Keeping Your Wheels Turning

Why is wheel maintenance important?

Wheel maintenance helps you roll, steer, and stop efficiently.  A wheel out of alignment can cause damage to other components of the bicycle, for example the tire wear a hole in the paint of the frame or even in the frame itself sometimes rendering a bike unsafe to ride.  Brake pads can get worn down irregularly from repeated rim wear. Lack of spoke tension is more likely to snap spokes than too much which can result in the tire getting jammed up against the frame. I’ve seen many folks walking a bike to the shop, unable to get it onto a bus rack, holding the front or back end up off of the ground.  Wheels, especially new ones, need to be periodically re-tensioned. It takes a few months of routine riding, though this varies based on time in the saddle, rider weight, and terrain. Annual truing, routine assessment, and occasional replacement can be your wheel’s best friends. Some follow up services are included with the purchase of new bikes from a shop; this remains some of the undisclosed repairs that is necessary after buying online or through a department store.  In order to thoroughly assess the rim for wear, spokes for chain damage, and spoke nipples for corrosion bring a wheel to a shop where a technician will happily true it for you.

What is wheel truing?

To clarify, truing a wheel means adjusting it so it is as round as possible, doesn’t wobble side to side, and has proper tension on the spokes.  When I first started working on bikes over 15 years ago I didn’t realize that a wheel had two sets of spokes. I pictured them how a kid tends to draw a wheel, or a sun with the hub in the middle and all of the spokes radiating out to a meet the rim.  In actuality there are spokes connected to both sides of the hub. Those on the left pull the rim to the left side, those on the right to the right side; this is how we make the wheel straight. There is also a specific lacing pattern for the spokes, meaning that they don’t always go straight out from the hub.  Typically there is a cross pattern like a web that gives extra strength; radially laced wheels also exist and often have extra durable rims in compensation. Truing a wheel relies on the hub being adjusted properly. This means that the components that keep the bearings running smoothly can’t be too tight or too loose otherwise the rim will wobble all over the place.  You can true a wheel in a stand or even on the bicycle itself using a brake pad or a zip tie as your guide, or better yet bring it to a professional to assess the hub, all components, and make sure things are tightened to the right specification.

How to prevent damage?

The most important thing you can do is assure that air always stays in your tires.  Airing your tires once a week is a good guide though some folks do it before every ride even if that means daily.  Others may get away with only once a month. It really depends on how much air tends to leak from your tires. Keeping the tire inflation between the recommended PSI range listed on the side of the tire means that the rim won’t take the brunt of damage if you hit something or run over a pothole.  Riding on a wheel with a very flat tube can cause permanent damage to the rim, so its best to assess and replace worn tires or leaky tubes to prevent flats from occurring.

Before every ride, looking to see if your wheels are not rubbing on the brakes can help assure that they are still tensioned properly.  It is also good to be observant during the ride. If you’re ever pedaling, make a shift and hear rhythmic pinging, don’t pump the jams or start rapping! Shift back down into the harder gear so the chain doesn’t fall off the biggest ring and get caught in the spokes.  Get your bike into the shop as soon as you are able in order to get everything aligned properly.

Protect your wheels if possible, by being cautious of your rear derailleur (what shifts your chain to different gears on the back wheel).  This part sometimes gets bumped while parked, during a bike accidents, coming in and out of doorways, or in shipping or car transit. If the derailleur is out of alignment this can cause the chain to fall off of the big ring and into the spokes with a potential to get jammed into place sometimes too tight to remove by hand.  You may have heard the phrase “keep the rubber side down” (meaning don’t wipe out), but I say “keep the gear side up”...for car rides!