Nine Ways You’re Destroying Your Cycling Gear

You might be hurting your bike and cycling kit in ways you don't even know

Joe Lindsey |

Cycling gear is expensive and you do your best to take care of it so it lasts. But there might be things you’re doing unintentionally that can greatly shorten the life of that gear, which means you have to buy replacements. From destroying racks to rear derailleurs, here are nine common ways that riders unwittingly trash their riding gear and how to fix them:

Ignoring a Noise

Lots of bikes have occasional creaks and squeaks but if your machine is making a persistent racket, that’s a sign of a bigger problem, says Marty Caivano, a mechanic for DT Swiss.

“You might hear a creaking you can’t trace, and it can be anything from over-tightened stem bolts to a press-fit bottom bracket that’s backing out of the frame,” she says. “That’s kind of a dramatic example, but it can ruin the frame.”

What to do: Use some deductive reasoning and diagnose what you’re hearing, says Caivano. Does it happen all the time or only when pedaling? When standing, sitting, both? Is it coming from the front or the back of the bike? Those questions will help you narrow down what might be producing the offending sound. The type of sound can also be helpful. A creak when standing and pedaling might be over-torqued stem bolts; a squeak during the same could simply be your cleats squirming on the pedal. Whether you’re fixing it yourself or having a mechanic do it, zeroing in on the source and type of noise helps you fix things faster and more efficiently.

Storing Your Bike Wet

It’s certainly OK to ride in the rain, and even to leave a bike wet for a brief period of time. But if you let it sit longer than a day or so, you’re doing unnecessary harm to your bike. Carbon frames won’t rust, but corrosion affects almost all metals to some extent—especially steel parts like your chain and cassette, and bearing races. The magic combo is humidity + acids, so if you live in an a coastal area you want to be especially careful about this.

What to do: When you get back from a rainy ride, put the bike in a dry place. If your bike doesn’t have drain holes at the bottom bracket shell, pull the seatpost (mark your seat height first with some tape or a permanent marker) and flip the bike upside down to help water drain from the frame. As soon as possible, wash the bike with a mild detergent (dish soap is fine, or a bike-specific cleaner) and dry it thoroughly. Re-apply lube to the chain and critical spots like brake pivots, derailleur springs and pedal springs.

Running A Filthy Drivetrain

How long has it been since you cleaned your bike? I mean really cleaned it? If it’s been a month or more of solid riding since its last bath, put your bike in the stand and take a close look at your rear derailleur pulley wheels. Chances are you’ll see a ridge of black sludge on each side of the pulley wheel. That sludge is like a fine-grit sanding paste for your drivetrain. With every pedal stroke, it wears down metal on the chain, cassette, and chainrings until eventually your whole drivetrain is trashed. It also affects shifting quality and pedaling efficiency; testing by Friction Facts shows a dirty drivetrain adds up to four watts of friction resistance compared to a clean one.

What to do: Clean that bike first! If the chain is toast, replace it. Scrub the rest of the drivetrain during the bike wash. A small flat screwdriver is ideal for lifting that ridge of grime off the pulley wheels, says DT Swiss’s Caivano. Rinse the drivetrain thoroughly, and dry by running the chain through a rag or old towel until it doesn’t leave black marks anymore. Let the drivetrain dry fully—even overnight—before re-lubing the chain.

Inspect your chainring and cassette teeth for wear. You’re looking for teeth that are worn down or have a shark-fin like point to them. That’s a sign you may need new rings or cassette. Lube the chain thoroughly with a lube that’s appropriate for where you live. It takes about a minute longer, but the best method is to dab a drop of lube on each roller link rather than slather it on indiscriminately. When done, backpedal the chain for 30 seconds and let it sit for a few minutes to work the lube into the rollers, then dry with a towel until it runs clean.

Leaving Your Tow Bar Rack On

Want to know a secret? Tow bar racks are designed to take all kinds of abuse, but being left on your car 24/7 isn’t on the list. Still, “that’s common practice for many people,” says Ian Betteridge, a Product Integrity Lead who specializes in bike racks. But if you do it, expect reduced performance and lifespan, he adds.

Tow bar racks racks face all the same issues that roof racks do, like unrelenting UV radiation and extreme temperature swings. Unlike roof racks, they also have to deal with intense heat from your car exhaust that can melt plastic parts, and corrosive wheel spray during winter months. The bumps you encounter in everyday driving can create slop in hardware connections, which causes the rack to sway alarmingly when loaded. That puts even MORE stress on the hardware. Finally: Because it sticks out even when folded up, there’s always a chance some inattentive idiot backs into it in a parking lot, damaging the rack or even your tow bar mount and car. For a product you entrust with thousands of dollars worth of bikes, sometimes at freeway speeds, it pays to give it a little TLC now and then.

What to do: Check your rack for signs of corrosion, says Betteridge, like the telltale bubbling of a powdercoat paint finish that means metal is corroding from the inside. Keep the rack clean; a quick wash with soapy water uncovers a lot of hidden problems. Check hardware internals for signs of rust on fixing bolts. On tow bar racks, Betteridge says inspect pivots, large fixing bolts and welds. “Put a dab of grease on the hitch bolt and pivots,” he says. Finally? Take the damn rack off the car if you’re not using it; you’ll save it immense amounts of wear and tear. Newer designs make use of lighter materials to knock 10 or 15 pounds off without harming stability (Yakima’s Dr. Tray is 35 pounds, compared to close to 50 for some racks), which makes them easier to install, remove, and maneuver. Get creative with rubberized storage hooks to create a garage wall mount for your system to keep it safe when you’re not using it.

Using the Wrong Tool

Nothing turns a simple repair into a knuckle-bleeding thrash quite like using the wrong tool. What’s more, it can damage your bike and make it more difficult to work on later, says Caivano. As an events mechanic, she sees a wide variety of bikes, including some that show clear signs of wrenching abuse: rounded bolt heads, overtightened seatpost clamps, or smoothed over derailleur limit screws, for three of the most common errors.

What to do: Just get the right tools already. You don’t need much to start—a set of quality Allen keys in 2-10mm metric sizing, a 3-way Torx-head Y-wrench (T10, T20 and T25 cover most bike bolts), some tyre levers, a chain tool, and a good floor pump will cover 75 percent of the work you need or want to do on your own bike. You’ll want a good chain lube, too. A work stand is important, but you can do work without one if you’re careful (and flexible).

To add later, as needed: a cassette lockring tool and chainwhip, a pedal wrench, a chain scrubber, spoke wrench, and a torque wrench. If you get in too far, never be afraid to simply stop and take your bike to a good local bike shop for professional help.

Letting Your Stinky Kit Sit for a Week

Does this describe your post-ride routine: strip out of sweaty cycling kit, toss it in a hamper, and do a load of cycling clothes once a week or so? If so, you’re doing harm to some pricey threads. Bacteria thrive in warm, moist environments; the longer your kit sits, the harder it is to remove stains and odors set deep into the fibers. Concerned about wear from laundering? Washing doesn’t harm clothes nearly as much as not washing them does, says Ted Barber, Director of Advanced Development for Pearl Izumi. “Some people don’t wash their kit enough because they’re afraid it will affect durability,” he says. “Our fabrics are engineered so they can handle standard washing.” The bigger problem, he adds, is dirt particles that abrade yarns.

What to do: Instead of chucking sweaty kit in a pile post-ride, hang it to dry first (especially shorts). Do smaller loads more often, and don’t worry about hand-washing; most cycling clothing is made to withstand a delicates cycle. And most washers made in the last decade have load-sensing capability to conserve water. If you have a top-load washer with a central agitator, put items like warmers and bib shorts in mesh wash bags so they don’t get twisted around the agitator. An extra rinse helps fully clean out detergents. Don’t use fabric softener or dryer sheets; they’re designed to leave fragrance in clothes to help them smell better, but those residues can interfere with moisture wicking and heat transfer in technical garments. Line dry or tumble on air only (except shell fabrics, where a low-heat dry helps revive the DWR water resistance). If your kit is especially trashed from a muddy ride, just wash right away (hose it off outside first to rinse out as much dirt as you can so you don’t mess up your washing machine).

Not Reading Instructions

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing sometimes. If you work on your own bike, you might think you know exactly how to maintain and repair it.

But as component makers come out with new versions of components, installation and maintenance can change. A Shimano Ultegra 8000 front derailleur has a different setup process than an older 6700 series does; dual-pivot brakes don’t adjust like single-pivot models; and like Bicycling’s former editor-in-chief Bill Strickland, unless you read the manual, you might learn the hard way that the titanium crankarm fixing bolt on a Campagnolo Super Record crankset is threaded opposite to the Record and Chorus versions.

What to do: Read the manual! Manuals give you an idea of recommended maintenance schedules and dos and don’ts. Threw away the manual? Check the manufacturer’s web site, or just Google the part name and “manual.” Components like stems, bars and seatpost clamps have recommended torque ranges often printed right on the part; follow them, or risk crushing expensive carbon stuff. Need detailed instructions on maintenance? Some companies, like SRAM, are great about posting step-by-step videos about specific products.

Ignoring Your Brakes

Caivano says once a customer brought a bike to her that was making noise when braking. The disc brake pads were worn down completely to the metal shoes, which had started to grind through the rotors. That’s an extreme example, but we often do ignore our brakes until there’s a specific issue. Don’t. Neglected rim brakes can get glazed pads that don’t brake effectively, and grit ground into the pad can groove your rim sidewalls over time and shorten wheel life. Rim and disc brake pads must be swapped out when worn, and hydraulic systems benefit from a brake bleed.

What to do: Keep an eye on pad wear and keep the brake surface clean. For rim brakes, clean the rims with a rag dabbed in rubbing alcohol to remove rubber and dirt. If the rim is really dirty, Caivano likes to scrub brake tracks on metal rims with steel wool first (don’t do this on carbon brake tracks). Use a file to rough up rubber brake pads and remove glaze. A small dental pick can help pluck out larger pieces of dirt or metal slivers.

For disc brakes, check pad wear by removing the pads from the caliper or just shining a flashlight in there. If there’s less than 1mm of pad material left, swap ‘em. Clean rotors with rubbing alcohol and inspect for deep gouges and warping and check that bolts are tight. Caivano says brakes can benefit from a yearly bleed even if they seem to be working fine, because the repeated heat-and-cool cycles from braking will degrade fluid over time.

Mistreating Your Helmet

You already know not to leave your helmet in sunny spots like the seat of your car, right? UV light can degrade the oils used in the polycarbonate shell and EPS foam, says Bell Sports’s Category Manager Sean Coffey. But, he adds, “heat in itself can be dangerous for helmets. The trunk of a car can get hot, enough to deform the foam liner and the shell.” Extreme cold can also lead to decreased performance in a crash situation, so don’t store your helmet in an unheated garage in winter.

What to do: To get rid of stank, mud splatter, and those telltale white salt stains on the pads and straps, wash your helmet by hand with warm, soapy water (never use solvents and other chemicals; they can harm the plastic shell and foam). If you don’t have a laundry sink, a bath or shower works fine.

Finally, says Coffey, do what you can to avoid even minor dings and drops. Instead of casually draping your lid over a brake lever, secure it to the handlebar with the strap so it doesn’t fall off.

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