6 common beginner's bike maintenance fails

Updated: Tips for those new to cycling

Working in shops you get to see and work on some really beautiful bikes, but then, there are the horror bikes. With a can of WD-40, a Phillips head screwdriver and a set of Allen keys in hand, here are the six most common maintenance and repair mistakes seen from beginners. 

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While we may be taking a humorous look at these mistakes, if you’re new to cycling, it’s certainly worth paying attention so you too can avoid these simple maintenance errors we all make when first starting out.

For those well past these beginner mistakes, a few more are covered in common repair errors.

1. Winding in derailleur limit screws

No doubt the most common beginner mistake — turning in those loose derailleur screws
No doubt the most common beginner mistake — turning in those loose derailleur screws

Those screws in your derailleurs aren’t loose, but are actually there to set the limits for which the derailleur can move. If a bicycle mechanic has built your bike, then chances are you don’t need to touch those screws again.

If your shifting has suddenly gone out of whack, it’s likely to do with cable tension (or dirty cables) or a bent derailleur hanger. Never reach for the screwdriver first.

2. Using the wrong lube

Ahhh... WD-40, providing bicycle mechanics with something to complain about since 1958
Ahhh... WD-40, providing bicycle mechanics with something to complain about since 1958

This one comes up in nearly every beginner-focused maintenance article. WD-40 is great for some things (like removing glue residue from stickers or other cleaning), but it’s not up to the task of lubing a bicycle chain.

That said, it’s a little confusing now that WD-40 actually produces a cycling-specific chain lube. Simply put, you’ll only find this ‘WD-40’ branded chain lube in cycle stores. 

When it comes to lubricating the chain, any lube left on the outside of the rollers and links is just collecting dirt and grit. Overtime, this will lead to increased wear and quite the mess.

After you lube your chain, let the lube settle in and then wipe off the excess with a rag. Lubing on top of dirty lube is a surefire way to make your bike angry at you.

It’s good practice to wipe down your chain with a clean rag after every ride — regardless of whether you add more lube. And while you're doing this, you may as well give the rear derailleur pulley wheels a quick wipe. 

3. Lubing brakes to fix a squeal 

If your brakes are squealing, then don’t think that grease or oil is the answer. Lube and brakes don’t mix.

If you’re using rim brakes, then it's likely to do with how the brake pads are set up. Look into how to set up brake pads with toe-in to avoid the dreaded squeal. If your pads are old and have dried out, seek advice on new, quieter brake pads.

For disc users, some brakes just squeal — there’s unfortunately no way out of that. However, most of the time it’s a sign of contamination. Cleaning the rotors and replacing the pads should provide some respite to nearby pedestrians.

4. Over tightening the headset

Modern threadless headset systems work by preloading the bearings with the cap on top, and then torqueing the stem in place with its pinch bolts.

Threadless headsets don't need all that much torque. That bolt up top is purely to set the bearing tension
Threadless headsets don't need all that much torque. That bolt up top is purely to set the bearing tension

Commonly, it’s thought the top preload bolt needs to be really tight, often resulting in a stripped star nut or jammed headset bearing. Remember, you only need this top bolt tight enough to remove any headset bearing play. If it’s causing resistance in your steering it’s likely too tight.

The exception to this is with older quill stems (distinguishable by a single bolt on top, with no pinch bolts at the stem’s side — still common on department store bikes).

This design uses a bolt attached to a sliding wedge that when tightened locks the stem within the steerer tube. For this type of stem, torque is your friend. And once you think you’ve got it tight enough, put the front wheel between your knees and see if you can twist the bars.

5. Not properly closing quick releases

Quick release skewers are a common item in cycling, but are rarely seen elsewhere. With this, it’s common to see them used incorrectly.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Trek’s recall of over a million bikes due to the potential danger if the quick release skewer is used incorrectly.

Quick release skewers have an open and closed lever position. Ensure you can read 'Closed' or 'Close' from the outside before riding
Quick release skewers have an open and closed lever position. Ensure you can read 'Closed' or 'Close' from the outside before riding

Put simply, quick releases have an open and a closed position. Before riding the bike, you need the quick release in the closed position. After tightening the opposing nut, the quick release lever should be locked into position with enough tension that it leaves a slight imprint in the palm of your hand. Ensure that it’s tight enough that you can’t flick it open with your finger tips alone. 

6. Poorly inflated tyres

Riding with under or overly inflated tyres is another common error. Here, a good quality floor pump makes a real difference in simply adding air to your tyres before you leave home.

For minimum and maximum pressures, consult the sidewall of your tyre and find a happy medium (see our article on mountain bike tyre pressure).

Another common mistake is in the use of Presta valves. These can be quite delicate and it's important to not put too much twisting force on them. Before fitting the pump head, ensure the nut is unwound to the top of its threaded shaft, then slightly depress the valve until you hear air escape.

Connect the pump as square to the valve as possible and once pumped, remove the pump head in an equally straight line. When you re-tighten the little nut, finger tight to the point that it can't be depressed is all that's needed — anything more and you may damage its seal.

David Rome

Former Editor, Australia
Dave was the editor of BikeRadar Australia until early 2016.
  • Discipline: Mountain, road and cyclocross
  • Preferred Terrain: Fast and flowing singletrack with the occasional air is the dream. Also happy chasing tarmac bends.
  • Current Bikes: Trek Fuel EX 27.5, SwiftCarbon Detritovore, Salsa Chilli Con Crosso
  • Dream Bike: Custom Independent Fabrications titanium, SRAM Etap and Enve wheels/cockpit
  • Beer of Choice: Gin & tonic
  • Location: Sydney, Australia

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