Regular Maintenance for the Bicycle Commuter

As bike commuters, we rely on our bikes to get us to and from work without breaking down. A few simple maintenance tasks done periodically help ensure that there will be no ugly surprises midway through the commute.

Washing Your Bike – If your bike commute includes muddy offroad paths, salty slush or other grime, the best thing you can do for your bike is to wash it every now and then. A couple tricks here: don’t use high-pressure water sprays or you will contaminate the bearings in the bottom bracket, hubs and headset; also, use a gentle detergent (preferably something bike-specific). Use a soft scrub brush and lather that bike up from top to bottom. Next, using a fine mist or gentle flow from the hose, rinse the bike completely. Bounce the bike on its tires a couple times to shake off the excess water and then dry it with clean rags. Finally, you can use a car-type paste wax to give that bike a real shine. Our main man Moe suggests an even better final step: Finish Line’s Pro Detailer Bike Polish.

Dirty bike before:Oooh, that's DIRTY!

Clean bike after:Now THAT'S shiny!

Tires – check the pressure before you ride, preferably the night before. You don’t want to have to mess with pumping up a tire if you’re running late to work. When you check your tires’ pressure, give them a good inspection, looking for embedded bits of glass or metal and checking for overall wear. If you suspect a slow leak, better go ahead right then and change/patch the tube…this sure beats a mid-ride tube change!
Pump it...pump it up!

Chain cleaning – the most crucial thing you can do is to make sure your chain is clean and well-lubricated. No fancy tools are required for this, either! While many chain-cleaning tools and methods exist, I have found that the most effective (and quick) way to do it is to dampen a rag with chain cleaner (I swear by Park Tool’s Citrus Chain Brite – easy on the hands and the environment), wrap it around the installed chain and turn the cranks backward, keeping pressure on the rag and rewrapping to clean areas periodically. Cleaning the chain
While you have the degreaser out, wipe down the cogs, chainrings and derailleur pulleys (if applicable) to remove the built-up gunk.

You DON’T want to remove the chain unless you absolutely must for two reasons: today’s modern chains don’t like having their pins pushed in and out. Maybe this is why so many chains come with a “powerlink?-type breakable link? Second, removing and soaking the chain in solvent washes away important lubricant deep within the chain’s rollers. Once it is cleaned away, it is nearly impossible to get fresh lube into those tiny crevices!!

Here are my favorite chain-care products — Park’s ChainBrite and White Lightning wax lube:
ChainBrite and White Lightning

Once the chain is clean, apply lubricant to each roller…the fastest way is to backpedal the bike and drip lube as the chain passes over one of the derailleur pulleys. Everyone has his or her favorite lube (my favorite for years has been White Lightning) – the important thing here is to apply it liberally, let it soak in and wipe away the excess. This entire process – cleaning and relubing — takes less than 10 minutes. I try to clean and lube the chain every 100 miles or so unless I have ridden in the rain (which is pretty often here in Florida), in which case I add some lube when the chain has dried off.
Adding some lube to each link and roller of the chain

Brakes – obviously, your brakes are very important pieces of equipment (except maybe for our brakeless fixed-gear riders out there)! Routine maintenance consists of periodically inspecting the pads for embedded abrasives (glass, gravel, etc.) and wear as well as adjusting the cable tension and brake-pad-to-rim alignment. Use a sharp tool, like a dental pick, to remove crap from the brake pads:
Cleaning the crap out of the brake pads
Also, you may want to clean your rims’ brake tracks periodically. This is easy: dip a piece of Scotchbrite-type scrubber sponge in rubbing alcohol and use it to scrub away any brake pad residue or glazing on the rim.

Derailleur adjustment – this isn’t as complicated as it looks or sounds. In fact, it is much harder to describe than to do! Indexed shifting systems work best when cable tension, high and low stop screws and pulley angle are all spot-on. For a great tutorial on the ins and outs of adjusting your shifting system, the best place to go is Park Tool’s online repair database.

For those commuters with Shimano’s Nexus internal hubs, nothing could be simpler to adjust! It’s easy: shift into 4th gear (applicable for 4, 7 and 8 speed Nexus hubs). With the rear cover removed, look for two red dots (yellow on the 8 speed hub). They should line up perfectly with each other. If they are misaligned, turn the shifter-side cable adjuster clock- or counter-clockwise until those dots line up. The below picture shows what the two alignment points look like when they’re lined up (highlighted by the yellow arrows):Nexus hub with alignment points highlighted
Replace the cover and you’re done! Otherwise, maintenance of these hubs is a non-issue – many people suggest “riding it until it is broken? and then replacing it. For those adventurous souls out there who itch to rebuild the guts of these hubs, a great resource is Sheldon Brown’s online Nexus hub service manual.

Bolts and other threaded fittings – resist the temptation to periodically tighten every bolt and nut on your bike. This is asking for trouble – broken-off heads, stripped threads, crushed components!

Do, however, ensure that when you install new components or build up your bike initially that you grease all threads liberally. This prevents stripping and also allows the bolts to reach their proper tightening torque. You should also pull out your seatpost and quill stem (if you have one of those) a couple times a year and smear a bit of grease on it before replacing it…nothing sucks worse than having to hacksaw and drill out a frozen seatpost or stem!

Also, consider replacing hardware with stainless steel bolts and nuts. Seeing as how rust is the enemy of bicycles, replacing crucial hardware with the “good stuff? makes a lot of sense. A great source for metric stainless steel hardware is Bolt Depot (free goodies with every purchase, too!).

Finally, for our fixed gear friends, chain alignment (chainline) and chain tension are of the utmost importance, especially if you’re running brakeless. The best tutorial for both is, again, Sheldon Brown’s website (chainline and chain tension).
Proper chain tension

So, come up with a schedule for these routine tasks – your bike will thank you, your boss will thank you for showing up on time and you will have a few less things to worry about on your daily commute.


  1. RL Policar

    Excellent article Jack! I like the visuals too!

  2. Drew

    Yes, great post and links. It is too easy to get caught up and forget the basics… Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Moe

    Excellent Article Jack!

  4. Ghost Rider

    Thanks, everyone!

  5. Ben C.

    This article is a big help for me. I appreciate the visuals, as well.

  6. steve

    Thanks for the Nexus hub picture. That really helps.

  7. greg

    this is for all!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    critical mass JULY 21st @ 6:30 PM. meet @ Tempe Beach park & ride with everyone for a critical mass to 5th St. & Roosevelt (Lsot Leaf Tavern). After the mass (2) alleycats for both geared and fixed will occur with the fixed being winner takes all! & The gear being 123. 5$/person for each alleycat/scavenger hunt. please come and support the cause. Unite and support the independence we have to ride these streets too!! for more info email

  8. Pingback: What your Service Manager doesn’t want you to know: “Chem and Lube” | Mountain Bike Riders

  9. Raiyn

    Great article! The only thing I disagree with is the White Lightning. I used White Lightning for about a year when I first came down here on a local wrench’s recommendation and it really didn’t work that well for me either in town or playing in the dirt. After trying several lubes over the intervening years, I’ve found that Boeshield works better, lasts longer and doesn’t wash off in the rain as readily as White Lightning.
    (Get the spray can available at Sears and Motorcycle shops not the drip bottle. You’ll get more at a lower price)
    Not only that, but as a side note, it makes for a good internal rustproofer (which is a must for steel bikes in FL) in lieu of JP Weigle Framesaver, and makes a fine household lubricant in place of WD-40 (evil incarnate)

  10. Ghost Rider

    Funnily enough, in the intervening months since I wrote this article, I’ve fallen out of love with White Lightning. I’ve had the chance to try Purple Extreme (great lube) and Ernesto lube (so far it’s great and it’s OK for the environment).

    Boeshield is pretty awesome stuff, too. It makes a great gun barrel preservative for storage…crucially important for humid Florida. I haven’t used it on bikes yet, though, as I only have a tiny drip bottle.

    Another alternative to FrameSaver or Boeshield for frame protection is boiled linseed oil (FrameSaver is just aerosolized linseed oil) — a quart is incredibly cheap and just as effective.

  11. Raiyn

    I’ve been meaning to try one of the bio-lubes, but I’m not going to switch until it’s chain and cassette time again. How’s the Ernesto’s in clean-up terms? With the Boeshield it’s pretty much self cleaning (at least in town) you just spray the new stuff on and wipe it off the next day. Grit and pulley crud hasn’t been an issue. In fairness, I have to mention that I use a Finish Line Grit Picker to help keep things clean, however, I don’t remember crud being a real issue before I installed the Grit Picker when using Boeshield.

    The boiled linseed oil tip is a good one, but as far as ease of use goes, the cans trump the quart.

  12. Ghost Rider

    What? What could be easier than a quart of linseed oil and a household funnel?

    Not sure about the Ernesto lube cleanup — I’ve applied it to three chains, and it hasn’t attracted too much dirt — but I haven’t done a cleaning afterward…I want to see how long this stuff lasts before the chain starts to squeak. I applied it, let it soak in overnight and then wiped off the excess.

    I also lubed my electric “power painter” with it — and the painter loved it. It runs smoother than the day I bought it!

  13. Mike Myers

    Nice look, Jack. Pink shirt, camo manpris, and blue Crocs. Seminole Heights must be much more evolved than Citrus County. That look would get you killed here. LOL

  14. Ghost Rider

    Bwaah ha ha…I paint my toenails, too.

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