How to Tune Up a Bike at Home: DIY Tips to Save Money

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How to Tune Up a Bike at Home

Your reliable local bike shop will likely charge no less than $50 for a basic tune, but it can be hundreds if they need to go deep and replace parts. Learning to work on your own bike will save you the time and money involved in taking it to a bike shop, prevent fun-ending (and potentially dangerous) mechanical failures, and provide you with the satisfaction of embracing the DIY spirit.

This guide will cover the basics to get your bike rolling for spring. For detailed guides to specific parts on your bike, consult Park Tool’s Repair Help website for general instructions or the service manual for the specific component, which is often available on the manufacturer’s website. Sheldon Brown’s amazing website is a witty treasure trove of useful technical information as well.

First Step: Inspection

how to tune up a bike at home - first step: inspectionAll effective bicycle mechanics start each job with a thorough inspection, recording an inventory of everything potentially wrong with the bike. Get some note paper and start cataloging the issues you find. Write up an estimate of what tools and parts you will need to finish the job.

Clean the bike. Many of the issues you’re looking for will go undetected if they are under a layer of dust and grime. Use a soft brush and mild cleaner or soapy water, then gently rinse off with a hose or damp cloth if needed.

Structural integrity. Check every weld and joint on the frame and components for bends, warps, or cracks. Most parts will need to be replaced immediately if you detect damage.

Threaded interfaces. Check that there are not loose bolts anywhere (except derailleur limit screws). Appropriate bolt torque varies widely from one component to another, but in general, larger bolts are chosen for their strength and should be tightened accordingly. Any part held together with a bolt or bolts can be easily shifted, twisted, or wiggled is probably not tight enough. Park Tool has an excellent explanation of this concept here.

Wheels. Check that each rim is true and straight as it spins, the spoke tension is generally even all around (pluck each one and listen for a similar tone), the axles turn smoothly, and (for rim brakes) the rim braking surface is not worn thin.

Wear items. Check for worn out grips/bar tape, tires, brake pads. Pump up your tires to check that tubes and tires are air-tight and that there are no sharp objects in tires.

Brakes. Check that cables operate smoothly, are not frayed or corroded, housing is intact, and cable ends capped. Hydraulic brakes should feel firm and crisp. Brake pads, whether rim or disc variety, should have ample pad material left.

Drivetrain. Check that chain, cassette, and chainrings are in good shape. Chains wear out with time and “stretch” due to the worn inner bushings and should be replaced when they reach a certain point (Read more on how to diagnose and replace a worn chain).

Shifting. Shift controls should have a light, crisp actuation and shift the chain across all gears. Cables and housing should be free of corrosion and damage.

Suspension. Motion should be smooth and consistent. Fluids and seals should be replaced on a regular schedule. If your suspension had not been serviced in recent memory, it’s time. Keep the stanchions on suspension as clean as possible, as dirt contaminating the inner parts will shorten its service life.

Basic Tools and Supplies

Working on your bike is a terrific excuse to add to your tool collection. Here are the most basic tools that every rider should have:

Pump and tire levers. A good floor pump will work with schrader and presta valves and feature a integrated pressure gauge. Mini pumps are good for mid-ride repairs, but a floor pump is much more efficient for maintaining pressure at home. Tire levers will make removing tight-fitting tires possible, if not breezy.

Allen wrenches / hex keys. With few exceptions for very old bikes, these will be in metric sizes. A set of 2-8mm L-handle tools should suffice.

Philips screwdriver for derailleur adjustments.

Gloves and rags. Bike grime is tenacious stuff! Prevent staining your hands with rubber gloves or high-dexterity work gloves.

Lubricants. Tri-Flow in a drip bottle is the go-to lube for most mechanics for small mechanical parts. Use chain lube on chains and grease on bearings and most bolt threads. Ubiquitous WD-40 is not a good bicycle lube, but can be used as a temporary fix.

Speciality Tools

how to tune up a bike at home: diy tips to save money

Chain tool. Any new chain will be longer than needed for most bikes. You’ll need a chain tool to remove the excess links, and to rejoin the master pin on Shimano chains.

Cable cutter. A hardware store diagonal wire cutter can work, but a bicycle-specific cable cutter will yield better results for trimming cable ends and cutting lengths of housing.

Torque wrench. This tool will mitigate damage to small bolts and over-tightening that can crush lightweight parts; can be pricey but worth the peace of mind.

Spoke wrench. Getting a wheel straight and true is a matter of balancing spoke tension. Be sure to use exactly the correct size spoke wrench for your spoke nipples, as there are several sizes that are very close.

Bike stand. You can work on your bike on the ground, but the most convenient way to fine-tune your ride is to suspend it from a bike stand. Cheaper ones are fine for home mechanics, but plans for home-made stands are plentiful on the internet.

Wheel-truing stand. A wheel stand gets the wheel off the bike for precision alignment.

Cassette lockring wrench and chain whip. Use these to remove and install a cassettes.

Cone wrenches. These ultra-thin spanners come in various sizes to adjust the bearings in hubs, some headsets, and bottom brackets. Acquire only the sizes you need for your bikes.

Crank and bottom bracket tools. There are dozens of crank and bottom bracket designs that require specific tools, so pick up the ones that you need.

Step 2: Diagnostics and Estimation

Now that you’ve inspected the bike, write down the cost of any replacement parts you need. Spend a few minutes looking up the procedures involved in fixing the issues your bike might already have, and access whether you’re willing to do those at home, or if they’re over your head and need the skills of a professional. Weigh the value you put on the time and effort you might exert working on your own bike versus the cost of paying your local bike shop to do it.

Below are a few common bike tune-up tips that most riders can perform on their own. Bust out the elbow grease and start twirling those wrenches!

Top 3 Essential Tune-ups

Chain Maintenance: How to Clean a Bike Chain Without Removing It:

Chain lube absorbs dirt and eventually dries out, leaving the chain dry and squeaky. Check the chain’s level of wear and replace if it’s too far gone. You rarely need solvents to get a chain clean, just more lube to flush out the old grime. To get the current turning smoothly again:

  1. Brush or scrape grime buildup from front chainrings and cassette cogs. An old toothbrush can me used to scrub the initial layer of grime off the chain and rings. A length of yarn and be stretched and use to “floss” the space between cassette cogs.
  2. Hold the lube bottle tip close the the chain with one hand and slowly turn the pedals backwards with the other hand. Lightly squeeze the bottle so that the lube drips onto the chain as each link rolls past the bottle tip.
  3. Continue this until the entire length of the chain has passed the dripping tip at least once.
  4. Allow the lube to soak into the chain for a minute or two.
  5. Wrap an rag lightly around the chain in your hand and turn the pedals backwards continuously. Drag the rag along the chain, wiping off excess lube and the dirt that it has just flushed out. Continue until all the excess lube has been wiped away. The chain should be relatively dry on the outside when you are done; the lube has worked its way into the rollers where it belongs.

Related: How to replace a bike chain

How to Clean Bike Brake Pads

Brake: Brake performance fades slowly over time as pads wear out and cables or fluid become contaminated.

  • For all cable-actuated (mechanical) brakes– check that the housing is free from damage, housing ends (ferrules) are intact, inner wires are free from rust and corrosion, and a cable tip is firmly crimped on the end. Replace damaged cable systems.
    • Cables that drag can usually be freed up with a few drops of viscous lube into the end of the housing, but bad corrosion or a worn housing liner means it’s time to replace both.
    • Turn the barrel adjuster on the caliper and/or lever all the way and adjust the cable tension using the brake’s pinch bolt, then use the barrel adjuster to make fine adjustments.
  • Rim brakes– check that the rim’s braking surface is flat, not concave, by placing a metal straight edge against the rim. Rims with concave braking surfaces means the rim (or likely the whole wheel) should be replaced immediately. Brake pads should be checked for debris and thickness, and should be aligned to the height and track of the wheel, not touching the tire or hanging off the inside of the rim. Clean rims and pads also stop better than dirty ones.
  • Disc brakes- brake pads should be replaced if they have less than 1mm of pad material left. If the pads don’t contact the rotor evenly on both sides, loosen the caliper mounting bolts, center the caliper over the rotor, and tighten the bolts evenly. If the pads don’t create enough friction to stop the rotor easily, they are likely contaminated with oils and need to be replaced. If a hydraulic system feels “spongy,” it’s time to bleed the system using the appropriate tools and fluid for that system. While you might want to leave bleeding brakes to your local bike shop, the job can be accomplished at home with inexpensive tools, careful reading of instructions, and a lot of patience.

How to Fix Common Bike Shifting Issues:

Problem: Shifter is difficult to actuate – cables and housing may be damaged or worn out. If cable system is not rusty or damaged, a few drops of Triflow or similar liquid lube in the end of the housing will free it up. Otherwise, replace the cable AND housing for smoother action. Be sure to use shift housing, not brake housing for this application!

Problem: Derailleur (front or rear) throws chain off a chainring or cassette cog, front or rearadjust limit screws on derailleur. These are two screws usually marked H and L for high and low.

How to adjust a bike derailleur: The high limit is how far the derailleur will move sideways away from the bike (to the hardest gears), and the low limit is how far it moves sideways toward the center of the bike, to the easiest gears.

If the chain falls into the spokes on the back or onto the bottom bracket in front, turn the L screw in ¼ turn and test it. Repeat until the screw is just far enough that it stops the chain from dropping off. If the chain falls off the big ring or the small cassette, cog, do the same with the H screw.

Problem: Chain will not shift onto bigger cogs or ring(s)

Tighten cable tension. Start by threading any barrel adjusters in the system all the way in, then loosen the anchor bolt that holds the cable on the derailleur, remove cable slack by hand, and re-tighten the anchor bolt. Make minute adjustments using the barrel adjuster.

Problem: Rear derailleur shifts one direction with ease, but not the other way

Check the derailleur hanger as it may be bent to the inside. A bicycle shop should have a hanger alignment tool to straighten it, or get a replacement hanger specifically made for your frame. Replacement hangers are usually available from the frame manufacturer, or look it up on derailleurhanger.com

Problem: Chain skips over chainring teeth or cassette cogs

Cogs and chainrings wear out just like chains, but more slowly. Worn cassettes and chainrings will not play nice with a new chain, so replace that too if any of the cogs start skipping.

Problem: Chain rubs on front derailleur cage

The front derailleur cage should be parallel to the chainrings and low enough to shift but high enough to clear the rings. Loosen the band clamp that holds the derailleur in place, if applicable, and position the cage so it’s in the optimal position.

Problem: Shifter ratchets through the first few gears but not the whole range

This is common in older shifters where the ratcheting mechanism inside is worn out or has become sticky. This is a tricky job, as the inside of most shifters is complex and not practically serviceable. You might be able to expose the inner workings of the shifter, douse it in degreaser, and nurse it back to working condition. Otherwise, replace the shifter.