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

2. Keep Your Brake Pads in Good Shape

Since no one wants to have a moment of brake-less panic when flying downhill, be sure to keep tabs on your brake pads.

Bikes generally have two different types of brakes: rim brakes and disc brakes. Many newer bikes have disc brakes, but rim brakes are still quite common. Brake pads for rim-brake bikes are indented and grooved. This helps the pad grip the rim of the bike wheel, slowing the bike or bringing it to a full stop.

If you feel as though your brakes take longer to activate than you’d like, take a look at the pads, which are generally housed at the top of the fork that holds your wheels. If the pads are shiny and the indents have worn away, look into getting some new pads for your safety and the longevity of your bike wheels.

“You should be able to depress your brake lever and feel the brakes engage when the lever is no more than halfway toward the handlebars,” said McFadden, who added that, if the brakes seem looser than that, it may be time to swap the pads out.

Changing your brake pads can seem daunting, but it’s a fairly straightforward process. This video shows you how to replace them yourself and ensure they’re positioned correctly and tightened properly.  All you need is an Allen wrench and brake pads, which you can buy for around $10.

3. Clean the Chain

A bike chain allows riders to shift into different gears. Over time, bike chains can become dirty and degreased by natural elements like dirt and rain, as well as through general use.

Keeping the chain well-lubricated is key to making it last. But before you lube it, you need to clean it.

To clean your chain, put a few drops of dish soap on a damp rag and run the rag over the chain while turning the pedals backward. Then, to begin re-lubricating, place some droplets of lubricant on the chain — avoiding the gears and chainrings — and, using the pedals, backpedal the bike again.

“You know you need more lubricant on the bike when you’re riding and it sounds like you’ve got a colony of mice attached to your bike,” McFadden said.

So, if your bike sounds exceptionally squeaky, it’s likely time to investigate the chain.

There are a variety of different lubricants out there, but a generic wet lubricant like this one from Finish Line will usually do the trick, and it costs less than $10.

Maintaining your chain will not only keep the bike sounding good, it will keep other critical bike parts like the chain ring, gears, and derailleur healthy for their entire lifespans.

A person uses a wrench to tighten the bolts on a bicycle.
McFadden uses a wrench to tighten the bolts on a bicycle. Chris Zuppa / The Penny Hoarder

4. Make Sure the Bolts Are Tight

It should go without saying that no cyclist wants to have their bike fall apart during a ride. That’s why it’s so important you ensure your bike’s bolts are tightened properly.

The stem, which attaches the handlebars to the bike frame, is a crucial area to assess. McFadden offers an easy check to test this.

“Take the front wheel and put it between your legs as you’re standing up, and try to turn the handlebars gently,” McFadden said. “If the handlebars jostle or shift, you must tighten the bolts on the stem.”

McFadden said many bikes purchased from big-box retailers like Target, Walmart, and Dick’s Sporting Goods are often not assembled by bike professionals, so it’s very likely certain bolts won’t be tight.

Be aware that it’s possible to overtighten your bike’s bolts, too, which could strip the threading from the bolt or crack some of your components. If you’re unsure about this, especially if you’re doing it for the first time, many mechanics will do this for free as part of a safety check. Just head to your local bike shop and ask.

5. Keep Your Bike Clean

While dirt and crud may not immediately damage your two-wheeled friend, letting it build up can eventually corrode your bolts, gears and chain links, among other parts.

Keeping your bike clean means your investment will last longer. You don’t have to do a deep clean, McFadden says. A simple wipe-down with soap and water will do.

“Just use a small bit of dish soap and a wet rag to scrub off dirt and clean your frame,” he said.  “Wash off any remaining soap or dirt with warm water, then dry the frame.”

As you get more comfortable with your bike, you can really get into the nooks and crannies, but if you’re nervous about messing up your bike, cleaning the main parts of the bike frame is enough to keep your bike happy and healthy.

A man wipes down a bicycle in a park.
McFadden wipes down a bicycle after repairing it. You don’t have to do a deep clean, McFadden says. A simple wipe-down with soap and water will do. Chris Zuppa/ The Penny Hoarder

McFadden’s parting words of advice: Take time to understand a bike before working on it.

Make sure you understand how something works before using tools on it,” McFadden said. “If you can’t figure out how something works, don’t put tools on it. Take it to a bike technician instead.”

Of course, sometimes things crop up that we can’t fix on our own, like issues with gearing, internal frame issues, and more. In that case, visit your local bike shop or bike co-op. Most general repairs and tune-ups are in the range of $50-100 and worth the price if it means you and your bike can ride on for miles to come.

Kristin Jenny is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.