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Bespoken Word: Pandemic-proofing your bike

Flat tire on a mountain bike
(Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

Covid-19 has had a massive effect on the availability of bikes and spares. That means you could be forced to stop riding for months if you can’t get an essential part. So how can you make sure that the kit you have lasts as long as possible and you’re not left in your own mechanical lockdown? 

In part one of this two-part series, we’re going to look at how to change your riding to help your bike survive the drought.

Mindset

The first thing you need to change is your basic mindset. 

If you generally ride in a ‘go big or go home’ style, now is the time to think more about making sure you can actually get home. That might sound really dull, but riding to look after your gear adds a whole other level of skill and smoothness that can be seriously satisfying and look steezy as hell too. I mean nobody ever thought casing a jump looked cooler than a perfect landing, and drifting earns a different league of kudos to ham-fisted skid turns. The fact that the best people to learn from are the world’s best racers tells you something too. As the old adage goes, ‘to finish first, first you have to finish’ and we’ve all seen epic race-long XC or Enduro battles or brilliant DH runs derailed by a destroyed derailleur or a ripped tire.

Strain gauging 

Part of that mindset calibration comes from realising where the peak destructive loads occur in your riding. From a mechanical point of view, that’s generally when things are being used against their will. For example, a chain can handle a huge amount of load in terms of tension when it’s running smoothly in a straight line. Even with the latest link and tooth profiling, getting the chain to move between different sprockets is a mechanically stressful moment, especially if you’re trying to force a load of torque through it on a climb. 

Looking ahead and planning when you need to make shifts, and where best to make them so you can back off the effort a bit, will massively reduce the chance of a snapped or prematurely worn chain. If you look after your chain, you’ll reduce the wear on your cassette, chainrings and jockey wheels too. More sympathetic shifts will also reduce the strain on your shifters, rear mech and cables (or motors if you’re posh). 

While we’ll go into pre-emptive maintenance next week in part two, it’s worth pointing out that if you start to get a grumbling, clicking or skipping chain, then stop immediately and work out why. Regardless of what a hero you’d be if you made it up that next climb without stopping, fixing a kinked or sticky link, or digging a bit of bush out of your cassette could potentially save a rear-mech-into-spokes moment that could cost you hundreds to repair, if you can even get the spares.    

It’s not just shifting you need to think about. Skidding can rip tires apart far more quickly than keeping them rolling, and it’s less effective for stopping too. However, short and hard braking bursts at the traction limit will preserve pads better than prolonged dragging. Again, that’s a faster way to ride too, proving that going quicker doesn’t have to be more destructive. Oh, and check those pads regularly so you’re not trashing your rotors or over-extending brake pistons with bare backing pads.

Pre-emptive bike maintenance

With spares like gold dust right now, don't mangle your rear mech (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

Survival lines

The same applies to line choices as well. Sending a drop will always carry a bigger risk of something getting bent or blown up than rolling or pumping it. Picking the smoothest line through a rock garden will always be kinder to your tires and less likely to knock the momentum out of you. If you’ve got the skills, using a kicker or even one of the bigger rocks to pop you up and over the worst bits will not only mean more air time but more chance of keeping the air in your tires too.

You don’t have to be going flat out to think about kit-safe line choices either. Sneaking through that little gap on moorland singletrack might seem easier than hoiking over the rock step, but you’re much more likely to slash a tire or clobber a mech on the side of a rock or get heather in your cassette trying to sneak past it, rather than just going over it. 

Even how you approach puddles can make a difference to drivetrain durability. Not only does sneaking around the outside edge in the mud spread the area of erosion and damage the trail, but you’re also missing the opportunity to rinse a bit of grit and filth off with puddle water. The same applies to riding up rocky trails in the rain where the wet line will not only generally be the cleanest, but also the fastest in terms of tire roll and firmer ground underneath.

Make tactical decisions. We all know the weather is massively changeable right now, so be smart about trail conditions. Plugging through mud is a high torque, highly abrasive nightmare for your bike, so if it’s soggy, think ‘stoney’. The trails will thank you for it.

  • The Joy of Dirt: Why you should volunteer with your local trail association 

On trail preservation

Obviously regularly rinsing your bike in puddles, streams and water splashes will mean you’re washing lube off, so take some with you to top up your chain as soon as it starts to squeak. If you don’t want to take a full bottle then just decant into a small one-shot container (the little soy sauce fish you get with sushi is great for this). 

Take any chance you get to clean the filth off your bike during a ride too, particularly if it’s building up around the drivetrain, brakes or suspension. It only takes a few seconds of digging around with a stick or a quick hand wipe at a gate stop/climb top/descent finish and it might extend the life of your components.

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Pre-emptive bike maintenance

The plastic soy sauce fish that comes with sushi is an excellent vessel for emergency lube (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)
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Pre-emptive bike maintenance

It carries just enough to get you out of a rut while still packing light (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

Life preservers 

As well as good quality lube, think about other ways you can protect your bike from wear and tear. Fenders are great for reducing spray off the front wheel into headsets, while adding a bit of pressure to your tires can reduce the chance of rim damage, and consider using an insert. If you can find heavier duty tires, then consider taking a hit on weight to get something that’ll shrug off rocks better, and remember that while sticky compounds have better grip, they don’t last as long as harder rubber. 

However, you still have to balance that against the fact that really heavy tires suck on climbs, and less grip means more risk of crashing, so don’t go too far or you’ll give up even if your bike still works.

Hopefully, this heads up on how riding a little bit smarter and protecting your equipment hasn’t come too late already, and you enjoy taking a slightly different perspective on how you hit the trails. 

Next week, we’ll go deeper into the basics of the maintenance moves you can make to keep things running sweet when the bike shop shelves are empty and you’ve no chance of getting a servicing slot this side of Santa showing up.