Bike maintenance is a wide-ranging topic, so in this article we start with the basics: cleaning your bike, securing bolts and lubricating key components.

Your drivetrain deserves the most frequent attention, so watch our video first for some useful instruction.

Cleaning Your Bike

Your bike is a collection of moving parts. When these parts come into contact with mud, grime and debris, wear and tear is inevitable. This speeds up the deterioration of your bike's components. Not surprisingly, your first line of defense against breakdowns is proper bike hygiene.

How to Clean

There's more to cleaning your bicycle than just hosing it down from time to time and sticking it in your garage or basement to dry. Water (especially when coming from a high-pressure hose) can cause damage to sensitive bearing systems throughout your bike. So if you do wash with water, do so carefully.

Most dirty bike components can be cleaned by wiping them carefully with a dry (or damp) rag from time to time. Other components and part systems will require occasional brushing, buffing and relubrication to keep them in peak condition.

How Often to Clean

Base your bike cleaning schedule on how (and how often) you ride. In other words, if you spend a lot of time riding in wet, muddy conditions, or if you ride hard, fast and often, clean your bike more frequently.

Very few cyclists clean their bikes after every ride. But a regular schedule of frequent, simple cleaning (once a month, once a week or more depending upon the kinds of riding you're into) is important.

Basic Cleaning Supplies

Here's the short list of basic items that address most cleaning tasks:

  • Clean rags: You'll want a good supply of these on hand, both for grease, oil and wax-related tasks and for general cleaning and drying.
  • Soap: For frame washing. Use something mild, like diluted dishwashing soap or preformulated bike wash cleaner.
  • Water: Despite its potential dangers, water is still a useful cleaning tool. Make sure the water you use is clean.
  • Brushes: Use a couple of different sizes and shapes to get into hard-to-reach places to remove the grime that rinsing alone can't get. Old toothbrushes work great for nooks and crannies.
  • Solvents: You'll need some type of general solvent for cleaning up gummy parts like your bike chain. If possible, avoid traditional solvents such as kerosene and turpentine. Choose a solvent designed to be easy on the environment (and you!) instead. No matter what solvent you use, make sure you learn how to dispose of it properly.

Shop REI's selection of bike cleaners.

Securing Bike Bolts

Bike multi-tool

Bicycles are held together by dozens of nuts, bolts and screws that can wear down or wriggle loose as the result of normal use. Maintaining a "tight ship" is important because loose (or improperly tightened) bike parts can:

  • Cause poor performance
  • Lead to serious wear and tear
  • Become a safety hazard

Keep in mind that there's more to keeping bike bolts properly tensioned than simply cranking down on every nut and bolt in sight as hard as possible. Over-tightening can cause as much damage as under-tightening, and it can also lead to component failure and/or unsafe riding situations.

To make sure your bike is properly adjusted, perform frequent overall inspections so you can catch problems before they get serious. Also, keep your eyes and ears open for trouble (rattles, squeaks, wobbles) while you ride so you can check out the problems once you're back home.

The Pre-ride Inspection

The best defense against loose components is a thorough pre-ride inspection before every ride. Regular pre-ride inspections will help you catch potential problems before they develop into safety hazards. Most pre-ride inspection adjustments can be made with a simple bike multitool.

The Bike Shop Visit

The other important aspect of maintaining your bicycle is a regular bike shop visit. If you're a regular rider, bring your bike in for twice-yearly checkups to ensure that complex, hard-to-evaluate components such as spokes, bearing surfaces, derailleurs and cable systems are inspected and serviced regularly. Remember: There are certain parts of a bicycle that should always be serviced and adjusted by experienced mechanics.

Deciding What to Do

If you discover looseness or "play" in any bike component, you can either fix the problem yourself or bring your bicycle into a full-service bike shop for service. Choose the first option only if you're sure of both the cause of the problem and the exact steps necessary to fix it. Later in this article we'll identify those adjustments best left to mechanics.

Shop REI's selection of bike tools.

Lubricating Your Bike

Bike lube

Keeping your bike parts properly lubricated is crucial for good performance. Lubrication protects moving parts from excessive wear caused by friction, keeps them from "freezing up", and keeps rust and corrosion from attacking exposed metal components.

Be careful, though. Over-lubricating can lead to poor performance and component damage (excess lubricant will attract dirt and other abrasive particles). As a general rule, excess lube should always be carefully wiped away before the bicycle is ridden.

Tip: When lubricating a number of parts at once, remember the order in which you apply the lubricants. Wiping off excess lube in the same order will give the lubricants time to soak in.

Lubricant Options

  • Bicycle greases: These should be used primarily for lubricating bearing systems (such as those found in hubs and headsets) and large-thread bolts. They tend to be thicker than oils. For example, use grease on the threads of pedal spindles before installation into crankarms
  • Bicycle oils: These should be used to lubricate thin-thread bolts, chains and more actively moving parts in brake and derailleur systems. Bike oils tend to be thinner than bike greases.

When you lubricate your bike, be sure to use lubes that are suited to your weather and riding conditions. Rainy areas require more durable bike oils, while drier areas require lighter oils that won't pick up as much dirt. Also keep in mind that wet conditions typically require more frequent lubrications. Check with your local bike shop/mechanic for recommendations on specific lubes that match your riding conditions.

What Needs to Be Lubricated?

  • The chain: Your chain is your bike's most "at risk" lubricated part. It should be lubed frequently to slow the rate of chain wear. Be sure to remove the chain from your bike from time to time (depending upon your riding style and conditions) to be thoroughly cleaned in a solvent and re-oiled. The more frequently you spot-lube your chain, the less necessary off-bike cleanings (and chain replacements) become. In general, lubricate your chain whenever it squeaks or appears "dry." Lubing after wet rides will help keep your chain from rusting. Keep in mind that the type of chain lube (wet, dry or a wax lube) affects how often you need to lubricate. Avoid over-lubricating.
  • Brake and derailleur levers: These levers are crucial for braking and shifting. Apply a drop or two of oil to the lever pivots and the barrel adjusters from time to time to keep them functioning properly.
  • Brake and derailleur cables: These cables connect your brake and the derailleur assemblies to the levers you use to control them. Check them frequently (especially in wet conditions) and re-lubricate occasionally so that they can effectively translate your commands to the component groups.
  • Brake and derailleur assemblies: These assemblies are made up of a number of small moving parts. Be sure to keep an eye on their arms, wheels and pulleys so they don't bind up or become rigid. Apply lubricant to the pivot points of the assemblies.
  • Bearing systems: The subject of maintenance and repair for hubs, headsets and cranksets is beyond the scope of this introductory maintenance clinic. Other Expert Advice articles will teach you how to identify bearing problems so that you can bring your bike in to an REI bike shop for service.

Shop REI's selection of bike lubricants.