Ever changed a flat tire on a cold, rainy night? If so, you’ve probably gotten religion about bike maintenance. And if you’ve arrived at work with a “skunk stripe” of mud down your back, you’ll hope your bike mechanic has fenders in stock.
For the workout cyclist or the commuter, bike care is essential if you intend to ride through the wet Pacific Northwest winter.
Pumping up your tires is the easiest preride duty. Keeping the chain relatively clean and oiled, and making sure your lights are in place and powered, will also keep you safely on the road this winter. But there are a few less obvious tasks for rainy season bike maintenance, according to the repair experts in Seattle’s neighborhood shops, who have seen it all roll through their doors.
“When things get wet, a lot more stuff sticks to your tires,” says Alder Threlkeld, master mechanic at Seattle Bike Repair, which is part of R+E Cycles in Seattle’s University District. “You don’t want to pull over when it’s gross and wet to change a tube.”
After a wet ride, I wipe down my tires with a rag to remove the grit, which could contain bits of glass or metal that can work their way into the rubber.
Aaron Goss, owner of Rat City Bikes and Aaron’s Bike Repair in White Center, also advises riders to “check your tires for wear and damage more often.”
He also offers an easy rule of thumb to prevent a “pinch flat” due to underinflation: “Bike tires lose about a pound of air pressure per day,” Goss says. “They must be topped off every two weeks.”
Make it stop
Next to your tires, literally, are your brakes, which obviously are crucial to wet-weather riding. “Rotors and brake pads all endure more wear in wet riding,” says Goss.
Newer bikes sport disc brakes, but many still have rim brakes with pads, and those wear down “super quick” says Threlkeld, “when all that road grit gets on your braking surface.” He advises a two-step cleaning process: “When you get home, take a wet cloth and wipe off your brake pads and wipe off your brake track” on the rim of the tire. “That can save you a lot of wear.”
You can hear a bike with disc brakes coming in winter. “When they get wet, they tend to howl,” he says, but “once the rotor heats up and the water gets cooked off, it will quiet down again.”
The bottom line is stopping power. I routinely test my brakes in a hard stop, and when I skid or must clamp down all the way to engage them, I know it’s time for an adjustment or new pads.
A clean chain equals a happy drivetrain
Working through the mechanisms, next stop is the drivetrain. The chain attaches to the toothed chainring and cassette, which all work together for forward motion. Grit on the chain can grind the teeth off the gears. Too much gunk can prevent smooth shifting. Solution? Clean and lube the chain and gears regularly.
A common shortcut is to skip the cleaning part and just add lube, but “when you overlube your chain it collects so much dirt and grime” which can then “act like sandpaper” and destroy your chain or cassette teeth, says Threlkeld.
“Wiping your chain (and the rest of your drivetrain) down is the No. 1 thing you can do to make your gears last longer,” says Goss. “Modern gears are surprisingly expensive!”
Alternatively, “replacing the chain is pretty cheap,” observes Threlkeld. I routinely stop at my chosen shop, Seattle Bike Repair, and have them measure the chain stretch. When it’s too loose, the chain skips and slips. They also let me know if the gear teeth are too worn and remind me when I’ve been lax with cleaning.
But I don’t get scolded much since I switched to a chain-cleaning kit a couple of years ago. This small device clamps to my chain and contains brushes and a reservoir of cleaning solution. I rotate the pedals until the liquid is gunky. It removes most of the crud, and I get the rest with a cloth. Sure beats scrubbing with an old toothbrush.
Once the chain is clean, I apply a fresh coating of lube and wipe off the excess. Goss recommends a wax-based lube like Boeshield T-9, which was developed at Boeing. In winter, “lubricate your chain more often,” he says, “and keep it wiped clean after every ride or two.”
Fenders and lights are essential
Beyond maintenance, essential accessories for winter riding include fenders and lights. The first is for comfort (with a side order of cleanliness), the second for safety.
Fending off the rain will prevent the mucky “skunk stripe” from dirtying your clothes, but fenders must fit properly. Consider also “buddy flaps,” flexible mud flaps that attach to each fender. A side benefit: “They dramatically cut down the wear on your gears and chain because the spray is kept off,” says Goss.
The most vital personal protection equipment is a good set of lights and reflectors. White for front, red for back; experts advise running them steady, not blinking.
Maintenance and safety are things winter cyclists don’t want to leave to hopes and prayers. Good practices make getting out and getting wet on your bike all the more fun.