Maintaining and repairing your own bike is fairly straightforward with the right tools. Follow these tips to save time, money, and stress.
Updated June 2019
A bicycle uses technology that anyone can grasp. You can touch it, tweak it, and see the effects as you work. You don’t need to be an expert to get started. You just need the right tools, a place to work in comfort, and a methodical approach.
Can You Fix It?
What’s wrong with your bike? It might be obvious or you might need to put it on a work stand to check. Before you get your hands dirty, do some research. See if there’s a how-to article on this website. If not, look for an instruction video online. Made Good has loads of beginner-friendly videos, as does the Park Tool website. YouTube videos are of variable quality but can also be useful.
It’s worth investing in a good bike maintenance book for reference. The Park Tool Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair is comprehensive, but you may find The Bike Repair Manual by Dorling Kindersley or The Bike Book by Haynes more accessible.
Once you know what needs doing, it’s decision time: have you got the bike tools and confidence to tackle this? If the answer’s no, go to plan B. (B is for bike shop!) Some jobs aren’t difficult but require rarely-used bicycle tools that it might not be cost-effective for you to own.
While a dedicated workshop is ideal, all you need is a well-lit area where you’ll be comfortable and won’t get in anyone’s way. You’ll make fewer mistakes if you’re able to work methodically, without the pressure of time or the worry of making a mess.
If you don’t have a suitable garage or shed, buy a workshop mat to put down in a vacant room. They cost from around £10; just search for ‘workshop bike mat’.
Wherever you’ll be working, aim to do so using a bicycle work stand. A stand makes maintenance work much easier, and most fold down for storage.
There are ad hoc ways to bring the bike up to your level. You could use a padded bench vise, or you might be able to put a couple of long straps over a beam to hook the bike up by the saddle and handlebar.
Ensure you’ve got all the parts you need before you start. If you’re fitting a new chain, you might also need a new cassette, new chainrings, and new derailleur jockey wheels. If you’re fitting a new cable, you may need a new cable outer and ferrules, and you’ll certainly need an extra cable end cap.
There are countless different standards for bikes, so it’s easy to buy the wrong thing, particularly if you’re buying online. The safest bet is to take your bike into your local shop, explain what you need, and buy the correct brake pads or whatever you need on the spot.
Bikes get dirty, especially the drivetrain, and some of that will get transferred onto you. Wear an apron – any will do. Nitrile workshop gloves will keep your hands clean. If you don’t have them, keep some kitchen roll handy to wipe the worst of the muck off before you spread it around your house.
When you’re working on your bike, small parts can easily become misplaced. Lay out parts systematically on sheets or newspaper or keep them together in, for example, Tupperware boxes.
Bike Maintenance Technique
Don’t use cheap bike tools. Buy the best bike tools you can afford. If a tool rounds off and slips, it’ll damage the nut, bolt or other components. Your hand will slip too, and you may bang it or gouge it on the bike. Even with good cycling tools, make sure they’re properly seated and apply leverage in such a way that your hand won’t get hurt if a firmly tightened bolt suddenly yields.
Nuts and bolts on bikes can be very tight. If you’re struggling, you need more leverage. With a multitool, you can increase this by unfolding the tools on the opposite end to the one you’re using, so you’ve got a longer lever. With big spanners and suchlike, it’s useful to have a 30cm or longer piece of metal tubing, wide enough in diameter to enclose the tool handle. If you can’t find anything else suitable, a cheap aluminium relay baton (around £5 online) will do the job
Beware of tightening things too firmly. The bottom bracket and headset, for example, should be tightened just enough to stop play in the bearings; there shouldn’t be any resistance to turning. Most other fittings require firm pressure rather than extreme force. Each part has a recommended amount of force to apply to it when it’s fitted. While you can normally judge things well enough by feel instead, force is worth measuring with a torque wrench in the case of (more easily damaged) carbon fibre parts.
Bolts and other threaded parts should turn easily to begin with. If not, you may have crossed the threads. Undo and try again, taking great care to screw the fitting home perpendicularly. Bear in mind that some components – for example, left-hand pedals and right-hand bottom bracket cups – use a left-hand thread and tighten anticlockwise.
Before you ride the bike you’ve been maintaining, ensure that everything functions as it should while it’s in your ‘workshop’.
Cycle Maintenance Essentials
Your local bike shop will be happy to service and fix your bike for you, for a fee. And it's possible to get roadside recovery through services such as Cycleguard. Nevertheless, it's worth investing in some bike tools and picking up the skills to use them. It'll save you time on your way to work if you break down, and it'll save you money when you're working on your own bike at home.
Tools can be divided into two groups: those you'll carry with you on the bike, and the bigger and more rarely used cycling tools that you'll keep at home. Buy the on-the-bike tools first and again, get the best bike tools you can afford. Good ones will last for years, and you can save money on them by including them as part of your Cyclescheme package.
On-the-Bike Cycling Tools
These are essential cycling tools to keep on you for an effective and portable cycle maintenance kit. It’s also worth investing in a bicycle tool bag.
Essential not just for innertube changes and puncture repairs but to keep tyres at the right pressure. Two pumps are best: a floor pump, or track pump, with a pressure gauge for home use; and a small pump for roadside emergencies.
Two is sufficient. Invest in ones that are hard to break.
Get the right size and valve type; a Schrader valve (car type) won't fit a Presta-sized rim hole. Bin the cardboard box to save space and wrap the rolled-up tube in a plastic bag, rag or spare Buff to prevent accidental damage. Long-distance commuters might want two tubes.
Puncture repair kit
Only for roadside use when you’ve used your spare innertube(s).
Spare quick link
To fix a broken chain quickly, carry a quick link that's the right speed and, if necessary, brand for your chain. It's easily lost, so stash it with the puncture repair kit. If your bike has hub gear or is a singlespeed, carry an actual chain link or two instead.
3, 4, 5 and 6mm are often required, but you may need smaller and larger ones too.
Mostly used to adjust derailleurs. JIS #2 is the size required.
At Home Bike Maintenance Tools
These essential bike tools are for you to keep in your cycle tool box at home. You should always keep a bicycle repair kit at home to tackle simple repairs and fixes.
You’ll need at least:
A light spray lube for displacing water and dirt, such as GT85
Chain oil, such as Fenwicks Chain Lube
Grease, such as Green Oil Eco Grease
Chain wear gauge
Tells you when to bin a worn chain and fit a new one.
Also known as a track pump, this is a tall freestanding pump with a long hose and usually a pressure gauge. It makes tyre inflation almost effortless, so is perfect for keeping your tyres topped up to the right pressure
8mm and 10mm for things like mudguard and brake bolts, thin 15mm open-ended spanner for pedal fitting and removal.
To trim brake and gear cables and their outers.
Grip cables to hold them taut when fitting and adjusting. Also useful to crimp end caps when you install new cables.
Makes working on your bike a pleasure rather than a chore and greatly simplifies gear and brake adjustment.
Master these, then make a list of more specialised tools for your next Cyclescheme package.
Multitools are the Swiss army knives of the cycling world, offering essential tools in a compact, fold-out format.
Compared to a set of separate tools, a multitool keeps everything together in a portable, lightweight package. It’s ideal for slipping into a pocket or commuter bag.
Functions of a multitool
It's easy to be swayed by the number of functions a multitool offers. If 10 functions is good, surely 20 is twice as good? Not necessarily. Some of them might be the equivalent of the Swiss army knife's fish scaler or that tool for getting grit out of horse's hooves – tools that no one ever uses. The best bike tool for you is the one that offers every function you need, and nothing you don't.
Look at your bike and consider what jobs you'll tackle. As a minimum, you should be able to adjust the brakes and gears and tighten any bolts that might work loose. A handful of Allen keys and a Phillips-head screwdriver might be sufficient. A chain breaker is invaluable for the rare occasions you need it. Other tools that can prove invaluable include pack tyre levers, spoke keys, blades, a bottle opener, 8 and 10mm spanners, and star-shaped Torx bits.
Size and weight
Any multitool will fit in a jersey pocket or the smallest seatpack. The more compact and less pointy it is when folded, the more room there is for everything else, and the less likely it is that the multitool will poke holes in anything.
Most multitools with a chain tool weigh between about 150 and 200 grammes. Tools weighing less than 100g tend to omit the chain tool, unless you're paying a lot of money for something made partly from carbon-fibre.
Design and build
Plastic, wood, and lighter metals such as aluminium are fine for the tool body, but the tools themselves should be hardened steel; soft Allen keys or screwdrivers are useless and will soon round off, possibly damaging your bike. Tyre levers are the exception and should be plastic or plastic-coated to prevent rim damage.
The tool should be ergonomic - not just comfortable in the hand, but designed so that every tool is in a readily usable location. It must be possible to exert reasonable leverage too. If there are any loose bits, there should be some means to prevent them getting lost. The side-plates on fold out tools can come loose, so you'll need to tighten the Allen bolt at each corner periodically.
If your bike is making creaking, clicking or rubbing noises, it's trying to tell you something: fix me! Here's what to look for.
Aside from the whisper of tyres on tarmac and the whirring of the chain, your bike should be pretty much silent. Noises aren't just annoying: they're a sign that something needs adjusting. Adjustment usually takes the form of tightening bolts or cable tension, or of removing, greasing, and refitting components.
Grease is the word
Get some grease from the bike shop. You'll be applying it forever to bolt threads, bearing surfaces, and bits that fit into other bits. While anti-seize compounds are better in some circumstances, such as aluminium fittings in a titanium frame, common-or-garden grease is fine for most commuter bikes components.
Greasing threads will stop them seizing but isn't a licence to tighten bolts as hard as you can. In particular, be careful not to overtighten any bolt that bears down on carbon fibre – it can crack. A torque wrench is a wise investment for bikes with carbon parts.
Finding where a noise is coming from can be tricky. Ride on a quiet road or cyclepath where traffic noise is minimal or non-existent. Try various riding styles.
Is the noise present when freewheeling? (If so, it's probably not the drivetrain.)
Does it stop when you get off the saddle?
When you don't pedal with a particular leg?
When you're in certain gears?
Does it get worse when you're hauling on the handlebar?
It also helps to put your bike on a workstand and pedal the cranks by hand. It might then become obvious that a tyre is catching a mudguard or the front derailleur cable is flicking the crank.
Here are some common problems. It's not an exhaustive list.
To run quietly and efficiently, a chain needs to be clean, well-lubricated, and relatively unworn. If it's dry or dirty, chain care is required. If a clean and oiled chain skips and rattles, it could be one of two things: the chain is too worn and needs replacing; or the rear derailleur indexing is out of synch and needs adjusting. Adjusting the cable tension of the front derailleur is often enough to stop the chain rubbing noisily on the front derailleur cage – assuming the derailleur was fitted correctly in the first place and hasn't been knocked out of line.
Noise from the crank area can be the chainring bolts – in which case, remove, clean, grease and refit them.
Much more commonly, it's the bottom bracket, the axle that the cranks turn on.
Bottom bracket bearings have a finite lifespan. Traditional square taper bearings often last for years and can be regreased rather than replaced. External bottom brackets such as Shimano's HollowTech II are shorter lived; annual replacement is not uncommon. The latest pressfit bottom brackets can be abysmal and are a poor choice for a commuter bike.
Sometimes the bearings are okay but the cranks are loose or are creaking on the axle. If it's a square taper design, remove the crank(s) with a crank extractor, grease the axle taper, and refit. If the bike has an external bottom bracket or a pressfit design, tighten the lefthand crank onto the axle using the crank installation tool; you'll need to loosen the Allen bolts on the axle first and retighten them afterwards. Check that the cranks can still spin freely. Like the headset, the bearings are held in compression in these designs.
Pedals often creak. Remove them, normally with a 15mm spanner, and not forgetting that the lefthand pedal has a lefthand thread and undoes clockwise. Grease the threads. Then refit them. If the pedal won't rotate on its axle or is too loose, the bearings need adjusting or replacing; with budget pedals, it's simpler to replace the whole pedal.
Clipless pedals can become noisy as the cleat wears. If the cleat is loose in the pedal, adjust the spring tension. If it's tight enough but still creaks on the shoe sole, try spraying the cleat area and pedal bindings lightly with silicone spray.
Check that the wheel is round. It might be buckled and need truing. Sometimes the pads rub because the brake won't release or centre properly, or because the brake is out of alignment due to a knock or wheel replacement. Try adjusting the brake.
Noise here might come from the saddle clamp at the top of the seatpost, from the seatpost clamp on the frame, or from the seatpost itself. Try the seatpost first. Remove it from the frame, clean and grease it where it fits into the frame, and reinstall.
No joy? Remove, grease and refit the saddle clamp bolts, then the seatpost clamp. Note that the saddle will degrade eventually: the rails can come loose and rattle in the chassis of the saddle, or break altogether. A new saddle is the solution then.
The biggest problem for bikes with threadless headsets is the headset feeling loose and 'knocky'. Apply the front brake and try to push the bike back and forth by the handlebar. If there's any play, undo the stem bolts where they grip the steerer tube above the headset, tighten the top cap until any play is removed but the steering doesn't bind, then tighten the stem bolts.
If there's a creaking or ticking noise from the headset, the bearings may need regreasing or replacing. To grease them, remove the headset top cap and stem so the fork can be removed from the frame. Liberally grease the bearings and refit the fork, taking care to put the headset parts back in the correct order. If the bearings need replacing, it's time to head to the bike shop.
Handlebar and stem
It's not uncommon to get creaks where the stem clamps the handlebar. Remove the stem bolts, grease, and refit. Tighten the bolts evenly and carefully.
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