We recently heard a story about a fellow rider who had one heck of a nasty crash. It was on a trail here in Southern California he had ridden many times. He was just riding along on his 13-year-old full-suspension bike when all of a sudden the crankarm fell to the ground. All his bodyweight went directly to the saddle, but because the post was not inserted far enough in, the fatigued aluminum cracked, leaving a jagged edge hungry for his flesh. The broken seat tube shredded his thigh, causing a deep wound. Thankfully, the rider was brave and smart enough to tie a tourniquet above the wound and then strong enough to limp his way back to the trailhead. After a hospital visit and 18 stitches, things were a heck of a lot better than they might have been, and the bike was the only thing that was permanently damaged; however, we couldn’t help but think that this entire disaster could have been avoided with some simple maintenance and setup tips. To avoid a trip to the ER, and simply to make your bike run better every time you ride, follow these guidelines.
DON’T INSTALL DAMAGED PARTS
Do you have a carbon handlebar with “just a little gouge” in it? Or, how about a carbon seatpost that “only made a little cracking sound” when you forgot to use a torque wrench installing it? Sorry to say this, but lightweight parts that have been compromised are like ticking time bombs. Better to take your medicine and replace it rather than be sorry when the part fails.
(ALMOST) ALWAYS RUN YOUR SEAT LEVEL
Many riders think that by dropping the nose of the saddle they will take pressure off their “undercarriage.” That’s a halftruth. It will take some pressure off of your nether region but will push your weight forward and put more pressure on your hands. It’s better to find a saddle that fits your personal body geometry and run it level
NEVER RUN LOCK-ON GRIPS OFF THE ENDS OF THE BAR
We’ve been guilty of this one. You think a lock-on grip is solid, so running it slightly off the ends for a wider cockpit will be fine. And it will, for a while. Trouble is, the first time you really pull or push hard on the bar, the plastic sleeve inside the grip could snap in half and allow the grip to tear off in your hand. It’s a sure-fire way to guarantee a nasty crash. That outer clamp is there for a reason. Use it.
NEVER RUN YOUR SEATPOST ABOVE THE MINIMUM INSERTION LINE
This mistake was the inspiration for this entire article. Running your post above the minimum insertion line is dangerous. It puts too much stress on the seat tube and can easily cause a failure. The rule of thumb is a minimum of 100 millimeters (4 inches) of overlap between the post and seat tube. Some frames may require more. Follow their advice! If you’re above the minimum insertion line, you likely need a bigger frame.
NEVER TRUST YOUR FIRST SUSPENSION SETUP
Suspension is meant to be tinkered with. We can’t remember a time when the stock setup was absolutely perfect, even when the work was done by top professional tuners. Rather than rely on your initial setup or strictly on setup guides, try experimenting with pressures and damping knobs. It’s always helpful if you write down the pressures, number of “clicks” of damping, turns of preload, etc. That allows you to return to your base tune and start fresh if you mess up the tuning process.
RUN YOUR BRAKES SLIGHTLY IN FROM THE GRIPS
This allows your index finger to fall right on the hook of the lever blade for maximum leverage. It also allows your middle finger to stay on the bar for more control with less chance of slipping off.
DON’T RIDE A BENT SADDLE
Bent seat rails are incredibly common. They happen when you come down too hard on the seat on a missed jump or technical move and tweak the alignment. Trouble is, when you ride on a bent saddle, you improperly load your spine and hips as you pedal. If you ride like that for too long, it will cause back or hip pain. It’s been a serious cause of back pain for several of our testers without them even knowing the reason. If you want to check your saddle, pull it off your bike and put it on a table. It should sit level and flat. If it doesn’t, it’s time for a new one.
DON’T FORGET THE BAR-END CAPS
By leaving the end caps off your handlebars, you’re exposing what’s essentially a sharp pipe that’s ready to take a core sample of your stomach in a crash. Trust us; we learned this one the hard way too. Use the bar-end caps.
CHECK THE TORQUE ON EVERY BOLT FROM TIME TO TIME
People often forget that even properly torqued bolts can and will come loose over the life of a bike. Bolts—like the ones that hold the suspension linkage together, keep your crankarms tight and attach the brake calipers to the frame —are particularly important to check at least a few times a season.
NEVER LEAVE A BOLT LOOSE AND THINK, “I’LL TIGHTEN THAT LATER.”
Don’t overestimate your ability to remember a bolt is still loose. It’s way too easy to forget, and you’re likely to end up on your cabeza in the first turn as the stem turns 90 degrees while you’re trying to make a corner. If you’re working on a bike, it’s always best to finish one job completely before moving on to the next. If you’re installing a new bar and stem, be sure to tighten everything before moving onto dialing in the shifting. That goes for every other job too. Finish one job, then move onto the next before your brain goes on autopilot and forgets.
REPLACE SHIFTER CABLES AT LEAST ONCE A YEAR
Ghost shifting is not just annoying, it can be dangerous. Being in between gears only to have the bike go “pop” right when you’re on the pedals the hardest can cause a slipand-fall situation. We’re amazed how often new shifter cables and housing solve shifting problems. It’s also a cheap upgrade that will give you a chance to inspect your drivetrain and fine-tune what’s wrong.
REPLACE YOUR CHAIN ONCE A SEASON OR MORE
Drivetrains wear out as a system. The best way to prolong the life of your drivetrain is to replace the chain often, because the chain is the first component to wear out. As it degrades, it will begin to damage the rest of the more expensive components, such as the cassette and chainrings. If you wait too long to replace the chain, you may find that the new chain doesn’t mesh with the old teeth and will skip incessantly.
CHECK YOUR FRAME FOR CRACKS
This is not something that you need to do before every ride, but it needs to be done a few times a year. We find it’s easiest to make a mental note to check for issues right after cleaning the bike. Check for scratches and dents. Check the seatstays and chainstays for ripples in the paint and run your fingers along the tubes to check for anything that feels out of place. Any of these could mean a frame failure is imminent. There is no such thing as a frame that lasts forever. It’s always best to retire a frame before it fails on you.
THE PRE-RIDE CHECK:
SPIN THE WHEELS TO SEE IF YOUR BRAKES ARE RUBBING
Adjusting your brakes so they don’t rub is the quickest way to gain free speed that we know of. In fact, you may have been running your brakes with a bit of drag for months. Think of all the speed you could have had! The bottom line is that brake pads can migrate, and even if they are perfectly adjusted at first, they can start to drag over time. Be sure to check this at least every month.
INSPECT TIRE SIDEWALLS FOR TEARS OR DAMAGE
This is one of the things riders most frequently overlook. Before you ride, give both tires a quick inspection on both sides to make sure the beads are seated and there are no tears. We’ve seen tires only one ride old that were damaged and needed to be replaced. It only takes 20 seconds to check them, and it might save you a walk home.
WIGGLE THE REAR WHEEL AND FEEL FOR PLAY
This is a quick and easy test that will help diagnose everything from loose hubs and loose headsets to worn suspension bearings. Simply hold the handlebar and move the rear wheel from side to side. If there are any knocks or clicks, you may have a problem. Repeat the same process over and over again while moving your hand from point to point to figure out the source of the movement. A finely tuned suspension bike should be taut and should not have any side-to-side play, no matter the model or brand.
TRIPLE-CHECK TO MAKE SURE YOU HAVE YOUR HELMET, SHOES, GLOVES, ETC.
There is nothing worse than making it to the trailhead to find you have forgotten a crucial piece of gear. That mistake will derail a ride quicker than you can say, “Chain-suck.” Whether you’re an early riser who likes to pack in the morning or a night owl who likes to pack the night before, be sure you pack all your gear. If you’re prone to forget things, leave your car keys in your helmet or shoes the night before. That will ensure you can’t leave without at least thinking about the essentials.
ALWAYS INFLATE TIRES AND AVOID THE “SQUEEZE” TEST
Many riders simply squeeze the tire and think, “That’s good.” Trouble is, not everyone’s hands are as calibrated as a pump gauge. We’ve tested riders on this, and they’re regularly at least 10 psi off either way. Always pump your tires before a ride. As a bonus, riding consistent pressures will make your bike feel more predictable and make you a more confident rider.
GIVE THE WHEELS A SPIN AND MAKE SURE THEY ARE TRUE
It’s a quick tip but an important one. If you’re running disc brakes, the rims don’t necessarily have to be straight as an arrow. But, you should frequently check for loose spokes and wobbles that are big enough to cause the tires to rub on the frame or fork.
DON’T IGNORE CRASHES
If you crashed on your last ride, these tips are even more important. Take the time to check your bike over before you take it back out—rather than experience a ride-ending or dangerous failure.
MAKE SURE YOUR AXLES, FRONT AND REAR, ARE TIGHT
This one is pretty self-explanatory. But, while you’re at it, make sure your axles are clocked properly. The fork axle lever should be straight up or parallel with the fork legs. The rear axle should either be up and slightly forward or straight back. Whatever you do, don’t be one of those guys who runs your axle levers straight down.
MAKE SURE YOUR STEM BOLTS ARE TIGHT
There is no more embarrassing mistake for any mechanic, at any level, than leaving stem bolts loose. We’ve even seen it happen on the World Cup circuit and professional road bike circuits—a racer has a nasty crash, and it was 100 percent the mechanic’s fault. Always give your stem a quick tug, or put a wrench on the bolts to make sure they’re tight. This is especially true if you’ve been doing any maintenance recently. ❏