Easy Preventative Maintenance for Rail-Trail Riders

Rail-trail riding, at its best, can be a kind of meditative experience. There’s something about the quiet whirring of the chain, the pulse of each pedal stroke, the hum of tires on fresh pavement or limestone. How awful then, to be jolted out of that peaceful flow by a flat tire, a sticky derailleur, or, worse yet, a suddenly loose brake lever.  Below are some simple checks and tweaks to help keep you in the zone, instead of calling for a ride home.



We know, this one seems obvious, but even the most active commuters often forget to give their tires just a quick pinch to check relative pressure before getting out on the road. Riding with low tire pressure is by far the most common cause of flats, and can make your bicycle feel sluggish and less stable, especially while turning.

Use the “Rule of Thumb” here: If you can depress the tire easily between your thumb and fingers, it’s time for more air. If you’re riding a mountain bike, you’re generally looking for between 30-50 pounds-per-square inch (PSI) of pressure. On a hybrid bicycle, you’re generally looking for between 60-80 PSI. Road bikes should read between 100-125 PSI. As soon as you lock your bike pump’s head onto the valve of your tire, your current pressure will register on the gauge, then, just pump away until you’re at correct pressure.

Photo by: Your Best Digs | CC BY 2.0



Before throwing a leg over the frame, pick up the front wheel and give it a soft spin. It should turn freely between the brake pads, with 1-3 millimeters of space on either side. If the rim of the wheel is significantly closer to one pad, or is scraping on one side, the wheel is likely not seated properly in the fork.

To make sure your wheel is seated properly, crouch in front of your bicycle, holding it upright with the wheel pointing straight forward. Open the quick-release skewer at the hub, or center of the wheel. Your bike should fall into place, centering itself on the front wheel. If not, just adjust the rim of the wheel with your fingers so it’s sitting evenly between the brake pads when viewed from the front. Next, close your quick release lever, and give your wheel another light spin. It should now be spinning freely, and you’re ready to repeat on the rear wheel—if not, or if your rim is rubbing at specific points, you may need to have your wheel trued or evaluated at a local bike shop.  

Photo by: Daniel Oines | CC BY 2.0



Make it a habit to give your front and rear brake levers a squeeze as part of your everyday pre-ride. Brakes are used all the time, so it’s easy to acclimate to brakes that aren’t as responsive as they should be. Ideally, brakes should have a little bit of give, so that you can slow incrementally. However, if you’re able to pull your brake lever all the way back to the handlebar before stopping, it’s time to tighten up. On bikes with flat handlebars, the barrel-adjusters for each brake are attached to each lever. On road bikes, they tend to be either on the brake itself or part of the cable housing. Tensioning the barrel adjuster will pull your brake pads slightly closer to the rim of your wheel. Use this as an opportunity to check the wear on your brake pads, as well. If they’ve worn past the safety line, or if they’re visibly deteriorating, it’s time to replace.

Photo by: Genna Baturin


Tighten up

Don’t let a slipping handlebar, brake lever, or seat post bring your ride to an abrupt end. Before you hop on the saddle, put some weight on your handlebars to see if they’re at all twistable or loose, and do the same with your brake levers or bar ends, if you have them. Try stacking your hands on your saddle and pushing down, or to the side, and look for movement. Any place on your bike where you’re putting pressure should be completely tight, and ready to be there when you need it.

Photo by: Cat Burston | CC BY 2.0



Nothing makes your bike happier than lube, and the best place to start is your chain. Lean your bike against a work table or railing, so that you’re able to spin the pedals backwards freely. Holding the bottle of chain lubricant just over the chain in front of the rear derailleur, try to land a drop of lube on each link in the chain as you slowly turn the pedals backwards. Once you’ve hit each link, run the chain backwards a few times with increasing speed to work the lube in—you’ll notice that each rotation of the pedals gets easier. Wipe off any excess lube and residue using an old t-shirt or cloth, and you’ll be left with a clean, smooth-shifting chain. While you’ve got the lube in hand, place a dab on the pivot points of your brakes, as well as the springs of your front and rear derailleurs.

Photo by: Richard Masoner | CC BY-SA 2.0

As always, if you’re uncertain about any of these checks or adjustments, a visit to your local bike shop should solve just about any issue you’re running into, and most mechanics are happy to walk through preventative maintenance tips more particular to your bike.

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