It’s spring! The sky is blue (for five minutes), the trails are dry (sort of) and it’s time to wake your mountain bike from its long winter’s nap.
But, just like you can’t jump from a winter on the couch and ride 20 miles, neither can your mountain bike! So how do you tune your mountain bike after a long time in storage (or give it a basic maintenance tune from time to time)? DIY Mountain Bike will break it down for you!
What Does a Mountain Bike Tune-Up Consist Of?
Whether you get a professional tune-up at a bike shop or perform your own DIY tune in your garage, a comprehensive mountain bike tune-up should cover these important elements:
Adjust Mountain Bike Brakes
For disc brakes: Squeeze brake handles. If the brakes are too soft, check disc brake pads for wear (you may need to remove the pads to check). If the pads are thinner than a dime, it’s time to replace them. If squeezing the brakes is dramatically soft (i.e. the lever hits or almost hits handle bar, you may have a leak in brake fluid, which is a bigger repair than we’ll cover in this article).
For cable brakes: inspect pads for wear. If the grooves are almost smooth, the pads are worn and should be replaced. Squeeze brake levers. They should engage the brake with a moderate amount of squeeze that’s equal on the right (rear brake) and the left (front brake). If they’re too grabby, you risk going over the handlebars instead of stopping, so you’d want to loosen the cable.
Pro Tip: If necessary, lubricate the brake cables.
Clean and Lubricate MTB Chain and Check/Measure Chain Wear
While our opinions of what’s the best mountain bike chain lubricant may differ depending on riding conditions and personal preferences, we can definitely agree that your chain should be clean and lubed. For a basic tune, you can rub the chain with a rag or towel to remove old chain lubricant and all the dirt that’s accumulated. A retired toothbrush or chain scrubber brush with teeth can help immensely. If you want a really thorough tune, you can remove the chain and gears and soak them in a degreaser before wiping them dry and reinstalling them.
Next, do a quick check of the entire chain, looking at each link for bending, dings or dangerously worn spots. Use a chain measurement tool to make sure your chain is not too worn. If your chain is badly stretched, learn how to replace your mountain bike chain (and possibly gear rings as well).
Mountain Bike Derailleurs Adjustment
Mountain bike derailleurs take a beating. First check the basics: that your front and rear derailleur are not bent or out of alignment. Check that the shifter cables are not worn or frayed and lubricate if necessary. Then shift through all the gears on the front (left shifter) and rear (right shifter). If the shifting is not prompt and easy (think: an eager bellhop, hoping for a tip), you might need to tighten the cable tension with the barrel adjuster. If it’s shifting prematurely or clicking like it constantly wants to shift, loosen the tension on the shifter cable.
If you’ve taken any crashes, now is a good time to make sure the derailleurs weren’t knocked out of alignment or their height placement.
If you can’t shift into the smallest or largest chain rings, you may need to adjust the upper or lower limit screw. Conversely, if your chain is coming off the smallest or largest gear rings, you also need to adjust your limit screws.
Clean and Lubricate the MTB Headset
What’s your headset? It’s the place on your mountain bike where your handlebars and front fork meet. It’s what allows your handlebars to turn smoothly and safely in response to your steering. Approach headset maintenance with healthy caution – not because it’s complicated (it’s not) but because there are a lot of parts and because there’s a specific order that everything needs to happen in. If you’re not comfortable with simple basic bike adjustments, I’d advise against trying to learn headset repair yet. Keep a lookout, we will probably cover headset work in greater detail in an upcoming article!
That being said, your headset gets a lot of wear and tear (and dirt and water) and regular cleaning and maintenance can extend the life of the bearings as well as make your steering safer and more responsive.
Remove the headset, bearings and spacers, making certain not to drop any parts. Use a strap to hold the front fork to bike frame without twisting the cables. Meanwhile, take note of the order and orientation of all the parts so that you can return them all to their original position after cleaning. Wipe all the parts clean and inspect for wear (using eyes and fingers) Bearings should be smooth, without any play or grittiness. If you encounter those things, it’s time to replace the parts. Assuming everything is in good condition, reapply a generous amount of headset grease and reassemble the parts.
Inspect and Adjust Mountain Bike Shocks
While repairing your mountain bike shocks is a more in-depth repair than we’ll cover in this article, you do want to check both you front and rear suspension to make sure they’re in good condition and working properly. With your bike on the ground, press your weight into the front fork and into the seat, testing the front and rear suspension separately. There are two major things to watch for: If your shock “bottoms out,” sinking rapidly to the bottom of its suspension capacity OR there’s a large amount of unexplainable fluid on (or coming out of) the shocks. Either of these things suggests that you need more significant work on your shocks than what’s included in a maintenance tune.
If your shocks are just out-of-adjustment but not malfunctioning, they’ll either be too stiff or too “squishy.” The steps for adjusting mountain bike suspension vary depending on the shock manufacturer and the design, so find instructions for your specific model. An additional point to keep in mind: if your shock design allows you to set the amount of give based on your weight or preference, you will need to reset if you’ve gained or lost a significant amount of weight (think: a change of more than five pounds).
Clean and Lubricate the MTB Bottom Bracket
The first thing you’ll need to do is remove the bottom bracket, which may also require the removal of the crank arm. You’ll need a crank arm removal tool that works with the style of crank arm on your bike. Use a rag and degreaser as necessary to completely clean the bottom bracket all the way through the frame. Also, clean all attachment parts, paying particular attention to remove all potentially corrosive matter like sand that will damage your bottom bracket over time. Once everything is cleaned, apply some grease and reinstall.
Clean and Lubricate the Rear Cassette
The rear cassette is the stack of gear rings on the rear wheel. You can clean it while on the bike using a rag or chain brush (which usually has a special curved part with teeth to fit between the rings). Another technique that works well is “flossing,” rubbing the edge of a tautly-held rag between each ring just like you slide dental floss between your teeth.
Alternatively, you can remove the chain and rear cassette for a deep clean. Some cassettes are all one piece, some are a stack of individual gear rings and spacers and some combine both, so keep track of all the pieces and make sure you reassemble correctly.
While you’re cleaning (or before you reinstall the cassette), check the condition of the teeth on your gear rings. Signs that they may be worn enough to require replacement include: teeth that are rounded on the tip, teeth that are worn unevenly on each side (each tooth should be symmetrical) and teeth that are bent or broken.
Inspect and Replace Mountain Bike Tires
Check your mountain bike tires frequently. Look for worn spots on the rubber (usually from rubbing the brake pad) and make sure the rubber is in good condition and the tread is viable. Even without major damage like a laceration or blowout, tire rubber will degrade over time, requiring replacement.
Check for signs of dry rot (powdery, flakey sidewalls) or rubber breaking down (“gooey” rubber or bits of rubber). Worn out tires aren’t safe, running the risk of a blowout in the worst case scenario or an unnecessary and inconvenient flat tire during a ride in the best case scenario. Also, if the tread pattern is worn almost flat, it’s time to replace your mountain bike tires.
Pro Tip: Before every ride, you probably check your tire pressure and pump in air if necessary. Do this during your tune, as well.
Add Tire / Tube Sealant
If you use tubeless mountain bike tires, you’ll need to add sealant fairly regularly, and your spring tune-up is a perfect time.
Additionally, if you use tires with tubes and run a sealant inside, this is a good time to add a little more sealant. Also, check for places the sealant is leaking out (fixing holes). While you don’t need to replace the tubes as long as the tube is holding air, seeing a large amount or a lot of sealed spots can be an indicator that a flat tire is in your near future. So you can ride prepared or possibly choose to proactively replace the tube.
I’ve got an amazing article that summarizes a survey of hundreds of MTBers. Link here -> What Pressure Should I Inflate My MTB Tires too? Plus if you need to ACCURATELY check the pressure I highly recommend the Topeak D2 Smartgauge. (Link over to Amazon for prices and thousands of reviews)
Inspect and True MTB Wheels
Check the way your wheels spin on the hub, either in a trueing stand or while still attached to the bike frame. If a wheel seems to “wobble” from side to side, if you see signs of consistent rubbing at a certain spot or you hear/feel rubbing, the wheel needs to be trued. Bike mechanics use a trueing stand, and it’s definitely ideal. But, some (ahem) DIY mountain bikers have been known to true their wheels with the wheels still on the bike, using the brake pads to identify areas that are out of true. You’ll need a spoke wrench that fits your size spoke nipples and some familiarity with the concept of trueing bike wheels.
Check and Re-Torque Suspension Bolts
Full-suspension mountain bikes rely on “pivot points” to offer flex at specific places in the frame, usually at linkage points in the triangle below the seat. Not surprisingly, given the intense pressure on these specific spots, the bolts can loosen over time. Ideally, you want to check the pivot points frequently, so you can tighten the bolts before they fall out or cause a crash. But, if you’re not in the habit of doing this regularly, at least make sure you do it during every tune-up. Remember there are suspension bolts on both sides of the bike!
While you’re at it, check to make sure the bolts holding the derailleurs (both front and rear) to the bike frame are also tight.
Inspect and Replace Cables
Cables should be in good condition. This includes brake cables as well as shifter cables. They should not be worn or frayed, and any missing endcaps should be replaced (which keeps them from unraveling). If you see metal flakes or powder like the metal is degrading, you might also consider replacing the bike cables.
Ordinarily, external cables (not inside cable housing) should be dry, and you want to avoid using lubrication unless you frequently ride in wet conditions. If your bike isn’t shifting as quickly or smoothly as you’d like, you may want to squeeze a small amount of lube inside the cable housing and/or at any places the cable might rub. Still, a good general rule is to avoid lathering on excess lube in places that aren’t enclosed because dirt just sticks to the grease and turns into gunk!
If you’re new to doing your own mountain bike tune-ups, this is a lot to keep track of! So, download our mountain bike tune-up guide (PDF) to check off each step.
How Often Should I Tune My Mountain Bike?
DIY Mountain Bikes has an awesome bike maintenance schedule that you can tailor to your needs and your available time. It breaks it down to pre-ride checks, post-ride maintenance and regular tune-ups. So, I highly recommend it. You know the saying “doctors make the worst patients”? Well, it also applies to bike mechanics and really passionate cyclists, so we’re not judging!
At the bare minimum, you should do a comprehensive tune-up (either DIY or professional) at least once a year in addition to addressing anything broken or malfunctioning as soon as possible throughout the year.
What Tools Do I Need to Tune My MTB?
The very first thing you’ll need to tune your mountain bike is a bike stand. Technically, a stand is not a necessity because you can improvise ways to do pretty much every aspect of bike maintenance without one. But, you’ll save yourself so much time and frustration by using a stand that it really is, in fact, a necessity. You’ll also do better work!
Secondly, you’ll need a well-rounded mountain bike tool kit. While most of us carry a multi-tool of some sort to do quick, trailside repairs during our rides, it’s not a substitute for a comprehensive tool box you keep at home. You can opt to purchase a complete bike tool kit like the Park Tool Bike Mechanic Tool Kit or the Bikehand Bike Repair Tool Kit, which is what we use. For details about the tools it includes and basics on how to use them, watch our complete bike tool kit video.
If you’re not buying a tool kit package for your DIY bike tune-ups and repairs and are assembling your toolbox by buying tools separately, here is a good general list to base your purchases on:
- Tire Pump
- 3-Way Hex Wrench
- Hex Wrench Set – 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, & 10 mm
- ¼ Drive Torque Wrench
- Needle Nose Pliers
- Chain Checker
- Chain Scrubber
- Cable and Housing Cutter
- Chainring Nut Wrench
- Chain Tool – single-speed & 5-12 speed compatible
- 1/2/3 Double-Ended Cone Wrenches – 13/14mm, 15/16mm & 17/18mm
- Rotor Truing Fork
- Cassette Lockring Tool
- Gear Clean Brush
- Chain Whip
- Pedal Wrench
- Master Link Pliers
- 12-Inch Adjustable Wrench
- Tape Measure
- #2 Phillips Screwdriver
- 3mm Flat Blade Screwdriver
- Spoke Wrench – .127″
- Spoke Wrench – .136″
- Tire Lever Set
- 3-Way Torx -Compatible Wrench – T10, T25 & T30
- Valve Core Removal Tool (if you have tubes with Schrader valves)
Where to Get the Tools to Tune-Up My Mountain Bike?
Obviously, we purchase most of our tools on Amazon. Yes, this is partially because we get a small commission. (This would be a great time to include our advertising disclaimer.) But it also allows us to compare between different products and manufacturers and buy from a variety of sources instead of having to go to individual shops and company websites for each purchase.
To learn more about the products we recommend or referred to in this article, visit Amazon:
Bikehand Mountain Bike Repair Stand. This is sturdy, easy to assemble and will help you be more efficient at any work you do on your mountain bike.
15-Piece Bike Torque Wrench Set. This set is highly-accurate, durable and can achieve the 2-14 nm required for most bicycle repairs. You may end up using it for a variety of non-bicycle repairs too! Note: you won’t need to purchase this set if you buy one of the following tool kits, which include a torque wrench set.
Bikehand Bike Repair Tool Kit. Comprehensive, it includes every tool you need for a tune-up and basic-to-advanced bike repair. Though not professional-quality, the tools are durable and will hold up to home mechanics.
Park Tool Bike Mechanic Tool Kit. This is a very smartly-compiled tool kit and may even hold up to the rigors of bike shop repairs. It’ll definitely hold up to your garage bike repairs!
How Much Does a Bike Tune-Up Cost?
Whether you choose to do your own bike tune-ups or have a professional do it will depend on your financial situation and your comfort level with the skills required. None of the elements of a basic bike tune-up are complicated, but it does take a commitment to learn new skills if you’re unfamiliar and a good chunk of time. Whether or not you’re adept at bike maintenance, a thorough tune-up will take a couple hours at least.
Because a mountain bike tune-up is so time-consuming, the cost will differ depending on the hourly cost of labor in your area. You can expect to pay something in the range of $65-$120. There are different levels of bike tune-ups, with the less comprehensive ones being less expensive. So, make sure you check what’s included and don’t just pick the cheapest option.
Why Do Your Own Mountain Bike Tune-Up?
Honestly, I’m not advocating that you do your own MTB tune-up. We want you to know that you can. You can absolutely learn the steps and skills required to tune your own bike! And, I hope this article (and DIY Mountain Bike website) shares those skills with you.
But I don’t actually care whether you do your own tune-up or have a bike mechanic do it for you. The important thing is that your bike gets tuned on a regular basis! Even if you pay for an annual tune-up, you’ll still save money in the long-run. Regular tune-ups will help you:
- enjoy your rides more
- help prevent accidents and injuries from malfunctioning, worn or broken parts
- prolong the life of your bike and bike components
Happy spring, happy riding!
Professional writer Kat Jahnigen was 2 miles from the nearest village – and roughly 2,310 miles – from the nearest English-speaking town – when her bike tire burst. At that time, she was a college student on a bike trip across the desolate, rocky island of Crete. It suddenly occurred to her that it would’ve been good to learn some basic bike repairs before setting off on a solo bike trip.
Check out Kat’s website WriteHire at writehire.net.