A true improvement

My trusty mountain bike has served me well for about 14 years. It has, however, been increasingly showing signs of wear and tear. Perhaps the most serious problem is that about 3 years ago I accidentally stripped the thread on the bottom bracket shell and since then I’ve had to rely on threadless bottom brackets. These are a handy invention but don’t seem to be quite as robust as the more traditional kind and, in consequence, I’ve had to replace the unit at least once per year since I started using them. At around £20 a pop, it would take a few years to amount to the cost of a new bike but it’s certainly quite frustrating and potentially takes the bike off the road for several days at a time (and necessitates a fairly long walk home pushing my suddenly non-functional bike if the component fails suddenly mid-ride).

Therefore, when the bracket went again a couple of weeks ago as I was cycling up a steep hill (fortunately within half a mile of home) I decided the time had come to get myself a new bike. This is actually a move I’ve been considering for at least a year and I had more or less decided to go for a hybrid bike this time. These are, as the name suggests, somewhere between a mountain bike and a racing/touring bike in style, generally with a relatively heavy non-suspension frame (the lack of suspension is actually a good thing if you’re sticking mostly to road riding, as suspension tends to soak up a lot of energy that would otherwise be translated into forward motion), fairly large, narrow wheels (again, more efficient on-road, though tough enough to withstand light off-road use), mudguards, a luggage rack, straight handlebars (positioned relatively high) and a wide, comfortable saddle.

I found a reasonable looking bike for a reasonable looking price on eBay, ordered it and was excited when it arrived a few days later. Putting it together was fairly straightforward and all seemed to be well.

I was somewhat less impressed the next morning when I set off to ride to work and discovered that the front tyre, which I’d pumped up the previous evening, was pancake flat. With no time to fix it, I leapt on my trusty reserve bike and headed in to the office. On my return, I checked out the inner tube and concluded that it had a faulty valve, so I threw it away and installed a spare.

For the next couple of days the bike functioned fine but I did notice that the front wheel had a very pronounced wobble. The hub and rim both appeared to be fine, so this was evidently a truing problem caused by improperly tensioned spokes, although a quick inspection didn’t turn up any that were obviously significantly tighter or looser than the rest. A quick google search indicated that this is not an uncommon problem on new bikes. One helpful video I watched (along the lines of “Top 5 maintenance tasks required on almost all new bikes” – which listed truing the wheels at no. 1) suggested that if a wheel was out of true it should be taken back to the seller to have them put it right; however, the video’s presenter conceded that this isn’t necessarily practical when you’ve bought the bike by mail order so this left me with the alternative of doing it myself.

In the past I’ve occasionally tried truing the wheels on my other bikes, with limited success (and only based on trying to understand written descriptions of the process rather than watching videos on how to do it). This time I watched a handful of videos and quickly came to the conclusion that the job should be reasonably straightforward and I wouldn’t need to invest in a wheel truing stand but probably would benefit from getting a reasonably sturdy bike maintenance stand (another purchase, like the new bike, which I’ve been considering for some time). I returned to eBay and found a decent looking one within my budget, so I ordered that (and a new spoke key for good measure, as my old one’s one of those cheap circular ones with about 8 different slots and it’s a real pain to try and get the right one – for the new one I went for a triangular thing with only the 3 sizes I’m likely to actually find on any bike in the wild) and sat back to wait for it to arrive (well, obviously I did other stuff while I was waiting, but none of it involving my new bike).

The spoke wrench arrived within a couple of days and the stand was here by this Monday, so I quickly assembled it, clamped up the bike and had a go at truing the front wheel following the advice in the videos I’d watched (supplemented by a quick glance in my bike maintenance book to check I’d correctly understood which way to turn the spoke nipples in order to tighten them). I won’t go into details here – if you want to true your own wheels (or just understand the process) you can easily google instructional materials for yourself. Suffice it to say that, within about half an hour, I’d got the wheel running more or less true. It’s not quite within the half millimetre that professional wheel builders apparently strive for, but considerably better than it was.

For the last couple of days I’ ve been riding the new bike again and so far it’s been working fine. Having a more or less true front wheel definitely seems to make quite a big difference, and I’m hoping it won’t require too regular adjustment (the back wheel seemed fine as it was, and again I hope that won’t need tweaking for a good long while yet).

Now I can concentrate on getting used to the slightly different riding position and gearing that my new bike has from the old one.

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Spoke too soon

A couple of days ago I mentioned that I use my mountain bike when I want to go off-road, reserving my road bike for cycling on the road (as the name suggests) in order to preserve its relatively delicate mechanism which would not last long under the strain of off-road riding.

I was on my road bike again today, and carefully avoided the off-road cycle path despite being held up in traffic queues right at the point where the path diverged on both the outward and homeward journeys.  Still, despite my care in using the bike only in conditions that it’s designed for, I suffered a mechanical fail on my way home.

As I was cycling up the final steep hill, I suddenly noticed the back wheel beginning to rub quite badly (to the point that it not only sounded quite alarming but also put up a noticeable amount of resistance).  I stopped and had a quick look over the back end of the bike but couldn’t see anything that was causing the problem, so I rode the rest of the way home relatively slowly and carefully.

On reaching home I gave the back wheel a more thorough inspection and discovered that one of the spokes had snapped.  Presumably this was enough to throw the wheel out of true sufficiently to rub against the mudguard (the tolerances are fairly tight, so it wouldn’t have to slip far out to start rubbing).

The good news is that I have a spare spoke for this bike (I think I actually bought it for my mountain bike but accidentally got one that’s too long for that but fits the slightly bigger wheels of my road bike; I’ve had the spoke for years but never needed to use it until now).  Unfortunately the broken spoke is on the sprocket side of the back wheel and I’m not sure whether it will be possible to fit the new spoke without taking off the sprockets (for which I might have to borrow a suitable tool from a friendly neighbour, as I don’t think I have the necessary bits in my toolbox).

As I’m due to be going out in a few minutes’ time and will be out for most of the evening, and as I have another bike I can use tomorrow, I’ve decided to put off working on the wheel until Saturday, when I should be able to do it at much greater leisure and hopefully get the job finished properly (including giving the transmission system a good clean while the bike is dismantled).  In the meantime, I’ll also take a bit of  time to read up about wheel maintenance in my trusty copy of Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance (which, together with its companion for mountain bikes, is the best bike maintenance manual I’ve found).