Perhaps you’re a bike commuter, weekend road warrior, or mountain bike enthusiast. Maybe you, like me, enjoy getting lost in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a bicycle and some camping gear.
Whatever two-wheeled species you are, learning to maintain and repair your own bicycle just makes sense. These skills will unlock new freedom, save you money, and potentially get you out of a sticky situation on the road or trail someday. Learning to care for your bike will help you feel more connected to your trusty steed. Plus, it’s actually a pretty fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
I’m here to tell you that basic DIY bicycle repair and maintenance is not that hard. Really! The key is to tackle one task at a time so it’s not overwhelming, and then to just practice, practice, practice on your own bike. Bikes are actually pretty simple machines once you get to know them. Tasks that seem impossibly complicated the first time will feel routine by the second or third.
How do I know? A few years ago, with almost zero bike repair knowledge, I rode my bicycle through Southeast Asia. Since then I’ve pedaled over 10,000 miles in 9 different countries, many not exactly places with bike shops on every corner. My learning has been as hands-on as it gets.
My own journey to DIY bicycle repair has been via bicycle travel and bikepacking, but if you’re strictly a single-day rider, this is for you too! Miles are miles (or km are km, if that’s your style) and sooner or later we all face the same issues.
DIY Bike Repair Checklist
This post is a detailed list of basic bike maintenance and repair tasks in rough order from easy and common to more complicated and unusual. Use it to measure your progress down the rabbit hole of bicycle fiddling (once you learn to repair a part, it’s only a matter of time before you start wondering about replacing it with something better…) or get some ideas for where to start.
I’m a good student of bike repair but I’m definitely not a pro, so for each DIY bike repair task I’ll link to a top-notch instructional video. I’ll also mention a few critical tips that I’ve personally learned the hard way in hopes of saving you time.
Alright! Let’s break out those allen keys, some old rags, and maybe a beer, because things are about to get messy.
Tools and Resources
You’ll need a few things to get started, but not as much as you might think. Tools and materials for each task are listed in each section below, but here are a few general-purpose supplies to consider.
At a bare minimum, I suggest a multitool, like this sturdy one from Park Tool or this other popular one from Crankbrothers. These compact, multi-function tools are easy to carry on your bike for adjustments and repairs on the road, and you can use them for maintenance at home too.
For working on your bike at home, it’s nice (though not required) to have a set of separate metric allen keys, also called hex wrenches, and some standalone screwdrivers. They’re easier to work with and fit better into tight spaces than a multitool.
If you’re committed to maintaining your bike at home, a dedicated bike repair tool kit is worth the investment. I use this set by Bikehand – an awesome gift from my husband – and find that pretty much any tool I’ve ever needed is already in there somewhere, plus a few I still haven’t found a need for yet. Having this kit has definitely accelerated my learning, because I rarely need to worry about finding the right tools before I can take on a new repair task.
Though it’s easy these days to find online videos for pretty much any bike repair task, I sometimes like the organization and big-picture view of an actual old-fashioned bicycle repair book. These are highly recommended:
Finally, if you end up doing a lot of bike repair in your home, luxuries like a good bicycle repair stand and pumice hand cleanser can make spending quality time with your bike a little more comfortable.
Clean and Lube Your Chain
Let’s start with a classic. Think of maintaining your chain like a ritual of appreciation for your trusty steed, like the care and feeding of a pet. It’ll make your ride smoother and help your drive train components last longer.
Things you’ll need:
- Chain lube (wet or dry, depending on riding conditions, as described in the video below)
- Degreaser (or Simple Green cleaner)
- Chain scrubber tool (or an old toothbrush)
How often: varies based on riding condition, from every ride in muddy conditions to every few weeks of clean road riding.
Tips for Chain Cleaning
This video is great and very thorough, but here’s my dirty little secret: When I’m on a long multi-day bike trip, I sometimes skip the degreasing step (gasp!). I use a rag or baby wipe to wipe down the chain whenever it looks dirty, feels stiff, sounds noisy, or if I’ve just remembered and it’s been awhile. Then I squirt on new lube while rotating the chain backwards, wipe off the extra, and ride. In my opinion, it’s better to do this regularly than to wait too long because I don’t have time or supplies to do the full process. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, or whatever that quote is.
When you do get around to scrubbing and degreasing, don’t worry if you don’t have the chain scrubber tool or special degreaser mentioned in the video. An old toothbrush and Simple Green citrus cleaner, diluted with water, will work fine.
Some folks caution that Simple Green, if left on too long, can damage the chain or bike frame. I’ve seen conflicting information on this, so to be on the safe side, rinse and wipe off the extra when done. But especially if you’re new to bike repair and not riding a super-duper high end bike, it’s a great easy place to start.
In the video he carefully dabs a drop of lube on each chain roller. While this is tidy and precise, it’s also acceptable to hold the lube bottle stationary, squeeze out a small but steady series of drops, and rotate the pedals backwards to move the chain past the tip of the lube bottle. Just go slowly and be careful not to skip links, or squeeze out too much at once and make a mess.
Clean Your Bike
There’s no need to go overboard with this and clean your bike constantly – a little dirt won’t hurt, especially if you periodically clean just the moving parts like the chain and sprockets. But when you do get the urge to show your bike some love, here’s a detailed video explaining how to do it like a pro. Remember, some is always better than nothing at all, so
Pump Up Your Tires
If your bike has been sitting for awhile, if you’re a mountain biker switching between smooth and bumpy surfaces, or if you need to repair a puncture, you’ll need to know how to pump air into your tires.
Technically, unless you’re running a tubeless setup (and if you don’t know, you probably aren’t, and that’s a whole ‘nother topic for another time), you’ll be pumping up your tubes, which live inside your tires.
Things you’ll need:
- A portable pump, or optionally a floor pump for home use, easier to use than the small portable ones but not necessary.
Remove and Reinstall a Wheel
Removing a wheel, especially the front one, can be a common task if you transport your bike in a car or certain types of bike racks. You’ll also need to do it while boxing your bike for transport if you’re traveling on your bike. And of course, it’ll be part of the process for fixing a flat tire, covered next.
Removing a front wheel is usually pretty easy. Removing the back is just a tad harder because the chain needs to be disengaged. This video explains it all.
Tips for Removing and Installing Wheels
The front wheel can be done with the bike right-side-up. If you don’t have a bike stand, the back wheel is easiest to do with the bike turned upside-down, resting on its handlebars and seat. If that’s not an easy option, such as when fixing a flat on a loaded touring bike by the side of the road, it can be done with the bike lying on its side.
If you install a wheel with the bike lying on its side, be sure to loosen and re-tighten the skewer or axle again once the bike is resting properly on its wheels. Otherwise it’s easy to get the wheel installed off center.
While we’re on the subject, check those skewer levers periodically to make sure they’re nice and tight. You wouldn’t want to risk a wheel coming off while you’re riding!
Replace a Tube / Fix a Flat
Sooner or later, you’re going to get a flat tire. What this actually means (assuming you’re not using a tubeless setup) is that the inner tube, the thing inside your tire that holds air, has a hole in it. Congratulations, welcome to the cycling club.
When you have a hole in your tube, you have two options: replace the tube with a new one, or patch the hole. Because finding and patching a hole can be hard to do by the roadside, it’s common to replace the problematic tube with a spare and then patch the hole later (more on that below).
Spare tubes are cheap and easy to find online or at your local bike shop. You’ll need to choose the right tube to match your tire diameter, width, and valve type. The easiest way to get this right is to look at the tube already in your tire, and buy the same size and valve type.
For those who prefer written guides with pictures, this useful article covers the same information.
Tips For Replacing a Tube
To replace the tube, you’ll need to first remove the tire from the rim. The bike mechanics in the videos always make it look so easy. The first time I tried it myself involved a broken tire lever, two very frustrating hours, and some blood. Don’t worry, it gets easier, especially if you follow these helpful tips.
- The part at 1:35 in the video, about separating the bead from the rim, is critical. Not only should you separate it, you should make sure the bead (edge of the tire, the part that contacts the rim on either side of the wheel) is pushed into the center of the rim channel at all times. Whenever you find yourself struggling to get those tire levers under there, check that the bead is pushed into the center of the rim all the way around. The center of the rim is a deeper channel, meaning the diameter is smaller there, which will effectively make the tire less tight if you can keep the bead in this deeper channel.
- If you’re having trouble separating the tire bead from the rim, it’s often possible to replace a tube by separating only one side and accessing the tube from the other.
- If replacing a tube to fix a puncture, try very, very hard to find and fix what caused the puncture before replacing the tube. A Leatherman tool with pliers can usually remove the thorn or whatever caused the hole. If you find the pointy thing but can’t manage to remove it, you might be able cover it (if small) with a tire boot or even a tube patch, folded food wrapper, or dollar bill in a pinch. It’s easy to just shrug and hope for the best when you can’t find the cause of a puncture, but you’ll be cursing ten minutes later when the same thorn causes a second flat and you have to start all over again.
- When installing a new tube, line up the valve stem with the brand logo on the tire. This isn’t just for style points. Knowing where the tube was relative to the tire can help you locate a puncture in the tube once you’ve found the problem with your tire, or the problem with the tire once you’ve found the hole in your tube.
Patch a Punctured Tube
Now that you’ve managed to replace your tube (above), it’s time to repair the old one. This is best done in the comfort of your home, but I’ve also successfully done it by the side of the road and at campsites plenty of times.
Tips for Patching a Tube
Park Tool pre-glued patches are the best thing ever. I’m not sure why anyone still messes with vulcanizing patches, but if you must, be aware that the glue dries out over time.
In an emergency (otherwise known as the Goat Head Thorn Circle of Hell in Central Oregon, not that I have any personal experience with this), it’s possible to cut the pre-glued patches into halves or even quarters to stretch your supply.
While the standard process is to take the tube completely out of the tire for the patching process, I have successfully made roadside repairs by separating only one side of the tire from the rim, allowing access to the tube from just one side. Keep this in mind if you ever encounter a badly stuck bead that you can’t break away from the rim; just focus on unsticking the other side. Sometimes leaving one bead attached can also help you find and patch the puncture; if you can find the sharp thing in the tire, the puncture will be directly under it.
Replace Your Chain
A bicycle chain is responsible for transferring power from your pedals to the rear wheel, which is a lot of work! Chains are one of the fastest-wearing bicycle components, and they wear even faster with dirt and grit, heavy loads, and lots of hill climbing.
Test whether your chain needs to be replaced by measuring it with a chain stretch gauge. Chains eventually stretch under load, so if it fails the stretch test, it’s time to replace it. Riding with a stretched chain will wear out your rear cassette and front chain rings faster, which are more expensive to replace. Replace your chain when needed, and these other components can last a very long time.
How often: Some people recommend changing your chain every 1000 miles. Personally, I do it every 3000-4000 miles of loaded touring and even then, it’s usually still in pretty good condition. Your mileage may vary, literally.
Tips for Replacing a Chain
While plenty of cyclists swear by connecting rivet pins, I personally use quick links, also known as master links or missing links. Here’s a good post explaining more about quick links. They’re generally reusable, meaning you can open and close them as many times as you like, and pretty easy to install. This makes it easy to remove the chain on your bike without having to break a link. They’re also handy to keep with you while riding in case of an emergency chain repair (see next section).
If you find yourself installing and removing quick links often, consider investing in a pair of master link pliers. They make the job much easier, but you can also use needle nose pliers, or even an old section of cable.
Repair a Broken Chain
Hopefully you don’t need to do this often, but knowing how to repair a broken chain can be the difference between finishing your ride or going a very long walk. Especially if you bike on trails, sooner or later you’re going to break or damage a chain. Here’s how to repair it.
Tips for Repairing a Chain
Keep a quick link or two in your repair kit in case you need to repair a chain mid-ride. For longer or more remote rides, consider bringing at least three quick links plus a spare section of chain – perhaps 10 links or so – in case you need to replace a few damaged links. While you can always get to civilization eventually with a shorter chain and fewer available gears, splicing in a new section will allow you to continue riding with all your gears.
Some multitools have chain breakers that aren’t sturdy enough to actually break a chain (ask me how I know), so make sure you’ve tested yours at home before trusting it for roadside repair work. From experience, the chain breaker on the Park Tool I-Beam Mini works well.
Adjust Your Derailleurs
Skipping gears and temperamental shifting can be one of the most frustrating bike issues to solve as a beginner. The culprit is usually a misaligned derailleur – the mechanisms responsible for moving your chain to different cogs and chain rings when you shift gears. The good news is, they’re easy to adjust. The bad news is that it’s a fiddly process and can take some trial and error.
There are two ways to approach the problem. The first, the quick and dirty method, is to just fiddle with the barrel adjuster and hope you get lucky. I’ve even done this while pedaling! This makes sense if you’re in the middle of a ride, but back at home – or if installing a new derailleur and starting from scratch – you’ll want to follow the whole process step by step for best results.
Regardless, I recommend sitting down with these videos and going through the whole process at least once in the comfort of your home or garage. This will improve your chances of success when them time comes for a quick roadside adjustment.
Things you’ll need:
- Multitool or allen keys
Adjust Front Derailleur
Adjust Rear Derailleur
Tips for Adjusting Derailleurs
Don’t overlook limit screws. A poorly adjusted limit screw can confuse the process of indexing gears, and also cause the chain to shift off the cogs when shifting to the highest or lowest gear. If you keep dropping your chain (shifting it off the cogs, usually causing it to jam), start with the limit screws before you touch that barrel adjuster.
Wrap Drop Handlebars
If you’re riding a mountain bike with straight bars, you can skip this one. But for those of us on road bikes, touring bikes, or rigid mountain bikes with drop-style handlebars, eventually we’ll get the urge or the need to replace our bar tape.
Whether you crashed and tore it up or just fancy changing the color, rewrapping your handlebars is a quick and simple task once you’ve done it once or twice.
Things you’ll need:
- Replacement bar tape
- Electrical tape
Here’s the video I first learned from:
Tips for Wrapping Handlebars
Bar tape doesn’t need to be expensive. I’ve had good luck with this type, this one, and this one too. It’s very important to pull the tape tight as you’re wrapping. Try a different color each time, it’s fun!
Replace Brake Pads
Wearing through your first set of brake pads feels like an important milestone as a cyclist! Celebrate by learning how to replace them yourself; it’s so much easier than it seems.
Things you’ll need:
- Replacement pads of the correct type for your bike (see videos below for help with this)
- Pliers (separate, or on a multi-tool like a Leatherman)
- Screwdrivers or allen keys depending on your setup (see videos below)
Replacing Rim Brake Pads
Replacing Disc Brake Pads
Tips for Replacing Brake Pads
I find the alignment of brake pads to be the hardest part, but it’s worth taking time to get it right. Otherwise you’ll deal with uneven wear and annoying squealing noises. A white piece of paper (to use as a background) and a flashlight can make it easier to see if pads are aligned correctly relative to the rims or rotors.
If replacing disc brake pads, follow these steps to bed them in properly or risk the dreaded disc brake squeal.
For the linear pull v-brakes on my touring bike, I love Kool Stop salmon-colored pads. I know many cyclists who highly recommend them for their long-lasting durability and their good stopping power in wet weather.
Replace Brake and Shift Cables and Housing
Brake and shift cables can last a long time, but eventually (or if you’re unlucky) they’ll need to be replaced. Long-distance bicycle travelers should carry a set of pre-cut cables in their spares and repair kit, and everyone else will eventually want to learn how to replace their cables as part of regular DIY bicycle maintenance.
I put off learning to replace my cables and housing for a long time, but when I finally took the plunge I was surprised by how easy it was. I also felt like I understood my bicycle much better once I finished, now that the mechanical details of shifting and braking were crystal clear.
How often: Every few thousand miles, or if you notice wear or the cable action starts to feel sticky.
Replacing Brake Cables with Drop Bars
Replacing Brake Cables with Flat Bars
Once you’ve got brake cables down, shift cables really aren’t that different.
Replacing Shift Cables
Tips for Replacing Cables
If your rear brake or shift cables suddenly start to feel sticky, try checking the cable guides underneath the bottom bracket (if your bike has exposed cables there) before deciding to replace the cables. Sometimes these channels get dirty and make the cables feel sticky. Just clean out the dirt (or, in a pinch, dab on some chain lube) and the sticking will stop.
Generally speaking, replace the housing when you replace the cables. Housing – sometimes called “outer cable” – does more than just protect the cables; it determines the length of the cable path and is essential to proper cable functioning. If housing is frayed or damaged, a shiny new cable will be wasted.
You really do need a good quality cable and housing cutter for this job. I thought the rusty old ones in my garage would do the job, but I was wrong. If you don’t have a bike tool set that includes one, this affordable cable cutter works great.
I’ve used this set of cables from Jagwire a few times and find it to be a good mid-range choice. Do check the type needed for your bike (road vs. MTB), because the cable ends are different.
Clean and Repack Hubs
This is the bike repair skill that made me feel like I had really arrived as an amateur bike mechanic. It’s oddly satisfying. When I first scooped out the old bearings – covered in mucky old grease and grime – and replaced them with shiny new ones, I could almost hear my bicycle breathing a sigh of relief.
Cleaning and repacking hubs is a little more complicated than the previous tasks in this list, but it’s not actually very hard. If done correctly it will prolong the life of your hubs, which can be expensive to replace because the whole wheel needs to be rebuilt.
How often: Clean your hubs and bearings, or ideally replace with new bearings, roughly every few thousand miles. Sooner if the hub starts to feel gritty or turn less freely.
Things you’ll need:
- Chain whip (for removing rear cassette)
- Lock ring remover of correct type (for removing rear cassette)
- Replacement bearings of correct size and grade. Grade 25 is often suggested as best combination of quality and price for use in bike hubs (I use these for rear and these for front)
- Degreaser (Simple Green works, but be sure to thoroughly clean it off before repacking the hub)
- Bicycle Grease
- Screwdriver, ideally magnetic, for removing and replacing bearings
- Cone spanners of correct size
- Rags or paper towels
Tips for Repacking Hubs
Removing the rear cassette might be the hardest part for some people. The first time I tried to remove mine, it was stuck so tight that my local bike shop had to help me out. For those struggling with a tight lock ring, here are some ideas. If all else fails, a bike shop will have the burly tools needed.
It’s possible to just clean the bearings and put them back in, but if I’m taking the time to clean my hubs I go ahead and replace the bearings with new ones. They’re cheap, and it’s hard to tell visually if they’re damaged.
Bearings are squirrely little things! You’ll probably drop a few. Make sure they’re completely free of dirt or dust before putting them into your hub; if you can’t be sure, just toss the bearing in question and use a fresh one.
Pay special attention to the video instructions for tightening the hub at the end. It’s definitely possible to damage the cone by over-tightening (ask me how I know) so take the time to get it right.
Emergency Singlespeed Conversion (Broken Derailluer)
Especially if you bikepack or mountain bike, there will come a time when your trusty rear derailleur gets broken, bent, or completely mangled. If you’re far away from anywhere when it happens, being able to convert your bike to a semi-rideable singlespeed can be the difference between getting where you need to be today, or day-after-tomorrow.
It’s actually not that complicated, but there are a few key steps that are important to get right. Don’t damage any parts trying to practice this at home, but it’s definitely worth being familiar with the procedure. I was able to wing it once in the backcountry of New Mexico when my husband’s derailleur went into his spokes, but I was kicking myself for not having taken a few minutes to learn it correctly in advance.
Tips for Emergency Singlespeed Conversion
Pay careful attention to getting the chain line straight. Any small deviation and it WILL try to jump up or down to the next cog. If it jumps to a bigger one, it can jam your drivetrain or break your chain.
If it does jump to a bigger cog and jam things up, it’s possible to forcefully move it back down by applying outward pressure while turning the rear wheel backwards. You may have to repeat this many times.
By the time you’ve tried everything in this list, you’ll probably feel confident experimenting further. Tasks like swapping out handlebars or a 1x conversion will start to blur the line between maintenance and tinkering. Suddenly, a whole new world of bike-related fiddling will open up, and you’ll start to realize all the ways your bike can be changed to fit your needs. Congratulations, you’ve been sucked in and there’s no going back.
Whether you’re crossing town or crossing a continent, knowing how to maintain and repair your bike will save you money, save your butt when something breaks, and accelerate your progress as a cyclist. So jump in and get your hands dirty!
In Defense of Bike Shops
This post is unapologetically about DIY bike maintenance and repair. I practice what I preach, rarely taking my bike into the shop and trying to do all routine maintenance myself. As someone who travels on my bicycle in remote places and countries with few traditional bike shops, this is essential preparation for when I have no choice but to fix things on my own.
However, this does not mean I don’t appreciate bike shops! Bike shops have fancy tools, and more importantly they have staff with skills and experience that far surpass what most of us will ever develop on our own. If I mess something up while fiddling with my bike, they are the ones who can bail me out. Often they’re happy to offer advice or answer questions to help me with DIY work, even though that means I won’t be paying them to do it.
In return, I try to be loyal once I find a good shop. If they’ve given me free advice or unstuck my lock ring at no charge, I buy a few tubes or some sealant that I could otherwise get online. I recommend them to others and leave good reviews. And when it’s time for a more complicated repair or parts upgrade, I don’t hesitate to pay for their skills and expertise. A good bike shop is more than just a shop; it’s a centerpiece of the local cycling community.
Tips for the Hesitant
If you’re feeling skeptical about doing your own bike maintenance, I can relate. It’s not that I don’t enjoy working with my hands, but as someone who’s worked a desk job for my entire adult life, it doesn’t always come naturally. Here are a few tips for others in the same boat:
- Embrace the dirt and grease. Put on some old clothes. Buy some of this stuff.
- Get in touch with your brawny side. The bike mechanics in the videos make everything look smooth and easy, but especially if you’re working on a well-used bike, it won’t be long before you encounter a sticky part, a tight tire, or some other mechanical conundrum. Once you’re sure you’ve got the process right (you’re turning the correct part in the correct direction, etc.), don’t be afraid to use plenty of force.
- Women: For some strange reason, we’re not expected to be into this. Let’s prove ’em wrong! Bike mechanics still sometimes raise an eyebrow and make tone-deaf sexist comments when I walk into a shop asking for a specific part. Every bike forum is full of guys saying “I’m doing such-and-such on my wife’s bike and…” Well, I’m that lady who says “I’m doing such-and-such on my husband’s bike and…” There is absolutely no reason why women can’t be skilled mechanics who enjoy maintaining the machines we love to ride.
- Experiment boldly! Bicycles are mechanical systems and typically whatever mayhem you’ve caused can be fixed. If something goes sideways and you can’t figure out how to put it back, your local bike shop will be happy to bail you out.
More Bike Resources
If you enjoy riding and taking care of your bike, you might also find these helpful:
- Essential Bike Repair and Spares Kit List
- How to Carry More Water on Your Bike
- Unexpected Tips for Riding Safely With Traffic
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