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Mountain Bike Maintenance - Things To Be Aware Of


Mountain bike maintenance is one of those things where the more you know, the better off you will be.

I recently had a 1:1 lesson with someone who mentioned that she had been suffering from a lot of pedal strikes when riding. Five minutes into the lesson, I figured out what the problem was - her rear shock sat at about 50% sag.


She was quite surprised. "I only just got it back from a service two weeks ago," she told me. When I asked if she knew what was serviced, she shook her head. Except to say that it was about $300 in total.

At that point I let her know a shock service, just the front or rear by itself, is usually around the $200 mark. So it was unlikely that the recent bike service would have performed any maintenance on the rear shock. And so the question came up - how would she know what maintenance her bike needed if a bike shop didn't address it?


It's a question that I get asked on a regular basis. And yes, I know - there are more than a few of you would like me to run some basic maintenance courses again. Unfortunately, it's not something I can fit into my current schedule of things I need to do, so for now, hopefully this post can fill in some gaps.

At some point I might get around to running some bike maintenance courses. I'm just not exactly sure when.

I'll try and break this down into a few key points, so you can focus on what what you want to know....


How often does a mountain bike maintenance?

It's hard to pinpoint a fixed schedule for specific items of maintenance - mainly because the environment you ride in (muddy, dusty, smooth, rocky) impacts how hard a life your bike has. And of course, how often and how far you ride also plays a large role in how much maintenance your bike needs.


As a very general rule of thumb, your mountain bike may need a visit to the shop for a service (assuming you don't do your own, but if you did, why are you reading this??) once every 6 months. In between, you can do some things to keep your bike ticking along to keep everythign running smoothly.


What maintenance should I do at home, between bike servicings at the shop?

Not a whole lot, to be honest. One of the reasons mountain bikes are so expensive is that they're built to withstand harsh treatment, without being stupidly heavy and unrideable up hills.


It's nice to have a clean mountain bike. Spotting some problems are also easier to see after you've had a good look at everything while cleaning your bike.

Washing your bike seems like an obvious one, but realistically, it's not supercritical to keeping your bike running smoothly, other than making sure your drive train (gears and chain) are reasonably clean. It is nice to have a clean bike though....


But on the subject of your drive train, this is probably the main thing to keep well maintained in between bike servicings. Mostly, this just involves cleaning you bike chain, and then lubricating it with some bike lube appropriate to where you ride. How often you need to do this as I mentioned depends on a few things. For me personally, in a mostly dry, dusty environment with my bike heading out once or twice a week for a few kilometers, I find once a month enough.


There are a number of cool (and somewhat expensive) chain cleaning tools you can get. These are designed to make cleaning your simple and easy. Personally, I just tape two tooth brushes together, spray my chain with automotive degreaser, and the cycle my chain the the tooth brush heads.


Bike lube wise, the two main types you can get are wet or dry lubricant. As the names suggest, wet lubricant is for riding in environments that are wet and muddy, while dry lubricant is for dry and dusty environments. And I do recommend using proper bike chain lubricant - not doing so may cause the chain and your gears to wear out faster, while giving you shifting problems.

Believe it or not your chain and drive train should ideally look pretty clean - not pitch black and covered in thick grease.

The only other thing to do in terms of bike maintenance is check everything is working as it should. Your gears you change smoothly, your dropper post should go up and down, your brakes should stop your bike effectively, and all of your nuts and bolts should be securely fastened. These sort of things are good to check after you've given your bike a wash - and if you see a potential problem, it could be time to get your bike serviced - making sure of course you let your bike mechanic know about you've found.


What maintenance do bike shops / mechanics actually do?

I'll start this by saying that not all bike shops and their mechanics are equal. And the term "bike service" rarely translates into "please look at my bike and fix every problem you find."


Admittedly, there are some bike shops and mechanics that will do just that if you ask them to. Your bike will come away feeling as good as new - but expect a fairly hefty maintenance bill to come along with that service.


Other shops will treat your bike more like a fast food restaurant - the bike goes in, they'll check a few things that will be listed in the fine print of their bike servicing menu, and out it comes, the exact work that they didn't tell you about because legally, by what was written down somewhere online.

An example of what different levels of bike servicing cover. It's worthwhile making sure you understand what you're paying for.

The final type of maintenance work done is when you come in with a specific problem. They absolutely know to fix that problem - and will quote you accordingly. Of course, the problem has already happened, so previous maintenance servicing didn't fix it. But hey, you didn't tell them to look at it last time...


I'm generalising of course. But to assume that dropping your bike off in for a "service" will ensure you don't have any problems riding out on the trails is not really a safe one. There are many different types of services, as there are many different personalities that become bike mechanics. And so the most important piece advice I can give you about about getting your bike serviced is to not focus on the shop or the type of service. Think of a bike mechanic like a good doctor - someone you trust to help you find and prevent problems. Find a mechanic you can trust, and stick with them (if they know your first name when they see you, that's a really good start!)


So if the bike shops don't check everything, how do I know what might need to be serviced?

This is a bit of a tough topic to cover so I've provided a list of components on a bike that you might want to specifcy maintenance and periodic replacing with some indications and timeframes for when they might need work.


Chain Replacement

Symptoms: Difficulty changing gears, chain slips when pedalling, particularly when pushing down on the pedals hard, gears don't hold properly. It's probably important to note that if your experiencing some of these symptoms and the chain is confirmed as worn, you'll probably need a new cluster (thing on the back wheel with that we otherwise call gears) and even possibly a new chain ring (thing that's attached to your pedals).

Investing a small amount of money on a chain checker can help keep your bike running smoother and save you a lot of money in the long run.

Things you can do in between servicing: Checking your chain length is an easy way to figure out if your chain needs replacing. You just need a chain checker which you can pick up for around $10 or so for a basic one. If the chain checker tells you the chain has stretched by having the front and back drop into the links, it's time to think about a new chain.


Approximate Interval: Very much depends on how often you ride, as well as how you ride. If you're the sort of person that likes to stand up and stomp on the pedals to put the power down, or you ride an e-bike, I'd probably look at replacing the chain at least every 6 months, maybe as frequently as 3 months - if you want the other parts of your drivetrain to last longer at least. In other cases, annually might be okay.


Tubeless Tyre Maintenance

Symptoms: Obviously only affects people who have a tubeless conversion (ie don't have tubes - and if you're not sure, you probably have tubes). Tyre pressure deflates as quickly as 24 hours after putting more air in the tyre. Sometimes faster.


Things you can do in between servicing: Put more sealant in - but you can only do this if you have the right tools for the job. Otherwise getting the tyre to sit back on the rim can be a bit painful.


Approximate Interval: Actually depends on how much sealant was put in the first place, along with how much might have been "used" while riding (as in you might have punctures you weren't aware of). Usually sealant manufacturers tell you to put in enough for about 6 months - which is when I top up. If a bike shop puts in less than the recommended amount though, you might find you'll need to put more in sooner. And the opposite if you have plenty in there.

You won't always realise when you've had a leak plugged by your tubeless sealant. But these leaks can cause your sealant to be used sooner than expected so it's not a bad idea to make sure you still have sealant left in your tire periodically.

Tyre Replacement

Symptoms: Your bike starts feeling vague while cornering, instead of feeling sharp. You start skidding a lot more while braking. And visually, the knobs are a whole lot smaller and less stiff than when you first purchased the tyre (assuming you can remember what it looked and felt like in the first place).


Things you can do in between servicing: Make sure you have the best tyre pressures for your riding. It's not always possible, but where you can it can help.


Approximate Interval: Lots of variables here, from frequency of riding to the terrain and your own style of riding, to the actual tyre type (some tyres have softer compounds for more grip which wear out faster). For me, I tend to swap my front out once a year, and the rear every six months - at least if I'm doing 2 to 3 rides a week.


Gear Cable

Symptoms: Shifting isn't very crisp, especially when shifting up into a low (easier) gear. In some cases you have to shift up twice and then down once to get into the correct gear. Or you just have problems finding the right gear in the first place.


Things you can do in between servicing: Firstly, make sure your rear axle is secure. A loose rear axle can cause the frame to spread causing misalignment in the derailleur. Assuming that's all okay though, most bikes have either a barrel adjust where you change the gears, or one at the derailleur (or both), which you can screw out to increase the tension of the cable which can help correct the alignment of the derailleur due to cable stretch. If you're doing this, tighten it in one quarter increments and test the gear change - you don't want to over do it. And keep in mind that if this doesn't seem to help at all, your gear cable might be about ready to snap - so keep that in mind!


Approximate Interval: As always, it depends, mostly on how often you change your gears, which is hence affected also by how often you ride. I like to change mine out annually, being a reasonably frequent rider and gear changer. I tend to do my wife's bike every two years.


Dropper Post Cable

Symptoms: Most modern bikes use a dropper post with a cable these days, connect to a lever at the handle bars. If you find that your dropper isn't going down easily when you push the lever where it previously used to, there's a good chance it's because the dropper post cable has stretched.

Remnants of a snapped dropper post cable and what held onto it. It doesn't take much to go from working dropper post to broken one.

Things you can do in between servicing: Like your gear shifts, your dropper post lever will have a barrel adjuster. Tighten it in one quarter increments and test the responsiveness of the dropper post. If you over tighten the cable though, you'll find that your seat won't lock into place - it will go straight back up after you push it down (and if you sit on it, it won't stay up). And again, keep in mind that if this doesn't seem to help at all, your dropper post cable might be about ready to snap - so keep that in mind!


Approximate Interval: Yes, again it depends, mostly on how much you actually use your dropper post, which is hence affected also by how often you ride. I like to change mine out annually, being very frequent user of my dropper post. My wife's - well, I'll probably never have to change it!


Dropper Post Air Reservoir

Symptoms: Your dropper post comes up much more slowly than your used to, or doesn't come up at all, even though the dropper post lever (and hence the cable) feels fine.


Things you can do in between servicing: Your dropper post most likely needs air, which you can add if you have a shock pump. There are some cases where you can't add air - where the dropper post is very basic, which makes them a single use item. But assuming you can add air, you can use the shock pump to replace lost air (although you may need to remove the seat). If you can do this, you won't need tell the bike shop to do anything. In more serious cases, the air seals may be leaking, in which case it's probably better to replace the whole dropper post out with a new one.


Approximate Interval: And again, it depends, mostly on how much you actually use your dropper post, which is hence affected also by how often you ride. I'll do mine annually, but mostly it's just when you notice your seat isn't coming up very quickly.


Chain Ring and Gear Cluster

Symptoms: Difficulty holding gears, chain slips when pedalling, particularly when pushing down on the pedals hard, gears don't hold properly. It's probably important to note that if you'll need to change your chain a the same time, as putting a new cluster and chain ring with an old chain will accelerate the wear of the new components - which won't be very cheap.

Over time your rear cluster will wear out, causing your gears to slip (and probably causing you to swear). When replacing the cluster it's important to remember to replace the chain at the same time.

Things you can do in between servicing: Change your chain before it stretches too far. This will help your chain ring and gear cluster much longer and save you some money while ensuring you're not frustrated by slipping gears.


Approximate Interval: Very much depends on how often you ride, how you ride, and where you ride. For more frequent riders, I'd suggest an annual change out of these components (especially if you're on an e-bike). Otherwise you can potentially go 18 - 24 months - but be prepared for unexpected pedalling problems!


Brake Pads

Symptoms: You find that when pressing the brake levers when riding, they're getting much closer to the handle bars. You may also hear a high pitched squeal when braking as some brake pad manufacturers add a metal brake warning indicator when brakes are getting close to needing to be changed.


Things you can do in between servicing: Don't brake as much? Seriously, learn good riding skills so you're not on the brakes as often - that's about it. Also, if it's just the lever going close to the handlebars, there may be air in your brake system. You can temporarily fix this by repeatedly pressing the brake levers rapidly (it forces the air into a part of the system where it doesn't affect the performance), but you might need to have the brake system bled (for hydraulic brakes) at the next service.


Approximate Interval: Depends on how much you use the brakes! And the type of riding you do as well (people descending or riding fast, may use their brake pads faster than people who ride flat trails). Also, the type of brake pads you're using (organic vs metal) will vary the length of how long they last. I usually get about two years of life out of mine.


Hydraulic Brake System Bleed

Symptoms: You either find that your brake lever is regularly getting close to the handle bars when hitting the brakes and you know the brake pads have plenty of material left on them, or they do the opposite and it feels like your brake levers don't have much movement before you feel the brake pads biting.

Normally, brake fluid is more clear, with a slight colour tinge depending on the type your brake system uses. If it's black like this, it definitely isn't healthy - in this case having absorbed too much water and no longer compressing like it should.

Things you can do in between servicing: If it's the lever going close to the handlebars, there may be air in your brake system. You can temporarily fix this by repeatedly pressing the brake levers rapidly (it forces the air into a part of the system where it doesn't affect the performance). At the next service the system can be bled out and the air pushed out of the system. If it's the brake levers becoming too sensitive, there isn't a whole lot you can do unless you have high end brakes with adjustable contact points, in which case you wind out the bite point so they don't contact as early.


Approximate Interval: Yes, again it depends. There are different brake types which use different types of oil that have different properties - which can makes this topic really long. But on average, I'd say it's probably a 2 year thing.


Suspension

Symptoms: Your front and rear shocks are complex pieces of equipment that bare the brunt of your mountain bike riding. But the symptoms can be so subtle that you may not notice the problems occurring. Your shocks might be losing air, evident from feeling like your bike is bottoming out your pedal striking more. Or you may feel like your suspension isn't smoothing out the terrain as much, making your ride feel rougher (happening because the oil in your shocks is becoming thicker and not flowing through the necessary parts as easily). In more extreme cases, excessive wear will occur as worn seals, resulting in complete air loss or leaking oil. In the absolute worse case, it will actually parts of the shock itself that have worn, requiring replacement of the shock to prevent air or oil leakage.


Things you can do in between servicing: Not a whole lot to be honest, other than making sure you're running the correct air pressures and sag settings so you don't bottom out and damage your shock.


Approximate Interval: Usual story - it depends. But oil does degrade over time so 6 to 12 months is what I would recommend (but which I don't necessarily follow). If you go longer than that and you're a regular rider you may find that you'll start wearing out the more expensive parts of your shock.


One other thing I'll mention is that the majority of bike shops aren't equipped to service a fork or a shock properly. Usually these are sent away to a specialist centre to do the work - so if you're expecting your shock to have been serviced by your bike shop, make sure to check that they can and have done it (they should be able to provide you with the old parts they've replaced if they've done it properly).

There is some shock maintenance that is easily done. But for the bigger jobs it's best left to a specialist.

Wheel truing (straightening your wheels)

Symptoms: While you're riding someone tells you that your wheels look like pringles (or that that they look like they're wobbling).


Things you can do in between servicing: Avoid tail whips and doing other stupid things. But honestly, not a whole lot, other than straightening a wheel yourself, which is an art in itself requiring the right tools as well.


Approximate Interval: There isn't really one. But don't worry - this is one of those things that is normally part of the "standard MTB service".


Bearings

Symptoms: Bearings are located in the headset (the part of the frame where the fork goes though to connect the handlebars), the bottom bracket (the part where the pedals go through the frame), and the suspension pivot points (the points where your frame rotates to improve your traction). Generally you'll hear either creaking or feel that your bike is a bit "crunchy".


Things you can do in between servicing: This is one of those not a whole lot type problems, other than to make sure your bolts are all secure.


Approximate Interval: You can be really over zealous and have these done annually if you're very keen, but if your bike is built well you should find this is a thing that you only need to look at every two to three years.


Other Stuff

Sometimes, stuff on mountain bikes just breaks. And no amount of preventative maintenance will stop the problem from happening.

There are definitely other parts of your bike that may need maintenance or repair due to something not working, or because something has broken. In these cases, you'll generally know there's a problem and it's a case of letting your bike mechanic know what it is, along with giving him as much detail on the symptoms and what the problem might be. A good bike mechanic will generally have a pretty good idea once you've given them some information.


At the end of the day

Mountain bikes are both simple and complex pieces of machinery at the same time, and we expect a lot from them, given the terrain we ride and what we do with them (and rightly so! Given how much they cost!).


But this also means that a variety of different problems can exist, which can make it difficult for a bike mechanic to catch all the problems your bike may have. The best way to ensure any problems you might have with your mountain bike are fixed is to ensure you have a good mountain bike and you give them as much detail as possible on anything that might be wrong. In any case, I do hope this post helps you a bit with understanding some of the things you need to keep in mind when maintaining your mountain bike.


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