or, Self-Actualization through Bicycle Maintenance

Bicycle mechanics are an essential cog in our nation's economic life. That is why I rarely work on my bike. The more diligent I am in this regard, the greater my contribution to society. However, I will undertake certain tasks, such as inflating the tyres to the recommended pressure, or adjusting the quick-release seatpost when necessary, if only to keep myself sharp. Everything else is best left to the experts. They have the benefit of years of intensive study and supervised training. Quite frankly, it would be an insult to pre-empt them.

While it is apparent from the Fix-It pages in Cycling Today that a certain dedicated segment of our readership is willing and possibly able to commit themselves to the rigours of installing and adjusting cables (Feb '00), fitting a dynamo (Oct '99) and even servicing a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub (June '99, in a particularly chilling issue), there has been a dearth of advice for those of us who would find ourselves nauseated by this roller coaster ride of learning curves.

I have sensed the demand for guidance. The editor hasn't approached me; a good editor doesn't need to, but somehow manages to let you know, without being so gauche as to actually say it out loud or put it in a memo, where your duty lies. Therefore I have chosen some exercises which, when you have mastered them, may well give you the confidence to tackle more advanced procedures. If you should find yourself in over your head, calmly take a step back from your handiwork and count to ten, letting distractions and doubt drift away. If you are still unable to continue, don't feel bad: just go to that mechanic and be glad no one was hurt.

I know what you're thinking: Whoa! Did we have to start with this? True, for my target audience it will be pushing the edge of the envelope. I personally have very nearly injured innocent bystanders unfortunate enough to be on the periphery of my wrestling matches with misbehaving tyres. It's possible that you could cycle your entire life without doing this, i.e., get somebody else to do it, but this isn't always an option. And with proper technique collateral damage can be kept to a minimum.

Things you will need: tyre levers; pump; spare tube; bandage


First check that the tyre is actually flat. When cycling on uneven terrain, you want it to be a little low. Having confirmed the authentic lack of air in the inner tube, consider your comfort level. Perhaps riding on a flat tyre won't really bother you. Expectations are so high these days... People can pretty much get used to anything.


OK, so you've decided that having a flat is going to be a problem. Fine. If it all starts going pear-shaped now, remember you had a choice. After removing the wheel, your next order of business will be to displace the lip of one side of the tyre from the inside of the rim to the outside, using tyre levers. Tyre levers come in all shapes and sizes. I recommend yellow ones. Blue will do in a pinch, but they're unreliable.


That was fun, wasn't it? If you've completed Step Two without mangling the rim and your fingers, remove the spent tube, taking care to responsibly dispose of it close to other roadside litter. Locate the source of the puncture. Then run your fingers along the inside of the tyre, to transfer the nail, thorn or bit of glass at fault from tyre to finger so you won't immediately get another flat. Then bandage your finger!


You could've patched that tube, but doing so only introduces frightening variables into the equation. Best to start from scratch, no? Pump a little air into the spare, then insert it into the tyre. Make sure it's seated properly. There is no way to actually know if it's seated properly, however, so don't worry about this. As long as the valve goes through the hole in the rim, you're ahead of the game.


More fun with levers, unless you're one of those savants who can push the bead of the tyre underneath the rim with their thumbs. If so, bully for you. If not, you have a fresh opportunity to harm whichever fingers made it unscathed through Step Two. Try not to damage the inner tube with the probing end of the lever. You'll never forgive yourself. Didn't I warn you about blue levers?


Pump the tyre to the manufacturer's suggested pressure, then some more to show them who's boss. Observe your filthy hands and curse yourself for neglecting to don gloves. Make a mental note to buy a replacement tube. For future peace of mind, consider Kevlar tyres or quantities of Slime sufficient to displace fickle air molecules.

I wasn't joking. Abraham Lincoln may have had 'em rolling in the aisles with his comment that a person's legs should be long enough to reach the ground, but his observation was nothing short of profound. Let's face it: if you can't reach the pedals, you're not going anywhere. Hopefully the dealer will have made the necessary adjustments when you bought the bike, but it's unrealistic to expect the saddle to retain its optimum height indefinitely. You may grow, or in extremely provocative circumstances, shrink. Platform-soled cycling shoes might become fashionable. A hundred things could happen. In any case, with the ubiquity of quick-release style clamps, you needn't be unduly anxious.

Things you will need: nothing, or possibly an allen key. If you find yourself reaching for a hammer, you've gone wrong somewhere


Determine correct saddle height. This isn't as easy as it sounds. It helps to start with legs that are the proper length (see above). Unfortunately genetic manipulation is beyond the remit of this humble column. The rule of thumb is, your knee should be slightly bent as you set your foot on the pedal at the bottom of its arc. Lincoln's advice to the contrary, don't worry if your legs don't comfortably reach the ground as you're perched atop the saddle. To show fear is a sign of weakness.


It might be a good idea at this stage to totally familiarise yourself with the concept of 'quick release'. The genius of the system is that it utilises a lever which is capable of only two states: open, or closed. Some are helpfully labelled in case there is any confusion on this point. When it's at the 'open' position, the seatpost should move freely up or down, though this fact probably won't be labelled. Through a process of trial and error, find the height which satisfies the criteria detailed in Step One.


Set the quick release to the 'closed' position, first ensuring that you've properly positioned the saddle - the narrow part should be facing forward. Then congratulate yourself on a job well done. If your seatpost does not come equipped with a q/r you may need an allen key to tighten the bolt which holds fast the post. The principles are the same. That's the good thing about grounding yourself in the basics: Once you have those down, you're prepared for just about anything.

A dirty bicycle can mask more serious problems, like cables which have technically snapped in two but remain soldered together by grime. It's natural to elicit the help of a nearby female (unless you already are female, in which case this still applies) with the first stirrings of cleanliness. This is not only morally reprehensible, but so sexist I can't believe I actually wrote it. Besides, it's unlikely to work more than once.

Things you will need: soap, or any solution which mimics soap; water; brushes; credit card


Locate an ecosystem which won't be devastated by the toxic chemicals and grime you are about to sluice off your bike. The driveway of a neighbour on holiday is ideal for this purpose.


If you're using a jet-spray hose, take care that the water pressure isn't so high as to strip vital components, such as derailleurs and brake blocks, from the frame. Exfoliate, don't abrade.


Now that your bike is clean for the first time in months, if not years, give it the once-over. Do you really like that colour? Could be time for a change. Note the nicks and scrapes. Definitely time.

Cycling Today, July 2000

update: these days I pride myself on skipping tyre levers and diving in hands first, but when that fails, I use these. Turns out blue was best after all.