Bike Maintenance

One area I wish my coach had given me more guidance on initially was the importance of properly maintaining my bicycle. I just hopped on it and rode four times a week without any thought to the tires, chain, cassette, or any other moving parts of the bike. About two months into my training, I had a particularly rough 25-mile outdoor ride in which I managed just 13 mph when I knew I should’ve been riding at least 16 mph. It was devastating to my fragile morale at that point, as I was riding slower than I had when I first started training while my quads still burned from the effort. A few days later I brought my bike to my coach’s house for an indoor session and he handed me a bike pump; it was then that I realized I hadn’t pumped up my tires since the day I bought my bike. While my tires should normally be inflated to 90-100 pounds per square inch (PSI), on that day they were filled to just 20 PSI. I was effectively riding on flat tires. During my next outdoor ride I made sure they were fully topped off, and sped along at 16.5 mph. I thought I had learned my lesson (albeit painfully), until…

Several months later, deep into my Ironman training, I noticed that on my long indoor sessions it was becoming tougher and tougher to maintain the same power numbers on my computerized rides. I thought perhaps maybe I was overtraining, but my runs generally felt good. It wasn’t until I took my bike into the shop for an unrelated issue that they informed me they had to completely replace my bike chain, cassette (rear gears), and derailleur (shifter). During the 6-8 hour indoor rides that I did each week, my sweat would drip down and slowly corrode all the metal parts below me, nearly grinding my bike to a halt. The bike shop told me that some people’s sweat was particularly corrosive to metal; I guess that’s my superpower. After a full replacement of these parts, I was cruising along again at top speeds, and made sure to place a towel on the bike tube below me when I rode indoors. I thought I had once again learned my lesson, until…

The year after my Ironman, I got my bike back into race-ready shape to prepare for a summer half-Ironman. After several months of training, I noticed my speeds weren’t improving like they should’ve been. Notice a pattern? I removed my chain and cassette and used an old toothbrush and grease remover to clean off the months of grime and dirt that had built up, and instantly added speed to my rides.

Here’s the moral of these stories: your bike operates best as a fine-tuned machine, but that takes work. It isn’t like a car where you can get away with just changing the oil every six months – it requires monthly upkeep. Oil the chain regularly. Wash it off after riding through mud puddles. Treat it well and it will treat you well.

Bike tires will last anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 miles before they need replacing. Most tires will have wear indicators on them, these are little hollows in the tread of the tire which should be visible if the tire is still suitable for use. As soon as these indicators wear down and are not visible, the tire should be replaced. In addition, keep an eye on the sidewall for cracks, which indicate a weakening of the tire. One day last summer I pumped my tires up to 95 PSI and did a spirited two hour ride in the afternoon heat. At the end of the ride I threw my bike in the back seat of my car and began to drive back home. I made it about two miles down the road before there was a deafening explosion and puff of white smoke mere inches behind my ear. I was lucky that nobody was in the oncoming lane because I’m certain I swerved halfway into it before regaining control. My rear bike tube had exploded. Upon examination (after my heartbeat returned to normal), the tire sidewall and tread were riddled with cracks, and the hot, expanded tube had easily blown through it. I had frequently been concerned about a car causing a wreck while I was out doing my cycling training; I never envisioned that it might be my own car.

As a side note, if you are ever out cycling and find a noticeable crack in your tire, put a folded-up dollar bill between the tire and tube to get you back home. Dollar bills are not made of paper but instead from a strong combination of cotton and linen, and will hold surprisingly well for short distances.

In addition to your own regular maintenance, most bike shops will perform a pre-race inspection for a small fee, where they check the brake cable tensions, brake pad alignment, tire tread wear, shifter smoothness, and generally make sure the bike is in race shape. This can be done the week before your race and is worth the cost for the peace of mind of knowing that your equipment has been gone over by a professional.

While this may not strictly fall under the Maintenance category, you should absolutely, positively practice changing a flat tire prior to doing a triathlon. You do not want your first time changing a tire to be halfway through your “A” race with your heart pumping, ¬†gasping for breath on the side of a hot road with other riders whizzing by. Even getting the tire on and off the rim can be surprisingly difficult if you’ve never done it, and when using a CO2 cartridge to fill a tire, it can be difficult to fill to the right pressure. The first time I did it, practicing in my driveway, I twisted the cartridge fully to let all the gas into the tube at once, which promptly overfilled and exploded in my face. It is helpful to practice this task after a short bike ride, so your blood is flowing and hands are a sweaty – these are race conditions. There are a plethora of YouTube videos on how to quickly and easily do this; pull one up on your phone and slowly work through the steps. Note that CO2 cartridges are only intended to get you through a race and not as a permanent fill; the gas will leak through the tube much more quickly than regular air. After you are done practicing and satisfied with the result, make sure to bleed the CO2 out of the tire and pump it back up with a regular air pump before going on your next ride.

The unfortunate truth is that you may have to change a tire during a race, which could either be a mild nuisance or a race-ending tragedy depending on how well-prepared you are to deal with the situation. My coach’s first Ironman race was in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2014, the first year that the city had hosted a full Ironman. A local saboteur took the occasion to sprinkle tacks and oil on the bike course, causing numerous flats and wrecks. My coach personally had two flats from these tacks. Luckily he had brought two spare tubes and cartridges with him and was able to quickly and efficiently change his tubes twice, with a few dozen choice curse words helping him out I’m sure. His preparation turned what could’ve been a disaster into just a mildly annoying speed bump on the way to a respectable 17.5 mph bike split.

Next: Biking on the Road