Right now, riding a bike through busy city streets and across bridges sounds a whole lot safer than riding the subway. Heck, it almost sounds idyllic. The more time you spend on your bike, though, the more opportunities there are for things to go wrong — a flat tire, a rusty chain — and the more important it is to know how to fix them yourself. We asked cycling experts Melvin Onyia, John Watson, founder of The Radavist, a blog about biking, and Chris Dixon of Dixon’s Bike Shop in Park Slope Brooklyn to walk us through the steps and tools necessary to handle five common bike problems.
How to fix a flat tire
To fix a flat, you have to remove the tire, remove and replace the inner tube, and put the tire back on. If it doesn’t come naturally at first, don’t panic. Watson says there are lots of variables, like the kind of gears, axles, tires, and rims you have. Onyia recommends looking up a tutorial video until it becomes second nature. He says GCN (Global Cycling Network) tutorials on Youtube are the best and easiest to follow.
If you can prevent a flat, that’s obviously easier than repairing one. That’s why Onyia says you should never get too close to the curb, where all the dirt, nails, and broken glass end up. He suggests leaving about a foot between you and the curb (or the edge of the trail) to avoid running over something that will puncture your tire. Also, he recommends outfitting your bike with these Gatorskin tires, which have super reinforced walls and are very difficult to puncture. He relies on them himself, as do a lot of other cyclists he knows. “I’ve changed them once over the past ten years,” Onyia says.
A floor pump with pressure gauge
Another step to take before you head out on a ride, Onyia says, is checking your tire pressure, since tires with low pressure are more likely to get a flat or get punctured. “I usually keep my road bike tires at about 90 to 100 psi,” he says. He recommends getting a pump with a pressure gauge so you can make sure you’re filling the tires to the optimal PSI. (That number should be on the wall of your tires.) This standing floor pump with pressure gauge topped our list of best bike pumps on Amazon, and it comes with a patch kit.
A mini pump
In addition to the floor pump you keep at home, you should ideally carry a mini pump with you on your bike. You’ll need it to inflate tires that get low over time or to pump up a new inner tube after you change out a flat. Watson likes Lezyne mini pumps because they fit in most pockets or bags, they’re easy to use, and because they look really nice. This one comes with a bike mount which is Watson’s preferred way to carry it and a good way to ensure it’s always with you.
Spare inner tubes
Onyia suggests carrying two inner tubes with you just in case. And make sure they are the appropriate size for your tires — that, like the max psi, should be written on the wall of your tire. You’ll also need to choose between Presta and Schrader valves which really comes down to personal preference. Presta valves are more slender and have a locknut you have to unscrew before inflating. Schrader valves are more common and less complicated. Most bike pumps can adapt to fit both.
Tire levers remove the tire from the rim and help you put it back on once you’ve replaced your tube. When we talked to Tyler West, a certified bike service educator and longtime race mechanic for Trek Bikes, for about everything you need to start biking he said he’s a fan of Pedro tire levers because they’re wide — an attribute that he says keeps you from damaging your rim.
How to fix a rusted chain or one that jumps gears
One of the most important things you can do for your bike is wash it often, Onyia says. Clean bikes don’t break as often as dirty ones: Grease, dust, and dirt can gunk up your chain and cause it to jump gears as you ride. As part of his regular bike washing regime, Onyia degreases his chain to keep it running smoothly. “It’s messy, so some people might rather take it to their local bike shop,” he says, but if you have the time it’s not a complicated process. Apply the degreaser to your chain to remove all of the grease and grime that’s collected. Then use a washing solution on the whole bike, and, once the bike is clean, apply your chain lube. Watson likes WD40 bike degreasers and cleaners, because the one product handles both parts. Ideally, you degrease your chain two to three hours before you plan on riding your bike.
“A lot of times, when people don’t ride their bikes for a little bit, the chain gets rusted,” says Watson. The fix is simple: lube. The kind you get depends primarily on where you live in the country. Watson lives in Santa Fe, where it’s really dry and all the trails are really dusty, so he uses a waxy lube like White Lightning. But if you live somewhere where it rains a lot, he recommends a waterproof lube like T9. “You want to put it on the links individually and then wipe it off with a rag,” he says. As with degreaser, you should do this at least a few hours before you go out for a ride.
How to tighten a loose seat or handlebars
If your seat is twisting underneath you or your handlebars feel wobbly, it’s pretty easy to tighten them back up. You’ll need a good multitool like this one, recommended by Chris Dixon of Dixon’s Bike Shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He says it has everything you need for most common bike problems, including multiple sizes of hex key to tighten your handlebars and the seat, either where it meets the frame or at the points directly underneath it.
How to replace brake pads
If your brakes are squealing when you apply pressure, you probably need to change them. “If you have either rim brakes or disc brakes, it’s really easy to swap your pads out even with minimal mechanical knowledge,” Watson says. You’ll just need your multitool and some practice removing your wheels. Dixon recommends all weather brake pads like these because they’re durable and will keep you safe year round.
How to stop your clothes from getting so dirty
When it’s wet, everything your bike rides through, whether it’s dirt, trash, or whatever the rain might’ve rinsed off of a dead rat, gets picked up by your tires and thrown in the air — and usually right up the back of your shirt. A fender is a simple solution to protect yourself from backsplash. Before moving to Santa Fe, Watson commuted daily in New York City so he knows firsthand how gross it can get without a good pair of fenders. He recommends these from Portland Design Works and says they work really well and look nice.