What to Check on Your Bike Before Your Ride
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Bike Guide

What to Check on Your Bike Before You Ride

By: Jim Rutberg  March 25, 2022

Use this guide to check your bike before you head out on your next ride!

Routines can be helpful for ensuring safety and comfort. And the more you repeat a routine, the more automatic it becomes. Before swinging your leg over your bike – any bike – it’s a good idea to run through a quick pre-ride equipment check to make sure everything is ready to go. The guide below is divided into ‘every ride’ and ‘every month’ categories, and assumes your bike is reasonably well maintained and you ride it at least once a week.

Pre-ride checklist before every ride

You should check the following things before every ride because problems in these areas can occur seemingly out of the blue. One day your tires are fine, and the next morning you have a flat tire. Most times, your pre-ride check won’t reveal any issues that require repairs. Even so, it is an important routine to maintain before every ride, for your safety as well as your confidence and peace of mind.

Tires

Check your tires for debris. You can do this visually by lifting the front end of the bike and slowly spinning the front wheel, and repeating with the rear. Letting the tire brush against your fingers or palm of your hand can help discern between debris that is ‘stuck on’ vs. ‘stuck in’ the tire. This is easy with slick tires, but may be less helpful on tires with big tread blocks. As you inspect the tires, also look for cracks and cuts.

Signs of excessive wear include bald areas where there should be tread, threads from the inner casing showing through the rubber, and squared off areas that should be round. Also look at the bead of the tire where it meets the rim. The bead should be consistent all around the circumference of the wheel when the tire is properly seated.

If the bead dips or elevates significantly, the tire is not properly seated. You may notice this if the tire looks out of alignment or out of round when you spin the wheel. For tires with tubes, deflate the tire and reinflate to seat the tire properly. With tubeless tires, reseating a tire may require an air compressor or speciality floor pump. When in doubt, consult your local bike shop.

Wheels

Before every ride you want to make sure your wheels are true and that they’re firmly attached to the frame. When you spin the wheels to check the tires, look at the rims to make sure they are straight all the way around. Broken or loose spokes change the tension applied to the rim, leading it to come out of true. If the trueness of your wheel is significantly different than the last time you rode the bike, look more closely at the spokes to see if one or more is loose or broken.

To make sure your wheels are firmly attached to the bike, you need to check the tension on the quick release lever, thru-axle, or axle nuts – depending on the specs of your bike. A quick-release lever requires no tools to operate, but should be tight enough that it is a moderate challenge to open them by hand. If they can be easily flipped open, they are too loose. Check thru-axles and axle nuts with the appropriate tool (lever, hex wrench, open wrench) and make sure they are tight. Be careful not to overtighten any bolt or lever, as doing so can cause damage to the wheel or frame.

Brakes

Standing next to your bike, apply each brake as you try to roll the bike forward. Make sure you can clamp down on the rim or disc powerfully, without the lever touching the handlebar. With the brakes in their open position, spin each wheel and make sure the brake pads do not contact the disc rotor or wheel rim, depending on the type of brakes you have.

If your rim brakes are rubbing when you spin the wheel, make sure the wheel is mounted in the frame correctly, that the brake caliper is properly aligned, the wheel is true, and the brake pads are properly positioned. Check all the same things if your disc brakes are rubbing, except that you’ll check to see if the rotor is true rather than the wheel.

Drivetrain

Checking your drivetrain (chain, chainrings, derailleur(s), cassette) is important because you want to make sure you can pedal safely and access all your gears. A clean drivetrain is also a fast and quiet drivetrain, so if you notice it’s noisy, rough, or sluggish, it’s time to degrease and re-lube.With the bike in a work stand or riding around in the driveway, run through the gears to make sure your shifting is smooth and predictable.

If you have electric shifting, remember to charge your batteries on a regular basis, and absolutely before any important and/or long ride. If you are riding an e-bike, make sure your bike is fully charged before your ride, or at least charged enough to accommodate your anticipated range.

Tools

Whether you are riding around the block or across the country, there are a few tools that should always be on your bike or on your person. A multitool should include, at minimum: Allen keys and/or Torx wrenches appropriate for your bike, chain tool, screw drivers. You should also carry a tube, tire levers, and an inflation device.

A dollar bill or food wrapper can make a good tire boot if you tear a sidewall. For tubeless tires, consider adding a tire plug kit. And remember, CO2 canisters are great for rapidly inflating tires, but a hand pump can be used as many times as you need it. Most times, these tools and supplies are kept in a bag attached the bike or a compartment within the frame. If you carry a tube in the bag, check it every once in a while to make sure the tools or container haven’t rubbed a hole in it.

Monthly Maintenance Checklist

The list above might sound like an onerous task list before every ride, but once you do it a few times it can be completed in just a few minutes. You don’t need to do a complete tuneup on a bicycle every time you ride it. If you ride your bike regularly (at least once a week), the following things only need to be checked on a monthly basis. If you are riding in harsh conditions, consider checking these things more frequently.

You should check all of these things before the first time you ride any bike you rent, buy, or borrow. If you are uncomfortable or unqualified to check these items yourself, ask the person/store you are renting/buying/borrowing the bike to perform these checks in your presence.

Bolts

It is important that bolts are tight enough to keep your pedals, handlebars, and saddle from coming loose. However, you also must be careful not to overtighten these bolts. Overtightened bolts, particularly on high-performance bicycles – can crush carbon components, strip threads, and snap the bolts themselves. One a monthly basis, use a torque wrench to check the tightness of stem bolts (at the steerer tube and faceplate) and seatpost binder bolts. Check that your pedals and chainring bolts are still snug.

Check that there is no play in your headset. A headset should rotate freely but should not move forward and back. To check the headset tightness, hold the fork in one hand and the downtube in the other. Push and pull on the fork. If you feel forward/backward movement in the headset, it needs to be tightened. Loosen the stem bolts, tighten the bolt at the center of the headset cap until the fore/aft movement of the headset is gone, but the headset still rotates smoothly. Then tighten the stem bolts again – with a torque wrench.

Brake Pad Wear

Under normal conditions, brake pads wear out over a period of months. Riding in wet, muddy, and gritty conditions can accelerate wear. So can extensive downhill riding. Rim brake pads are relatively easy to monitor. If the grooves on the pads are very shallow or no longer visible, the pads are worn out. They should also be adjusted to contact the rim’s braking surface only (not too high or too low).

Monitoring wear on disc brake pads is more difficult because the pads are tucked inside the calipers and the tolerance between the pads and rotors is quite small. To check disc brake pads, remove the wheels and make sure there is at least 1.5mm of material on each pad. If the braking material (not the metal backing) is thinner than 1.5mm, replace the pads. Only squeeze the brake levers when the wheels and rotors are installed, or when a disc brake spacer or braking block is present.

When you hit the brakes (either disc or rim), the brake levers should stop well before they reach the handlebar. If rim brake levers have too much throw, the brake cables may need to be tightened. With hydraulic disc brakes, if the levers have too much throw or feel mushy when they engage, the brakes may need to be bled.

Drivetrain Wear

How quickly your chain, cassette, and chainrings wear out depends on how much you ride, the conditions you ride in, and how clean you keep your bike. All three wear together, but chains typically wear fastest. Replacing your chain regularly extends the life of your cassette and chainrings. Here are ways and tools to measure chain wear. If you replace the chain at the recommended time, you can sometimes replace the cassette after two or three chains, and chainrings last even longer. A new chain on a worn-out cassette may not engage appropriately, could potentially jump under high pressure, may have trouble shifting between cogs, and will wear more quickly to match the worn cassette. When in doubt, install a new cassette with a new chain.

Get to Know Your Local Bike Shop

A lot of bicycle maintenance can be done at home, but it is always a good idea to get to know the mechanics at your local bike shop. A professional bike mechanic can always make sure your bike is safe to ride or advise you that it is not. Whether you need a derailleur adjustment, a flat tire repair, or a complex suspension tune, don’t hesitate to take your bike to the shop. Many shops also offer clinics on basic bike maintenance and repairs, including changing tires, fixing flats, adjusting shifting, and adjusting brakes.