By Tom Demerly
It’s a strange truth about triathletes: We will spend plenty of time training, researching our equipment purchases and analyzing our power data. We’ll spend thousands on equipment purchases to save a few seconds. We’ll sweat through grueling intervals and meticulously analyze reams of training data.
But we usually don’t clean or maintain our bike. Until it’s too late.
Tucson is the Winter Training Capital. It’s the thick of the spring training season, and athletes from colder climes are arriving in droves to put in long easy base miles on the roads around Tucson and put up big power numbers on the climb up Mt. Lemmon. As the flight cases arrive and the bikes are unpacked what we consistently find are bikes in need of preventive maintenance, checks and services or “PMCS”.
Preventive Maintenance, Checks and Services are the set of regular maintenance practices performed pro-actively to keep your bike in good running condition. If your PMCS is good you will never have a mechanical malfunction in a race. You’ll also delay mechanical problems and reduce wear by keeping equipment clean and properly adjusted and you’ll detect worn components before they fail. Your bike will be faster too. A clean bike has lower mechanical/drivetrain resistance, shifts more reliably and more quickly, weighs less and is even more aerodynamic.
The greatest maintenance mistake is failure to keep the drivetrain clean and optimally lubricated. A dirty drivetrain is less efficient, robbing speed and power and compromising shift quality while accelerating wear. Your drivetrain should be cleaned once a week if you’re riding two days a week or more. Regular cleaning is easy and quick. Spray biodegradable degreaser such as Simple Green on your drivetrain and use a stiff, plastic bristle brush to quickly scrub the cogset, chain and chainrings. You can back pedal the drivetrain while holding the brush over the cogset and chain. Park Tool and Pedros both make easy to use chain cleaners that scrub your chain with a series of rotating brushes as you back pedal through them, or you can use an inexpensive hand brush from the hardware store.
Once your drive train is clean inspect your cockpit for one of the largest speed-suckers on any high end, aerodynamic triathlon bike: Bad handlebar tape. Handlebar tape that is unraveling, has bulky wraps of adhesive tape or is hanging loose creates drag at the critical leading edge of the bike. Good quality aerobars were designed in a wind tunnel without bulky wraps of electrical tape and bunched-up handlebar tape edges catching wind and increasing drag. Fresh handlebar tape provides better grip, absorbs road shock better and makes your bike appear race ready. You or your mechanic can also spot any problems with brake and drivetrain cables routed under the tape when changing it. Be sure to wrap handlebar tape in the correct direction, so your grip does not roll up the edges of the tape. Use two turns of stretch vinyl electrical tape to precisely finish you bar tape and prevent it from unraveling. Precise alignment of the finishing tape provides a professional appearance. Some race teams in the Tour de France re-wrap handlebar tape nearly every day.
While you are working on your cockpit inspect the bolts that anchor your aerobars and stem. These frequently collect sports drink and perspiration residue that is highly corrosive. The corrosion makes disassembly for travel difficult and could lead to bolts being stripped during adjustment, maintenance, component changes or flight case packing. This is a frequent problem when athletes travel with their bikes. Keeping this area clean and free of corrosion will save you money, avoid frustration and keep your bike safer.
Continue your inspection of the cockpit by examining your elbow pads. Most pads attach with two sided adhesive and/or Velcro. Be certain the adhesive is holding the pads in place. Putting a tri bike on a car rack can tear the pads off easily at freeway speed. Worn, compressed elbow pads are uncomfortable. Your pads soak up perspiration and sports drink residue during use, making them smell bad and look worn. Before the race season starts its worth installing new elbow pads for better comfort and to spruce up your bike’s appearance.
Checking the wear of your chain is also a critical maintenance routine. An excessively worn chain can accelerate the wear of your cogset and chainrings resulting in a costly repair that require a cogset and/or chainrings. A worn chain has a tendency to skip forward under pedal load, a dangerous problem. Chain wear can be checked using a “chain checker” tool or by hand.
Before you leave for training camp or as soon as you arrive it also makes sense to install fresh tires. Tires used on an indoor trainer will have a flat spot on them from contact with the resistance roller and be more susceptible to flats. Excessively flat-spotted, worn tires also corner poorly and unpredictably. Fresh tires are less likely to flat since rubber has not been worn off them. New tires also corner better and more predictably while being safer too.
Everyone knows the first complaint cyclists have is saddle comfort. An excessively worn saddle is not only uncomfortable; it can change a rider’s position and contribute to injury. Check your saddle cover for tears. Check for compression of the padding material that provides support and shock absorption- your saddle becomes effectively lower as this compresses and no longer absorbs shock as well. Examine your saddle shell and rails to be sure the rails aren’t bent and the shell isn’t cracked.
Another routine preventive maintenance inspection is your pedal and cleat interface. Almost everyone walks on their cleats enough to wear them down quickly. For athletes who do their transitions with cycling shoes on and walk or run in transition cleat wear can be significant. During training athletes usually put one foot on the ground more and wear out their left and right cleats at different rates. If you always put your right foot down your right cleat will wear faster. Pedal and cleat problems are common at training camps and are easily avoided by frequent inspection.
A complete inspection of your bike to check these items should be done once a week during the season and should only take a couple minutes. When you notice items wearing they can be proactively replaced so there are no surprises on race day or at your training camp here in the Winter Training Capital. Frequent inspection and preventive maintenance, checks and services- PMCS- is the key to enjoying your training camp and having a full season of trouble free races.