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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Heed those creaking noises

Arriving at the Sacramento Valley Station the other morning to catch my Capitol Corridor train, I saw my friend and fellow multimodal bike commuter Daniel sitting near his crankless bicycle. Upon closer inspection, I noticed this: the spindle on his bottom bracket (where the crank arms attach) had broken on the non drive side. Wow. And I thought I'd seen everything: broken spokes, broken frames, broken derailleur, broken rims, a broken stem (!)...but never a broken bottom bracket.

Luckily, Daniel was uninjured. Equipment failure is a big cause of bicycle crashes. Most equipment failure can be avoided by frequent maintenance of your bicycle. Daniel confirmed that his bike had been creaking for some time. So he was fortunate. If you hear unusual noises, inspect your bike thoroughly. Remove your cranks and inspect the bottom bracket. Look a the frame, especially the chainstay on the drive side. Examine your chain, fork, brakes.

Many cyclists always do the ABC Quick Check before every ride. Check that your tires are properly inflated (A="air"). Check that your brake cables and levers (B="brakes") are fully engaged. Check that your crankset, chain, and cassette are in good working order (C="crankset"). And make sure the quick release on your wheels and seatpost (if applicable) are closed and tight. Doing the "ABC Quick Check" before every ride is a good way to detect possible injurious mechanical failure before it happens.

If you bicycle commute every day, then you will also want to have regular service on your bike. Many routine fixes (replacing chains, tightening spokes) you can do yourself, with the help of online resources or a comprehensive bicycle maintenance book. My new book, The Bike to Work Guide: What You Need to Know to Save Gas, Go Green, Get Fit, also features a substantial chapter on repairs and maintenance.

If you think you will do most of your own wrenching, my advice is to buy a complete bicycle tool kit. It's much cheaper to acquire a complete kit than to do a one-at-a-time piecemeal acquisition of necessary tools (which is how I built my tool kit.) For major overhauls, don't be too proud to take your bicycle into a shop. I've done everything mechanical on a bike from building wheels to overhauling a bottom bracket (old kind, pre-cartridge), and I'm not ashamed to leave my bike with a skilled mechanic. So take your bike to a shop if necessary. That's why they exist, to provide professional service to keep your bicycle running well.

The reality is that things will eventually wear out on your bike, just as parts wear out on an automobile or a dishwasher. It's not a big deal, as long as you pay attention to your bicycle's condition, and make necessary repairs.

Image: Paul Dorn.
Visit: Broken derailleur messes up New Year's Eve, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Repairs/Maintenance, Bike Commuting Tips
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site


Kevin Love said...

Although you mean well, this is the sort of thing that actually discourages bike commuting. A checklist before I ride? This is a bike, not an airplane.

I always try to emphasise how easy and hassle-free bike commuting is. Just get on and go. Much easier than a car.

Now that its winter, I'm using my beater bike. Its a 30 year old Schwinn, and for the first 20 years it was my everyday bike. The only maintenance that I've ever done is replace the brake shoes when they wore down and replace the tires when they wore out. Everything else is original - It hasn't even been necessary to replace the light bulb on the headlight.

Almost forgot - I also oil the chain when it starts to look rusty. I have a bottle of old (but not used!) motor oil and I squirt some on before I go shopping so it won't drip on the bike room floor in my condo or at work.

The amount of preparation that I do before taking the bike out every day to go to work, shopping, church, etc is exactly zero.

And that's the way to build a bike culture. Here in Toronto its totally hassle-free. No special clothing, no pre-flight maintenance checklist, no helmets, no nothing. Get on the bike and go.

I live in Toronto Ward 27, with a population over 62,000. Only 34% of commuters use autos for commuting. By no coincidence, almost two-thirds of the population do not own a car.

To get other cities the same way, bikes and public transit have to be hassle-free. The bikes that ordinary people use here are as maintenance-free as mine. So let's promote bicycle commuting by dumping the absurd idea of some kind of pre-ride maintenance checklist.

Kevin Love said...

Oops, I forgot to comment about statements like:

"possible injurious mechanical failure"

Statements like this really are not inspiring in terms of motivating people to get on bikes.

The reality is that proper commuter bikes are much simpler, safer and more mechanically reliable than cars or almost any other transportation device.

Sorry to sound a little cranky tonight, but in building Toronto's bike culture I've been fighting against these sort of ideas for far too long. To hear them coming from someone who is trying to promote bike commuting is somewhat maddening.

Fortunately, the fight here was successful. The Toronto bike lanes are full of ordinary people wearing ordinary clothes on ordinary bikes who give bike maintenance about as much thought as they give shoe maintenance.

When did you last polish your shoes?

Anonymous said...


Thank you from a fellow crank. I tell people I'm riding a bike, not getting shot out of a cannon. I don't need a plastic hat, clickity clack shoes, synthetic clothing, and a special bike.

America has to be the only place on earth where we put our bikes on our cars to take them some place to ride. It has to be the only place where we spend more on what we wear when we ride than what we ride. It has to be the only place where the only thing more plastic than the bikes and hats is the personalities of real "cyclists".

Anonymous said...

For someone getting started, there's a lot of stuff I've found about commuting in the rain. But what about riding in the HEAT? I don't want to show up a stinky, sweaty mess. I'm sure many of your readers would appreciate your insight!

Paul Dorn said...

Yes, I'll try to do something on bicycle commuting in hot year when it's seasonal. Basically, bicycling in heat is about sun protection and hydration. And good sense.

GhostRider said...

Anonymous, we've covered dealing with the heat pretty extensively over at our site (most of our staff live in SoCal or Florida, so we know about the hot stuff):

SiouxGeonz said...

Now, my thinking is that one of the things that deters people from cycling is that they've gotten on their bikes and it hasn't gone well ... and that's often because of somethign simple like underinflated tires. I lead a beginner level ride and I learned to start with a rubber fondling and to apply my Topeak to any softies. Lots of newbies think "a little soft" is just fine ... and then think that they're exhausted after three miles because they are out of shape.
Knowing how to *prevent* a lousy ride can be very empowering.
If you ride your bike all the time, then you know this stuff. You don't need a checklist. There are many people who wouldn't know what an "everyday bike" is.

Anonymous said...

well done friend nice post.

Anonymous said...

Its 100% true,if you are not careful for riding your bike,its a risky for your life.Nice posting.Thanks.

Richard Layman said...

It's fair to say there are at least two types of bike commuters, short haul and long haul. I am probably more like Kevin, riding fewer than 7 miles for a typical trip. (I live about 5 miles from Downtown, but I work at home these days. But generally for trips of 8 miles or less to meetings in and around the city, I prefer to bike.)

The long haul group rides much longer trips. REGULARLY. Not that short haul riders shouldn't do the things in the post, but long haul riders, if they don't do the ABC test, are fully prepared, etc., then they can be SOL when something happens. (Me, I ride in areas with bus service, subway service, etc., so I can always lock up my bike and go to where I need to go.)

You can also distinguish between in-city bike commuters and regional bike commuters. (People who cross jurisdictional boundaries.) In-city riders are going to have it easier as well.

Note that I mentioned this in the context of the DC Bicycling Master Plan, which is parochially focused on DC residents, while I arge that we need to be concerned more broadly, with the people who bike in and to and from DC, whether or not they are DC residents.

Is it possible to get a review copy of your Bike to Work book? (


Unknown said...

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Anonymous said...

I've actually heard people make comments such as "I don't get flats" or "I don't crash". I'll wear my lid, carry my tools and I may even stop to offer assistance with that broken chain if I'm feeling brotherly.

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