It occurred to us that those folks who are new to the sport of triathlon or cycling might have no clue how often to perform maintenance on their bike. It is easy to find instructions for specific tasks (we have many ‘How-To’ articles in our Tech section), but a general schedule seems difficult to find. It is a similar ball game for beginning auto mechanics. I don’t want to only know the manufacturer’s cookie-cutter schedule; I want to hear it from an experienced mechanic. Are there things that the auto manufacturer overlooks? What are some real-world examples?
Reputable bike and auto mechanics will agree – their worst enemy is often an uneducated consumer. In my experience, there are very few mechanics out there that want to sell ‘fake service’ to you. “Oh yeah, yer gear cluster there in the back needs a timing adjustment, and your power meter’s flux capacitor is low on electrolytes… that’ll be $300, please.”
Are there bad apples out there? Sure. That’s life. However, as a result of the common prejudice that “mechanics are just out to screw me”, I find that most mechanics are actually prescribing what they feel is the minimum service (myself included). They just want to keep you happy and on the road – so you come back to pay for their work again.
The problem is often a lack of understanding of how the darn thing works or how often parts wear out. For example’s sake, let’s say that your bike or car needed an adjustment to the brake calipers. Your mechanic lets you know the estimated price, you approve, and he or she performs the service. Everyone is happy. Then, only a few short months later, it needs new brake pads. Your mechanic informs you of this, along with an estimated price. Didn’t I just have the brakes worked on? What’s going on? They might have mentioned something about pads, but I don’t really remember… I’m not a mechanic! They’re just trying to charge me for the same service twice!
While that may seem like an over-simplified example, the point stands. It’s a real problem.
Basic Service Schedule
In an effort to help educate our readers, let’s lay out a very general two year schedule for a road or triathlon bike. This schedule is based on a few assumptions:
1. This is a big average. It’s the average rider on the average bike, riding average mileage for a competitive athlete. The weather and temperature are, well, average. The road surfaces? Decidedly average.
This is to say: Like every infomercial on the planet, ‘Your results may vary’. In very poor weather, some of these maintenance items may need to be done twice as often. In great weather, you might go three times as long. If all of the stars are aligned wrong and you have a powerful rider riding a ton of miles in extreme weather on poor roads – all bets are off, and you may be in for a LOT more. We’re going to make the risk of assuming that common sense will take over here, and help to guide our collective expectations. The idea is to give those with very little knowledge of bikes a glimpse into what they should expect.
For those that MUST have a ballpark mileage for this ‘average’, call it six or seven hours of cycling per week, or 125 miles. That makes 500 for a month or 6,000 for a year. Don't quote me on this. Maybe it's 8,000. Maybe it's 5,000.
2. The above being noted, we should make it clear that “never” is not an acceptable interval to do any of these maintenance items. I’ve seen some very nasty, poor-functioning bikes out there, ridden by folks with the “never” policy on things like handlebar tape, saddles, cables and housings, chains, and even a simple wipe-down of the bike with a rag and cleaning spray. Don’t be that guy or gal.
3. We’re not talking about pricing. Why? The spectrum is too broad with modern bikes. Even a simple brake adjustment could be $10 (on a simple bike with standard calipers)… or $80 (on a highly integrated bike with hidden TT brakes and aerodynamic fairings). For more on this topic, see the two articles linked at the bottom of this page (State of Tri Bike Service 1 & 2).
4. Each maintenance interval is in addition to the previous ones. If you’re performing your 6-month maintenance, that doesn’t mean that the weekly/monthly/etc intervals can be ignored.
5. “But… I’ve never replaced my cables, and the bike works fine.”
“I have XYZ model of wheels… when do I need to replace the bearings?”
“Do chainrings really wear out?”
“Are you in cahoots with my local shop? That looks like it’s going to cost a TON of money!”
Caveats, questions, and conspiracy-theorists. They’re going to happen. Rule number five here is like the second rule of Fight Club. You do NOT talk about Fight Club – and we’re ONLY talking about averages. There is no possible way that we can cover every single possible situation and bike in a single article, so cut our wrench-loving selves some slack.
6. It is worth noting: If the service doesn't need to be done, don't do it! If you follow the schedule and check your headset bearings at the two year mark... but they're still buttery smooth and silent - have a Coke and a smile, and keep on riding!
NOTE ON CHAIN LUBING:
When we say “Wipe down chain” every ride, this means to use a clean rag (i.e. old cotton race t-shirt), wrap it around a section of the chain below the chainstay with one hand, and spin the cranks backwards with the other hand for a couple revolutions. This procedure is generally a good practice with most lubes, and will keep the chain cleaner than if you never do it. Do I personally do it every single ride? No. Sometimes I’m tired and busy, and just don’t get to it. That doesn’t mean it’s any less valuable. Also note – I do not recommend the chain wipe-down with most of the very dry, wax-based lubes (you can cause the wax coating to chip off).
WHAT IS ‘WIPING THE BIKE DOWN’?
It pains me that I need to write a note on this, but it’s been proven to me time and time again – 90% of triathletes do not know how to do this. Here’s the procedure. Take a clean rag or even a paper towel (heavy-duty shop paper towels work best). Spray a basic degreaser on the rag, such as Simple Green diluted 50/50 with distilled water. Wipe the bike off, even if only for 15 seconds. We’re not going for perfect here. We want to remove surface grime and take a few seconds to look at the bike. This is the time that I notice at least 50% of all problems (‘Oh, it looks like my rear brake isn’t centered’). If you wipe the bike off regularly, it will reduce your number of full bike washes dramatically, and make your mechanic REALLY TRULY appreciate you as a customer when it comes time for more involved service items. I’m dead serious – they appreciate this almost as much as a six pack of beer. Almost.
Because I like examples, let’s show an example. This athlete – let’s call him Thunderbolt McGoo – rides a 2011 Cervelo P2C with Ultegra 10-speed components. It’s black. Thunderbolt took his bike in for service in December of 2012. Because he hadn’t done a whole lot of previous maintenance, his shop did a full overhaul – installing new cables and housings, a new cassette and chain, new brake pads, new wheel bearings, and new handlebar tape. Thunderbolt also bought a brand new SRM power meter, which his shop installed.
As it stands now, Thunderbolt’s bike is in good shape leading in to 2013. It isn’t new, but many of the main drivetrain components are new. Our schedule starts on January 1, 2013. It should be noted that Thunderbolt only owns one bike, and does all of his training on it. With two Olympic-distance races, one Half, and one Ironman on the schedule, it’s going to be a busy year.
-Pump the tires, lube the chain, and wipe the bike off according to schedule. Note that the brand new chain had to be degreased before the first application of lube.
-Because he lives in Illinois, Thunderbolt spends all of January’s miles on the indoor trainer
-The weather turned out to be very nice in the third week of February, and Thunderbolt was able to get out for two outdoor rides. The first had moderately wet roads, but the only ‘extra’ maintenance required was the addition of some chain lube, and a few minutes wiping the bike down.
-The second outdoor ride, however, came after a significant snow melt. The roads were covered with debris, lots of water, and road salt. The bike got absolutely covered. As a result, Thunderbolt had to add in a full bike wash and drivetrain degrease ahead of the normal schedule. Being a moderately adept mechanic, Thunderbolt washes the bike himself, but takes it to a shop for more involved service.
-Business as usual. The weather is warming up, and Thunderbolt is now doing splitting his rides about 50/50 indoors-and-outdoors. Because he takes the time to wipe the bike down (even the rear derailleur pulleys and chainrings), his drivetrain remains in great shape.
-Due to his relatively low winter miles, chain replacement can wait another month.
-It’s time for the first significant service. Thunderbolt schedules an appointment with his local shop, and they have it in their hands for 48 hours.
-All ‘3-4 Month Service’ is performed – lubing his Speedplay pedals, chain replacement, cassette removal/cleaning, and adjustments to both derailleurs and brakes.
-Because Thunderbolt rides an SRM, the battery does not need to be replaced (it has a non-user replaceable battery that lasts a few years, but must be sent back to SRM for replacement. He will do this at the end of 2014 when he sends the system back for a calibration check).
-Race season begins with a local sprint triathlon and one Olympic distance.
-Thunderbolt installs his 2010 Zipp 808 clinchers on the bike for both races. He also rides them periodically in training (say, 20% of his total training time). He’s lucky that the rim width exactly matches his training wheels, eliminating the need for brake adjustments. Both also have aluminum braking surfaces, so he can leave the same pads on. The only necessary adjustment is turning the rear derailleur barrel adjuster three clicks counterclockwise to account for the different freehub spacing between the wheels (his mechanic showed him how to do this).
-It is 6-month service time. Because his mileage has increased for the summer, the bike needs a new chain. Also, Thunderbolt’s shoes need new Speedplay cleats, and his bars need new handlebar tape.
-While not always the case, our friendly mechanic noticed that the rear brake and rear shift cables seemed to be dragging. They weren’t awful, but he could tell that they were headed that direction in another month or two. Rather than replace the full cable and housing, they simply replaced the two inner cables and the small rear pieces of housing (seen in the following photo). This can help restore shift and brake quality without costing an arm and a leg (these rear pieces of housing catch more grime than the rest of the bike).
-All 6-month service was done 2 weeks before Thunderbolt’s big half-Ironman race at the end of July
-This is the last month for big training, as Thunderbolt’s key race is Ironman Wisconsin in September. As a result, he has been a little lax in doing routine maintenance. He definitely adds chain lube here and there, but hasn’t been as religious about keeping the bike spic and span.
-Ten days before Wisconsin, Thunderbolt brings his bike in for one last check. They do a full bike wash, clean the cassette, check his cleat placement, and all bolts on the bike.
-While doing this service, the shop noticed that the left bottom bracket bearing was bad. Thunderbolt did recall doing quite a few rides in the rain that summer, and that the bike had been clicking while he pedaled. This was an unexpected last-minute item, and the shop rushed to get it done while Thunderbolt waited. Being the smart gentleman, he even walked next door to the liquor store to buy them a 6-pack of ‘thank you’. What a guy! The good karma bought him a PR race and five days of eating ice cream and fried chicken.
-Not quite ready to shut it down for the season, there is one more Olympic-distance race to do, featuring an indoor swim. The bike has seen little service since Ironman Wisconsin, but is still in good working condition because Thunderbolt takes care of it on average.
November and December
-The season has wound down, and Thunderbolt brings his bike in for its annual check-up.
-It receives a new cassette and chain (the chain was a little overdue at this point), racing and training tires, bar tape, brake pads, cables and housings, aerobar pads, and both brake and derailleur adjustments.
-The shop mechanics also noticed that the rear wheel bearings in his 808 race wheels were grinding, and replaced them with new ones from Zipp. The front bearings were still smooth, so they only did a quick adjustment of preload to the 88 front hub (it had come loose).
-With his extra time in the winter, Thunderbolt updated the firmware in all of his wireless devices.
That’s a Wrap
We truly hope this article has been helpful to you. For those who aren’t mechanically inclined, bikes can seem like a big mystery. With some planning, some time, and smart investment in service, your bike will live a long, healthy life. It could very well be the difference between a PR… and a DNF.
All images © Greg Kopecky / slowtwitch.com