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Higher Education: How to Get Your Bike Ready for Riding Season

Everything you need to do to dive into spring, and a few things you don't really have to worry about

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Depending on where on Earth you ride, you may just be emerging from winter. And depending on how severe winters are in your part of Earth, you may only now be pulling your bike out of the mothballs and finally remembering what it’s like to be alive. What you may not be remembering is what state your bike was in when it went into hibernation. Chances are, it was hung up under the gritty funk of a full season’s wear and tear. On top of that, if you clung to every precious fleeting rideable weekend last fall had to offer, the trail conditions probably were not kind. That’s why, in this edition of Beta’s Higher Education, we want to walk you through some of the things you should address so that, as you step into riding season, you can put your best foot forward.

Tubeless sealant and valves

Sealant dries and makes these fun little art projects inside your tires. It’ll do a miniature version of this inside your Presta valves, too.

You’re already used to regularly topping off your tubeless sealant, so you were probably planning to do it again before your semi-deflated tires even hit the garage floor. Just be sure to use the same type of sealant that is already in your tire. There are now several fundamentally different formulas out there, and they do not mix. There’s also the option of actually replacing the sealant that’s in your tire, and while there’s nothing wrong with doing this, it isn’t necessary. Whatever’s left in an unused tire is just as well sealed-off as it would be if it were in the bottle, and most brands do not put an expiration date on their sealant. What causes sealant to lose its effectiveness is the steady “drying out” that happens as the liquid component seeps out while healing punctures, and that isn’t happening on a bike that’s laying dormant. One extra step you should be sure to take is thoroughly cleaning or, better yet, replacing your valve core. You can get a 20-pack for less than $10. The rubber seal is fresh and the core will be gunk-free.

Brakes and brake fluid

Sticky pistons happen, and it’s simpler than you’d think to get them moving again.

Like tire sealant, your brake fluid will not go bad after sitting dormant for a season. So, there’s no specific reason to bleed them just because winter is over. That said, if you ride quite regularly (twice a week or more), the general recommendation is to bleed your brakes once a year because dust and other contaminants steadily enter the system through the pistons at the caliper. But it’s ideal to bleed only when you have a brand new set of pads. As pads wear, the pistons come to rest further and further in, essentially increasing the brake’s internal volume. Bleeding with fresh pads ensures you’re restoring your system to factory settings. And while we’re at the pistons, this is a good time to make sure that everything is moving freely. A Q-tip dipped in your brake’s chosen fluid (DOT or mineral oil) will lubricate the exposed part of the pistons, and cycling them in and out will wake them up, but it’s difficult to keep this process from contaminating the pads. Some brands recommend using rubbing alcohol instead, so that’s a cleaner method to start with if you have sticky pistons.

Brake pads and rotors

A really great way to destroy your brakes is to run the pads down to the metal backing. It’s a good idea to be in the habit checking this frequently anyway, but while you’re doing some cleaning, make sure to put your peepers on the pads.

Of course brake pads and rotors don’t go bad over time, but they do tend to wear more quickly in the wet and dirty conditions you may have been riding in before winter finally won because trail grit is often pulled into the caliper, eroding the braking surfaces. Check the thickness of the pad material. If there’s one millimeter or less left on the pad’s metal backplate, it’s time to replace them. Rotors also wear out. Some rotors will have a minimum thickness printed on them, but you can also feel with a thumb and forefinger. If there’s any noticeable concavity to the rotor’s braking surface, it’s probably time to replace it as well.

Rotors don’t just get thinner, they can wear from being overheated too many times. Once this happens, they’ll loose power and make more noise when braking.

Cables and housing

The same grit that may have been grinding your pads and rotors in those sloppy shoulder-season rides has likely been grinding its way into your cables and housing. It happens slowly throughout the year, and often you barely notice the steady decrease in shifting performance and steady increase in the force it takes to pull the derailleur into the easier gears. But you probably will notice it the first time you rip around your neighborhood this year. It’ll get worse before it gets better, so the start of the season is a great time to treat yourself to some fresh cable and housing. 

It happens slowly, so you don’t feel it happening. Replacing your shifter (and dropper) cable and housing makes a huge difference. Replace them annually, even if you don’t think they feel like they need it, because if you ride frequently, they probably do.

Chains, chainring, and cassette

Another while-you’re-at-it preventative measure to take at the beginning of the season is checking for chain wear. If you notice the side-effects of a worn-out drivetrain, such as grinding or slipping, then it’s probably already too late, and you may need to replace your gears as well as your chain. There are several tools out there that will tell you whether you’re approaching the threshold for acceptable chain wear. If you didn’t end last season with regular drivetrain checks, you probably should start this season with one.

Check your drivetrain for wear at least a couple times a year. Get a good chain checker tool. It’ll pay for itself the first time it helps you replace your chain before it wears your cassette out with it.

Suspension

This is another component that doesn’t go bad just by sitting still. Cycling your suspension will automatically cycle any necessary lubricating oil into the spots where it needs to be, so there is no required suspension service before you start your summer. But like the rest of your bike, suspension doesn’t thrive in the wet, muddy conditions you may have put it in at the end of last season. Thankfully, the first line of defence against contaminants, on both front and rear suspension, are simple seals that be cleaned or replaced without the need for lots of expensive tools. On suspension forks in particular, that process should happen more than once a year, so if you didn’t do a wiper seal service last year, now may be the time to do it. Every major suspension manufacturer has tutorials on how to do this, and now may be a good time to take it on if you’ve been neglecting it.

Refreshing seals and lubricating oil on your suspension is pretty simple and it makes a big difference. And like most preventative maintenance, doing so will save you money down the road.

Frame pivots and other high-load bearings

Just like shifting problems, the various creaks and wobbles many of us put up with usually don’t appear all at once. One day, a shock’s eyelet bushing starts to show some play. Another, a tick develops at the apex of the left pedal stroke. A month later, one develops on the right pedal stroke. If you tend to nip these little annoyances in the bud, you’ve of course got nothing to worry about. But if you’re like the rest of us, you slid a burning wreck sideways into winter and waited for ski season to arrive. Now would be the time to start pushing sideways on your pedals, handlebars, wheels and frame pivots until you hear something go click, followed by pulling, greasing and re-assembling as necessary. It may take a quick high-torque pedal around the block to jog your memory, but once you track down and kill the last noises your bike makes, you’ll feel ready to make the most out of springtime.

Creak hunting is a perfect off-season activity.

Supplies

Of course, it’s not just our bikes that may need a refresh as riding season approaches. The supplies we need to keep us rolling get steadily depleted as the year goes on. It’s easy to be caught without tubeless sealant, rim tape or tire plugs, especially if we can’t remember the last time we had to dip into our personal stock. How’s that bottle of chain lube in your toolbox looking? Or that sample-size tube of carbon paste? And thinking even further off the bike, how are you looking on sunblock now that it’s warm enough to actually expose some skin to the sun? Did you have to pilfer any gauze pads from your first-aid kit? Do you have a first aid kit? Now is the time to take inventory of everything you may need to get sorted after a ride, or to get ready for a road trip. This is not the time to be caught unprepared now that the clock is ticking. Summer is coming. Anything could happen.

 

Photos: Ryan Palmer