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Becky Jo’s Carfree Life: Deep Dive 1 – Gears and Tires

Posted by on January 14th, 2020 at 10:52 am

dirty road bike

My bike as it’s currently ridden with new tires and fenders.
(Photos: Becky Jo)

I’ve posted some questions related to gear, but mostly it’s been how to carry groceries and how to feel more chill. If you don’t mind, I’d also like to ask you, the more experienced collective, more nuts-and-bolts type stuff as I go along on this journey.

I am fairly mechanically inclined. I realize that requires some spatial reasoning ability and we are all at different points on that spectrum. I certainly don’t judge anyone who cannot, but for the purposes of today’s asks and answers, I do pretty well. I’m user-manual friendly and I even create technical illustrations on occasion, which in my lifetime has included a range from freight trains to sewing. All of that is to say, I am capable of learning how to take care of my bike…but how far do I really need to go? As I get older, the amount of brain capacity I want to commit to things that aren’t necessary diminishes.

For me and the others out here learning… how far down the bike repair rabbit hole do we need to go?

So far, I’ve done nothing on my bike. I did figure out how to take out the rear skewers to put on the Burley trailer hitches when we had the trailer, but when I took the bikes in for a tune-up, I learned I was putting the skewers back on too tight. I realize it’s likely not called a “skewer,” but you know what I mean. I know how most quick release brakes work, but I haven’t changed my own flat tire yet, I have no idea what a tune-up entails, and… uh… nothing made me more clear that I really don’t know anything about my bike like the comment threads from my last gear post that went down all kinds of tangents regarding hubs, rims, and I didn’t even know spokes could be tightened?! So… let’s start here…



I’m not entirely sure how the gears work, like, in conjunction with each other. I realize as I type that sentence, it sounds asinine, but it’s true and I know I can’t be the only one out here in Bikeland who’s winging-it.

dirty bike on mossy pavement and dirty garage backdrop

Current grimy bike situation.

I put my rear gears all the way up (up is harder, right?), and they keep slipping when I ride hard, like starting on a steep incline. My, uh, are those front gears? Pedal gears? What do I call those? The crank-pedal gears have always been low (easiest). Am I saying low and high right? Anyway, if the front gears are easier, and the back gears are harder, the back gears tend to slip in and out of gear when high. Is that because I need to change the front gears? I’ve tried it, moving the front gears to a harder setting, and the rear seems to slip less I think. After a tune-up it wasn’t slipping at all, but now that I’ve ridden a lot more and in the rain/mud/hail, they’re doing it again.

Just correlation or causation? Is the derailleur off or am I off? Is this something I need to learn or leave to a professional? (I had to look up how to spell derailleur.) Is it just because it’s now really grimy again?


I had my stock tires for years when I was riding only for recreation. The few times I went into a shop, they suggested I needed to upgrade my tires. I even got a flat in my stock tires and was told they weren’t very good. Is that like Les Schwab wanting me to have more expensive tires or is that a real thing?

Is that like Les Schwab wanting me to have more expensive tires or is that a real thing?

After the frost last month, I did get new, more grippy tires with reflective sidewalls and fenders as I was spraying the kid on the tagalong with mud. Honestly, Rich at Kenton Cycle just picked them out for me. He knows our ordeal and where/how I ride. I trust our mechanic implicitly and I don’t feel he’s steered us wrong at any point, and while I’m happy with the new tires, I really have nothing to base it on other than trusting my local bike shop. Maybe that’s enough?

My biggest fear about changing a flat tire is taking that rear chain off, taking the skewer out, and mucking it all up trying to get it back on. Sure, finagling that plastic doo-hickey that removes the tire, stupid Presta valves, and getting a new tube in that skinny tire freaks me out, but not nearly as much as screwing up the chain. Do I need to just sit down for a weekend and do it a few times or do I leave it to a pro?

Side request: Please tell me I’ll get used to the Presta valves. Tell me it’s a matter of muscle memory in my hands, and it will get easier. Please.

Help me out here. How much should I commit to this? I just really need someone to honestly tell me to either leave it all to the pros, or to suck it up and figure it out – but exactly how much do I need to figure out for my own needs? And where do I start?? I watched some bike cleaning videos on YouTube and they bring out air compressors, bike clamp-stands, and special chain-cleaning contraptions. For me and the others out here learning to be bike commuters, how far down the bike repair rabbit hole do we need to go? There are tons of resources out there for dealing with house cleaning and maintenance into daily/weekly/monthly check-offs, and even resources for taking care of cars. Is there a home bike cleaning/maintenance calendar for my Happy Planner or Bullet Journal? A local class called, “So… You Ditched Your Car…”?

Thanks as always for your wisdom.

— Becky Jo, @BeckyJoPDX
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65 thoughts on “Becky Jo’s Carfree Life: Deep Dive 1 – Gears and Tires”

  1. Avatar Dan says:

    I think it’s useful / important to be able to fix a flat in case you get one when no bike shops are open / close by. Of course, this is a much bigger issue on a road ride, where you could be 30 miles from home. My commute is about 7 miles round trip, I do it almost every day, and I average maybe one flat a year, so if you said you were going to just have this done at a bike shop, it’s not unreasonable. Having said that, it’s really not that hard to learn, and there are many videos out there giving tips.

    For your gears, it sounds like you may have a derailleur (or both?) out of adjustment. But you may also be applying too much torque when you’re changing gears. When you change gears, particularly when you’re going uphill and likely putting more pressure on the pedals, ease up on the pedals: too much torque when the chain is moving to another gear will screw up your shifting. I personally gave up on derailleur tuning myself because I’m bad at it, I need it less than once a year, and it costs maybe $10-$15.

    The maintenance that I do on my commuter is pretty minimal: clean the chain, lube the chain, put air in the tires, tighten the brake cable as it stretches (there are barrel adjusters for fine tuning this tension). Once or twice a year, run it into a bike shop and ask them to check if I need a new chain; if so, I have them install it. Every six years or so, replace the drive train. Maybe wash it in the summer.

    That is definitely on the minimalist side, but so what? My commuter is a utility vehicle, and I’m OK with it being a little on the rough side. My road bike gets pampered more, which basically means more washing.

  2. Hi Becky Jo! I can’t wait to see what other commenters say, but as with all things family biking I think there are so many different right answers, including with DIY bike maintenance–you can get by fine doing a lot or doing a little. When my kids were tiny I didn’t know how to do anything (I used to change my flat tires quickly in college, but I lost that skill through disuse) and I thought I set a nice example of being able to live extremely car-lite while not knowing any bike maintenance. I got a couple flats that I walked to the closest bike shop…and I can’t imagine I would have been able to change them with two busy toddlers to watch at the same time anyway. Also, it turns out even people who know how to fix flats will often skip doing it on the spot, either locking up the bike or bringing it the rest of the way to school or work on the bus and dealing with it later, either on their own or even then still bringing it to a shop (I learned that while interviewing serious bike commuters for my book). So you’re definitely “off the hook” needing to learn bike maintenance and you’ll be in good company and in a city like Portland with lots of bike shops and good transit, you’ll get by fine. However, since you are so mechanically inclined, I have a feeling you’ll enjoy learning a lot of things. I only do basic stuff myself, like change flat tires and lube chains as needed. I gradually add other things like put racks and fenders off and on and hope to learn more someday. Taking classes is a very good way to learn skills, but you’ll find oodles of great videos online, too!

    1. Becky Jo (Columnist) Becky Jo (Columnist) says:

      Thanks Madi! You were actually my inspiration to share my adventures here. <3 You have a book?!?! Link please!

      1. Wow, no way! I’m honored 🙂 It’s four years old now, but I wrote a bike commuting book: Urban Cycling: How to Get to Work, Save Money, and Use Your Bike for City Living.

        I’ll add one little thing about drivetrains (drivetrain = gears + derailleurs + chain + cranks) is that if you’re like me and not great about chain maintenance I’ve heard that it’s just as cost effective to let your chain wear and eat through your gears and replace them all at once rather than replace your chain three times for each time you need to replace your cassette and/or chain rings. But chain lubing is quick and easy so you’ll enjoy doing that (note to self: I need to lube my chain, it’s skipping a bit!).

        Do you have a backup bike in the form of a spouse bike or kid bike you can use in a pinch? I like the advice of having a backup bike, but adding a whole new bike to the fleet isn’t the only way to do it 🙂

  3. Avatar Eric says:

    I’m interested in seeing what others say here.. I have ridden my bikes tons and tons over the years, and at some point was going through the same questions about how much I should learn. Likewise, I am pretty good at mechanical things, but I can’t say that I derive lots of joy from fixing my bike. I still don’t know the answers to some of the questions you posed, and I’m ok with that. You will save money by doing things yourself, of course, but personally I prefer professional mechanics to do most of my repairs because they do a better job than I do, and as I mentioned before, I don’t love fixing things. Some people find repairing things empowering or enjoyable, and they will probably do a lot more of their own repairs.

    I would say that the only thing that you probably want to learn for sure is how to fix a flat tire, but even that you can avoid if you stick with routes that are always close to public transportation routes. If you plan on riding outside of the city or in areas of the metro that are not served well by transit (or someone who can pick you up), you will be screwed if you can’t fix a flat. You will get a flat at some point if you ride enough (speaking of, if you are going outside of an area with transit, you’ll need to carry a flat kit and a pump or CO2 cartridge). Modern tires are better but not flawless. Otherwise, learn how to lube your chain and gears, and mechanics can take care of the rest.

    You might learn how to do certain things along the way and decide to just fix them yourself. For example, personally, I don’t mind putting in new brake pads or changing bar tape, but I don’t like really like messing with anything related to gear adjustments or trueing wheels.

    Maybe one other thing to worry about that isn’t as obvious as, say, brake pads wearing out, is that chains stretch and need to be periodically replaced (otherwise, you will have to replace all of your gears as the stretched chain will damage the gear teeth). You can measure the chain to make sure that it is not too stretched.

  4. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

    I call the two gearsets “fore” and “aft”. What’s important is the ratio (based on the number of teeth) between the two; increasing the teeth on the fore by, say, 10% (by shifting to a bigger chainring) has the same effect as going to one about 10% smaller on the aft. Go 10% bigger on both, and your effort will remain the same.

    If they are slipping, you need a new chain (chains “stretch” over time, with wear), and perhaps new aft gears (which wear down to accommodate the elongated chain). I’ve found I can usually get two chains out of a single aft gearset, which I’m sure is wrong on some level (the worn aft gears damage the chain over time), but it works for me.

    Chains are cheap, and a bike shop has a little device with which they can measure your chain and tell you if it needs to be replaced. But if you’re asking the question, it needs to be replaced.

    Have your shop do the work. When the slipping stops, your bike will feel great, at least until you destroy your wheels by carrying groceries. 🙂

  5. Avatar Dave says:

    A handy hint–carry a couple of pair of disposable rubber gloves with your flat fixing stuff. Also, look for a tire changing tool such as the VAR which both spares inner tubes a spearing and is a workaround for those with less hand strength.

    1. Becky Jo (Columnist) Becky Jo (Columnist) says:

      ah, rubber gloves for better gripping – esp w PNW rain! that’s a good tip!!! thank you.

      1. Avatar Alan 1.0 says:

        For gripping but also for keeping grease off your hands, and for not freezing your fingers. The purple nitryl kind hold up to grease better than latex ones.

  6. Avatar gtrain says:

    Becky Jo,

    Bike Farm is an all-volunteer run Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and Do-It-Together (DIT) bike shop that specializes in teaching others how to fix their own bikes and we would love to show you some basics of bike maintenance and answer all of your questions! We are at 1810 NE 1st Ave and our hours are listed on our website:

    We have all of the tools you need and always have at least 2 volunteers during our working hours to help you work on your own bike. I have learned everything I know about bikes from volunteering at Bike Farm for the past 5 years.

  7. Avatar B. Carfree says:

    Can’t talk gears and gears slipping without talking about chain wear, also called chain stretch because chains get longer as they stretch. As a chain wears out, its pitch (distance from pin to pin) gets longer than the 1/2 inch it started at. Worn chains cause excessive wear on the cogs (rear gears) and chain rings (front gears). Chains are cheap, new cassettes or freewheels (the thing the cogs mount on) and chain rings are generally less cheap.

    How do you know when your chain is so worn it needs replacement? Simple, you measure it. Get a ruler, preferably metal, and set the 0″ mark in the middle of a chain pin on the lower end of the chain. Now look out at the 12″ mark. How far past that is the center of the next pin? It should be less than 1/8″.

    If the chain is worn (stretched), it needs to be replaced. However, if the chain has caused excessive wear of the gears, a new chain will slip under load on those worn gears. If that happens, have that great bike shop mechanic you found determine if you need to replace the front, rear or both gears and buy him/her their favorite beverage or at least give a nice word. (Good mechanics can really make your cycling life easier, funner and just plain better and should be shown how much you value their knowledge, effort and care in whatever way works for you.) Bear in mind that eventually those gear will wear down enough to need replacement even if you are the most anal chain replacer ever born. Generally, ever 3-6 chain replacements means a cassette/freewheel and chain ring replacement for me, but YMMV.

    Routinely using smaller cogs/chainrings is generally not a good idea. The smaller the gears a chain is running on, the more the wear of both the chain and the gears. (Smaller gears also have greater friction, so you’ll get more speed for your effort by steering clear of small front/small back whenever possible.) As HK said, there are usually more than one combination of gears that provides the gear ratio you want.

  8. Try not to leave your gears in the smallest (both front and rear are smallest) and largest. This is called cross-chaining and it stretches out the chain unnecessarily. I like to separate my rear gears into sections depending on how many gears I have in the front.
    I’ll use your bike as an example. It looks like you have a 2×9 (two in the front, 9 in the back). I would use the 5 smallest gears in the rear to be only used with your largest gear in the front, and your 5 largest gears in the rear to be used only with your smallest gear up front. You’ve probably noticed this means your middle gear can be used for both gears in the front.
    Happy chain – happy riding!

  9. Avatar Bjorn says:

    Just avoiding cross chaining is a good start with derailleurs, here is a web page that explains gear ratios a bit: For folks who really don’t want to have to deal with front and rear derailleurs a shimano internal rear hub can give you the same overall range with a simpler 7 or 8 sequential gears to pick from.

  10. Avatar Stephen Keller says:

    Others have talked about derailleur adjustment and slipping so I won’t mention that. I will confirm, however, that “skewer” is the correct name for the quick-release rod that goes through the axles.

    I want to reply to your comment, “I’m not entirely sure how the gears work… in conjunction with each other.”

    I’m a numbers guy. If you don’t like numbers or already know about gear ratios and meters-development, stop reading now.

    For me understanding gears, is all about how the relationship between the selected front gear (called the “chainring”) and the selected rear gear (called the “cog”). I’m particularly interested in and how the choices affect my speed and effort. There are various ways to conceptualize the gear relationships, but my preferred approach is meters-development. This value tells me how far will I travel in single crank rotation for a given gear selection.

    There a number of websites that will calculate this for you based on your specific cassette, chainring and tire sizes. The most known is probably the late Sheldon Browns gear calculator:

    That said, however, the math for this is pretty simple:

    (tire-circumference * front-tooth-count)/rear-tooth-count

    The higher the calculated meters-development for a given chaingring-cog selection the harder it is to pedal, but the further you go for each crank revolution.

    For example, let’s say you have a 52/34 compact double set of chainrings and an 11-32 cassette for your cogs and your running 700c/32 tires. In this set up your tire circumference is going to be somewhere around 2.1 meters. Therefore in your highest combination: 52-front and 11-rear, you’ll get a meters-development value of approximately 10 meters per full crank revolution.

    9.92 meters = (2.1*52)/11

    In your lowest combination 34-front and 32-rear, you get a value of approximately 2 meters per full crank revolution:

    2.23 meters = (2.1*34)/32

    The reason why higher gear combinations are harder should be evident: it takes more energy to move you, your bike and your groceries 10 meters than it does to move it 2 meters.

    Anyway, I hope this helps with understanding how the chainring-cog relationship affects speed and effort.


    1. Avatar dachines says:

      Becky Jo,

      Stephen Keller’s information is definitely good, as were other’s about cross chaining and the like. With that said, there is also no need to over think bike gears, and I have heard many people make the same statements and questions as you have. So here is the simple answer, just use your gears. If you make a shift and it doesn’t feel right to you, try a different shift until it does. Did the shift that you just made make going up that hill easier and was that what you wanted? If so, then that was the correct shift. Were you spinning your legs faster than you wanted to on flat ground and then you shifted gears and found that you could spin at more comfortable rate while maintaining your speed? Then that was the correct shift. At the most basic level the gears are there to help you so don’t be afraid to use/try them! Using them is the best way to figure them out!

    2. Becky Jo (Columnist) Becky Jo (Columnist) says:

      Stephen K: This. Is. Awesome. Some of my sewing people make fun of me (in a good way) because I’ll geek out on grading ratios and ASTM. Thank you!

  11. Avatar Joel B says:

    First things first: I’ve really enjoyed reading your column so far, and they are 100% called skewers.

    I think everyone should learn to fix a flat and carry flat repair stuff. Get the hang of it and you can not only get yourself out of a jam, but you might get the opportunity to rescue a fellow rider as well. Removal and installation of the rear wheel is much easier if you are in the smallest back gear (these are often called “cogs,” while the front ones are often called “chainrings”).

    Beyond that it’s just a trade off between time/energy and money. Insofar as you decide it’s worthwhile, focus first on routine maintenance and knowledge that can keep you rolling in the event of a mechanical failure during a ride.

    There are tons of great resources out there. I’ve seen ads for beginner maintenance classes around town, maybe through Community Cycling Center or PSU Bike Hub? Park Tool is one of many excellent bike maintenance and repair channels on YouTube. Last, consider checking your favorite bike shop or bookstore for a good, all-inclusive bike maintenance manual.

  12. We all learn in a combination of different ways: Some people learn from repeated hands-on instruction, some find how-to videos useful, some learn by experimentation, some by advice, and some by the book. If you are the latter, I suggest the series by Leonard Zinn – fun reading, good diagrams, and a list of tools you might need for every level of expertise.

    I’d suggest you avoid purchasing tools and spare parts until you know how to use them and/or install them.

    For fixing a tire, you’ll need a spare tube of the right size, a pair of tire levers (I personally like the Pedros levers), and a small hand pump, preferably with a hose and gauge (Topeak makes several good ones.) And a bag to carry them in whenever you ride; the pump typically is attached to the bike frame with a special clip – but if you live in Portland, you might want to removing the items and carry them with you if your parked in a public location, to avoid theft. I’d also suggest you get a folding multi-tool for rides with various metric hex-wrench sizes.

    As for tires, there are now several brands that offer nearly puncture-proof tires, usually with kevlar belting and a thick layer of soft rubber between the tread and casing. They do cost more, frequently over $50 each, but they will last you 2-5 years of heavy use. Look for Panaracer Tour Plus, Schwalbe Marathon Plus and several other lines of Schwalbe, some of the pricier Continental tires, as well as several other brands. You can even get high-pressure narrow racing tires that are bullet-proof. You can also get thorn-resistant inner tubes and tire liners for further protection. But all this adds weight to your wheels.

    1. Avatar Paul Cone says:

      Absolutely yes on Kevlar tires. I got a brand new Kona few years ago (the MinUte) to haul my kid, and immediately started getting flats on the stock tires. This was after running Kevlar tires on my road bike for years and rarely getting flats. It’s one thing to change flat on a road bike while you’re halfway in between work and home, but it’s another thing to have do change it when you’ve got a larger bike plus a kid with you. I finally spent the $50 each on Kevlar tires for the Kona, and haven’t had a flat since.

  13. Avatar Michele McCracken says:

    I have a Cascadia Co-Motion with couplings made to be broken down & transported. Love the bike but seem to have repeating gear issues. The gear cable disconnects for travel by a small plastic screw attachment. Basically the cable is cut in half then the screw attachment added for easy in packing. Needless to say, upon putting my bike back together I inevitably have some gear tweaking that needs to be done. I often rely on bike mechanics but really would like to have the ability to fix this myself. Your suggestions are valuable. But is there a Co-Motion group out there that could lend a hand or advise?

    1. They’re called “S&S Couplings.” Quite a few other brands of travel bikes also use them.

  14. Avatar Jay Dedd says:

    Sigh. The columnist _asking_ for advice is pretty much backwards, for a reason seen in the comments: It yields a lot of sketchy advice along with the good. It thus does little to help the rest of the readers, and may even screw them over.

    Maybe instead: a guest mechanic having a back-and-forth with the columnist?

    On “slipping gears”: Potential causes abound, but among the most likely is that shift-lever cable tension has become a little slack again in between tune-ups. You turn a knob to adjust it. It’s finicky trial and error, but you don’t have to take anything apart.

    1. Avatar rain panther says:

      Oh I dunno, Jay, most of the feedback so far seems fairly non-sketchy. And I think it’s kind of an interesting format. If I want a “guest mechanic having a back-and-forth” I’m sure I can find something like that, but it doesn’t necessarily have to take the place of this post.

      ps, Thanks for contributing the bit about the cable tension adjustment knob thingy! See what I mean – totally non-sketchy!

    2. When I get gear slippage (which is often enough), the adjustments you indicate are a good temporary solution. Replacing the cassette, chain, and front middle chainring is an expensive and often unnecessary solution unless the rider is particularly heavy and really rough with their equipment.

      Usually the most effective (and cheapest) solution is to straighten the rear derailleur hanger drop-out. If you are really clever and careful, a large crescent wrench will work, but the best tool is the Park DAG-2.2 Derailleur Alignment Gauge or its equivalent, which usually only a shop has.

      1. Avatar Jay Dedd says:

        Thanks, and allow me to add the caveat that one should attempt to straighten a derailleur hanger only when it’s pretty clearly bent.

  15. Avatar Kyle says:

    My personal experience has mostly been that I am lot more interested in doing my own bike maintenance in theory than in practice. That being said:

    -You should definitely learn how to change a flat tire

    -It’s probably worth taking a basic bike maintenance class (a lot of bike shops offer these) just so you know what maintenance *should* be done, and have kind of an idea of stuff to look out for that might need taken care of.

    -I’ve found it very, very worthwhile to watch some maintenance tutorials (youtube generally is good for this, Park Tool in particular has some really helpful tutorials). A lot of time the conclusion that I draw from watching the tutorial is that I should just take my bike to the daggone shop, but I’ve found them really useful at making me feel more empowered when I go into the shop, just because I have better idea of what I’m talking about.

    -It’s also probably worth remembering that bikes are pretty simple, so most of the maintenance you might end up doing can be done in less than 45 minutes with just three different sizes of hex wrench (or whatever). There’s so much jargon and technical information on the internet that it’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed, but at the end of the day it’s usually pretty simple.

  16. Avatar Johnny Bye Carter says:


    I think of the front gears as the “condition” gears. Choose the right one for the condition you’re about to tackle. There are usually up to 3 gears in the front these days. You’ll notice that when you shift into gear 1 that it’s pedaling faster but moving slower, allowing you to get up hills easier due to the torque. When you’re in gear 3 you’ll notice it’s harder to pedal and you can’t really use that big front gear for going up hills, it’s more of a fast gear. The middle gear is usually the one to stay in around the city as it gives a good medium range.

    The rear gears can have anywhere from 5 to 10 separate sprockets on them. The rear gears are more for fine-tuning the condition you’re in. So when the front is in 1 and you’re going up a steep hill you’ll want to also use the lower gears in the back. Odd note: The “low” gear in the back is the tallest/largest one, and some bikes have a much larger gear 1 than the rest.

    If you’re putting the front gear on easy and the rear gear on hard then that means the chain is going from the first gear in the front to the last gear in the rear. This makes the chain go across the gears rather than in line with them. The front gears guide which rear gears you’re allowed to use. If you feel that with the front gear on easy that it’s so easy to pedal that you need to put the rear gear on hard then what you really need to do is put the front gear on medium and then use the middle rear gears. Generally you want the chain to be as straight from front gear to rear gear as possible, and crossing the gears by putting them at extreme ends will make them slip off.

    As others have stated you can also get slipping gears from the chain or the gears wearing out. If it’s simply slipping without it automatically changing into another gear then it may be that you need a new rear cassette. Usually each little tooth on the gear has corners at the top to help grab the chain. Over time these get worn down to smooth bumps, and although it still keeps the chain in place with normal riding it will slip when under a heavy pedal load without those little corners to grab onto the gear teeth. A new chain is about $20, and a new rear gear cassette starts around $20 for 5-6 speeds and goes up from there. Keep it clean to reduce replacement costs.

    Clean your gears and chain, then oil the chain. When you take off the rear wheel to practice changing a flat you can easily clean the rear gears. Some WD40 will loosen the muck in the rear gear cassette and then use a dry washcloth to get between all the gears. For the chain I usually use old toothbrushes to scrub and WD40 to rinse it off. Wipe it all down with a dry washcloth. Then you can put some real chain oil on the chain and wipe the excess off with a dry washcloth. They make a brush for getting between the gears and a gadget for washing your chain, but you can put those on your wish list for later.


    Stock tires often suck. Sure, they’re grippy and cushy, but that means that they grab all the slivers of glass and blackberry thorns. Good tires like the Schwalbe brand you have usually come with built in flat protection in the form of kevlar material built into the tire. Always get good flat resistant tires. I’ve used the Schwalbe and Continental tires for years with no flats. They weigh more and have a more stiff ride, but it’s worth it.

    Avoid flats by avoiding debris. As a new riders it’s tough to get out of the gutter and into the traffic lane. But in the winter all the tire popping debris is hiding in that gutter ready to stick to your tires and slowly work its way through to your tube. Sometimes it even works its way between the tire and rim, so wash that area as well.

    Reflective sidewalls are also great and I only get tires with flat protection and reflective sidewalls. The tires really light up in car headlights and it’s easy to tell that it’s a bicycle. Remember to keep them clean or they don’t reflect as well. I use a Mr Clean Magic Eraser to get mine nice and white.

    The scariest part of changing a flat for me is getting the tire back in there without pinching it so hard against the rim that it causes a pinch flat. Also the last few inches of getting the tire back on can make it seem like the tire shrank since you removed it 5 minutes ago. Put a little air in the tire (1 pump) so it will keep its shape while you’re putting it on.

    After changing a flat the toughest part is getting the gears to go past the chain when you’re putting the wheel back into place. The chain wants to stay straight (as noted above in Gears) so when you take off the wheel it falls straight down and the chain is still trying to hold onto those gears. You’ve got to wiggle it a bit to get the big gear cassette around the chain and out into the open. As others have stated it’s nice to have some latex gloves here because then you can just grab the chain and move it aside without worrying about getting your hands greasy on the way to work.

    Bike Gallery has classes for flat repair and bike maintenance (so does REI for a fee). And there are plenty of people willing to help you here in the community.

    Carry a wetnap or other cleaning wipe so you don’t spread that grease to the handlebars. I carry an extra small sized Timbuktu messenger bag with needed tool kit, tire levers, cleanup stuff, first aid kit, rechargable battery pack, and an extra layer of clothing.

    And yes:

    You’ll get used to the presta valves. I still forget to screw the tip back in sometimes if it’s a bike without valve caps. I’m getting used to checking the little nut that holds them tight to the wheel, since having it tight helps the stem stay straight.

    1. Becky Jo (Columnist) Becky Jo (Columnist) says:

      This is all so excellent. I know I’ll keep coming back to reference your response, and the others here – I keep re-reading them all now as it is. SO GOOD. I had no idea cross-chain was a thing, but that makes sense in how it feels…and I need to clean it more… and all of this is so good. I’m so grateful to everyone; I’m all mushy. Thank you.

  17. Avatar Mick O says:

    I’m going to throw a link down for Bikes For Humanity PDX’s (free) weekly workshops

    Bikes For Humanity PDX (B4HPDX) is a 501c3 non-profit bike shop and school.
    3366 SE Powell Blvd.

    and a glimpse at the upcoming schedule:

    1/23 brake adjustment: pad placement and cable tension for linear pull, cantilever, caliper, or disc

    1/30 derailleur adjustment: limits and tension for friction or indexed shifting

    2/6 general maintenance: changing tires and replacing tubes, cleaning rims, lubricating drivetrain, and what to look for in a well-tuned bike

  18. Avatar Carrie says:

    Changing a flat is a good thing to know how to do, but I’m also of the camp that if I’m commuting I’ll often just walk or catch TriMet and then deal with the flat when I’m where I’m going. One thing a friend recommended to make flat changing more ‘fun’ is to treat it like a challenge and see how fast you can do it. Because it usually sucks and you’re grumpy and hot/cold/wet and now late and at least now it’s a contest :).

    FWIW, my son’s bike would shift horribly (jump off the cogs) when he didn’t clean the drivetrain somewhat regularly — it was just that touchy. So I always trying cleaning first before mechanical adjustments. Especially this time of year.

    As for classes, I’ll put in a plug for Tori Boatman at Gracie’s Wrench She’s a great teacher.

    1. Avatar Carrie says:

      Oh and tires! I am a big fan of reflective sidewalls, but tire discussions quickly go down the rabbit hole of personal preference (watch out if you ask about tire widths and PSI!). Personally, I really, really dislike the ride/feel of many of the brands mentioned in this discussion thread. But it takes experimentation and trying new tires — since you’re using your bike as your primary mode of transport, you’ll probably go through a set about once a year so you’ll get plenty of opportunity to try new things (if you want!).

  19. Avatar Glenn II says:

    **** error — response size limit reached — rebooting ****

    Learn everything. It’s not that much knowledge – way less than what’s needed to maintain, or even own, a car. But even if it were a huge body of knowledge, as you get older you should be committing more brainpower to things, not less, since all the studies say being engaged learning something new keeps your brain younger as it were. And thinking is free.

    Don’t rush. If you depend on a bike for transportation, I recommend having at least two of them if possible, so you can have one be “in the shop” indefinitely. Then you can take your sweet time researching, learning, buying tools, and figuring it out. Otherwise, whatever you don’t currently know, you can pay someone at the bike shop to handle. And then slowly but surely each new thing you learn (and in some cases maybe buy a special tool for), is one thing you never again have to pay someone to handle. – already mentioned elsewhere on this thread – so many people fixing things & showing you how for free – solid tools for everything – get the “pro” versions or the next notch down, since this is your new permanent lifestyle riiiiiight? so it’s an investment in something that will last and save you money forever

  20. Avatar MonicainPDX says:

    Learn whatever you want – more power to you. But don’t feel like you “must” or even “should” learn anything. Riding a bike and fixing a bike are two entirely different things. I don’t happen to enjoy the fixing part. When I drove a car, I paid someone to change my oil. As a long-time commuter, I pay my local bike shop (thanks Abraham & William) to keep everything maintained. I also have Schwalbe Marathon tires so I very rarely get flats. Seriously – worth every penny. BTW, I’m thoroughly enjoying your column.

    1. Becky Jo (Columnist) Becky Jo (Columnist) says:

      Thanks so much! I will bring up the sewing world a lot because it’s what I know, but it’s similar there… like, at first I just wanted to sew and didn’t know anything about machine maintenance, but eventually my tinkerer nature got the better of me and I started tearing apart broken machines I’d pick up just to see if I could fix them. It’s also similar in that the sewing community is super helpful and into info sharing, and everyone has their opinions on how is best… and most are like you and me: you do you, and it’s all good. 😀

  21. Avatar Belynda says:

    I can’t be objective about tire repair because I learned how to do it before I was 10. Re gears, I strongly recommend just getting an internal hub. They are bullet proof & hardly ever break & eliminate fooling around with derailleurs. As for learning maintenance, try the Portland Bike Farm. You work inside with professional stands so you can stand up, all the tools you need and knowledgeable help without attitude. They have women’s & trans night the first & third Tuesday of every month. I also like my chain guard, but it does make it harder to change the rear tire & tube. I’ve changed my chain once in ten years.

    1. Becky Jo (Columnist) Becky Jo (Columnist) says:

      ok, I love the votes for Bike Farm and have to do it now just cuz that’s awesome, but also: women’s and trans nights? I love that! I knew the Rebuilding Center had classes like that, but I hadn’t heard of others doing it. Thanks for the tip!

  22. Avatar maxD says:

    second the Sheldon Brown recommendations and second the 2nd bike recommendation. I like having a winter bike and a summer bike. My Winter bike has fenders with flaps that are game-changers for keeping the drivetrain clean. I also dislike routine maintenance and learned how critical it is, especially in winter (I was using up chains, brake pads and even wore through a rim, mainly due to rarely cleaning the road grit). To avoid maintenance, my winter bike is also belt drive, disk brake, internal hub and has a generator hub with dedicated front and rear lights. I never lube, never buy batteries, and just hose it off once or twice a year! It also has a sturdy rear rack and front basket since I am frequently carrying AT LEAST rain pants. My summer bikes are road bikes with rim brakes, once with fenders, one without and small optional bags. They never get super dirty and I actually enjoy keeping the chain/drive train and rims clean, and the chains are now lasting many times longer.

  23. Avatar Carl says:

    I recommend Mr. Tuffy tire liners plus thorn-proof tubes. But see whatever the replies to this are, because I suspect it’s not popular advice. It will slow you down a little.

    My wife commutes about 12 miles daily, year-round and when she was starting out we went through a stretch where she was getting a flat every couple weeks. First we tried a major brand plastic-like tire liner, but it had sharp edges that made things worse. We finally ended up with the liners and thick tubes and she hasn’t had a flat in a couple years. That’s partly luck because a screw will easily puncture that. It does seem to prevent punctures from the little wires from steel-belted radial tires, because I’ve pulled some of those out of her (non-flat) tires.

  24. Avatar Carl says:

    Chain stretch: I bought a super-cheap chain gauge that takes 20 seconds to use and keeps your hands clean. It has 2 sides. First side indicates it’s time to replace your chain. Second side indicates you should have already replaced your chain, and you might need to replace your gears.

    1. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

      I need one that tells me it’s time to replace my whole bike.

      1. Look for hairline cracks on the underside of your bottom bracket shell. If you find any, your bike is toast. Then look for an overstuffed wallet full of cash.

      2. Avatar Alan 1.0 says:

        You need a bike sales person named Gauge?

  25. Avatar El Biciclero says:

    Didn’t read all previous comments, so sorry for any redundancy, but:

    Front gears = “chainwheels” or “chainrings”; rear gears = “sprockets” or “cluster”.

    Easy = small front + large rear. If you like math, the gear ratio is: divided by . E.g., 34/28 = 1.21 is an “easy” or “slow” gear. 50/11 = 4.54 is “hard” or “fast”. Given a front/rear gear ratio, smaller is easier; larger is harder. What such a gear ratio implies is that at the extremes, for every one turn of the front (pedals) you are turning the rear wheel either 1.21 times or 4.54 times. If you think of it as lifting, you can see how lifting 1.21 things or 4.54 things would be easier/harder, but would also get less/more work done.

    For shifting, you should not “cross-chain”, e.g., use a small front/small rear or large/large gear combo. The rule-of-thumb is that you start in a small front, large rear combo, then shift (on a double chainring drivetrain) the rear until you reach halfway through the rear gear range, e.g., for a 9-speed rear cluster, you would keep the front on the small ring until you reached the 5th or 6th sprocket on the rear, then shift the front, then continue on in the rear until you reach the large front/small rear combo, at which point you are flying at 35 mph downhill. Think of the chain always moving either away from your frame (“shifting up”) or toward your frame (“shifting down”). If you have a triple chainring, then you would divide the rear sprockets roughly in thirds to determine when to shift the front.

    Regarding chain skipping: “chain stretch” will usually only cause skipping when a new chain is put on old gears. If you have not recently replaced a very worn chain, skipping is likely a rear derailleur adjustment issue. As your chain wears, the gears (front AND rear) become “wear mated” to each other so that your worn chain will only work with your worn gears. If you look at your gears and they look like shark fins, your chain and gears are wear-mated and will need to be replaced together, else skipping. Another thing to consider is that skipping could be caused by sprockets that are not properly aligned with the rear derailleur. The first, very simple thing to check here is that the rear wheel is properly seated in the dropouts. To ensure this, loosen the rear quick-release skewer while draping yourself over the seat (resting your tummy on the seat) then re-tighten the skewer. I recently experienced poor shifting/skipping because I had failed to do this after changing a flat rear tire.

    For on-road use, tires with minimal tread are preferable. If the road surface will dig into your tires (e.g., hard asphalt/concrete), get minimal tread. If your tires will dig into the road surface (e.g., off-road), get more tread/knobs. Beyond that, rubber compound (grippy vs. durable) is up to you for wet/dry riding conditions vs. economy. Generally, flat-resistant tires are heavy and harder to push, but result in fewer wet, roadside repairs.

    1. Avatar El Biciclero says:

      Oops. Stupid HTML. In the above, “divided by” should be “number of front gear teeth divided by number of rear sprocket teeth”.


    2. Avatar Alan 1.0 says:

      Front gears = “chainwheels” or “chainrings”; rear gears = “sprockets” or “cluster”.

      rear gears also = “cogs”

    3. Avatar El Biciclero says:

      Ok, I have to chime in with a couple more tire/tube changing items:

      When removing, be sure the inflation valve caps and nuts are removed, then start at the opposite side from the valve stem and remove toward the stem. Take note of where the valve stem is in relation to the sidewall of the tire–this will help you locate the glass/wire/thorn/sharp thing that is still stuck in your tire after you find the hole in your tube.

      Locate the hole in the tube, then use that location on the tube to find the rough location of the thing in your tire that made the hole—remove that, too.

      Once you have a leak-free tube, you can (with presta valves), if it doesn’t gross you out, blow a little air into the tube with your mouth, just enough to give it shape so you can stuff it back into the tire. Some folks like to sprinkle a little talc into the tire to keep the tube from sticking too much.

      Once you have the barely-inflated tube laying nicely inside the tire, re-installation is (IMO) the most tricky bit:

      Start by putting the valve stem back through the rim, making sure it sticks out perpendicular to the rim (points straight at the center of the wheel).

      Now, starting at the valve stem side of the wheel, seat one of the tire beads and the tube all the way around.

      Now is when it gets potentially sucky, but a couple of things can make it easier. Starting opposite the valve, seat the other bead of the tire, working it over the wheel rim symmetrically up toward the valve, making sure not to “pinch” your tube between the rim and tire bead. Once both sides of the last bead get close to the valve, it starts to get difficult. Depending on the fit of your tire/rim, you might need tools like a tire jack, but one trick is that you can try flattening the tire against the rim, working up from where you started seating the last tire bead. Just work a little of that second bead up and over at a time, and you’ll get it.

      The reason to start seating the second tire bead from opposite the valve stem (I think) is that the last little bit of horsing to get that tire on is the most likely time to pinch your tube if it pops out enough to get between the tire and rim. The valve stem (especially if you’ve managed to screw on the little nut that holds presta valves in place) holds your tube in place and makes it much less likely to pop out and get pinched. It’s one less thing to worry about when you’re swearing at that last inch of tire bead that just won’t go over the rim…

      1. Becky Jo (Columnist) Becky Jo (Columnist) says:

        This is awesome. The only time I had a flat 2+ years ago, I had Block Bikes change it for me, and they walked me through it as they did it… this is exactly how it was explained to me even down to finding the radial wire in my tire that caused the puncture, and it helps so much to have it all written out as a reference. I really don’t trust my memory completely without the hands-on muscle memory of doing it over and over. Thank you.

  26. Avatar Brian Glover says:

    Well, Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize — one of the world’s great evangelists for car-free living — would say no, you don’t need to learn to take care of your bike. As he famously says, in a place where people actually use bikes for daily transportation, bikes are like vacuum cleaners: Sure, you want your vacuum to be high quality, and you want it to work when you need it, but you don’t really think about it much and you definitely wouldn’t fix it yourself. It’s an appliance, not a hobby.

    You might be much better served by A) getting a more reasonable commuter bike (one with an internally-geared hub on the back, a fully enclosed chain (or a belt drive), and upright handlebars), and B) letting the mechanic fix it. What’s more important to you: time or money?

    I can testify that learning to fix and maintain bikes, while definitely not rocket science, does take quite a bit of time out of your life. Before I had a child, it was one of my main hobbies. Now, I’d rather spend my free time with my daughter.

    Your priorities might be different. But you shouldn’t feel like you need to learn to fix bikes just because the (largely male) hobbyist culture of biking in the USA tells you to.

    1. Avatar El Biciclero says:

      “What’s more important to you: time or money?”

      Often, when it comes to vehicles, the time is the same whether you DIY or take it to the mechanic. Would you rather be able to do simple repairs/maintenance in your garage, or haul your bike to the shop and pay a mechanic to have it be out of commission for several days?

      Often the question is whether you value time + money, or expertise. If you don’t trust your expertise, you should pay in both time and money to have the job done “right” (although “right” has a high degree of variability, depending on your shop), even though it means using alternative transportation for a few days. Otherwise, there are many bike repairs and maintenance tasks that are fairly easy for a reasonably competent home mechanic to undertake.

      The best things to know how to do oneself (IMO) are:
      – Fix/change a flat tire/tube
      – Clean and lube a chain
      – Adjust a derailleur (via the barrel adjusters, requires fingers)
      – Adjust and replace brake pads (requires allen wrench)
      – Replace a brake/derailleur cable/housing run (requires cable and housing cutter tools, allen wrench)
      – Replace a chain and rear cluster (requires specialty tools: “chain whip” “chain breaker” tool, and cassette/lockring removal tool)
      – Replace front chainrings (requires allen wrench)

      Given a basic metric allen wrench set, a “chain whip” , lockring tool, cable/housing cutters, and youtube, most maintenance to keep a well-used bike running smoothly for a year or two can be done with these few tools, which might cost $50 or so to obtain.

  27. Avatar mikeybikey says:

    At the end of the day it really just depends where/how you want to spend your time and money. For myself, part of the appeal of a bicycle over a car is getting out of the maintenance and repairs trap. So when i was looking to get a new bicycle, I went with one w/ an internal gear hub, no maintenance brakes, tires that don’t get flats, high-quality wheels, etc and its been worth it.

  28. Avatar Alan 1.0 says:

    Your bike looks like a professional commuter rig with the new tires and fenders! Those Marathon tires are much less likely to get a flat than old, stock tires, they roll pretty well (Marathon Plus are notoriously slow), wear a long time, and the reflector stripe is a good safety thing. I think you’ll consider them a good investment over time.

    Some odds and ends to contribute:

    Park your bike in a dry place at home. Heated is better. Moisture and corrosion wreck more bikes than many, many miles. If it’s not inside the house, U-lock it to something secure, even if it’s in garage or shed.

    Multnomah County Library has lots of books on bike repair in its catalog. I like The Haynes Bicycle Book. Most bike repair books have a chapter on routine maintenance, too.

    Three skills I think just about all riders should pick up are inflating a tire, oiling a chain, and adjusting cables (brakes and gears). They are all easy enough, they will make your riding easier, safer, cheaper, and more enjoyable, and they often need to be done quickly at home. Changing a tire/tube is a half-step more, easy enough, but simply inflating to the right pressure is important. Yes, you’ll get used to Presta valves, and maybe even like them when you learn that they are slightly less effort to get up to pressure; a spring-loaded Schrader valve is working against you!

    The crank-pedal gears have always been low (easiest). Am I saying low and high right? Anyway, if the front gears are easier, and the back gears are harder, the back gears tend to slip in and out of gear when high. Is that because I need to change the front gears? I’ve tried it, moving the front gears to a harder setting, and the rear seems to slip less I think. After a tune-up it wasn’t slipping at all, but now that I’ve ridden a lot more and in the rain/mud/hail, they’re doing it again.

    Yes, you’re using “low” and “high” gears right.

    Sport-oriented bikes like yours tend to be geared high. Using the lower chainring on such bikes for is normal for many (most?) riders, especially for hauling loads.

    Between cross-chaining and a slightly out of tune derailleur, that chain grinding/skipping you described can happen very easily. It’s not as bad as it sounds and feels, but it’s not good either, and it’s annoying or scary when riding. Adjust your rear derailleur with the barrel nut where the cable loops around and enters the back of it (I can see it in the top photo). Use the adjuster to make the cable housing slightly longer – that is, screw it “out” – to tighten up the inner cable’s stretch. Try a quarter turn at a time, expect results in 1/2 to 1 full turns, but it could take a little more. It’s easy, try it, you won’t hurt anything, and you can always screw it back (especially if you count how many 1/4 turns you do). It might need another 1/4 turn every few months.

    It’s easy for a shop (or you, as B. Carfree described) to check your chain for wear, but based on your bike’s riding history, I’m guessing that it is OK. Lubed chains last for thousands of miles. The fastest way to wear out a chain is to ride it without lubrication, and Portland’s wet season is hard on chain lube. Oiling every week, or every 100 miles, is a good plan, but even less frequently will help a lot. Lube every single joint in the chain, inner and outer sides of it. That sounds like a lot, but it takes literally a minute or three, and it only takes a tiny bit of oil on each joint. Your LBS (Kenton) can show you some chain lube choices; I’d trust them. Tri-Flo works well if you have that, or motor oil will even work, but WD40 is too thin (it’s a good chain cleaner). Speaking of chain cleaner, once the worst of the winter is over is a good time to clean a chain, and that will also help prolong its service. Good question for another day.

    I’m another Bike Farm fan even though I’ve only been there a couple times. Great place for hands-on pointers on all those maintenance things, as well as any major repairs that come up.

    I would expect your bike to do what you’re asking it to do for a long time. Do the basic tire pressure/chain lube/cable adjustment stuff yourself as needed…a few minutes here and there. Shops are there if anything bigger comes up, and an annual inspection and tune-up might be worth it. But you started this adventure with the excellent reason of fiscal restraint, and the gear you have is capable of carrying you for years with quite small maintenance and repair inputs.

  29. Avatar Jason says:

    First up, bookmark this site, it’s an encyclopedia of such things:

    Fixing a flat is an important skill. One that is largely obsolete if you use puncture proof, Kevlar belt tires (or tubeless, but I don’t go that way). I hear the argument against puncture proof tires being that they are expensive. I don’t think they are more expensive than any other “good tire”. Not by much, and when you consider the reliability, they are priceless. I literally haven’t had a flat – ever – in the roughly 20 years I’ve been using them. Buy them and forget about it. I recommend Schwalbe, everyone I know who has used Gatorskins has had flats, and while Specialized makes a really good one, you don’t need to pay for their lawyers.

    Gears, the front ones are the chain rings, the rear ones are usually called a sprocket (1) or the freewheel (collectively). Think about a unicycle or a penny farthing bike, where there are no gears and a pedal crank is a 1:1 relationship to the wheel turn. As the freewheel gear size increases the ratio of that action increases, more cranks per wheel turn. The front one reduces that ratio with increased gear size, less cranks per wheel turn. In general, a higher ratio is a lower gear and much easier to spin the wheel by.

    There are some redundant gears in a modern gear set, I forget the math on that – it’s not really important for daily use. Just know that if you’re on a large sprocket and a big chain ring, it will be similar to the small chain ring (two chain ring setup) and mid size sprocket. So, if you’re going at a comfortable clip with the large ring and large sprocket and you’re about to hit a hill, switch the chain ring and dump a few gears on the free wheel. This sets you up for a much more flexible gearing as the hill increases. Your mileage may vary.

  30. Avatar rick says:

    I’ve had Compass Tires (now called Rene Herse tires) on my bicycle since the summer of 2017 and they are fantastic. I’ve rode about 4 miles to and from work for about 90 % of work trips since June, 2018 and the tires are performing very well. It is worth the investment to get very good tires.

  31. Avatar resopmok says:

    I will echo above commenters that minimum required knowledge is changing a flat tire. You should be able to find a class in basic maintenance to help, I know the CCC has one though the next doesn’t seem to start until February:

    Having the right tools for the job is also important. My carry along flat kit includes the following at a minimum:

    -Patch kit (available at any bike shop, if not, never go back). Patching your tubes will save you moola; tubes can be patched multiple times.

    -Tire seating tool like the following: (this will save your palms and countless amounts of frustration).

    -A GOOD pair of tire levers:

    -A portable pump with a flexible hose:

    Sorry for the awfully long links, they are just examples of what to look for an not necessarily an endorsement of the specific product or retailer.

    As for tires, I recommend Schwalbe Marathon Plus (make sure the Plus version, as it has a built-in liner that does very well against glass and small metal fragments). Some people say the ride quality sucks, but I take that over lots of flats any day. Almost nothing stops screws and nails anyway. Other than all that, wiping down your chain with a grease rag and keeping it lubed will do wonders to preserve the drivetrain. Some good hand soap like Boraxo will help you after finishing maintenance. Best of luck!

    1. I love your list of tools – I use them too. A trick I learned about removing glass and grit from tires, from a BP post from a few years ago no less, is to periodically wipe the tire treads with cheap undiluted vinegar, then spin the wheels at a high velocity (and stay away from behind the wheels, the glass and grit flies right off.) It also makes the bike smell nicer.

  32. Becky Jo,

    Sounds like you’ve gotten plenty of great advice in this thread!

    If you’re interested in learning in a more intimate environment, hands-on, with your own bike, I offer Beginner Bike Maintenance and Tune-up classes at Gracie’s Wrench.

    First of all, YES, you will get used to Presta valves. In fact, I can teach you a few tips and tricks that can make them much easier to use. These days I get more frustrated by Schrader than Presta– and there are ways to easily turn your Presta valve into a Schrader if you prefer.

    Secondly, just that you’re curious and asking the questions let’s me know that you’d be great at maintaining your bike. You don’t need to know all the proper names of parts, and yes, anyone can show you how to do a repair, but I’m a firm believer in explaining *why* things need to be done and *how* they work together, otherwise the information is not that informative. 🙂

    Fixing a flat can be quick, but I’d argue for most people not “easy” unless they’ve learned (not just shown or demonstrated, but really taught the steps) from someone who really knows what they’re doing, and then you’ve practiced a few times, and you carry a little reminder of the steps in case you’ve forgotten. I find most flat repair classes show you how to change a tire, but not how to get the wheel in and out, or how to more easily use a pump, or help you understand all the tips and tricks for using your leverage to your advantage.

    This is definitely not beyond you and don’t be intimidated by the new language. It’s more important to understand how it works than what its name is. And if you know how to sew, you’re way ahead of my skills in that department, and I’m guessing you didn’t start making big projects, but fumbled and practiced and found your way around until you had some mastery. Bikes are the same!

  33. By the way, to help you out on your new adventure I’d be happy to give you a discount on one of the Beginner Maintenance classes! Just email me at if you’re interested.

  34. Hi, Rich at Kenton Cycle Repair here. I’m Becky’s bicycle therapist.
    Firstly: Becky, you are brave to make this transportation lifestyle choice, especially choosing to start at the beginning of winter. In response to Becky’s first question, she asked: “Am I capable of learning how to take care of my bike…but how far do I really need to go?” I’m often asked this question and I usually respond by asking a different question: “How much is your time worth to you, and would you rather be doing something different than working on your bike?” You shouldn’t feel like you *need* to know anything. If you feel it’s worth your time and *want* to learn to maintain your bicycle then go for it!
    That said, many of my customers report that the tools, supplies and space required to successfully perform regular basic maintenance cost them more than it’s worth.

  35. Avatar joan says:

    So I have been biking commuting year-round for about 8 years or so. I no longer feel bad or guilty that I can’t do much with my bike besides change a flat and oil the chain (and add and remove a rack and basket and add and remove lights, both the kind you need and the decorative kind).

    And, having said that, with my good city tires, I don’t get flats all that often, and often have hopped on the bus or train when I do. And if I’m on my way to work, it’s often a lot easier to pay a shop a few bucks to change it.

    What I have developed is a good sense of how my bike is supposed to feel and sound. It’s not exactly that I listen to it, but more that sometimes I note a change. I’ve gone into Metropolis, my local bike shop, and said, “Something sounds funny around here.” And sometimes I’ve wondered why I felt so sluggish and I realized that oops, it had been a while since I put air in the tires. And sometimes the gears slip a little.

    Without the amount of miles I do, and in all weather, making a regular visit to my bike shop is a good way to develop that relationship, support my shop, and keep my bike in good shape. I don’t know how many miles I put on it, or how often I get tune-ups. I just go in when something’s come up or it’s been a while and get a tune up. It’s worked so far.

  36. Avatar joe adamski says:

    Been a while since I have been in, North Portland Cycle Works on Mississippi has, according to their website a Community Repair workshop on 2nd & 4th Tuesdays.
    Personal experience, should you have a willing middle school to high school aged youngster in your midst, it can be a good shared experience with lots of opportunity to learn/discuss.

  37. Avatar Alex Reedin says:

    I biked for ~90% of my transportation needs in Portland for 10 years and never learned to do anything beyond cleaning my chain. Never learned to fix a flat tire. I got extremely flat-resistant tires (Schwalbe Marathon) and put slime in my tubes. That resulted in very few flats (I’m sure it’s less than 5). I opted to carry around a heavy duty U-lock plus a lighter chain for my wheels instead, planning to lock my bike up if it broke down and collect it at a time somewhat convenient for me within that day.

    On the rare instances that I got a flat tire, at first I would try to fix it. I think I maybe even succeeded once. But with it being so rare, I never remembered it well, and as time went on, life got busier with kids etc. I find trying to do mechanical projects with little kids around somewhere between “frustrating” and “fruitless” depending on the situation.

    So as time went on, I wouldn’t even bother to consider fixing a flat myself. I got familiar with the bike shops on my route and their hours. Some of them were OK with me locking my bike out front while they were closed and dropping a key in their mail slot. If I dropped off my bike this way in the morning, the bike shop would do my maintenance during the workday and I would take transit or Biketown or something to/from work from their shop. The time or inconvenience spent was minimal this way.

    I’m not saying this is the “best” strategy for everyone, but I’m pretty sure it was the best strategy for me.

    1. Avatar Jason says:

      I like that you clean your chain though. Cleaning your chain is one of those things that shows you care about your bike. I cringe when I pass or am passed by a $3k bike with a raspy – squeaky chain.

  38. Becky Jo (Columnist) Becky Jo (Columnist) says:


    You have all been so very seriously amazing! Thank you. I absolutely read every comment and I appreciate this massive download of info.

    As I’m not quite ready to DIY my bike, don’t have a back-up yet for when I am ready, and obviously have a ton more to read/do before I pick up a tool, I went to see Rich/Bike Therapist/Kenton Cycle, and he ran through the gears with me, showing me front & back high/low, we discussed the x/y axis of inverse ratio on gear combinations and “cross chain” visuals, plus went over my tires (Schwalbe Marathons) and their PSI, and how to make the Presta valves easier to deal with when checking PSI. We also went over chain and wheel rim cleaning.

    After my last tune up, I got a bit of slack in my shifter cable thingy, and Rich tightened it up = no more gear slipping. Whew!, right?

    As for all the suggestions… YES. I think they’re all brilliant. I will go to Bike Farm, take a couple classes here and there where you’ve suggested and report back. I’ll also check out the reference materials and videos you’ve suggested.

    Seriously. You’re the best. I can’t wait to ask you more questions. Thank you.

    1. Avatar gtrain says:

      Awesome! Bike Farm looks forward to helping you to demystify the bicycle!

  39. Avatar JJ says:

    Ah yes…looking at those pictures I can hear the squeaking and grinding labor of the NE PDX Commuter Bike Song bird. Only to be drowned out by the rattle of a U-lock in the rear rack and the flapping of an over-sized back packing coat in the breeze.

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