After gearing up and getting ready for a ride in the hills, there’s nothing worse than finding out your mountain bike needs a check-over at the bike shop. Mountain bikes have become much more complex and their functionality has increased. Sadly, so has the price tag and the maintenance bill.
Mountain bike maintenance is much more than taking a clean rag and cleaning the frame or removing dirt from the shocks.
If you’re a beginner stepping into bike maintenance, it can be the best way to get to know your bike components and the tiny bolts that keep your bike together while you’re busy chasing the next ride!
Mountain biking can be dangerous and requires a lot of reliance on the bike. Regular bike maintenance is the best way to confidently go on trails with your friends and to not worry about breaking down.
If you’re clueless about mountain bike maintenance, here are some basic tips to keep you on the trails.
Before you head out on your next set of trails, be sure to run through some of these pre-ride checks to ensure your mountain bike doesn’t fail in some way.
Your ride experience depends on your tire pressure. The tires are the only thing that are in contact with the ground and provide the necessary traction while going uphill or gliding downhill at high speeds.
If the tire pressure is too high, you might not have any traction while riding and if the tire pressure is too low there is a risk of damaging the spokes or the rim, not to mention the obvious risk of getting a flat tire.
Use a gauge and set the pressure exactly how the trail demands. Always check the recommended tire pressure on your tires and use that as a starting point.
If you’re riding cross country you should set your tire pressure at about 25 psi but if you’re more likely to ride all-mountain or enduro you should be closer to 28-30 psi. Keep in mind this all depends on the rider’s weight. Heavier riders should increase their tire pressure.
This is also a good time to inspect the tire for wear and rubber frets, if you’re in a rush use a tire sealant as a precautionary measure.
Out of all the components, the brakes are the easiest to test. Different assemblies use a different set of brakes and each are tested with slight variation.
Mechanical Disk Brakes
Mechanical disk brakes make use of stopping force that comes from pistons pushing the pads onto the rotors. They function through tension in the cables that comes from pulling the lever to actuate the pistons.
If you own a set of disk brakes, you should inspect the rotor and check for any bends or damage to the rotor. Next, you should always keep it clean.
“If the rotors are especially dirty, clean them with rubbing alcohol and then rough them lightly with sandpaper” (REI Expert Cycling Advice, 2022)
The levers are placed on the handle bar and pressing them should be easy and smooth without any abruptness.
Owning a mountain bike with a mechanical disk brake system requires one extra check on the pads.
They should be placed correctly and not too far from the rotor. The gap can be caused by worn down brake pads which require a replacement.
Simply squeeze the lever and make sure there is a solid grip on the tire. If it feels a little too easy to press, there’s probably air trapped in the brake fluid.
Try turning the bike upside down or pumping the lever a couple times. It won’t be a stretch to say, you might need to bleed your brakes. There are different bleeding kits on the market and you should have one that suits your brakes.
Next, you want to inspect the brake pads. If the lever is too easily pushed, your brake pads are worn out and need replacement.
Make sure the pads are aligned in the correct orientation and do not touch the rubber tire. Make a habit of riding the bike around your house or neighborhood and performing a brake check before leaving for the trail.
Gear Shifts and Chain
You already lubricate your chain regularly (you do, right?) and keep it clean, but you should also double check that all of your chain runs across the front chain rings without any abrupt jumps in the links.
If you see any stiff links, you can easily loosen them with a chain tool or hold the link between your hands and with a few twisting motions get it loose.
Lastly, make sure the bike chain runs through the rear derailleur so you can shift gears efficiently. You can also opt to replace the chain after a set number of rides, which will keep the chain rings lasting longer and keep other components, like cassettes, from wearing out.
Chainstay covers are a great solution to prevent chain wear and keep the chain from touching the frame.
While you’re on a test ride checking your brakes, run through all the gears and if they don’t have a smooth shift, make sure both wheels are well seated in the thru axles. Poor shifting can also come from cable friction, which can be fixed by cleaning connecting cables.
Pedal maintenance varies based on the type of pedal you’re riding on.
Flat pedals can handle a lot of body weight and impacts from a mountain biker while jumping or landing after gaps. You can save a few dollars by getting plastic flat pedals but they can break if they’re poorly made.
If you’ve already spent a lot on your bike and are planning to stick to plastic pedals, there are a few things you can do to prolong their life.
Firstly, clean them! Try to clean them after every ride with pressured water to remove any dirt and mud. It is also important to dry them well to avoid water damage to the surrounding parts.
Once you’ve removed them, add some grease on the spindles of your pedals and attach them to the crank arms once again.
Finally, lubricate any springs or metal pieces attached to your plastic pedals.
I personally prefer clipless pedals, but you will see a wide variety of aftermarket pedals that suit you. Clipless pedals are sure to attract dirt just like other pedals so you will have to clean them before and after every ride.
Bolts and Screws
You are familiar with bolts and screws, but you probably haven’t considered them to be a vital part of your mountain bike. A loose bolt can cause components to fall out of place, which can cause other components to malfunction and wear them out much more quickly.
It is worth mentioning here, that you should never forcefully tighten a bolt. This can seriously damage the part you’re working on. Use a torque wrench for expensive parts so you don’t ruin their fit tolerances.
You should do a bolt check on all parts that you have freshly installed or have been there by default. Check for any loose components and have a pair of allen keys with you.
If you already follow this bike maintenance routine, you should dwell deeper into some advanced bike maintenance, so you don’t have to take your bike to your local bike shop for slight inconveniences that can be avoided easily.
Here are the most important components to check that will keep your bike fresh like the day you bought it.
The drivetrain houses the moving parts of your bike; the chain, chainrings, pedals, cogs, and derailleur.
It is almost impossible to go through a summer of riding without having a couple of wet rides in muddy conditions. The drivetrain handles a lot of grit, abuse, and wet conditions that can easily damage it so it needs extra attention.
It is recommended to clean these parts using a degreaser and in the worst case, you will have to disassemble the parts and according to James Mcknight:
…give the cassette, chain and chainring a good scrub with an old toothbrush and some degreaser to thoroughly remove all the grime.James Mcknight
Assemble the drivetrain together and apply lubricant or re-grease the chain and gears.
Check the alignment of the derailleur pulleys with the bike chain and make sure all the gears can freely shift on the rear wheel.
The bottom bracket may not affect riding all that much, but if neglected they can prevent you from even pedaling on the bike!
You can easily check your bottom bracket by swinging the cranks from left to right. If you notice any lateral movement, most likely you’re missing some bearings.
Bearings are everywhere on a mountain bike. Mud and riding in wet conditions can seriously damage each and every bearing and they can seize.
Starting with headset bearings, these can be tested by turning the handlebar repeatedly while the front wheel is in air. A smooth turn means your bearings have life in them. Pivot bearings can be checked by removing the rear shock and smoothly lifting and lowering the frame.
If this requires effort, you may need to replace your pivot bearings. There shouldn’t be room for movement in the wheel bearing, otherwise you will need to replace them.
You will need a good eye to check the suspension of your mountain bike and have it prepared for the next ride. Unfortunately, a deep clean of the suspension is not enough to keep them functioning properly.
To check your suspension, you need to spot any excess lubricant that might be leaking. Usually, after spending months in the garage in the winter, the suspension seals wear off themselves and spill oil, leading to more component failure. In such a case, you will need to replace the seals and clean up the mess!
You should make a habit of cleaning your stanchions whenever you have time during a ride. For instance, after a climb while chatting with your friend, just grab a cloth and wipe your stanchions. Try to keep them lubricated, otherwise the damage will spread to other components in the fork.
“Soon as the fork starts drying up you’re gonna get other damage occurring. The seals themselves, they’re going to dry out and you will start getting scoring on your stanchion tubes.”Andrew Dodd-Global Mountain Bike Network
You should check the bushings in the suspension of both the front and rear wheel and have them serviced, tuned and ready for your next mountain bike ride.
Post Ride Checks
After every ride, you should do a few thorough checks that will increase the life of your bike and save you a lot of money and headaches.
You don’t need to wash your bike every day as this can expose the bike frame and other parts to rust. A wash once a week will keep the mud and dirt off your bike and will also make damage and loose bolts easier to see for maintenance.
If you ride on wet trails often, you might need to use a pressure washer more often, but avoid using it on greasy parts and bottom brackets. Use a softer detergent or soap with the pressure washer.
Don’t forget to lubricate the chain after washing and oiling other components that need it, like the hub.
There are many benefits to lubricating your bike components. Starting with the drivetrain, you should avoid using a lot of oil and wipe off any excess lube wherever possible.
Try to add a couple drops in the front chain rings this will keep any dirt and mud from sticking on the chain but too much oil will only attract it.
A greasy rear cassette might be the reason there is always dirt built up on your wheels.
Check Your Bike For Damage
Look for any visible changes in the bike, around the handlebars, levers, bolts, and if you ride a high-end MTB, even the frame.
Inspect the components that you use the most like brakes and pedals, the brake pads and suspension. This will help you keep track of any damages and will tell you if you need a full service before your next ride.
Most of the checkpoints mentioned above are interchangeable in the pre ride or post ride checks.
You just need to take care of your mountain bike with routine maintenance so that you can enjoy it longer and ride with greater safety.
Tools and Supplies
No matter how experienced you are, if you don’t have the right tools for the job you will end up damaging the precious art that the modern mountain bike is.
For this reason, here are a couple starter tools that can aid you in bike maintenance.
If you don’t want to get a backache while working on a mountain bike, you should get a bike stand. This will let you position the bike at the perfect height and allow the wheels to spin freely when fixing or tuning the bike.
You should only disassemble a mountain bike if you absolutely have to. While cleaning a mountain bike, it is handy to have a few different sized brushes so you can remove dirt from hard-to-reach areas like between the pads and the rim, the spokes etc.
Torque wrenches will help you apply the exact force needed to tighten any bolt; this is crucial if you use any expensive components like pieces made from carbon.
A pair of cable cutters lying in your garage might come in handy while working on brakes and cables.
Bottom Bracket Tool
If you want to take full repairs into your own hands, this tool is an absolute must. It makes it much easier to detach or install bottom brackets on different bikes. There are many types available and usually any regular market bracket tool does the job well.
Spoke Tension Gauge
Spokes are made from steel and are strong enough to sustain riding impacts and your weight. However, this does not mean they are built to last forever. Eventually one or two might loosen or fail.
A spoke tension gauge can measure the tension in each spoke and let you know which spoke needs to be replaced.
Waterproof grease is a good lubricant and a good deterrent from any kind of rust. You can apply it on specific areas that are prone to water damage like the bearings.
A mountain bike can last years if a proper adaptive maintenance schedule is followed. However, there is no set time interval to perform these mountain bike maintenance checks.
In fact, the maintenance schedule is directly linked to the type of trails you experience, the weather, and how frequently you use the bike.
In general, there are checks that need to be performed before a ride and after you’re exhausted from the trail. Checking tire pressure, brake pads and suspension should be done on a weekly basis. While inspecting for rust, tire wear and bearing clogs can be performed every few months.
Then there are a few annual checks. This can include a full service and tuning before the biking season reaches its peak. A complete inspection and service can be done at bike shops for a couple hundred dollars or you can try to do it yourself with a few tools and instructions.
Bike Maintenance FAQs
How often should I wash my bike?
It’s not necessary to wash your bike everyday. This can seriously deteriorate the metal of your bike. You should wash your bike with a soft soap or detergent after every ride and lubricate it after it has dried.
How do I check my tire pressure?
The quickest way to check your air on the trail is to use your thumb and hand to squeeze the tire, it should feel sturdy and not easily pressed. You can also use a pressure gauge that can give a more accurate measurement.
Is it possible to do a full service on my bike as a beginner?
Even if you are good at following instructions, it is still not recommended to do a full service and tuning yourself. There is a risk of damaging the parts and the lack of experience might mean difficulty in reassembly of the bike.
What checks should I do before riding on a trail?
The most important one would be to check the brakes, they are used on the trail all the time and are a real lifeline while ascending or descending hills. Two more things that should be checked are the chain, the gear shifts and component lubrication.