Getting Ready to Roll: Prepping a New Bike for the Road

The only way to know if your new bike is ready to ride is to check it out, and that’s one job it’s best not to leave to others.

by Tamia Nelson | April 2, 2019

One of the many benefits of buying from a good bike shop is that your new bike will be ready to roll when you take delivery. This is why experienced riders usually advise new cyclists to shop at their local bike shop (or LBS, if you like acronyms). But not every local bike shop is good, and bike shops of any description are rare finds outside cities. Moreover, these small shops are low-volume businesses. They don’t have the buying power of the Big Box chains. Which is why Walmart can sell a serviceable derailleur-equipped bike for less than USD200 and your local bike shop can’t.

There is, of course, a catch. Whereas a bike bought from a good bike shop will probably have higher quality components and be assembled well, the bike you buy from Walmart may not be. If the “associate” who takes the bike out of the box and sets it up is himself a cyclist, the odds are in your favor. But if he’d rather be laying out a floor display of this season’s latest electronic devices, your new bike will probably suffer.

As luck would have it, the associate who oversees the cycling department at my local Walmart seems to know his stuff. I’ve watched him prep bikes for customers, and I’ve seen him taking stock of the display models, pumping up tires and checking brakes. He comes across as both knowledgeable and conscientious. You may not be so fortunate, however.

A similar problem crops up with bikes bought from large clicks-and-mortar retailers. If your new bike arrives on your doorstep in a box, you’ll have to do the final assembly yourself, and you’ll also want to make sure that the prep work was done properly. Come to think of it, though, it’s really not a bad idea to give every new bike a good going over—even one bought from a trustworthy local bike shop. The best mechanics have bad days, after all, and anyway, it’s important to get to know your new machine. Mechanical problems don’t always strike when you’re outside a bike shop, at least not in my experience. And bicycles are one of the few forms of transport that can be maintained and repaired by the owner. So why not do it yourself, at least when you can spare the time? Self-reliance is a virtue, right?

So let’s get to work. Be warned: Despite its apparent simplicity, a bike is a fairly complex machine. It’s also a collection of systems, and the best way to get to know a new bike is to tackle one system at a time. Here’s a list:

  • Wheels
  • Tires
  • Brakes
  • Chain
  • Cranks
  • Pedals
  • Shifters and derailleurs
  • Saddle and seatpost
  • Handlebars, stem, and headset
  • Accessories
  • Frame

Now let’s take a closer look.

Wheels  Make sure that the wheels spin freely—a friend or bike stand can be a big help here—without rubbing and with no noticeable wobbling or hopping. Also make certain that the quick releases or nuts that hold the wheels in place are secure. Getting the quick-release clamping force just right is a bit tricky. Too loose is just too loose, but you don’t want to have to pound the levers closed with a hammer, either. One rule of thumb I’ve found useful: Adjust the clamping force until closing the quick release leaves a noticeable imprint on your palm. I guess that should be “rule of palm,” eh?

Tires  Inspect the tread and sidewalls for cracks—even new tires sometimes have ’em—and make sure the bead is evenly seated all around. Check the air pressure with a gauge, pumping the tires up to bring them within the recommended range (stamped on the tire sidewall) if necessary. (You do have a pump, don’t you? In fact, it helps to have two: a floor pump for home and a frame pump or mini-pump for the road.)

Brakes  You’ve already checked to see that your wheel rims don’t rub on the brake pads when the wheels are spinning free. But when you squeeze the brake levers, the brake pads should clamp the rims squarely and evenly, rapidly bringing the free-spinning wheels to a smooth stop. The pads must contact only the rims. If they rub the tire sidewalls when you brake, adjust them now, before you have a blowout. Further evaluation of the brakes will have to wait for the final road test. Do they stop you quickly and smoothly? Good. Do the levers bottom out against the bars when you squeeze them? BAD. Shorten the cable.

By the way, the front brake does most of the work. It’s your best friend in an emergency stop. But be careful. Linear brakes (“V-brakes”) can grab the front wheel so forcefully that they send an unprepared rider right over the bars. And that’s no fun.

You may have noticed that I’ve said nothing about disc brakes. That’s because I’ve never had a bike that was fitted with them. And I doubt I ever will. Why? Well, disc brakes are rather complex, fussy things. Since I’d rather ride my bike than tinker endlessly with the brakes, I steer clear of this particular “improvement.” Caliper brakes have served cyclists for a very long time, so I see no reason to change for change’s sake.

Chain  The chain should be clean and properly lubricated, but it shouldn’t be dripping with oil. If it is, wipe off the surplus.

Cranks  Make sure the cranks turn freely and the crank bolts are tight. Check the crank bolts on a new bike several times in the first couple of hundred miles.

Pedals  These must be tight. Remember that almost all left-hand pedals have a left-hand thread: they tighten to the left. This ditty helps: Toward forward tightens. Rear rotation removes. It applies to both left- and right-hand pedals.

Shifters and Derailleurs  With the rear wheel lifted off the ground (I hope your friend is still hanging around), rotate the pedals and ring the changes with both front and rear shifters. Adjust the shifter cables and the derailleur stops as needed to ensure smooth shifting throughout the full range of gears. If you’ve never done this before, you’ll need the manufacturer’s tech sheet or a good bike manual—or a knowledgeable friend. But it’s worth taking the trouble. Under no circumstances ride a bike that shows any inclination to throw the chain off the large cog into the spokes on the rear wheel.

Saddle and Seatpost  Saddle height, tilt, and fore-and-aft position are critical to comfortable and efficient cycling. Adjust as needed—a good local bike shop can be a godsend here—and be prepared to refine the adjustment as you rack up the miles. The great Eddy Merckx used to adjust his saddle height on the move, so to speak. I don’t recommend this approach, however. There was only one Merckx. Mere mortals who need to tweak saddle height should get off their bikes first.

Handlebars, Stem, and Headset  Check for proper adjustment. A well-adjusted headset permits the bars to turn freely, but it has no excessive play. (Test for this by locking the front brakes and shoving the bike backward and forward. If you feel—feel, rather than hear—a slight knocking in the vicinity of the head tube, the headset is probably loose.) Now check that the handlebar is at a comfortable height. If you have an old-style threaded headset, you’ll be able to adjust the height within rather broad limits. Modern threadless headsets are less accommodating, however—though you can make small adjustments by moving spacers around. Make sure the bolts clamping the bars and steering tube are snug, and check them regularly. Inspect the stem for cracks, too. Being up the creek without a paddle pales in comparison to the plight of cyclist whose handlebars come adrift from his fork.

Accessories  Is any bolt loose? Tighten it. (This includes the kickstand bolt.) Do the fenders rub on the tires? Adjust the stays. Make sure the lights light, too, and check that the frame pump is well secured.

Frame and fork  I’ve left this to last, because some questions about the frame can only be answered by inspecting (and riding) the fully assembled bike. Does the bike fit? It should. There’s no easy fix for a bike that’s much too big or too small for you. Assuming that it does fit, eyeball the frame. Is it true? Do the wheels track together? Do they sit squarely in between the stays and fork? Are the frame tubes free of dents and cracks? A small dent in a steel or aluminum frame isn’t an emergency, though you should get an expert opinion as soon as possible. But any crack, even a hairline crack, is bad news. You’re better off walking.

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Time consuming? Yes. Fussy? You bet. And necessary—absolutely necessary. A properly prepped bike is a joy to ride, but a badly set up machine is an accident waiting to happen.

The foregoing is only an outline, of course. You’ll need more information than my short article provides. This is where a good bike shop really shines. Or you could ask an experienced friend for help. Or just visit your local library. However you go about it, though, there’s really no substitute for learning to adjust, maintain, and repair your bike. AAA doesn’t offer road service for cyclists, and not many bike shops make house calls.

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