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Dear Frank : Bike Maintenance

Frank Strack
11 May 2015

The more you understand the workings of your bicycle, the more you can be at one with it, says Sensei Frank Strack.

Dear Frank bicycle maintenance

Dear Frank

While I was busy laughing at a riding buddy for his ineptitude at changing a flat tyre recently, it occurred to me that my own skills at bike maintenance are pretty poor. Which got me thinking – what is the minimum mechanical knowledge any cyclist should have?

Steven, by email

Dear Steven

I’m glad you had the good sense to laugh at your mate. It’s even more fun watching someone at this when it’s raining – especially if they need to use a tube patch. Ask 10 riders for their advice on repairing a flat and you will find yourself staring at the business end of 10 different ways to mend a puncture.

The Cyclist is a creature who, upon witnessing another rider at the task, is helpless to resist venturing advice as to repairing said tyre, irrespective of whether the advice was asked for or not. Should a hapless soul venture to suffer a sudden loss of air from their tyre while riding in a group, they should be prepared to have a chorus of counsel hurled upon them from the moment they attempt to remove their wheel to the moment it is reseated in the frame and the leg thrown back over the saddle.

Bicycle maintenance is one of the most sacred rites we as Cyclists have. To properly care for our machine is to respect it, to bond with it. We learn the nature of this vehicle in whose trust we place our health and safety. A well cared-for bicycle is a safe bicycle.A well-tuned bicycle is a joy to ride.

Crisp shifts and precise braking enhance the enjoyment of being out on the road with the breeze in your face. Missed shifts and noisy drivetrains are the easiest way to spoil the solitude of an otherwise perfect day out on the bike. Maintaining your own bicycle gives you the ability to always ride a perfectly tuned machine and helps you feel more at one with it. This line of reasoning amplifies throughout every level of maintenance. Building a steed up from a bare frame gives you a deeper sense of connection with your bike and the quality of the ride. Building a set of wheels and entrusting yourself to them builds a deeper bond still. This pattern continues all the way through to the ultimate skill, which is building the frame itself.

The mechanical workings of the bike are a mystery to the uninitiated, but it is a sufficiently simple machine that we may learn to care for it through an apprenticeship with a Cycling Sensei (and the consumption of malted recovery beverages). And, while the full complement of tools required to perform all tasks can be extensive, most of the routine tasks can be performed using a simple set of tools. A work stand, a set of allen keys and a good pair of cable cutters will send you well on your way.

When it comes to the minimum knowledge, I prioritise in terms of how essential the tasks are to facilitating life as a Cyclist. Repairing a flat is chief among them; without mastery of this task, a rider can hardly conduct a solo training ride. Next comes adjusting the derailleurs and brakes; cable tension is the core mechanical principle that makes both work properly, and a rudimentary understanding of how tension affects these units means that a quick roadside adjustment should have you spinning happily along your way instead of cursing on the kerbside.

Finally, every Cyclist should be skilled at cleaning their bike. A clean bike is much easier to maintain than a filthy one, and keeping it clean also reduces the wear, especially when it comes to the drivetrain. A thorough cleaning of a bike is also an excellent way to prepare mentally for a big ride and to bond with it afterwards. Wiping away the filth that you accrued together is the ideal way to honour the ride.

I think of bike maintenance as a journey where you learn one skill after the other, all in gradually increasing complexity. As with Rule #12 (‘The correct number of bikes to own is n+1’), there is always another skill lurking behind the one you are learning presently. The journey is the experience; delight in the process.

Frank Strack is the creator, and curator, of The Rules. For futher illumination see and find a copy of his book The Rules in all good bookshops. You can email your questions for Frank to

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