Bicycle Maintenance Vs. Tune Up: What’s the difference?

Almost everybody has owned a bike at some point in their lives – some of us more than one.  Bikes can range in price from under $100 to well over $10,000 and because of their moving parts, they need to be cared for to give us years of trouble-free riding. Whatever the cost of the bike, the best way to keep your bike running smoothly is regular maintenance.  But, what should do yourself and what should be left to the pros?

One of the most asked questions in your local bike shop is “How often should I have my bike tuned up?” The answer to that question is not simple, but for most riders, once a year is plenty for a tune-up, as long as you are completing simple preventative maintenance throughout the year. Other riders might need their bike tuned up prior to a race or a long ride to ensure everything works as it should. Mountain bikes need the most maintenance as the conditions in which they are ridden is harsh.


Simple maintenance between tune-ups can be done by the bike owner, if he or she is comfortable with some simple tools and doesn’t mind getting their hands dirty.  Some local bike shops also offer inexpensive preventative maintenance programs as part of a bike purchase. Either way, the items that should be addressed during the year are the same whether the rider does the work or the bike shop does the work.

Like a vehicle, breaking down your maintenance based on mileage or time frames is a great way to stay on top of your bike care. Let’s take a look of what a typical schedule might be:

Pre-and post-ride maintenance (every ride)

Tire pressure should be checked before every ride and tires should be filled to the correct PSI which is printed on the side of your tire. The tire itself should be visually checked for wear, holes, or cracking due to age. If any of these problems are noticed it may be time to buy new tires to avoid a flat out on the road or trail. While checking the tires for wear, spin them to make sure they are mounted on the bike straight and not “wobbling” which is an indication they need to be “trued”. While the wheel is spinning you should be able to determine if the wheel bearings need attention, if they are noisy, they likely need some.

Before jumping on the bike, make sure the seat is tight and the handlebars are straight. Check all of your quick release parts if you have them (seat/wheels) and make sure they are tight. Test the brakes to make sure they are gripping the rims and make sure your bike is shifting smoothly before heading out, then go have fun!

As an aside, it’s a good idea to make sure you are prepared with tools (a spare tube and/or patch kit, tire levers and a pump) before your ride, just in case you encounter a flat while riding. It’s no fun to be stranded out on a trail with no way to change a flat and have to walk your bike all the way home.

The next step in preventative maintenance is done when you return from the ride. Even though you might be tired and hungry, it’s a good idea to wipe down your chain with a dry cloth to remove any road grime or moisture.

Monthly maintenance (approx. every 500 miles)

Depending on how often you ride, it’s good to wipe down or even hose down your bike to remove dirt and grime. As you wipe it down, check for frame cracks, dents or loose parts. Examine your tires for cracks and excessive tread wear. By this time, your chain could most likely use some chain lube, especially if you have ridden in any rain. Use an earth-friendly chain degreaser on a clean rag and wipe the chain and cassette cogs clean, then re-lube chain and cassette. NEVER use WD-40 on your chain – pick up some lube from your local bike shop.

Lastly, check your wheels for loose spokes (these can be tightened easily using a spoke tool), check for any frayed brake cables and examine brake pads for excessive wear. Also, listen and document any noises that may indicate a problem that a bike technician will have to assess.

Mid-Year Maintenance (approx. 2500 miles)

Depending on how much you ride and the length of your riding season, your bike may require some extra maintenance that you can do yourself depending on your knowledge and expertise. Like many of us, this is likely to be left to a professional and done during the yearly tune-up (see below). Similar to your monthly check-up, your bike should be cleaned and inspected for cracks (especially if you have a carbon frame), tires should be thoroughly inspected for wear. Check all cables, brake pads, and the chain for wear. Clean the drivetrain (chain, chain1rings, cassette, front and rear derailleurs) with a biodegradable solvent and rags.

Yearly Tune-Up

A good tune-up will include an overall inspection of all the components of your bike. The bike technician will check the front wheel bearings and spokes and if the bearings are loose, they should be cleaned or replaced, depending on the amount of wear. The handlebars, head tube and stem will be checked for proper alignment and the handlebar tape might be replaced. Both the shift cables and brake cables will be checked for wear and replaced as needed. The cable stays and guides will be cleaned and lightly lubricated. The crank bearings, which are between the pedals and absorb the most stress of all the bearings, will be removed, cleaned, lubricated or replaced if they are overly worn.

The chain should be inspected link by link to make sure it is safe and functional and the front gear rings will be inspected for broken or bent teeth. Bent teeth may be straightened, but it is better to replace the ring as that tooth will forever be weaker than the rest. The cassette should be inspected as well, the rear bearings cleaned, and both derailleurs disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled. The rear spokes will be checked on the truing stand as well once the cassette is reattached.

Many of the parts on your bicycle will require special tools to maintain and some riders simply do not have the time to learn how to do some of the more technical work. This is where it is a good idea to find a local bike shop with a good mechanic that you trust. If you are the do-it-yourself type though, your local shop will have all the tools you need and many mechanics will be happy to give you advice.

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