Pre-Race Bike Preparation: Tune-Up Essentials
Toolbox: You feel ready. You have done the training, the hours of riding and zone specific work to fully prepare your body for the onslaught to come. But is your bike as ready as you are? Go beyond just cleaning your bike to see how to make sure your bike is well-prepped for your race or Gran Fondo.
The race starts and you feel great! Miles tick by and the crunch is coming when suddenly the bike shifts to the smallest cog, victim of a broken shift cable. Don’t let your derailleur derail your race, instead perfect your pre-race bike prep!
Bike racers generally fall into two categories. Those who are steadfast in their bike maintenance and those who really couldn’t care less. I’ve met a ton of racers who are so meticulous that they won’t let anyone else touch their bikes, while others couldn’t give me the first detail about their bike or its maintenance history.
We all know that rider who is strong as the dickens but always seems to have an unfortunate mechanical problem in races? Chances are that guy falls into the second group above. That’s the guy who doesn’t really take his preparation seriously – he may think he does, but not really. These riders may wash the bike, may even give it a once over, but if nothing obvious stands out, it must be all good, right? So off they go in races, the inevitable happens and they wonder at their “bad luck.”
Tools Of The Trade
If you ride bikes you owe it to yourself to set up a small work station at your house. Yes, modern bikes are complicated and fussy, but if you are modestly adept with tools and willing to learn you’d be surprised how much you can do on your own. There are some basic tools of the trade you’ll want to invest in straight off.
Get yourself a good bike stand. Companies like Feedback Sports and Park have any number of options, from those that hold the bike at the seat post (spend the extra dollars for the one with a quick release, trust me!), to ones that attach to the front fork and bottom bracket. Whichever you choose, you’ll appreciate the ease of working on a bike that is stable and accessible.
You’ll also want a basic set of tools. This includes a torque wrench (essential with carbon), a full set of allen keys, a cassette tool and chain whip for swapping cassette bodies, and likely a Torx wrench or two. In addition you’ll want a good chain washer, lube, some grease and a host of rags and brushes to clean the bike. There are lots of pre-built tool kits on offer if you don’t like to pick and choose. Now that you have the tools, it’s time to race prep!
The first part of your pre-race prep should be a full bike wash. Sure, sounds easy – and it is, but you are well served in developing a system that you follow each time, lest you miss a step and forget an important part.
For me it all starts with the wash. First a quick rinse with the hose. I like to use the flat setting for a nice even spray. A bucket of nice hot water with lots of bubbles, biodegradable soap of course (dish detergents are built to cut dirt and works as well as specialized bike washes), and a slew of brushes, rags and sponges is next.
I typically wash the bars, stem, seat and post first, then move to the front triangle, fork and finally rear triangle. From there it’s on to the wheels. If they are really dirty, for example in ‘cross, I pull the wheels and scrub them down with the rougher green side of a regular old dish sponge. If not so dirty I’ll leave them on the bike. Sidewalls and braking surfaces get special attention and each spoke gets a once over as well. Front wheel first, then the rear.
During the scrub down I am looking for cuts and abrasions on the tires and sidewalls. Pro mechanics with large inventories have the luxury of replacing any questionable tires – for the rest of us it’s a judgement call. Since I typically run a heavier training tire – a Continental Gatorskin for example – small nicks and cuts are less of a threat, but on the race wheels I’m far more picky.
Once the tires and rims are done I move to the cassette with an old red shop rag. I use it between each cog to clean out the muck and grime and make it shine like new. This step offers a good chance to see how my cassette teeth are wearing. Are they starting to round? When did I last replace my chain? It’s true what they say, it’s cheaper to replace a chain than a cassette, so keep track of your mileage. Most manufacturers will recommend replacing the chain every 2,000 – 3, 000 miles or so.
Once the wheels are clean I go back and wash my drive train. I use a chain washer to get the main grime off and a couple of different brushes – one soft and large for the cranks, the other smaller and stiffer for the derailleurs. During this time I check the cables for fraying or looseness, making note of any problems for the tune up. Since my current ride has white bar tape I usually break out a cleaning solution with some bleach in it to keep it clean and presentable. Once the wash is done I dry it with a chamois or water absorbent towel so it looks pristine.
Now that the bike is clean and dry I’m ready for the next phase – the tune up. First I’ll clean the chain with a dry shop rag (I can’t stand a loud drive train). This includes a thorough effort on the pulleys – they get dirty fast and those are free watts you’re giving away if you don’t. Once clean I lube the chain with any of three or four favorite lubes. Be sure to rotate the chain for at least 45 seconds to get the lube on all the links! A quick wipe down of the excess and viola – silent drive train!
From there I check the shifting to make sure it is running crisp and smooth. If you do need to replace cables remember that cable stretch is a real thing – you should probably replace the cables at least a few rides before the race, then re-check at the final tune. Once the shifting is perfect it’s on to the brakes. Normally they don’t require much service, but do keep track of pad wear. Most pads have wear lines that will tell you when you need to replace them, so easy! Fortunately, if they do need a new set most nicer brakes have a set screw that holds the cartridge pad in place making replacement an easy proposition. If you do replace the pads be sure to check the toe in and alignment – there is nothing much more annoying than squeaky brakes!
Don’t forget to clean your cables occasionally – both derailleurs and brake cables. Derailleur cables are easy – just shift to the easiest gear and then, without pedaling, shift all the way to hardest gear. That creates enough slack that you can pull the housing free of the frame and add just a touch or two of lube to the cables, wipe it from head to toe, and then re-insert. These little things make a big difference, I promise!
I also check my headset to be sure it is tight and clean. About once a quarter I pull the whole front end apart, clean and lube it just to be safe. Finally, I’ll go through the major bolts on the bike with my torque wrench to be sure they are all set just right. This last step is very important, as most of us are riding on carbon everything these days. A miss torqued bolt can lead to failure, and that is not an option you want to have realized.
One of the small joys of being in the bike game is learning and doing your own maintenance. This is especially true in the lead up to a race. From setting up your own home shop to perfecting the pre-race tune, knowing how to get your bike running perfectly is both an art and an obligation. Get yourself a workstand and a simple set of tools and you’ll be able to do 95% of the work your bike needs.
My pre-race tune up always starts with a good wash. This allows a full once over of the bike with an eye for potential problems like cuts in the wheel, frayed cable ends or wheels out of true. By taking the time to wash and prep your bike for every race (including between stages of a stage race) you are helping insure both your well being and that of others you are competing with. You are also giving yourself the first step towards that podium by being well prepared.
About Matt McNamara: Matt is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. This fall he once again jumped into the ‘cross game in anticipation of a massive El Nino in Northern California and the arrival of much needed (and anticipated) rain! Matt is the founder and president of Sterling Sports Group. Learn more by visiting him online at www.sterlingwins.com.