It's almost the middle of summer. If the last time you had your bike tuned was five or more months ago when riding season first started, it's time to do it again, especially if you're riding a mountain bike on rough, unpaved trails. But don't neglect road bikes used for commuting on paved streets either.
Very few people are bike nerds who know how to check and tune their own bikes, and have the tools needed to do so. When it comes to the safety and precision of your ride, it's best to take it to a shop. The money it costs is more than worth it. If you ride it often, your bike should be re-tuned after about every four months of riding.
The problem is that after a few months of riding, whether on mountain trails or on paved streets or sidewalks, bike components start stretching. Cables may stretch only a little, but that's enough to affect the precision of changing gears and braking. You may have noticed that your gears no longer change as quickly as they previously did. That's a big signal that you should have your cables checked. A stretch of only one percent is enough to lower performance.
Even the chain stretches. This is a dangerous safety issue. Although the stretch may be slight, it still weakens the chain. That means the chain may snap at some point, leaving you with an acute emergency – like the rear wheel suddenly stops turning. Sadly, if you can't instantly and safely bail, the best outcome you can hope for with a snapped chain is to not fall over the handlebars, not break any bones, and suffer only minimal road rash (if you're not wearing a helmet – well, let's not go there). Bike shops have a way of measuring the stretch in a chain. Having it adjusted or purchasing a new chain is always less trouble than a visit to the hospital OR.
Another important part of a professional tune-up is 'truing' the wheels. A 'true' wheel will have the exact same pressure on every spoke. If a few spokes aren't trued, it may cause the tires to have extra play and vibration. This is not a good thing if you're going fast, laboring to climb a hill or even trying to descend one.
Check your brakes for efficiency. When you squeeze them, where do the pads place? Are they accurately hitting the rim full on, not hanging off the rim a little towards the spokes? Brake pads that don't grab in the correct place may cause the brakes to squeal. A shop can fix the problem, and also suggest whether the pads are worn and need replacing.
If there's any sloppiness in the operation of your bike, or vibration of any part, take the bike in for a tune-up right away. Again, it's a lot of fun to ride your bike on mountain trails or commute with it, but never let your moral satisfaction override your safety.
Many bike shops offer discounts on tune-ups to returning customers. It's a good thing to get to know your bike tech. He or she can even show you how to do more of a tune-up yourself. At the very least, learn how to fix a flat tire, and carry a spare inner tube and bike pump with you. They can be placed under your saddle once you buy the special attachments which will hold them securely.
Wina Sturgeon is the editor of the online magazine Adventure Sports Weekly , which offers the latest training, diet and athletic information.