Saturday, May 4, 2013

Make Your Old Bike Ready for Spring

Spring is here again and the roads are filling with bicyclists. People on bikes have stopped waving and ringing bells at each other already. It’s like an island beginning to fill with tourists, where the locals stop greeting each other from their pickup trucks, though they did all winter. 

Are you starting to feel like Pee Wee Herman when he finds his bike missing?  Left out with everyone riding past you?

We love our local bike stores and one near you probably has just the right set of new wheels for you, ready to go. But bikes aren’t school sneakers - it’s hard to fit a new one into the budget every year. So what do you need to change on your old bike to make it into a new friend?

If you haven’t been riding it much and you’re generally happy with it, maybe all it needs is a little dusting, some oil on the chain and air in the tires. If the valves are crooked after you roll it with flat tires out of the basement, before you pump the tires back up, push down on the seat, roll it backwards a few times and wiggle the valve stems straight to prevent leaks. Check that your helmet fits, the seat is high enough, and the brakes work, and off you go.

But what if it kind of needs some work?
We have a couple of heavily used bikes that didn’t get ridden all winter and a couple that did. The ones that missed the salt still look like they did in fall — dirty and grubby. The shifters are off a bit, the brakes only sort of work and the tire dynamos buzz.  The winter ones are rusting already. So guess what we are spending the weekend doing.

That local bike store with the tempting new goodies can also lube and realign and readjust your old bike. We sometimes have done this and it’s like being a millionaire for a day as they take care of all the twiddling, but scrubbing isn't what they do best. If you want the best finished job, you should clean and polish your old bike first, think about upgrades you’d like, and then lube and adjust. You can do this yourself or let a bike shop finish the job.

Spring cleaning 
Start by writing down or photographing your serial number and take a picture of the bike with yourself in the shot, in case it gets stolen in the future. 

You might need some supplies:

chrome cleaner if there’s rusty chromed steel
Citrus oil solvent, other degreaser or car tar and bug remover
car buffing or polishing compound to shine dulled paint (gently)
car wax to keep cleaned areas from rusting again soon.
a cheap electric toothbrush to do the scrubbing for you
Sno-Seal or Brooks Proofide for your leather saddle; these two don't stretch it
touchup paint to match your bike (from car parts store) or clear nail polish
naval jelly for any really badly rusted places. It's phosphoric acid gel, dissolves rust.
super fine steel wool (not for aluminum, use fiberglass scrubber pads instead)
your pump and tools
eye protection for using the naval jelly and impact tools
mechanic’s hand cleaner gel
chain oil, maybe other oils and grease and degreasing solvent if you need them
paint dropcloth or newspapers
lots of rags or paper towels or both. 
Don't use water displacing (WD) solvents. They remove grease that you need.

Note that oily rags can actually catch on fire easily if you leave them lying around. It happened to people we know. Soak them in a bucket of water, cover them with sand in a fireproof container, burn them, or put them where a fire won’t cause damage.

When I clean up an old bike it takes a lot longer than you’d think. 
I start with detergent or degreaser and a rag and remove the easy grime quickly. I repair very rusty areas with naval jelly and abrasives and paint the spots. Then I get out the chrome cleaner and the toothbrush and scrub every bit of chrome on the bike. You can use car cleaner/wax if your bike doesn’t have chrome. You apply the cleaner with a rag, buzz it with the toothbrush if needed, keep rubbing until the rust and grime is gone, then buff off once it’s dry. Afterwards wax or finish the area to prevent re-rusting. You can get some very brown parts back to their jazzy chromed 1965 glory without too much work. It’s a little easier to clean wheels if they are off the bike with the tire removed. Spokes are hard to make look good. Shine them too if you want to, but it adds hours to the job. Maybe use a buffer? Try not to get the cleaners on rubber since they leave white stains. It may take a day before your brakes are at full power again if you wax the rims. Do the same car cleaner/wax treatment on the painted areas but use rags on paint, not the toothbrush. Compound shines old paint but removes decals too — careful.

Scrubbing and polishing is a great job for enthusiastic youngsters (if available) while you relax and supervise. Get them to shine the paint while they’re at it. Good luck. 

Inspect, clean or replace the tires, and if you take the wheels off do the inner tubes and rim strips too. If you had to put air in your tires often last season install new tubes now. Put a paper with your contact information inside the tires in case the bike is stolen and a thief brings it to get a flat fixed. This would be a good time to put on nice city tires to replace the bumpy fake mountain bike ones your bike came with. The ones with reflective strips on the sidewalls aren't much more expensive. Slick or slight tread are fine.

Clean the inside of the fenders (mudguards) with silicone spray or wax — keeps snow and maybe mud from sticking — and remove rust if needed.

Use a hair dryer to warm up the leather on your saddle and melt Snow Seal or Proofide into it until you can’t get more to soak in. Let it cool, then buff off excess. Easier off the bike. 

Greasy Mechanical Bits
Now that your bike looks great, it's time to make it run well. This is where you can stop and take the whole thing off to the local bike store to adjust, relubricate and regrease all the mechanical parts. Your bike will come back clean, shiny AND fully functional, with a warranty on the work. But if that feels like overkill, you can also keep going:

Remove the muck on the chain and all gears.  I often just replace the chain if it looks old and rusty. It’s often still the original one from the 1960s. If you want to clean the chain instead, you take it off the bike with a chain tool (don’t pop that rivet all the way out — just enough!) and shake it in a can of solvent for awhile, then dry and relube it and reinstall onto the cleaned sprockets. If it’s not so bad, try the same thing with rags while it remains on the bike. Some people clean chains in a bunch of crazy ways, for example heating wax or oil on the stove, but this is a bad idea; you’ll burn down your house and you’ll never get it as clean and lubed as a new chain. Just put some simple chain oil on it and work it in, or swap it for a new one. If you feel fancy buy fancy chain oil like Phil Tenacious Oil; we just use non-detergent SAE-30  (or chainsaw oil - thicker and stickier, good for chains, bad inside hubs) from the car parts store.

There are several widths and types of new chains, so if you don’t know what you need take the bike or the chain to the bike shop and they’ll get you the right kind. Usually it’s a good idea to have the exact same number of links that the old chain did. See Sheldon Brown for tips if you think you need more chain advice. Use your chain tool to size and install it. Lately I’ve paid extra to get more waterproof chains — "Rustbuster" galvanized Z chains mostly, but one fancy, stainless Wippermann Connex. They all work the same. 

The gears usually need a big going over with the electric toothbrush or strips of rag and some citrus solvent. Over a dropcloth. Sometimes you need to take the thing apart and soak the individual pieces, but usually you don’t. Check the sprockets for wear (the pointy parts get asymmetrical — see Sheldon Brown again) and replace them when you replace the chain if they’re worn. Replace any unsealed hub bearings, repack with grease, or take to the bike shop. If you have a derailer this is a good time to scrub and relube it, too, maybe replace the idler wheels if worn.

Adjust the cable tension properly — see Sheldon Brown for still more tips — so you can reach all your gears and avoid that buzzing, clacking sound.

Attention Internet: They’re Brakes, Not Breaks
These things come in a hundred variations, but they all have one thing in common in springtime: they look grubby and they don’t work perfectly. Grit, salt and muck get into the things that move, and the rubber brake pads wear down and get shiny or hard. Think about getting new brake pads (we like salmon Kool Stops especially on steel rims) or at least sand down the old ones a little, clean and lube the moving parts, and if you have cantilevers or V-brakes think about taking them off the frame to scrub and relube underneath. Adjust everything or have the bike shop do it. 

Cables or cable housings might need replacing if the brakes are sticky. Usually a cheap (but always stainless!) cable can solve the problem. I’ve seen but haven’t yet used the Teflon coated ones, maybe they are even better. When you change the brake cable you can easily adjust the brake levers to fit the rider’s hands better — tighten the little teensy screw to move the lever closer to the handlebars. Important for kids’ bikes. We bought a real cable and housing cutter a few years ago and we use it all the time — get one if your clippers just mash the cable into a fray.

More to Lube
Bottom brackets on old bikes and headsets on most bikes are unsealed and would like to be opened and regreased every now and then. While we do this from time to time it’s generally because something else is happening. If you want to be complete, go ahead, and repack the front hub too if you want. Or, again, save it for the bike shop. If any of these things are loose, grinding, making noise or rusting maybe you should take care of them now. 

Vintage Raleighs have some peculiarities
The front hubs use oil, not grease, and have to go on the right way — the side of the axle with the flats goes on the non-drive side. Hardly anyone ever gets this right at a bike shop.  
For a Sturmey Archer 3 speed hub, once it’s cleaned, you can pour some SAE-30 non-detergent oil (or Sturmey Archer oil if you still have it) right down the tube that the little indicator chain comes out, or into the oil port if you prefer. Some people like automatic transmission fluid for this; we haven’t used it yet. If the oil you choose is too thin it will leak out of the hub all the time and leave a spot in your garage. Too thick and it will take forever to shift into third gear. The non-drive-side bearing is the adjusting one, so if the wheel seems wobbly side to side tighten it a little, or if the pedals spin as you walk the bike, back it off a bit. Lube the bearings. Adjust the shifter so it just barely takes all the slack out of the cable but doesn’t yet move the little chain when the shifter is in 3rd gear, and lock it with the other nut.

Fix up your lighting, maybe replacing single wires with double stranded cable, adjusting generator angle to be exactly along the wheel radius, or installing a new  LED lamp with a standlight. Replace last year’s broken reflector, mirror or bell. Rethink that old cable lock or bad U-lock. Now that your bike is shiny someone else might want to have it.

Now put on your springiest outfit, put some daffodils in your teeth (careful, toxic) and head out on your shiny new wheels like you are ready for a Cool Folks On Bikes blog photo shoot. Bring a raincoat in your pannier.


  1. That all sounds like about three days of work on one bike, much less on the family fleet! I would need a good night's sleep before I head out to ride. :-)

  2. This kind of a cleaning is what I do with a 1960s bike that made it through the winter. Even if it looks like rubbish now a few hours can make it like new and save you from thinking about needing a new one. I'd rather have an old bike than many of the new ones I've seen.
    You are right, though, it can take awhile. But usually not everything needs doing on every bike every year. And what could possibly be more fun than scrubbing bicycles?
    Maybe we need an automatic bike wash and detailing service in Chicago.


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