The Basics of Bike Safety Start With the ABCs

The bike team here at Ecology Action has been busy! Between the Biketober challenge, the community rides, and launching an e-bike rebate program with the City of Santa Cruz, we also held more than 10 events up at UCSC with our Slugbikelife campaign, working on bike safety, education, and encouragement. Some of the highlights of the fall were our bike repair and mechanic check events for UCSC affiliates. We held three of these events, working on a range of bike types and bike issues. Bikes came in with low or flat tires, brakes that stuck or didn’t work, and rusty chains…and the worst of it were the not one but four individuals who rolled up with loose or open quick releases. As I lifted one woman’s bike into the bike stand to inspect it, the rear wheel simply fell out of her frame!

For those who know the implications of a loose or open quick release, our intervention avoided multiple potentially catastrophic bike crashes. With these recent experiences, I wanted to dedicate a piece on our blog to getting back to basics with the ABCs of bike safety.

Bike safety is a broad umbrella. We could be talking about safe operation, traffic safety, helmets, nighttime visibility, and lights, but it comes back to the starting place of making sure your bike is ready to ride in the first place.

The ABC Quick Check is a simple mnemonic that helps all of us make sure our bikes are ready to go, whether it’s down the street to the store, on our commutes to work, or for a ride with friends.

A is for Air

All tires have a range of proper inflation for best performance. The first step is giving your tire a squeeze test. If your tire is soft or gives in when you squeeze, you should pump it to a higher pressure. Most tires designed for riding on pavement can only be run firm, the exception being mountain bike or gravel tires, which can be ridden with lower pressure to increase traction in dirt settings. If you have a pump with a pressure gauge, use it to inflate your tires to within the recommended range. If you don’t have a pressure gauge, pump up your tires and do the squeeze test until they are firm. Also, check your tires for any obvious signs of wear or damage that could result in tire failure.

B is for Brakes

There are a couple of ways to check brakes. First, give your brakes a squeeze and check that the brake lever is stopping before you reach your handlebar (a.k.a., the rule of thumb). If the lever comes all the way back to your handlebar, you are likely working with brakes that are worn and/or a brake cable that is stretched. If you see this, your brakes need to be adjusted immediately to make sure they are fully functional and stopping before your bar. To ensure full brake engagement, make sure that they leave enough space to fit your thumb between your lever and handlebar. The other thing to check is whether your rim or disc brake pads are landing on the brake surface (either the rim of a wheel or a disc brake rotor). If your pads are maladjusted, you could experience decreased braking power, asymmetrical wear on your pads, rubbing, or, in the worst-case scenario, brake failure. With the wet season coming (hopefully), it’s a suitable time to check your brake pads and make sure they are good to go.

C is for Cranks, Chain, and Cassette

When it comes to checking your cranks, chain, and cassette, you first want to visually inspect them to make sure they all look like metal and are not bright orange with rust or black and brown with grease and road gunk. Then, spin your cranks backward to make sure your chain is freely articulating through your gear or gears and derailleur. If you see or hear clicking noises or your chain gets stuck, you’ll need to diagnose further and make sure your chain is moving freely. Sometimes, a quick wipe down and lubrication can alleviate a lot of chain woes and get you pedaling again.

Quick is for Quick Releases

For bikes with quick releases, the goal with this check is to make sure they are closed and securely tightened. Quick releases are most commonly found on your wheels and your seat post to allow for easy wheel removal or seat height adjustment. A quick release axle has a rod with a camming lever on one side and a nut on the other, and its function is to allow you to remove the wheel of your bicycle without the use of a tool. A quick release axle also allows you to remove the wheel without removing the axle. The axle will stay inserted in the hub. Incorrect quick-release use is dangerous because these mechanisms hold the wheels in place. The most common mistake is simply turning the lever like a nut until the wheel seems tight. If you tighten it in this way, the nut can loosen over time and potentially lead to a wheel becoming dislodged, causing a catastrophic bike accident. You want to apply a good amount of force to close the quick release, but not so much that you have to put your whole body into it. Some quick release levers also say “open” or “closed” on either side of the lever to make it easier to place correctly.

Check is for Check It All Over

Once you have checked A, B, C, and Quick, we recommend riding your bike around a quiet and safe place like a neighborhood road or empty parking lot to make sure all the elements are working together. Once you’ve completed your check, you are ready to ride! When you become accustomed to this practice, you can check all of this in under a minute and be on your way!