Nine time-saving tips for the half-arsed home mechanic

Sometimes near enough is good enough

The more you ride your bike, the more you wear stuff out and the more you eventually break stuff. And then, depending on the tools you have available at home and the do-I-give-a-damn factor you have for mechanic perfectionism, you may develop a series of half-arsed strategies for keeping your bike rolling between visits to your local shop.

In the same way that your mate may have a nasty scar where she should have gone for stitches, or you entered a race just to finish it not to blitz it, the strategies suggested here are written in the spirit of 'near enough is good enough': some basic knowhow that will keep you out of trouble and save you some cash or time. Follow our Home Wrench columns, for tips for more in-depth geekery on how to maintain your bike’s factory-fresh qualities all year round.

1. Derailleur tension

Cable stretch is the most likely cause of sloppy shifting, especially if your bike is new or you’ve just had the cables replaced by someone who knows more about bikes than you do. Twist the adjustment gizmo near the derailleur or shifter a quarter of a turn at a time, spin the pedals and use your ears to tell when the tension is correct. If the sound of your chain gets louder, twist in the other direction.

Related video and reading: How to adjust your derailleurs

(Note: best not to play with the adjustment screws, because these just set the extreme limits of the derailleurs. If you don’t know what these are, see here – or just stay away from them.)

2. Slow tyre leak

Assuming your mountain bike tyres are tubeless, if you have a slow leak it’s a sign your sealant has dried up. Remove the valve core or pop the tyre bead and add some more. Add twice as much as the recommended amount so it lasts longer this time. Also add extra if you’re riding somewhere with thorns, or you haven’t added any in a while. By the time you wear out your tyre, you’ll be surprised how much lighter your bike feels without five serves of dried up sealant rolling around inside it as well.

Just add more sealant. what could possibly go wrong?: just add more sealant. what could possibly go wrong?
Just add more sealant. what could possibly go wrong?: just add more sealant. what could possibly go wrong?

Sometimes the sealant trick doesn't work…

If it’s your road bike that has a slow leak, keep note of how long you have between pumping it to 110psi and the tyre being too soft to ride on. If it’s more than two hours, change the tube another day.

3. Saddle level

Getting your saddle level right is hard to do with the naked eye. Download a spirit level app for your smartphone and use that instead. Stuff calibrating it. Just check the level of your floor first and then set the saddle accordingly. This method works well if you live in a house with uneven floors.

4. Rebound settings

The only time you’ll need this one is if you borrow someone else’s mountain bike, or someone borrows yours. Before adjusting the suspension settings, keep a note of the initial amount of air in the front and rear shocks, and how many clicks to the left or right you can turn the rebound adjustment. Return the bike how you found it with minimal fuss.

5. Puncture protection

Ever wondered how much air to run in your mountain bike tyres so you don’t get punctures? Take out a little more each ride. When you pinch flat, you’ve found your lower limit. Add a little more next time. If you’re riding somewhere with lots of rocks, or you have poor jumping technique, add a little more again. Assuming you’re running tubeless, add some more sealant while you’re at it.

Pinch the sidewalls so you know what different air pressures feel like with the tyres you’re running. This will help you get somewhere close to the right pressure when you don’t have access to a pump with a gauge.

On your road bike, keep the tyres suitably inflated. Glass is more likely to break underneath them than dig in. If you get three flats in close succession, or you’ve used the wind trainer all winter, nothing will help you. It’s time for a new tyre.

6. Bike clean

If the product doesn't say 'disc brake cleaner', then keep it well away from your brakes! :
If the product doesn't say 'disc brake cleaner', then keep it well away from your brakes! :

Wash and lube your bike, but keep your brakes free from lubes

A clean bike is a happy bike. It’ll look better, ride faster and last longer. If you’re out of time or can’t access a hose, then just grab a rag, clean above the seals if your bike has suspension, lube the chain and wipe off the excess. If you have disc brakes, don’t get anything near them, ever, except water or a product with disc brake cleaner written on the front in a large bold print. Use a stick to get the gunk off the derailleur jockey wheels. Your chain might start magically shifting better again as a result.

This is best done outdoors and is not enough to get you through Australian or New Zealand customs (although they may clean your bike for you, after a long wait).

7. Women-specific conversion

While a growing number of brands offer women-specific frame geometry and contact points, a lot of women still prefer the spec and colour choices of a good unisex bike. Pick your bike carefully so the geometry and most of the parts are in line with things that have been shown to make a difference to female riders of your weight and height. Convert your man-bike by swapping out the saddle and using some pipe cutters on the ends of the bars. Voila. Roadies will likely need to buy new bars, since sawing off the ends of your drops is rather less effective.

A caveat: a lot of bikes aimed at women are designed for a better fit out of the box, and mean you need less knowledge or extra cash to make changes that improve your experience. Some use frame materials that offer a more compliant ride feel and a geometry that has been shown to make a positive difference, especially if most of your power comes from your legs. These are bike features you can’t change and I note them here so people still take me seriously next time I review a women's-specific bike.

8. Hydraulic disc brake adjustment

Assuming your brakes were set up well to start with, if they’ve started rubbing recently the cause is likely to be operator error. Pulling on the lever when the wheel is removed is the number one cause of brake rub. Doing up the quick release incorrectly is the second cause.

To reverse the damage, take out the wheel and insert a clean, thin, flat, clean object into the caliper and apply pressure to the pads to space them back out again. Reinsert the wheel, take care with the quick release this time, and ensure it spins freely. Marvel at the engineering as you squeeze the brake lever a few times and feel the pads adjust.

Note: First, check your brakes are hydraulic. One way of doing this is cutting the hose and seeing if any fluid comes out. While it's not as funny to us, another option is to check to see if any cable sticks out near the caliper. If there’s no cable, your brakes are designed to self-adjust as the pads wear out.

Park tool make a great device for celebrating once you've fixed your bike. in the meantime, what you really need in this draw is the butter knife:
Park tool make a great device for celebrating once you've fixed your bike. in the meantime, what you really need in this draw is the butter knife:

A butter knife can be the right tool if your disc brake pads are squeezed together. Or, crack open a beer and let someone else do it

Another note: I prefer a butter knife for this job, but a flat-head screw driver works well too. If you’re out on the trail and looking for a last resort, a set of car keys will often do the trick. Be careful not to bend or snap them, especially if they’re not yours and you’re hoping for a lift home. Very occasionally this trick will fail and you’ll get air in the hose and you’ll need a brake bleed, or it was never going to work… and you need a brake bleed. Which brings us to our final point.

9. Know your limits

Key to half-arsed home mechanics is knowing the limits of what you can and can’t get away with. Jump to this article for a list of common repair mistakes and make sure you avoid them. If you’re tinkering with your bike before a big race or event, always ensure you leave enough time for your local bike shop to finish the job if you get yourself into trouble. I suggest a week or two. It makes you appear more agreeable and willing to learn from your mistakes. Besides, no one likes that customer that turns up with their bike in pieces wanting service yesterday.

Make sure to thank your local mechanic for their specialist skills, for making hard things look easy, and for keeping you enjoying things you love.

Kath Bicknell

Freelance Writer, Australia
Cycling academic and product tester, Kath brings expertise from the research world to discussions on technology, equipment and performance. She's ridden road and mountain bikes for most of her life and loves that no two rides are ever the same. Based in Sydney, days in the sunshine are her favourite, as are rides with challenging ups followed by pumping, playful descents.
  • Discipline: Road, mountain
  • Preferred Terrain: All of it
  • Current Bikes: Santa Cruz Bronson, Specialized Amira Pro and a pub bike
  • Dream Bike: I dream about lots of bikes
  • Beer of Choice: Strong flat white
  • Location: Sydney, Australia

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