Races can be decided by a dropped chain. Just ask Andy Schleck after the 2010 Tour de France. Some folks are more excited about the mechanical aspect of bicycle racing than others, but the fact is that maintenance is part of the craft. Even if your race bike is professionally maintained, a quick exam before an event might make the difference between a win and a mechanical DNF.
Can you control weather, others crashing, how strong the people in the breakaway are? No. But you can prepare for varied conditions, position yourself purposefully, and take steps to ensure you or a teammate can cover important moves. To quote 1980s Olympic coach Edward Borysewicz, “A good rider makes his (sic) own luck.” What he means is, good riders truly take command of the variables under their control.
While Borysewicz was referring to positioning, the same applies with equipment maintenance. Many common mechanicals can be prevented with routine maintenance and careful observation. Preventing most mechanicals is a whole lot easier than interval training, and you can’t win with a broken race vehicle. I’ve spoken to lots of folks who poured huge hours into training week after week, all to have a key event go downhill due to a preventable mechanical. I want to help minimize the chances of that happening to you.
I’m not advocating that all riders become professional mechanics. The purpose of this article is to empower you to do a quick, simple, pre-event assessment you can perform on your race bike. Please don’t feel intimidated by this procedure. There are no repair or maintenance operations included beyond lubrication. The process requires few tools, and I encourage readers to seek definitions of any unfamiliar terms. It may seem verbose at first, but that is only because I’m trying to provide adequate detail for a first-timer. Unless your trusted mechanic can look over your steed the evening before every major event, this assessment is a good insurance policy. If it feels overwhelming, that’s OK! You can go through the article with your bike to identify what I’m talking about before even getting out a tool or touching anything. To keep it concise, I do not include information about solving the problems you find, if any. Those resources are elsewhere, though I strongly recommend that any service operations that you are not comfortable performing yourself be performed by qualified professionals. Below, find my pre-event checklist to assess the readiness of your bike.
Cleaning Your Bike
Start with a thorough cleaning. Lining up on a glistening bike is psychologically helpful, but cleaning also allows for intimate inspection. You’ll see small fatigue cracks or missing hardware that would otherwise go unnoticed. This is possible even in tight quarters. For example: while living in an apartment, I used to fill 5-10 bottles with warm water, and bring them and the bike outside. I’d spray off the bike, using all the bottles and a soft brush with some dishwashing soap (You don’t need to use specific bike-wash products but should avoid direct spray at bearing systems). Then, I’d put the bike on a stand in my kitchen atop a small tarp and detail it using degreaser solution and rags. If you have a hose and yard, this will be much easier.
Here are some things to note during your visual inspection:
- Cable and housing condition. Any rust, sticky shifting action, UV damage, cracking, or fraying warrants replacement.
- Tire condition: this is your race bike. Is it worth “getting all the miles you can” from the tires? (I keep old tires for training but race on fresh rubber). Check the tread for embedded bits of metal or glass and remove them.
- Brake pad wear level/contaminant status. Are your brake pads and braking surfaces clean? Are there any contaminants (grit, aluminum shards, etc) embedded in either? Remember to swap brake pads if transferring between carbon and aluminum braking surfaces. Finally, are the pads worn out? There should be at least 1 mm of rubber sticking out of the metal brake shoes so the shoes won’t rub the rims when you squeeze the brakes hard.
- Frame damage of any kind. Look for cracks, dents, damage at weld sites, tube buckles, carbon damage, and alignment problems. Most visual flaws are harmless, but unless you are an expert, consult an expert about any damage you find.
- Give both wheels a spin and visually assess how true (straight) they are. Ensure both sides of both axles are fully, uniformly seated in the frame and that quick releases or through-axles are firmly tightened. Plink the spokes. Any that ring much lower than their neighbors or don’t ring are too loose. DO NOT TIGHTEN SPOKES UNLESS YOU KNOW HOW TO TRUE WHEELS!
- Chain wear: If you haven’t already, invest in a basic chain wear measurement tool. Much like an oil change in a car, routine chain changes save more expensive parts from excess wear.
Once the bike is clean, re-lubricate.
Note: for these procedures, a bicycle work stand is ideal. However, a stationary trainer may also be used. To do the shifting checks, simply place the bike in the trainer and dial back the tire contact point until the rear wheel can spin freely and the bike is held by the rear axle supports. This will allow you to focus on the drivetrain and hand-pedaling the bike without holding it up and keeping the rear wheel off the ground.
Lubricating Your Bike
Rear Derailleur Lubrication
Use chain lubricant or similar to carefully lube every pivot point of your rear derailleur. If you’re uncertain where the pivots are, shift the bike in the stand and watch how the rear derailleur moves. Anything that spins or swings could use a small drop of lubricant at its hinge/rotation point. There is generally a pivot point near where the derailleur bolts to the frame, eight pivots allowing the lateral movement of the chain, a lower pivot that takes up chain tension, and the two jockey wheels the chain wraps around. A drop of lube in each will help immensely. Lubricating the return spring is also wise.
Front Derailleur Lubrication
This one is less intimidating-there should be around four pivot points and a return spring to lubricate. If in doubt, watch the derailleur move while you shift.
It is best to allow professionals to service your brake system, especially if it is a hydraulic system. For cable operated rim brakes, it is wise to lubricate the brake pivot point(s) and the cable each place it enters a housing to allow for smooth action. If in doubt about where to lubricate, squeeze the brakes to identify the pivot point(s). Just a tiny drop will suffice. Make sure no lubricant contaminates the tires, rims, or brake pads, and that all excess is removed.
Chain lubricant needs to be inside the pivots of the chain itself, and only there. No lubricant is required on the outside surfaces of the chain. I recommend aiming for the pivot points when initially lubricating the chain, then wiping all excess lube away.
Evaluate Bearing Systems
- Headset: Apply the front brake firmly, and try to roll the bike front to back a few times. Can you feel clunking or looseness in the headset bearing assembly? If so, the bearings need adjustment. You can hold the stem/spacer stack with the other hand to help rule out suspension movement/brake slippage. The handlebars should rotate freely, but there should be no slack in the bearing system.
- Bottom Bracket: Grab one crank arm (not a pedal!) and try to jiggle it side to side. Is there any play? The cranks should spin without resistance, but if they can be moved up and down or side to side, there could be an issue.
- Hubs: With firm downward pressure on the frame from above, try to move the top of the wheel side to side. There should be no clunk or play at the axle. Wheels have a small amount of sideways flex, but that should be flexing with resistance, not free play. The wheels should spin freely, but any slop in the hub bearings is cause for concern.
- Pedal bearings: They should spin freely and not drag or rattle on their spindles.
While correcting these issues is beyond the scope of this article, they are important to check.
Fastener Torque Safety Check
Without tightening anything further than it already is unless it is under-torqued, go through the bike with a torque wrench to ensure critical fasteners are torqued to spec. Specifications are usually visible on the parts, near the fasteners. If in doubt, consult the manuals or your servicing shop. I typically put the torque wrench on all stem/handlebar bolts, crank arm bolts, and brake system bolts. Then, I go through the bike with a normal hex/torx key as needed to check (not tighten!) the less critical fasteners.
If you don’t have a variable-setting torque wrench, that is OK. If you don’t, and would prefer not to spend the cash, I recommend getting a (more economical) pre-set torque driver set to the appropriate specification (and with the right bit(s)!) for your handlebar and stem clamps. Your local bike shop can help with this. These are widely available, come with some new bikes, and are worth the peace of mind that comes with periodic cockpit torque safety checks.
Things to Check on the Bike with a Torque Wrench: (*=Critical, ^=if you have more time)
- Stem to steerer tube bolts*
- Stem to handlebar bolts*
- Brake/control lever to handlebar bolts (not too tight! Use recommended torque specs, and remember it is often best these be left loose enough to twist sideways in a crash).^
- Brake cable pinch bolts (on brakes themselves).*
- All brake-related fasteners (brakes to frame, intermediate cable clamps, adjustment bolts).*
- Crank arm fasteners, which depend on brand and configuration. Shimano, for example, uses two pinch bolts on the non-drive-side to hold the left arm on. Other manufacturers tend to use a single, 8-10mm hex bolt on the non-drive-side, while older systems typically have a 8mm hex bolt on either side. Again, if you’re uncertain, leave this alone or check with your service provider.^
- Seatpost clamp. With a carbon seatpost and/or frame, a torque wrench is not optional here. You don’t want that seatpost slipping in the race.^
Things to Ensure “Aren’t Too Loose” But Which Don’t Necessarily Require a Torque Wrench to Assess Tightness
Again, ALWAYS defer to manufacturer’s instructions; my advice here is general and may not apply in all cases. You’re not tightening these at all– just making sure they aren’t obviously loose.
- Shift cable pinch bolts.*
- Mounting bolts for front and rear derailleurs. If using a clamp style front derailleur, the clamp should also be checked with a torque wrench. For braze-on/direct mount styles, this is less of a concern because the frame’s seat tube is not being squeezed.^
- Bottle cage bolts. One of the most common and frustrating things to come loose in a race. Use low strength Loctite when installing these, and check snugness before all events.^
- Chainring bolts. Make sure none of them spin freely or are coming loose.^
- Spokes: give a gentle squeeze to each pair of parallel spokes. You’re not squeezing for force, just very gently to ensure no spokes have lost tension.^
- Pedals (Remember that the left side is reverse thread: righty loosey lefty tighty)^
- Saddle clamp and/or angle adjustment bolts.^
- Quick release skewers should leave a subtle imprint in your palm right after being closed. Thru axles should be dealt with exactly as manufacturers instruct.*
Shifting and Braking System Evaluation
Rear Derailleur Check
Begin by checking the limit screws. Limit screws keep the chain from falling off on either side. The test is simple:
- Put the bike in the smallest/most difficult rear cog using your shifter.
- Pedal the bike with one hand, and manually (no shifter use) PUSH the derailleur towards the centerline of the bike and hold it where it stops. You should now be in the largest, easiest gear in your cassette.
- While holding the derailleur against the limit stop, take a look at the bike from directly behind. The two jockey wheels of your rear derailleur (which the chain wraps around) should be in plane with the biggest cog while you apply hand pressure to the derailleur.
- Pedal the bike with one hand while holding the derailleur with the other to ensure things feel as they should. CAUTION: BEWARE OF THE MOVING CHAIN WHILE PERFORMING THIS ASSESSMENT.
- Continue pedaling, and remove hand pressure from the derailleur. It should immediately spring back into the smallest cog. If it overshoots the small cog and hits the frame, the high limit screw is too loose. If it doesn’t make it all the way down to the small cog (but seemed happy there before), ensure the cable housing is fully seated in its stops before assuming a limit issue. While this limit test may seem weird if you’ve never done it before, it is a normal evaluation in service departments worldwide. Always handle the derailleur gently and carefully, but push it back and forth to its limits until you are confident the chain will not fall off either side.
- If you have multiple chainrings up front, repeat this rear limit trial with the chain on each.
- Once you are confident you cannot manually push the rear derailleur beyond the gear cluster on either side, run through the gears normally using the shifter. Ensure each shift is crisp and immediate, and that the chain seems equally happy moving up and down the gears while in all chainrings up front.
Note: If your bike has an externally routed rear shift cable, you can remove the housing from the stop on the chainstay or seatstay leading to the derailleur to do the best possible limit check. While holding the derailleur in the easiest gear, but with the shifter in the hardest gear, the cable is totally slack, allowing easy removal and replacement of cable/housing from the housing stop. This allows for a more accurate assessment of the high limit, as cable tension is not keeping the derailleur from falling off the smallest cog.
Front Derailleur Check (If Applicable)
- Shift into the easiest/smallest chainring.
- By either manually operating the front derailleur linkage, or by pulling gently on the cable itself (not causing any kinks), assess whether the chain can be dropped on the outside or inside.
- In your most difficult gear (e.g: 53×11 or equivalent), the chain should almost touch the outer cage plate of the front derailleur.
- It should almost touch the inner cage plate in your easiest gear combination.
Dropped chains are the single most common mechanical issue I’ve observed in races. They are most often caused by poorly adjusted limit screws or chains that are too long. Cable tension decides whether the chain will make it to a given gear, but only the limit screws (or extreme wear/flukes) can decide if it will fall off outboard or inboard.
Note: Your chain should be long enough to safely use your big/big gear combination, but no longer. (For full suspension mountain bikes, you should be able to be in this combination with fully compressed rear suspension-otherwise it just takes the right gear combination and hard hit to snap the drivetrain off). While it may not be the best practice to be in the big/big combination, it must be possible. If the chain is slack while in the small chainring and smaller cogs, and doesn’t use most of the rear derailleur’s travel in the big/big combination, it may be too long.
Bicycle Brake Check
Squeeze both front and rear brakes as tightly as you can, as though you were about to hit a garbage truck. Do it a bunch of times. You want your brakes to work in an emergency-so test them by simulating emergency braking conditions. Ensure pads are aligned with rim/rotor when brakes are applied, that the brake is centered (one pad doesn’t contact the rim/rotor before the other), and that brakes return to a non-contacting position when released. Rim brakes must not touch the tires or dive under the rim. If you feel the brakes slip to a looser position once fully engaged, or the lever travel maxes out (lever touches bar) before sufficient braking force is applied, or you have any other concerns, seek professional guidance. This test works well for all brake types, though some mechanical disc brakes will not appear centered despite normal functionality due to single-piston design.
Notes on Suspension and Hydraulic Systems
It is all too easy to neglect a suspension fork, and it doesn’t help that the average shop technician who rebuilds your fork may be working on that make and model for their first time. It might even be one of their first fork rebuilds, period! Because bicycle suspension work can be so variable in quality, I strongly recommend shopping around for a qualified shop with a deep portfolio of experience and factory certified technicians. If in doubt, ship it back to the factory or a qualified third party for service. It’s almost always worth it.
Hydraulic brake systems will fail if the wrong fluid type is used. It’s also worth having these systems serviced at a shop with a deep portfolio of similar work. Always ensure that hydraulic disc brake calipers have a mock rotor installed when the wheel is absent (the factory often provides plastic tabs for this, or you can use cardboard or similar). This way, if the brake lever is pulled by accident, the pistons will not advance and prevent wheel re-installation.
Where Does the Check End?
Of course, it is impossible to write a truly exhaustive checklist. My goal has been to provide a starting point to gain the basic mechanical and diagnostic literacy so you will know when your bike needs to be worked on, and know that you can race with confidence in your equipment. I’ve made some notes below to address things I felt were worth including in some capacity, but are beyond the scope of my procedure above.
Always, always, take mechanical advice (including mine) cautiously. Hesitate to drink anyone’s kool-aid fully. Don’t let the above overwhelm you-walk through it identifying the systems one at a time. I don’t think any bike racer should feel a sense of responsibility to go deeper than this checklist, but the above knowledge will empower you with fewer unknown variables on event day-and that’s what this is all about.
Coach Adrian Bennett draws his observations from 10 years of shop technician experience in addition to his racing experience. Adrian works with all levels of racers, specializing in road racing, gravel grinders, and ultra-endurance events.
Borysewicz, Edward. (1985). Bicycle Road Racing. Brattleboro, VT: Vitesse Pres. p. 24