We have all heard the story of someone who built their race bike the night before the event and showed up to the start line still zip-tying brake hoses to their frame. I have seen this specific example first hand and made similar rookie moves myself. While this may work out OK, you can prevent a lot of headaches and self-sabotage by clamping your bike in the stand and giving it a thorough look before packing up.
Races cost a good chunk of cash, and often we spend an entire day driving, racing, partying, and driving home. Don’t let all of that effort go to waste because you forgot to check your tire sealant. While not everyone has the time or know-how to repair and adjust each component of their bike, we can all determine if our bikes are race ready or not with a few simple steps.
I like to check over my bike two or three days before a race, in case I need to find and replace a worn part or change something like brake pads or rotors that will need to be ridden before the race. If you ride every day, investigating the bike more than three days before an event leaves time to break something in the interim, so the 2-3 day window is often the optimal gap.
The first move is to wash your bike so that you can see what condition everything is in. Then, go around to all of the moving parts on your frame and check that things are tight, lubed, and in satisfactory working order. Hold your frame on one hand, and pull your cranks from side to side to make sure that they and the bottom bracket is tight. With the chain off, spin the cranks so you can hear if the BB bearings sound dry or crunchy. If your BB bearings make any noise at all they need to be serviced, as properly greased bearings are silent.
Next, make sure that your thru-axles or skewers are tight. Then, check that your headset is tight by grabbing the front brake and trying to make the bike roll forward and backward with the tire firmly planted on the floor. If you feel a ticking sensation or angular movement your headset may need to be tightened or replaced.
If you are racing a full suspension bike, this can be a great opportunity to loosen and re-tighten all of the linkage bolts with a torque wrench. This process will also allow you to check the bearings or bushings in your linkage for any service needs.
Take a look at your tires to see if they are missing any shoulder knobs, or if your center treads are worn past a suitable point for the sort of trails you will be racing on. If it is the first race of the season, and you have been sliding around all winter on the same tires, it might be time to swap them out. Make sure you have ample tread, sealed sidewalls, and no cracks or cuts in the rubber that might open up at the worst possible time.
Check your sealant. Even if you mounted a new tire three weeks ago, you may have used some of the sealant without knowing it. Punctures happen. It only takes a minute to pop the bead off one side of the tire, look for the goopy ride-saving stuff, and pump it shut again. You can also check the sealant level by removing the valve core from the valve stem, and inserting the tip of a narrow a zip tie until it hits your tire, with the valve in the 6 o’clock position. When you pull the zip tie back out you will be able to see how deep the latex well is inside your tire. If you don’t have a pump that will reseat the tire your local shop or petrol station will.
Check for leaks, and make sure that your valves work properly. If your rim tape is leaking any sealant you will see latex boogers develop around the spoke nipples. If you see any evidence of sealant buildup on the nipples it is worth redoing the tape job. Additionally, if your valves are clogging and not letting air through, you can first try cleaning the valve core with a knife, and if that doesn’t work you can replace the valve core for around than $1. Being able to quickly change air pressure can be super helpful in a race, particularly if the weather shifts from dry to wet and you want to get more tire on the ground.
Remove your brake pads and take a look at the remaining braking material. A simple rule is to replace your pads when you have less than 20% of material left to work with, but for a race I would recommend swapping pads if you have less than 60%, then swapping the used pads back in for further use after the race. For wet races, particularly gravity events, I usually put new pads in, regardless of what the current set looks like, and bring along a spare set in my pack. That way you are sure to have enough pad to make it through the event, and won’t have to wonder if that 20% will hold up through a drizzle.
I always perform a light lever bleed on my brakes before a race, and a full bleed if they feel the slightest bit spongey. Typically they are just as dialed as they were the last time I bled them, and this is simply a piece-of-mind procedure. Opening up the brakes also lets you see the color of the fluid, and you can do a full bleed if things are getting murky.
Check everything. Tighten everything. Lube everything.
- Remove your chain. Clean it with some dish soap, and lube it with your favorite oil. If your chain is stretched or has any bent or stiff links, it’s time to recycle it. Making sure the chain is at the correct length for your chainring and cassette will prevent it coming off in rougher sections of trail. New bikes are frequently shipped with improper chain lengths, so make sure yours fits as it was designed to.
- If your Chainring teeth are starting to look like the Matterhorn, with steep sides and a sharp peak, swap the ring out for one that will keep your chain on securely. Make sure the spider or bolts are as tight as their tolerances allow. Loose chainrings have ruined enough races already.
- If your derailleur’s clutch is worn, and the chain flops around like an angry snake, either swap the clutch internals or replace the derailleur. Dropped chains don’t care how hard you trained, they will just ruin your race.
- With your chain removed, spin your derailleur pulleys to make sure their bearings or bushings are moving smoothly, and their teeth have ample peak left to guide the chain. Pulleys can easily be removed, cleaned, greased, and replaced, but you will want to remember what direction they were spinning originally as some are directional, and nearly all are top or bottom specific.
- With your transmission clean and lubed, go for a ride to check that the shifting is crisp and quiet. If you have a gear or two that are hanging up, a few days before a race is a perfect time to swap out your cable and housing.
After a long winter spent slogging through the mud, your suspension will be due for a service in the spring. Whether you perform the service at home, or your local mechanic dials in the squish, it is good to get this piece of the pie in motion a week or so before the event for two reasons: You may need to order seals, wipers, or other components to make your fork, shock, or seat post feel buttery once more. And secondly, your suspension will feel different after it is serviced. Because suspension performance degrades gradually as we ride, we don’t often notice its nuanced decline. Instead, we adapt our riding style with the slower and clunkier feel as our suspension devolves from buttery-smooth to sandy-slow. Getting your suspension serviced with enough time for a few rides before the event allows you to readjust to the good stuff.
Lastly, as you will with your tires, check your suspension pressure the night before so you know it is where you like it. If “set it and forget it” is your suspension setting technique, you may want to recheck your sag before the race to make sure “forget it” doesn’t equal bottom outs and poor suspension performance.
Wheel issues can sneak up at odd times, and mid-race is a frustrating time to be surprised with a broken spoke or dead bearing that is causing the wheel to wobble and the tire to hit the frame. You can prevent some of these sneak attacks by giving the wheel a careful inspection.
Go around to each of your spokes and squeeze them against the spoke next to them, on the same side of the hub. You want to feel near-uniform tension on each one. Spokes on the rotor side will have less tension than those on the drive side, and leading spokes will have different tensions from trailing spokes. But generally, you want to make sure none of them feel loose. If they do, your wheel needs to be trued and tensioned. Leaving a spoke too loose adds pressure to other spokes, and they will eventually break under the added load.
Take a look at the nipples to make sure none of them are cracking or bent to one side. This piece can easily be covered while checking for latex leaks, as many of these steps can be combined to make the process take less time.
If your hubs have not been serviced in the past couple of months you will want to make sure the bearings are in good shape. Standing at the side of your bike, with the wheels on the ground, grab the frame tightly with one hand, and the tire with the other. Hold the frame still while pushing laterally back and forth against the tire. If you feel a ticking or looseness, try tightening your hubs or you may need to replace your bearings.
Once you have a pre-race pattern down, you can complete this in less than an hour. With the bike fully tuned and ready to rip, there are a few small things I do the night before and the morning of the race.
On the penultimate afternoon, wash the bike thoroughly, and re-lube the chain as you normally would. A final scrub will give you the chance to look closely at every component on your bike one last time before putting it between the tape. You might notice a loose bottle cage bolt or a slow sidewall leak that you missed earlier.
Lift your bike to roughly knee height and let go, allowing the bike to slam into its tires on the ground before you grab it again. This literal “shakedown” will allow you to hear if anything is loose, or if there are cables or other components you would like to silence.
The morning of an event I recheck my tire and suspension pressures one last time, just for piece of mind. I give the chain a thorough lube, shift through the gears to make sure the oil has a chance to penetrate the chain-plate overlaps, and wipe all excess lube from the drivetrain.
That’s it. If you follow these bike prep steps you will have far less to think about while you’re pinning it down track.
Do you have additional bike preparation tips or tricks you would like to share? Please let us know comments below.