Winter Bike Maintenance

As I write this, the thermometer is inching toward 70° and the skies are a deep cerulean blue. It’s halfway through January, historically our wettest month, and I’m out in the garden with a watering can. By the time you’re reading this, some of the winter storms that have blessed us with amazing swells will hopefully have imparted some of their precious moisture to our parched land—and my potted plants, too. If shorts and flip-flops aren’t the order of the day and you’re preparing for a drizzly spin or riding in the rain, here are some wet-weather bike-maintenance tips.

But first, I am excited to introduce you to our two featured local bike mechanics, who will impart their wet-weather bike-care wisdom.

Melanie “Mel” Basurto and Felipe “Flip” Ruiz are both graduates of Project Bike Tech, a home-grown Santa Cruz County career technical education program (now with programs in eleven states) that teaches bike repair to high school students. Both of our young mechanics studied with Steve Hess, a former Santa Cruz City Schools Bike Tech teacher. Flip graduated from Harbor High in 2016, worked for a few years at the Bike Trip, and is now working at Cycleworks. He does a little bit of everything around the shop: he’s a classic cruiser expert, and he’s been known to custom paint a bike frame or two for his elite clientele. Mel is a senior at Santa Cruz High and has worked for almost two years at Spokesman. She helps with everything around the shop, from bike builds to office work, and when not attending Zoom school or working, can be found enjoying a leisurely skate around town or biking at UCSC.

I asked them both about wet-weather maintenance, and this is what they had to say.

Drivetrain maintenance

A bike’s drivetrain is often taken for granted until it stops working. Over time, chains stretch and gears wear out, especially when you add road grit to the mix. Wet weather exacerbates and speeds up this process, and as anyone who has stored a bike outside in our coastal climate knows, even fog and ambient moisture can cause drivetrain wear. Both of our mechanics agree that lubricating and caring for your chain is key. “The biggest thing is lubing up your chain properly with the right chain lube,” says Flip. “There are a couple different types: dry lube for people who are riding in the dry season, and wet lubes – specific lubricants made for the wet season. Wet lube acts more like a water-proof grease and protects the chain from moisture, whereas water can mix with dry lubes and wash them off.” Flip recommends lubricating and wiping down your chain after every ride during the rainy season. “You just need a little lubricant applied to the top of your chain – it will get into all of the little crevices as you ride.”

Stopping power 

Lowering your tire pressure a little can help with traction and stopping on slippery roadways. For obvious reasons, it takes longer to stop in the rain. Wheels pick up water from the road, and this acts as a temporary lubricant when you apply your brakes, until friction does its job. Every bit of stopping power helps when you’re dealing with wet roads, especially if your bike has rim brakes. Mel suggests lubricating your brake cables weekly during the wet months to keep things working smoothly. In addition, brake pads, like drivetrains, wear out faster in wet weather without proper maintenance. You can easily check the wear on your brake pads (both rim and disc brakes), adjust them for optimal braking, and replace them well before they wear down to metal-on-metal. To improve your braking, Mel encourages you to “adjust the angle on your rim brake pads – angle the pads so that the forward section of the pad hits the rim first.” This can fix squeaky brakes and allow easier, more efficient braking.

After a wet ride on a bike with rim brakes, Flip recommends wiping the wheel’s braking surface with a clean rag. “This will help lengthen the life of the rims,” he says. “At the shop, we see rims that have gotten very worn, and the braking surface has gone from flat to concave. That is just a disaster waiting to happen – it’s just going to eventually explode.” You can look it up: he’s not kidding. Fortunately, most metal rims have wear indicators to help you avoid this unpleasant experience.

Bike storage 

Many of us in Santa Cruz County have limited storage space, and bikes get stored in sheds, on balconies, and under tarps in yards. “If possible, store your bike inside in the winter,” Mel says. For those of us who don’t have any extra indoor square-footage to share with our bicycles, Flip has this to say: “I have a little balcony where I hang my bikes. Before I put a bike out, I lubricate the chain and let it sit – I don’t wipe off the excess. It acts as a barrier to the moisture and salt in the air.” When bringing a bike down to ride, Flip wipes off the excess lubricant with a clean rag. For bikes that have been exposed to the elements, or for beach cruiser chains with more than a slight patina of rust, Flip recommends some dripping some Tri-Flow on the chain, “just to keep the bike running.”

Those are our guest mechanics’ recommendations in brief. If you want more tips for riding during the wet months, see Matt Miller’s recent article. For the curious, Park Tool, a sponsor of Project Bike Tech and the go-to for most professional bike mechanics, has a vast wealth of how-to videos on DIY repairs and winter care. If you’d like to have your bike looked at by a Bike Tech graduate, most of our local shops employ someone who has been through the program.

Happy riding!