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How to do a proper bike tune-up (and the tools you’ll need!)

Your bike was shifting great, braking instantly, and effortless to ride.

But that was 1000 miles ago. Now, those shifts aren’t so quick, and the brakes are making some noise–and not stopping you. You chain might’ve even popped off of the crank.

It’s time for a tune-up.

At Cycle Shack, we have a tried and true methodology for bike tuneups that we’ve employed on thousands of bicycles in southwest Florida. There are five key areas we seek to improve with every tune-up we do:

  • Wheel performance
  • Drive-train performance
  • Brake performance
  • Steering performance
  • Aerodynamic performance

Curious as to how we do it? Read on. Only be prepared–when we tune a bike, we don’t cut corners. That means be prepared with the right tools.

Area 1: Tuning the Bicycle’s Wheels

 

A spoke wrench is used to loosen and tighten spokes in a bicycle wheel.

With every tune-up, the first thing we examine (and re-examine) is the truing of the wheels. This means tightening and loosening the spokes of each wheel until any built-up warping of the rim is eliminated, and the wheel turns true.  The result is better braking and less wasted energy output on the rider’s part.

Tools required: Spoke Nipple Wrenches, Wheel Truing Stand w/Caliper Guides (though you can true a wheel on the bicycle using the brake pads sort of like caliper guides)

Area 2: Tuning the Bicycle’s Drive Train

Tools required: Cable Lubricant, Allen Keys, Philips Screwdriver, Chain Lubricant, Shop Rags, Scrub Brush

First, the cables: Probably the most time-consuming part of any good tune-up, the drive train gets a lot of attention. For starters, we lubricate all of the cables and cable-housings used for controlling the derailleurs using a quality high-tech lubricant such as Tri-Flow. Apply the lubricant at the end of each cable housing and allow it to enter the outer cable and coat the outside of each inner cable. This will free the cable to move inside the housing and reduce friction. (If the bike has electronic shifting, there’s no cable to lubricate. Instead, we check the battery and make sure it will still take a charge charge.)

The derailleur is controlled by a single cable, and the tension on that cable is critical.

Second, the derailleur tension: Once the shifter cables are lubricated, it’s an excellent idea to zero out both barrel adjusters at the two ends of the cables (one on the derailleur and usually one on the shift lever housing).  This will minimize tension on the cable and allow you to retension the cable manually by loosening the cable tie-down bolt on each derailleur, pulling the shifter cable to a moderate degree of tightness, and then re-tightening the tied-down bolt. The derailleur is properly tensioned when it will shift ONE cog per index notch on your shifter, in BOTH directions. If you have a difficult time getting the tension right on the rear derailleur, there’s a good chance you’ll need to perform a derailleur alignment–more on that in a future post. When adjusting derailleur tensions, you’ll need either a 4mm or 5mm Allen key for turning the tie-down bolt, and possibly a vice grip or “third hand” tool to pull out tension on the cable itself, if your fingers are grippy enough.

 

The high and low limit screws control how far the derailleur is able to move the chain towards the outside of the cassette or chain ring.

Third, set the derailleur limits: Assuming your bike has derailleurs (most multi-speed bikes do), the limits are the final thing to get adjusted on the drive train. The limits are screws that control how far to the left and right the derailleur is allowed to manipulate the chain.  Too far one way or the other, and chain will fly off the crank or cassette. Not far enough, and the chain won’t be able to reach the outermost rings. When adjusting limit screws, go a quarter-turn at a time and re-check the shifting. “Easy does it.” To adjust the limit screws, you need a small Philips screwdriver.

Finally, clean and lubricate the components. Use a heavy-duty scrub-brush to remove any caked-on dirt from the cassette and/or chain rings, scrub the chain itself with a clean brush, between each link (an industrial degreaser like WD-40 may help to loosen the gunk from the chain), and then dry the chain completely once clean. Now, lubricate the chain with a quality chain-specific lubricant (for road bikes, use Finish Line Wet Lubricant. For mountain, use Finish Line Dry Lubricant). Use a clean shop rag to wipe off any excess lubricant from the chain.

Area 3: Tuning the Bicycle’s Brakes

Tools required: Allen Keys, Wrenches or Sockets, Cable Lubricant

Tri-Flow is the lubricant of choice for shifter and brake cables.

Some bikes have coaster brakes, and some have hydraulic brake lines attached to rotor-style brake calipers, but for the the sake of this guide, we’re going to assume (like most bikes) that yours has side-pull rim brakes. Start by lubricate the cable brake lines as you did for the shifter cables, using a similar lubricant such as Tri-Flow.

The objective of the tuneup is to get the brakes as close to the rim as possible without touching it while the brake lever is not being pulled.  This is accomplished by putting just enough tension on the brake cable to get the brake pads in that sweet spot. It does require some experimentation–and trial and error the first several tune-ups you do.  Adjusting the brakes usually requires a 4mm or 4mm Allen key on most side-pull brake mechanisms, though sometimes the bolt to be turned is actually a hex bolt, in which case you’ll need an 8 or 9mm wrench or socket.

Area 4: Steering and Tire Performance

Tools required: Air Pump, Allen Keys

Steering performance can best be summed up in three points. First–make sure the tires are inflated to the recommended PSI, which is always inscribed on the sidewall of the tire itself.  Second, make sure the handlebars are correctly aligned with the front wheel by adjusting the stem where it attaches to the steerer on the top of the fork (inside the steerer tube). Usually, there’s a pair of 5mm Allen bolts at the top of the steerer that can be loosed to adjust the handlebars and re-tightened when the bars are aligned. Third, make sure the bars themselves are aligned on center within the stem. Depending on the stem, there may be as many as 4 Allen bolts that are used to secure the handlebars.  So, for steering, the tools you’ll need are a bicycle air pump and a variety of Allen keys.

Area 5: Aerodynamic Performance

Even if your bike isn’t for racing–make sure it is operating at peak aerodynamics. You need any extra drag even if you’re just riding up to the grocery store. Keeping the frame clean and clear will reduce wind resistance. Dust the entire from from top to bottom and then use a quality bicycle polish to finalize. Your bike will slide through the air and look like new!