How to Tune Up Your Bike

A bike in a repair stand

Riding your bike is a great way to get some exercise and spend time outdoors. To keep you and your bike in tip-top shape, it’s important to give your bike regular check-ups and maintenance. While we recommend you have all tune-ups performed by a certified professional, especially if you’re unfamiliar with your bike’s mechanisms, checking over your bike yourself will still give you an idea of what, if anything, needs to be repaired. With this step-by-step guide, we’ll walk you through how to check your bike and decide if it’s safe to hit the road or if it’s time to bring your bike to your local SCHEELS for repair.

1. Inspect and Clean the Bike

The most obvious sign you need to bring your bike in for repair is visible damage. Give your bike a quick once-over and check for anything that looks broken, bent, or damaged, paying special attention to the wheels, spokes, and pedals. Look out for any loose or frayed cables. You'll also want to make sure the handlebars are sturdy and won’t rotate when you’re riding. If your bike has a quick-release lever on one or both wheels, check that it’s secure and won’t come loose during your ride.

To make sure everything performs the way it should, wash your bike with a quality bike wash fluid—just spray it on, wait a couple minutes, and wipe it off to remove dirt and grime. It’s also a good idea to brush out the chainlinks (you can use a chain brush or an old toothbrush) and apply some chain lubricant.

2. Check Your Tires

Inspecting the tire

As any bike rider knows, getting a flat tire can really put a damper on your ride. Before heading out, check your tires to make sure they’re good to go. The first thing you should do is inspect the tire for any punctures, damage, or wear. If you see any holes, deep tears, or significant tread wear, you’ll need to get new tires before you start riding.

Once you’ve determined your tires are ready for action, check the tire pressure using a tire gauge. You can find the recommended tire pressure for your bike on the wall of the tire, usually near the valve. If you’re a little low on air, use a bike pump to inflate the tire. Fill the tire slowly and carefully—over-inflating could cause the tube to burst. Once you’ve refilled the tube, double-check the tire pressure to make sure it’s holding air. Another quick way to check for an air leak is to listen for a hissing noise after you’ve filled the tube. If you find a leak, you’ll need to pick up a replacement bike tube. You can find the right tube size by checking the same spot where you found the recommended tire pressure. If you’ve never replaced a tube before, it’s a good idea to bring your wheel to a professional bike technician since you risk damaging the tire or tube if done improperly.

3. Test Your Brakes

If your tires are ready to go, it’s time to test your brakes and make sure you’re ready to stop! Whether you have brake pads or disc brakes, the process is relatively the same: check for signs of wear then test your brakes. To test the brakes, lift the tire, spin the wheel, and engage the brake lever. This can be difficult without a proper repair stand; alternatively, you can engage the brake lever and perform a close visual inspection or go on a short, slow ride and carefully monitor the brake’s performance.

Testing the brakes
Checking Brake Pads

If your bike has brake pads, check the pads and make sure they aren’t loose or worn out. If you don’t see any visible damage, test your brake levers—they should stop about parallel to the handles. If the lever feels too tight, too loose, or hits your handlebars, you’ll need to get your brake cables adjusted. You’ll also want to make sure the full length of the brake pad engages with the rim. If it hits the rim at an angle or touches the rubber of your tire, you can use an Allen wrench to adjust the pad.

Checking Disc Brakes

If you have disc brakes, double-check that the rotor (the metal disc) doesn’t have any dents and is at least 1.5mm thick—if it’s any thinner, you’ll need to get new rotors. Next, spin the wheel and make sure the rotor stays true—meaning it rotates in a straight line—as the tire spins: it shouldn’t make contact with the caliper (the small box the disc spins through). While the wheel is spinning, gently engage the brake lever. The tire should stop rotating and the disc shouldn’t slip. Pay special attention to the feel of the brake lever—if it pulls all the way to the handlebar or doesn’t engage smoothly, you’ll likely need to get your brakes bled. During a brake bleed, a technician will clear the hydraulic fluid from your brake system and replace it. This is an especially advanced repair and should only be performed by an experienced mechanic.

4. Check Your Derailleurs

Testing the derailleur

Next, you’ll want to check your bike’s derailleurs, the mechanisms that allow it to change gears. The derailleur is one of the more complicated mechanisms on the bike and can be especially difficult to check and adjust without a proper bike repair stand. If you suspect any problems with your derailleur or shift system, we recommend you bring your bike in so it can be double-checked and adjusted by one of our Barnett-certified professionals.

To check your derailleur without a repair stand, go on a short, slow bike ride and pay close attention to how the gear shifts. When you shift gears, the chain should stay on the gear you’ve shifted to and shouldn’t “hop” between two gears. You might be able to hear the chain shifting between gears, so just listen for any extra sounds for a safe, quick check. You’ll want to pay special attention to your first and last gears, as these tend to be where the most problems occur.

You’ll also want to make sure to avoid cross-chaining. Cross-chaining occurs when your gear is on two opposite chains between the front and rear gear systems, for example, the inner gear on your cassette (the rear set of gears) and the outer gear on your chainset (the gears attached to your pedals). This causes the chain to ride at a slant, which puts a lot more stress on the links and wears out your chain much faster than proper shifting. If you’ve ridden this way in the past, it’s a good idea to bring your bike in for a tune-up. One of our bike experts will easily be able to check the chain for any worn, loose, or elongated links and help you determine the best course of action.

5. Check Your Helmet

Finally, and most importantly, check your bike helmet! Inspect your helmet for any visible damage, especially cracks, dents, and signs of impact. If you notice any damage, have ever been in an accident, or haven’t gotten a new helmet in a couple years, replace your helmet before riding—a broken or worn out helmet won’t give you the level of protection you need to stay safe on the road. For help sizing your helmet or picking out a new one, check out our guide on choosing a bike helmet.

6. Ride or Repair Your Bike

The SCHEELS service shop

Once you’ve given your bike a thorough check-up, you’ll know whether you're ready to hit the bike path or need to bring it in to one of our certified bike specialists for repair. Even if you’re sure the bike is ready after your initial check-up, you’ll want to continually monitor the bike’s performance to make sure your ride is as smooth and safe as possible. It’s always a good idea to at least double-check your tire pressure and brake function and do a quick visual inspection any time you ride your bike.

As a quick recap, here are the six steps to give your bike (and your helmet!) a check-up and make sure it's running smoothly:

  1. Inspect and clean the bike
  2. Check your tire pressure
  3. Inspect and test your brakes
  4. Go on a short, slow ride and listen for extra shifting
  5. Check your helmet for signs of wear
  6. Bring your bike in for repair if you find any problems

If you have any questions about how to keep your bike performing its best or want a professional to inspect and repair your bike for you, bring your bike to your local SCHEELS and head to the service shop counter.