HOW TO MAKE YOUR OLD BIKE FEEL NEW AGAIN – TURN BACK THE CLOCK ON WEAR AND TEAR
Refresh and renew
Nothing beats the exhilaration of “new bike day” when every component is brand new. The drivetrain sings a mechanical symphony of precision. The brakes feel like you have unlimited power at the control of a cocked pistol trigger, and the frame has yet to even consider showing signs of a creak or crack. Unfortunately for you, the trails you ride will begin to degrade the performance of those fresh parts from your very first ride. The fact is, anybody who claims his bike is “brand new” is only truthful if he is putting it together as you’re having this conversation. The “wear clock” starts for some of these components as soon as you start riding, and in some cases, even if you just let your bike sit for too long.
Cycling is a mechanical sport, and the parts we rely on are designed to wear. While there are many tips and tricks you can use to extend the life of your bike and its critical components, it’s equally important to know how to spot a part that just needs to be retired. We’ll show you how to get the most from your parts and when it’s better to retire and replace them instead.
There’s no good rule of thumb for how long your tires should last. Some riders may get a couple of years out of their stock rubber, while others may burn through multiple sets of new tires in a summer bike-park season. Where and how much you ride determines this, but learning to read the wear pattern on your tires will ensure that you’re not only getting the most mileage but also the most grip from them.
Average tire life seems to range from a few hundred miles for the softest of race tires to a couple thousand from a dry-compound XC tire in ideal conditions. Tires will go through a few phases as they age.
As a tire wears, the little rubber nipples will fall off. If you still have these on your tire, they’re likely relatively fresh. As the virgin surface burns off, the tires should come to full grip as they break in. With the cornering knobs sharp and fresh, the handling of the bike will be at its absolute best.
After a few hundred miles, a tire will begin to show signs of wear but should still have sharp edges on most of the knobs. If your cornering knobs still look like they haven’t touched the dirt, you may want to decrease pressure to allow the tire carcass to conform to the ground better. Conversely, if your knobs look like they’ve taken a lot of abuse, you may be using a rubber compound that’s too soft for your conditions or your tire may be under-inflated. Either way, it’s a good reason to try a different setup.
After about 500–1000 miles, there will be enough wear that your grip is diminished, especially when cornering and in loose or steep terrain. While tires can be pushed past this wear level, many riders opt to simply replace at this point. Old tires are more vulnerable to punctures. Moreover, if you’ve plugged a tire to repair a puncture, it’s not worth the increased risk of failure on a future ride.
Only our absolute favorite tires, ones that have survived our marginal line choices and somehow avoided enough of the sharp rocks to still hold air reliably, are pushed past what we would call the 50-percent wear mark. Beyond this, stretching the life of a tire becomes a balance between thriftiness and performance, and ultimately a gamble on safety and reliability. We’ve been on the losing end of this with both flat tires that left us far from home and crashes that came unexpectedly from a loss of grip. We recommend replacing worn tires before they’re down to the threads.
Since the invention of disc brakes, wheels stopped wearing out in the traditional sense of the word, but they can and do fatigue. Aluminum rims can be bent back and trued, but a wheel that constantly comes out of alignment or requires uneven spoke tension to straighten it needs to be replaced. Always check for cracks at the spoke holes and rim joint. Carbon rims do not bend or fatigue like aluminum rims but can break or crack.
Spokes can also fatigue over time and need to be replaced. A single broken spoke is not typically a cause for concern, but more than one broken spoke is. If you notice damaged spokes, the failure was likely impact-related and not fatigue. We like to follow the rule of three: if you have more than three broken spokes, it’s time to replace the wheel.
Brake systems deteriorate due to friction wearing down pads and rotors and from heat degrading the fluids and seal performance over time. Riders who don’t do as much aggressive descending will get more life from their brakes, while larger riders and those who love to rally the descents will have more maintenance to deal with. Your first set of pads will likely last about as long as the stock set of tires, but riding wet trails or a few days of gravity riding at a bike park can kill a set of pads in a very short period of time.
It’s best to check the thickness of your pads at least every few rides. The pad material should be at least a few millimeters thick on top of the backing plate, and if you’ve worn past there, it’s time to replace them. When it comes to rotors, most of them start at about 1.8–2mm thick, and the companies will etch the thickness at which you should replace the rotors on the rotor itself. Look carefully at the lettering stamped in the metal and it should give you this thickness, which is usually 1.5 or 1.8mm. Most rotors will last through two to three sets of brake pads before they need replacement.
Brake fluids degrade at different rates and will require different schedules to maintain. DOT brake fluid, for example, is hydroscopic, which means it absorbs water over time and loses its resistance to heat expansion. DOT fluid brakes, such as SRAM brakes, should be bled as frequently as two to three times a season or more if the brakes start to lose their snappy lever feel. Brakes that use mineral oil as fluid, such as Shimano, Magura and TRP, are less prone to fluid degradation but should still be properly bled at least once a season. No matter which type of brake you have, a bleed will set the fluid to the proper level to accommodate for pad wear and simply make your brakes feel better.
A new chain will last a couple thousand miles or about a season for most people. Obviously, this can vary widely depending on conditions, rider weight and about a million other variables you could encounter on the trail. New drivetrain components always work better than old ones, and if you’re fastidious about caring for them, they will always last longer. A new drivetrain may take a few rides to settle in, but once the cables have stretched out, your shifting should be relatively trouble-free for the first several hundred miles. Small noises and mis-shifts when components are relatively new are almost always adjustment-related rather than wear-related. If you’re having trouble getting new parts to work, be sure to go back and check less obvious adjustments like the B-tension screw, cable-housing length or even chain length if it was installed outside the factory.
As a drivetrain begins to wear, it will slowly become noisier. This will come on so slowly, you may hardly notice it. Most chainrings and cassettes will work smoothly for about the lifespan of three chains. Using a worn chainring or cassette beyond that will likely cause noise and shifting issues.
If you’re battling bent parts rather than worn ones here, we’ll go ahead and save you some time. Derailleur hangers can be bent back reliably once. Beyond that, they’re too brittle and will break and fail. Derailleurs and pulley cages can be bent back to improve really bad shifting, but they will never be perfect again. If you can live with fewer gear choices and a few gears that” click” through the pedal strokes, you can keep riding them while you save up the money to replace them.
Generally speaking, your bike’s pedals are a low-maintenance item. Wear typically comes in the form of damage from rock strikes and is seen or felt in the form of a bent spindle. The most common wear item on pedals is clipless pedals’ cleats. Mud, dirt and grime slowly wear the small contact points where the cleat interfaces with the binding mechanism on the pedal. Wear bad enough to cause performance loss is so subtle that it cannot typically be seen. Signs of wear include difficult and inconsistent release or frequent unintended release.
CABLES AND HOUSING
If your shifting has gone south and all the components in your drivetrain seem to be straight and true, try replacing the cable and housing. It’s amazing how much a tiny bit of friction in that tube wreaks havoc on shifting, but this trick is a quick and cheap alternative to replacing a derailleur, and it’s worked for us more than once. Worn housing can be easily spotted by inspecting the black (usually) coating at the points where it contacts the frame. Hot spots can develop at internal cable ports or guides and wear through. If this happens all the way down to the filaments inside, your cables will lose their ability to pull the derailleur, and you’ll be spending the rest of the day single-speeding. Even if the outer housing has not worn through, a fresh inner cable can push out dirt and grit that’s infiltrated the housing and reduce friction, thereby improving shifting. It’s a quick and easy alternative to try before replacing the more expensive components.
Your suspension components are basically sealed systems that, once set up properly, should work relatively trouble-free so long as you follow the scheduled maintenance plan. They’re complex components that use pressurized air and oil chambers, all of which rely on rubber seals to work properly. They’re happiest when they’re cycled frequently to allow the bath oils to circulate and keep lubrication where it needs to be. While some riders may insist on setting their shock and fork firm to only use it on the big stuff, that won’t prolong the life of the parts and could actually damage them. The first step to prolonging the life of your suspension is to set it up properly for your weight and riding style, so that the fork and shock are at about 20–30-percent sag. Another favorite rule of thumb is you should almost bottom out your travel at least once on a moderately aggressive trail ride.
During the first season, suspension bits will work better if they are maintained. Racers and sponsored athletes have their bits rebuilt before every event. Many riders push their components past their recommended rebuild intervals. SRAM and Fox both call for their parts to be taken apart after only about 50 hours of use, which could be a couple of weeks for a serious rider. If you don’t follow this recommendation, you’re risking doing damage to internal components like the air shafts and stanchions, which have precise coatings that love fresh oil and hate grit.
If you’ve neglected your suspension for long enough, it will show external signs of the internal damage that has been occurring during all those “one more lap and then I’ll call the shop” rides. “Blown” rear shocks will make a squishing sound on compression if air has mixed into the oil over time. This air foams and makes the damping inconsistent and uncontrolled. Forks may feel stiffer and less responsive, as oil lost over time in the bushings has leaked out and increased the friction. Riders who neglect their suspension for this long may have to deal with a dead-feeling fork and a shock that will happily catapult them over the bars after a big hit.
Although they’re not really considered suspension, dropper seatposts follow similar service intervals.
FRAME AND BEARINGS
The frame is the largest component of any bike, and if it’s a full-suspension frame, the bearings that allow it to articulate are among the most precious parts to look after. Even if your bike is a hardtail, bearings in the wheel hubs and headset will have a critical impact on your ride, so keeping them running smoothly is time well-spent.
Frame, wheel and headset bearings should be inspected for play every single time you ride. Riding with any of these components loose can cause damage to the surfaces they press into and make replacement more difficult or impossible. Thankfully, this is one of the quickest checks you can do and will become second nature in no time. To check hub bearings, move the wheels side to side and feel for play. If you feel something loose, check the hubs. If those are tight, keep checking other bearings and bolts until you find the culprit. A knocking in the front wheel could be traced to something like the hub, but it could also be the headset or even a brake caliper that’s worked itself loose. In the rear, it could be the linkage bearings, a brake caliper or the shock mounts. Using your fingers to feel the points where there could be play is the best way to find the problem bearings to adjust or replace them.
Every cartridge bearing rolls smoothly when it’s brand new, but they all degrade over time. How fastidious you are with the bike will determine how long your frame bearings will last. Most companies estimate a frame bearing set will last two to five years, but this has everything to do with how the bike is cared for. Cleanliness is key here, but more important than making the bike shiny, try to prevent corrosion inside the bearings. Washing a bike after a ride always feels like the best practice, but storing your bike before it’s dry will cause it to rust from the inside out. Keep your bike clean, but plan to spend as much time drying your bike as you did hosing it off for best results.
Frames, especially carbon frames, do not typically wear out or fatigue, but as with all parts, they can fail. After washing your bike, it’s good to give the frame an inspection to check for cracks or damage. Cracks can be obvious or as subtle as chipping paint. Most cracks tend to happen around suspension pivots, chainstays and the head-tube area. If it’s a metal bike, check around the edges of all welds, especially critical ones such as those at the bottom of the head-tube/downtube junction.
Scratched decals and clear coat on components are not typically a problem, but any gouges into the base material should be inspected by a professional or replaced.
WORN-PARTS TIMELINE: EXPECT IT THE FIRST YEAR
—Even the top mechanics in the world will check their handiwork after a first ride or two to make sure bolts haven’t worked their way loose. The first few times out, pay particular attention to noises and vibrations you feel, as they may be signs of mis-adjusted or loosened threads.
—Suspension adjustment and bracketing should be at the top of your list for the first few rides. Once you’ve landed on a setting that feels close to what you like, experiment with things like rebound adjustments and slightly higher or lower air pressures. By doing this, you will constantly work towards your ideal suspension setup for your terrain and riding style.
—Cable-stretch adjustments will be needed after a couple of rides to keep shifting crisp. These are called “cable-stretch” adjustments, because it would make sense that a braided cable would stretch out a little (or the housing would compress a little) and come out of adjustment. Don’t fret if your bike develops shifting issues after only a ride or two or your dropper cable loosens up a tad. These issues are easy to correct, and the problem shouldn’t be recurring.
—Feel for knocking bearings as you ride. If you notice the steering seems sloppy or there’s noise coming from the front end, you may have loose headset bearings. Being able to spot issues like this and stop riding before you cause damage to expensive components is important when the bike is new and breaking in.
—Keep your bike clean, but don’t go overboard washing it with a hose. Our simplest cleaning kit includes some brushes, soapy water and a bucket. This should be all you need to keep the bulk of dust and dirt out of the drivetrain and other problem areas. Be sure not to pressure-wash anything that could force water into places it shouldn’t be, such as bearings or suspension components. And never put your bike away wet.
—New bikes come with a lubricated chain. You won’t need to refresh this for at least a ride or two.
—You will need to make brake and shifting adjustments after some ride time. Expect to have to fine-tune most of these components in the first few weeks.
—If you are using tubeless tires and sealant, the liquid will evaporate in the first four to six weeks, even if you never get a flat tire. You will need to replenish the sealant in the tires to keep them working properly; otherwise, you risk a true flat with even the smallest thorn puncture in the tire.
—Inspect brake pads, especially if you do a lot of descending or are a heavier rider. These components are designed to wear out, and the amount of time it takes to wear them down varies tremendously, depending on your riding style and conditions.
—Every bike develops creaks. It doesn’t matter what your bike says on the downtube or the price tag; every bike will turn from a precisely tuned machine into a creaky pile of you know what. Don’t believe us? Just do a Google search for “creaky new bike” and see what comes up. Riders who purchase their bike at a local shop have a major advantage here. Most of the time, the local bike mechanic has diagnosed not only your creak but several others on the same component or even bike model. There is value in that expertise, and you will have to acquire or pay for that expertise when you decide to buy direct. Learn to speak your bike’s language, and narrow down where creaks, cracks and other vibrations are coming from.
—Inspect bearings/bolts/suspension pivots for unusual wear. This may require special tools, as things like bottom brackets require cup tools.
—Inspect suspension components/change lubrication oil in the fork and shock. These procedures can be DIY but are more advanced than basic maintenance.
—Know how to spot a warranty issue and do it before a year is up. The window between when you buy the bike and the day the warranty expires is valuable. If there’s something giving you issues, don’t put off contacting the company for long.
—Check chain/chainrings for wear. Most riders will get about a season out of a chain and a couple of seasons out of the rest of the drivetrain. Replacing the chain before it wears out will prevent the rest of the parts from wearing prematurely. Check after six months.
—Inspect cables and housing for wear. Worn housing (outer liner) will look rubbed thin, kinked or frayed inside the ferrules. Worn shifter cables (inner cable) are kinked or frayed. Any of these symptoms indicates you should replace them.
—Bleed the front and rear brakes if either feels off. Hydraulic brakes that use DOT fluid can degrade rather quickly and will work better if they’re bled a couple times a year. Brakes that use mineral oil can be used longer without bleeding, although the fluid levels will change as the pads wear down. It’s best to count on preventatively bleeding a couple times a season.
—Replace brake pads if worn below 2mm of pad thickness or anywhere near the backing plate
—Send suspension off for a factory rebuild. This is a more thorough version of the lubrication oil service you should have done earlier in the year. If you’ve put a full season of use on your suspension, it’s time to have all the fluids and gases changed, including those deep in the damper that can’t be serviced anywhere but the factory or a suspension rebuild specialist.
—Replace the chain if you’re anywhere near a full season of use. The longevity benefits to the rest of your drivetrain are worth it.
—Replace worn housing, even if your bike’s shifting still feels pretty good. You’ll be surprised how good a new cable feels.
—Replace brake pads/inspect rotors, especially if you’ve changed pads. Most rotors should be able to last through two to three sets of pads, depending on the compound you’re using, but if your brakes feel worse for wear no matter how much you adjust or bleed them, fresh pads with fresh rotors will make them feel as good as new.