This page was last updated 12 August 2006.
Bicycle Maintenance Guide
Finally, after all that maintenance, we might actually want to ride
the bicycle to have a chance to get it dirty and do the maintenance
all over again. This chapter is even more subjective than the others;
it contains some rules I have found useful but that may not work for
everybody. I rode in many places in the world and have found some
basic rules that work for me.
Riding in Town
Now this depends very much on the town, but I have found that it is
safest to ride assertively but not aggressively. This means:
- If there is a bike lane, use it, unless it's unusable because
of glass, potholes, or parked cars. If there is a bike path,
don't use it, unless it's visible from the road at all times
(especially near intersections). Accidents mostly happen at
intersections when car drivers watch for cars but not for
bicycles when turning right. In Brandenburg, use bike lanes
if possible because roads are narrow and drivers are dangerous.
Also, bike lanes are usually newer than the roads and have a
- Always keep at least one meter between you and parked cars.
You never know if a door suddenly opens, or if you have missed
one of those hydraulic platforms installed in the back of lorries
that are just at eye level when raised - I have this mental image
of the upper part of my skull slipping across the lorry floor
while the rest of me rides on. Drivers are required to place
flashing lights or red cones on the edge, but I won't bet my
life on it.
- Don't ride at the right edge of a lane. Ride in the center or
at least about one third into the lane. This tells drivers that
they must change lanes and they can't just squeeze by closer
than the 1.5 meters required by (German) law, recently increased
to 2 meters (OLG Hamm). The rare maniac will still pass too
closely but at least you'll have room to escape.
- Don't weave into and out of a lane. If there is a gap in the
line of parked cars in the right lane, don't use it and stay
in your lane. It may be dangerous to return to that lane, and
car drivers may not give you an opening.
- Only pass to the right of cars stopped at a light or elsewhere
(legal in Germany) if this doesn't force all these cars to
pass you first thing afterwards. It'll annoy them and you
don't want lots of annoyed people to shoot one ton of steel
each past you. This doesn't mean that you have to play the
traffic jam game that seems to please car drivers so much
that they play it every day. I draw the line at about five
cars; if there are more I pass unless there is a narrow stretch
of road ahead. If I wait behind stopped cars I always stop in
the center of the lane, to prevent cars from boxing me in.
- In a situation where a car might turn and cut you off because
they haven't seen you, some people recommend making eye contact
with the driver. I don't think that is good advice because you
can't make the driver look at you - and if he did, there would
be no danger. Instead, watch his front wheel. You'll notice
when he slows down because the front of the car dips a little,
and you'll see a turning wheel long before the car actually
turns into your path.
- It may be hard, but be friendly. Let that car that followed
you patiently pass when there is a chance. If there is a whole
line of cars backed up behind you, stop and let them pass at
the next opportunity. Don't pass buses as they prepare to
reenter traffic. In short, don't make anybody mad - they have
all the kinetic energy on their side, and you are not going
to "educate" anybody.
- Use lights at dawn, dusk, and night. An LED flasher makes you
more visible because it catches the eye between all those
lights in a city, but it also makes it more difficult to
pinpoint your position. Ideally, use both regular and flashing
taillights. Very strong headlights gain you a lot of respect
because at a distance, people think you are riding a motorcycle.
Most of this isn't legal but I'd rather be alive than legal...
- Don't ride on sidewalks, parks, and pedestrian zones where
riding is not legal, or if you must, ride at walking speed.
Pedestrians are unpredictable (especially if you ring your
bell, don't even try), and you'll annoy or endanger a lot of
people for a few seconds gained - precisely what we always
accuse car drivers of.
The best front lights I know are made by Lupine. They are massively
expensive but I consider my health more important, and these guys
really know what cyclists need. Among other things they manage to put
a three-level menu structure into a penny-sized control panel sporting
one button and four LEDs that lets you program light levels and battery
control. They are now called "camping lights" because they seem to violate
some traffic regulation, and Cateye has sued them. One thing is certain,
I won't ever buy Cateye again - a company that must rely on its lawyers
rather than the technical quality of their product to push competitors
out of the way isn't someone I'd trust when buying equipment!
When buying a rear light, pick a red high-intensity LED light with a
flashing mode. Avoid lights that hold their batteries merely with metal
tabs; make sure they use spiral springs instead. Tabs lose tension,
and you can never trust the light to stay on at night. Also make sure
that the on/off button does not stick out too far, and cannot easily be
pressed inadvertently when you carry the light in a pocket or backpack.
Bicycles have the advantage of being able to go anywhere and be
parked anywhere, unlike cars. 30% of the car traffic in downtown Berlin
is looking for a place to park, and the average speed between entering
and leaving a car is 17 km/h (which isn't even bad as big cities go,
in Paris it's 11 km/h), for example. While a stolen bicycle is usually
less of a loss than the damage done when a car is broken into, a bicycle
is much easier to steal unless properly locked.
Forget spoke locks, cable locks, combination locks, or simple chains.
I prefer motorcycle locks by Abus or Trelock that consist of a steel
cable protected by interlocking rings. The idea is that you need two
sets of tools, a saw for the rings and a bolt cutter for the cable.
Of course, you need to lock the bicycle to something that is at least
as solid as the lock. Some of those bike racks are ridiculously easy
to disassemble. Those motorcycle locks reach around most lampposts,
and they can comfortably be worn around one's waist. U-lock holders
rattle. The keyhole of the lock should face down if it's on one side
to make it harder to reach for people with drills, and it should not
lie flat on the ground so that a hammer could be used.
Riding Long Distances
The key to long-distance riding is preparation. You will need:
- A repair kit, at least one spare inner tube, a pump, tire
levers, allen wrenches, a spoke wrench, a cellphone or coins,
and money to take the train if all else fails. Riding long
distances means that it is impractical to walk home.
- Plenty of food and water. Don't under-estimate this. You need
to eat and drink all the time, before you feel hungry
or thirsty. If you don't your thighs will feel like they are
on fire and in the worst case you may get tunnel vision and
collapse. People normally never reach the point of running out
of fuel in their daily life but it's a real danger on long
bicycle rides. I will fall apart after about 80 km without
food, so I eat and drink at least every 20 or 30 km. Don't
start in the morning without breakfast either.
I take plain water (anything else gunks up the bottles) in
one or two large (0.75 l) clear-plastic bottles, Power Bars or
similar energy food, plus some whole-grain sandwiches. Do not
take chocolate or other sugar-based food. On seriously long
rides also take some salted nuts because sweating depletes
minerals. Plus, of course, the staple of bicycle riding -
- Maps, of course. If you ride in a group you may get separated,
or you might take a wrong turn and lose your bearings. The
best scale is between 1:100,000 and 1:250,000. A compass is
necessary in foreign countries. I now always carry a GPS
receiver too, and skip the maps if I have the right one
loaded into the unit. Of course I carry spare batteries.
- Clothing. If there is a chance of rain or cold weather, wear
neoprene boots (imho, Adidas are best). They don't hurt if
you don't need them but they'll keep you warm and dry. Since
you don't normally move your toes while riding, cold feet are
much more of a problem when riding than when walking. Also
bring a raincoat and wear layers of clothing that let you
adjust to the weather (Odlo shirts, for example, are very
thin and lightweight but warm if worn underneath). Multiple
or thick wool socks have never worked for me, they just make
the shoes fit poorly.
Another key to long-distance riding is to deliberately ride slowly.
It's enough to ride two or three km/h slower than you would ride
normally. This takes constant conscious checking because your legs
will want to go back to your "regular" speed. It's surprising that
such a small speed reduction makes such a big difference, but 3 km/h
less than normal extends your range enormously while 3 km/h more than
normal will render you comatose.
Riding in a Group
With group I mean a peleton, a tight group of riders that follow some
rules to optimize efficiency. A group achieves a much greater speed
than a single rider with the same effort. It does require that all
riders are in roughly the same shape. Small differences can be
compensated by letting stronger riders spend more time in front, which
takes the most strength because they are the only ones who feel the
full force of the headwind.
When I ride in a group we ride in two columns. Everybody keeps a
distance of about 1/2 wheel diameter to the rider in front to catch
as much of the draft as safely possible. When the riders in front get
tired, they accelerate a bit, go to the sides (one a bit ahead of the
other to avoid having four bicycles side by side), and let the group
ride through the gap. (Obviously this works better if there is an even
number of people.)
Some groups regulate how long people stay in front, and some use a
rotating peleton where the left column is slightly slower than the
right. The right rider in front shifts over to the left column after
a (very short) time in front and falls back. This makes it hard to
- The key to riding in this way is keeping the speed absolutely
constant. A gap of 30 cm at speeds of 40 km/h does not leave
a lot of room for error. This means that
- you watch the rider in front of you while keeping your
eyes on the road ahead; never stare at the wheel.
- never, ever brake without announcing it with the
agreed-upon hand signs well in advance, it's better to
break out of line than to brake in emergencies.
- accelerate and decelerate very slowly if the terrain
changes; remember that the group doesn't reach the
incline or dip all at the same time.
- don't suddenly stand up because that shifts the bicycle
backwards as your center of gravity moves forward.
- it helps to put a hand on your neighbor's shoulder when
turning to look back to avoid swerving.
- Similarly, it's important to always ride in a straight line
because the front wheel of the rider behind you might overlap
your rear wheel. If you make a sudden move to the side, you
could kick his bicycle out from under him. If the rider in front
of you does this to you and your wheels touch, steer into him
hard - the worst that can happen to him is that you
displace his wheel, but the alternative is crashing and having
the rest of the group run over you.
- If you are in front, use hand signs. Otherwise, immediately
duplicate the hand signs of the rider in front of you even if
you can't see the obstacle yet. We use the following signs:
- point with your index finger at potholes or other
obstacles, even if they seem harmless because they
might surprise riders behind you. Remember, they
usually can't see much of the road in front of them.
Call out "hole", "glass", or "tracks". Railroad tracks
- if you need to shift the paceline because the road
narrows or you need to pass bicycles or parked cars,
wave your palm behind your back towards the side you
want them to go.
- raise your hand if you plan to stop or brake. Never
brake without announcing it first.
Remember that when you are in the front position you take
responsibility for the entire group. You are their eyes, and
you have to think ahead for all of them. For example, don't
blast through yellow lights because the last riders will be
forced to run a red light.
- Before getting seriously tired in the front position, accelerate,
move to the side, and wave the following riders through. Always
wait for a wide stretch of the road. Don't do this at a dangerous
or difficult place such as a steep incline, dip, or curve. Don't
wait until you are completely wasted - you will have to accelerate
to catch up when everybody passed you, and the following riders
are rested and may want to go faster than you did.
- If you are in the second row and the front row begins to fall
back, do not accelerate. Maintain the previous speed until the
group has reassembled into two columns.
- Always stay abreast with the rider next to you.
- Don't ride too closely to the edge of the road or parked cars.
If you miss an obstacle or a car door opens, there will not be
enough time for the entire group to react.
- Choose the rider you will be riding next to - if he is stronger
than you he'll give you hell when you are in front; if he is
weaker than you he will want to leave the front just as you begin
to enjoy yourself.
- Also choose the rider in front of you carefully. If he can't
keep his speed constant you'll be on full alert all the time to
compensate his speed changes to keep the entire paceline from
fluctuating. Also you will need to keep more distance for safety
which reduces the advantage of drafting; you'll feel more headwind.
It's best to choose the most experienced rider. Riding in the
right column is slightly easier, but riding in the left column
offers room to escape in emergencies.
- In my experience, if the group splits for any reason when some
riders race ahead or others fall back at a difficult section such
as cobblestones, always stay with the front group even if it's
much harder than staying with the slow group. The reason is that
the slow group will have to catch up while the front group takes
it easy to allow them to catch up, and when the group is back
together there will be those who just got a chance to relax and
those who had to catch up, and guess which one is better.
Having to catch up for any reason takes more strength than
anything else, especially because you usually won't have the
benefit of drafting somebody to avoid or reduce the headwind.
- Speaking of cobblestones (we still have a lot of these here in
Brandenburg): ride as fast as you can without bottoming out on
the rim. Your forearms may go numb, but riding slowly will make
for a bumpier ride. If there is any risk of cobblestones, choose
a steel bike - our group always gets divided into the steel riders
in front and the aluminum riders in the rear. See previous point.
This assumes road bikes; fat-tire riders won't have a problem.
When I started riding I was always puzzled how good riders seemed to be
completely unaffected by short hills - they just kept riding at the same
speed while I was slowing to a crawl. Today I know how it's done: riding
longer distances is done with low effort, leaving plenty of reserves for
short sprints. Low effort can mean only a few km/h or mph less than
usual because wind drag increases so sharply with speed.
Finally, we must address the important question why some cyclists
shave their legs (but not their arms or head). This has been vigorously
discussed to death on various lists and newsgroups. The conclusion is
that there are three reasons:
- The official one: it significantly reduces air drag by a factor
X, where X is very very close to 1.
- In case of a crash, no hairs will mess up and infect the wound.
(The infection will be taken care of by the dirt on the road
instead, or by the unshaved arm wound.)
- Elitism. That guy with the hairy legs is obviously an amateur who
cannot be taken seriously. He sticks out like an AOL address on a
Linux kernel mailing list.
Personally I think only one of the three explanations holds water.