I recently had the good luck of being able to attend three bike repair classes, put on by my local bike shop Bikes and Beyond. If I’m still lucky come January, I may be able to attend the remaining classes. I’ve done plenty of home repair and maintenance on my bikes in the past, but being able to learn from a pro was icing on the cake. Even when you think you know how to do the simple things, there are tricks that only time and experience can give you, so it was great to learn some of them. In this post, I hope to pass on some of the simple tricks I learned and discuss how I prepped my bike for this year’s winter season.
Yeah, so anyway, if the snow we have so far is any indication, we are in for a pretty snowy and cold winter. Having learned a bunch on bike repair and adjustments, I decided to almost completely tear down my Rocky Mountain Soul and rebuild a clean, greased, and adjusted bike, ready for winter. Plus, my first ride in sub-zero temps had my rear brake cable seize on me in the middle of the street. I figured I better at least ensure that won’t happen while commuting!
OK, so you don’t have to completely tear down your bike to get ready for winter. I just REALLY wanted to. No, you really only need to clean it, grease it, oil it, and probably put on some sort of winter or studded tires. www.allseasonscyclist.com has a wonderful set of posts on preparing for (Chicago-area) winters. Some very good advice and partially why I started riding into winter. On to the fun!
It took me less than an hour to take apart my whole bike to the state shown below. Things I didn’t remove were the bottom bracket (BB), cassette, and freehub, mainly because I don’t have the tools and these areas are pretty well sealed/semi-non-rebuildable. Freehubs, for instance aren’t really rebuildable. If your freehub stops ratcheting, you’re pretty much stuck with either replacing it or soaking it in some kind of degreaser and hoping it all dries out before re-greasing it with oil. I don’t know; I’ve never done it. Bottom brackets: pretty well sealed and should last a long time. If you get your chain off, give it a spin. If it doesn’t spin nicely just take your bike in to the shop and have them look at it. It might not be worth the crank-puller tool and the BB removal tool just to inspect your BB. The rest of the bike was fair-game for dismantling, so I went at it with really only two hex drivers to get it to the state below. November 19, bike dismantled:
Ok, so this isn’t a detailed step-by-step on tearing down your bike. But the general idea is that (with modern bikes) most everything can be removed with a 4mm and 5mm hex key. Pedals with a 15mm wrench (or pedal wrench). For wheel hubs you do need a cone wrench, if you’re going that far (which I did), but if not, just undo the quick releases.
My biggest tip for this process was to leave the derailleur cables attached. I just released the tension in the derailleur cables by putting the gears on the largest chainring and largest sprocket, then shifting the indexer to the smallest of each (i.e. 3, 8 for me) but not turning the cranks. Cable tension is now released and you can slip the cables out of the cable stops in the frame. If you assume your derailleurs were adjusted well from summer (maybe the bike shop did it) then just leave them be. When you put everything back together, they should be still as they were before.
While you don’t have to remove the chain, I did in order to get it as clean as possible and for it not to be in the way during cleaning of the rest of the bike. Plus a loose chain dangling around is just going to get caught and scrape up your frame and chainstays. My chain has a special link that makes it easy to remove, but others may need a chain removal tool.
Clean and Inspect
This phrase seems to be repeated throughout the bike repair classes. Anything you plan to work on, especially to assess damage or wear, should be clean. Bearings, races, chains, cassettes, chainrings, and your frame should be clean so that you can see if there is any damage or wear.
With all of the parts removed from the bike, cleaning was really easy. The frame was bare and light so i could bucket wash it in the basement next to the drain. each component was pretty easy to clean with soap, hot water, and a $2 kitchen brush. I used to use Varsol (thinner, mineral spirits) to clean grease from bearings and chains, but this summer I decided to try organic citrus-based degreaser. It might be a touch more expensive but it’s way safer for disposal, cleaner, washes off easy, and smells nice.
For chains, I’ve never bothered with chain cleaning kits and soaps or with special skinny brushes to get in between the sprockets on the cassette. The $2 kitchen brush works great for most things, and I run the chain through the bucket and brush it against my hand. For cassette sprockets: brush first, then “floss” each sprocket with a rag until they shine. If you leave the cassette on the back wheel try to angle the wheel so the cassette faces a bit towards the floor instead of up. That way, degreaser, soap, water, etc. doesn’t get into your freehub (like I said, you can’t really service that).
I’ve never taken a front derailleur off of any bike, being afraid of never getting it back on right, but my course taught me how to set it up and I had setup the one on my commuter bike the day after the class. So I took the derailleur off the MTB and it got it’s first real clean, after two years and two winters riding. FD’s are so neglected. Always lower quality, always dirty from the rear wheel. Poor guys.
I even dismantled my rear derailleur cage and removed the sprockets. I have done this before, so no big deal. Wiped them down, re-greased and put them back together. If you’re doing this for the first time, a camera is your best friend, with all those small pieces. All kinds of grass and stuff gets in there so that the sprockets start skipping instead of turning and they wear out. It’s a good idea to clean the grass and stuff out so that everything turns nicely. Oops, I thought I had some file photos of the last time I did this, but I guess not.
So the rear derailleur was cleaned, the sprockets re-greased, and the main pivots oiled. I use chain lube for all light oiling, and multipurpose grease for all bearings and things that take grease.
Next was the brakes. The MTB has disks, so I removed the pads and cleaned both the pads and rotors with Brakeclean. You can also use isopropyl alcohol or any cleaner that doesn’t leave a residue. With the pads out, the rest of the brake assembly was cleaned with soap and hot water, like the rest of the bike.
In order to service the wheel hubs, you need a cone wrench to be able to set the bearing play once you’re done. After the quick-release skewer was removed (and cleaned), the locknut on one side of each wheel hub was removed. Only do one side; that way you don’t lose the position of the whole axle relative to the center of the wheel and center of the frame dropouts. Remove any seals, spacers, etc. on the one side of the wheel and keep track of what order they go in. You can usually see some shiny marks on one side or the other of the various parts that will show which part was next to which.
Pull out the axle from the other side of the hub and remove all ball bearings. Clean everything thoroughly and inspect the condition of all parts. As I said before, be careful not to get cleaner into the freehub, since it can’t be disassembled for service. I put a rag on my finger, dip it in cleaner and just wipe the bearing cups on the wheel hubs. That way I don’t soak the whole thing and risk breaking down the oil inside the freehub.
Inspecting the bearings, cones, and bearing cups on the wheel hubs is not too hard. The surfaces that the bearings roll on should be completely shiny and not rough. The bearings should be shiny like mirrors. If they’re not, they’re probably worn and should be replaced. If they’re not replaced, they will wear out the cones and eventually the bearing surface of the hubs, which will require a new wheel if they get too bad. Since bearings are about $0.20 ea. they are the cheapest to replace and should be done if condition is at all in question.
The same idea goes for the fork/headset bearings as does with wheel bearings. Modern headsets are easy to disassemble with only a 4 or 5mm hex key needed. Remember that the top cap is only used for adjusting the bearing play and that the clamp bolts that clamp the stem to the steerer tube are what keeps the whole assembly together. Remove the top cap and bolt first and then the stem bolts, being careful not to let the fork drop to the floor. My previous post on replacing a stem shows more detail on bearings, spacers, etc. Once disassembled, everything is cleaned with degreaser and the bearings, cups, and races are inspected. No shiny=no good. Replace bearings if not shiny. Any other parts are beyond most home mechanic’s (and my) expertise, so should probably be replaced at a bike shop.
Thoroughly grease the wheel bearing races in the hubs and add the proper amount of bearings to one side, finishing with more grease on top of the bearings. When the wheel is flipped back over, the bearings shouldn’t fall out, if there is enough grease holding them in place. Add grease, bearings, and grease to the other side, any metal seals that were taken out, and then slide the axle back in. Put on the other cone, spacers, and the locknut loosely. Tighten the cone by hand till the bearing play is removed, then back it off until there is slight play in the bearings. Use the cone wrench to keep the position of the cone, while tightening the locknut down just a bit. It doesn’t have to be super tight.
Put the quick release skewer back in and install the wheel in the dropout. Tighten the quick release (you want the handle to leave an impression in your palm, but not to be too tight to undo), and check for wheel bearing play. There should have been slight play in the bearings before the quick release is closed and no play after. Repeat the cone adjustment until this is achieved. I had to do this about 6 or 8 times to get the play just right in the rear.
Headset and Fork
Aside from the method described in my previous post on replacing a stem and servicing a headset, I learned a nice trick to setting the bearing play in threadless headsets: As the top cap is tightened down, the spacers above or below the headset will go from being able to turn to not being able to turn. Keep a hand on the spacers and turn them back and forth while tightening the top cap until the spacers just stop turning by hand. That is the right bearing pre-load. Threadless stems are very forgiving of over-tightening. You can go much tighter than this and not notice the steering get any harder to turn, but it will wear out your bearing surfaces more quickly. So the idea is to have as little pre-load on your bearings as possible, just when the play is taken up; this is achieved when the spacers go from turning easily to not turning.
I learned some tricks for setting up cable disk brakes and used them to adjust mine. If done in the right order, it is very simple. Loosen the caliper mounting bolts, allowing the caliper to slide side-to-side (and on some models, like my Avid BB5, to rotate). Loosen the cable clamp screw and screw all cable barrel adjusters all the way in. Turn the inside brake pad all the way in until the brakes are clamped on the brake rotor. Tighten the cable clamp so that the play in the cable is just taken up. The brake lever should just move the brake when it is tapped with a finger, so that the brake pull lever actuates as soon as touched.
Back off the inner brake pad and pull the brake lever until the lever moves 2-3mm. The mounting bolts are loose at this time. Grab a handful of brake lever and tighten the mounting bolts. Back off the inside brake pad all the way, so that it doesn’t interfere with listening to the outer brake pad in the next step.
Adjust the outer brake pads by turning the wheel and listening for noise. Turn a barrel adjuster CCW to tighten the cable and listen until the brake pad just rubs the rotor. Turn the barrel adjuster the other way until the noise stops. There may be a periodic “zing” sound if the rotor is slightly bent, but this is OK, disk brakes are almost never completely silent. They will make noise when cornering, or if slightly bent. You can straighten your rotors with a special tool, if you have the confidence to do so.
Turn in the inner brake pads until a rubbing noise is heard, then back them off until the noise goes away. Now both the inner and outer pads should be just clear of the rotors. Fine tune the feel of the brake lever using the barrel adjusters until you are happy with how they feel. Front brakes should allow the bike to “endo” when grabbed hard on pavement (of course, be EXTREMELY careful testing this), rear brakes should allow the back tire to lock up with fully pulled.
I don’t have time to go through all the steps of derailleur adjustment here. It can be finicky, and takes some patience to do it right. Let’s assume that the derailleur cables and limit stops were not messed with during the cleaning and dis-assembly of the bike. This is entirely possible; I did it last time.
If you have a chain tool or a master link (“powerlink” or what have you), putting the chain back on your bike is not too hard. You just have to be able to thread it correctly through the derailleur sprockets. The simple way to remember is to assume the chain follows the cassette sprocket, front chainring, and lower derailleur sprocket in the same direction, like one big loop. If you thread it the wrong way, the lower derailleur sprocket doesn’t get touched by the chain.
A real simple tip for connecting the chain is to grab a paper clip or metal wire and make a hook in both ends. Hook the chain a few links from each side of the break in the chain. Now you don’t have to hold the chain together with one hand while trying to install the removable link with the other.
Lube the chain up, and the bike is ready for winter! P.S. I removed my clipless pedals and put back the stock aluminum platform pedals. They have small bumps that work great with my winter boots to keep my on my pedals. If they made clipless winter boots, I may have left the clipless pedals on.
Winter Bike Care
I put a bit of wax on the frame when everything was apart, just to help with spring cleaning and hopefully keep some snow and mud from sticking during the winter. I typically don’t wash my bike during winter, preferring to keep it out in the cold so that ice and snow doesn’t melt and start rusting. I definitely wouldn’t power wash the bike, because you’ll get water in places you don’t want and it will become ice.
During winter, I brush off chain and derailleurs with a small bristle broom and keep the bike lubed up. I’m not too worried about dirt, but just keep oiling it during the season. Before each ride, I check that the brake cables aren’t frozen, and i run the pedals backwards to free up the freehub. When I first start riding, especially on really cold days, I cycle the gears all the way one way and back. Sometimes I do this in the garage with the rear wheel lifted, just to make sure it will shift when I get going.
Well, that’s about it. I hope you enjoyed my novel on cleaning and preparing your bike for winter. It seems to be my longest post.