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Ask the Bike Maven | How to get your bike ready for the season

In Ask the Bike Maven, The Maven on May 21, 2012 at 10:24 PM

Everything you need to keep you–and your bike–happy: a pump, chain cleaner, degreaser fluid, chain lube, helmet, u-lock.

By The Maven | I was in Portugal 18 months ago for a cycle trip from Lisbon to the Algarve. We rented bikes from Portugal Bikes, a locally owned small cycle touring company–great people and good prices if you ever go.

Riding to Lisbon’s Belém Tower, built in 1515.

The shop owner asked our nationality before prepping us on basic bike maintenance. He was relieved to hear we were Canadian, mechanically competent people.  The Dutch, he said, were completely incapable of doing any maintenance work on their bikes. Since a cycle shop can be found on every corner in Holland, they can’t even fix a flat tire he told us.

So as Canadians we have an international standard to maintain, to wit, some advice.

1. Cleaning: Clean your bike. If it’s been in use in the salt and slush of winter, hose it down. If it sat outside or in the basement for the winter it still needs to be cleaned and lubricated.

Cleaning the chain is the most important for a smooth and happy ride. You can just hose it down, let it dry and then oil it.

Take the top off the bike chain cleaner, add de-greasing fluid, fit your chain in the cogs, snap on the top, and rotate your pedals backward about 100 revolutions.

But best to clean it properly. MEC sells a nice chain cleaner for only $5.50 and a bottle of citrus-based biodegradable degreaser for the same amount. Why degreaser? Because the oil on the chain picks up dirt and abrasive particles and this grit acts like sandpaper to wear down and destroy your chain, cogs, and chain rings. Shifting becomes  rougher and requires more force, you skip gears, ugliness–in the form of a repair bill to replace your drive chain–soon ensues.

With a chain cleaner you simple fill up the chamber with a degreaser, click it on to the chain and run the chain through it for a couple of minutes. The chamber will become black and disgusting while the chain will become shiny and silver again.

I also pour some degreaser directly on the derailleur and cogs and let it sit a while. You can then wipe all these parts down with a rag or rinse them with water. After everything has thoroughly dried (I like to do cleaning on a sunny day and let my bike sit in the sun for an hour to dry) you need to re-grease the chain. Do NOT use 3-in-1 or household oil. By oil specifically for a bike.

Or make a homebrew like I do. I mix one part light grade synthetic motor oil to three parts mineral spirits (pain thinner). I apply it liberally to my chain and all moving parts of my bike. The idea is that the mineral oil thins the oil and helps it penetrate and carry into metal parts. The mineral spirits then evaporates leaving behind the lubricating oil. About $10 worth of ingredients has lasted several years for me, and I maintain four bikes of my own and three of my son’s. I oil my road bike chain after every one or two rides. I will wipe down the chain and re-lube. I do a full clean ever few weeks.

Information about optimum inflation pressure is printed or embossed on the sideall of your tire.

2. Tire pressure:  Information about optimum inflation pressure is printed or embossed on the sidewall of your tire.

Tire pressure is crucial. The maximum inflation is on the tire side wall. If you are heavier go toward the higher end. Up to a point a higher pressure will aid efficiency but your ride may be a bit bumpier. Too little air can cause ‘pinch’ flats by pinching the sidewall of the tire between the road and the rim. And the bike won’t ride very nicely on half flat tires.

Tires lose air daily. The rubber tubes are not entirely air proof. There is some leakage. The higher the tire pressure (eg: road bikes) the faster the leakage. Pump your tires twice weekly at least. A good quality pump is worth the extra few bucks as it makes pumping so much easier.

I even use my bicycle pump to pump up my car tires (ok, I’m a little obsessive about these things).

3. Inspect your bike

Check your bike now and again to make sure the brakes aren’t rubbing, and that nothing is loose.

It’s a good idea to just walk around your bike and do an inspection now and again.

Check the brakes are not rubbing and that they stop a spinning wheel promptly. Check that the crank and headset have no play in them. If you are riding a single speed–particularly a fixie–the crank is your bread and butter. Keep it tight!

Use an

An Allen key set or hex wrench is all that is needed to adjust and tighten most parts on your bike.

You may not realize it but metal not only fatigues and breaks but also stretches. For instance, not only do your brake and gear cables needs tightening but your chain stretches. Not checking and replacing the chain when it needs it can wear the rear cogs and front chain rings, and then they too will need premature replacement…something that is much more expensive than a new chain.

If you aren’t confident enough or knowledgeable enough to do this stuff on your own, spend a few bucks at your local bike shop. Rob Bateman of Bateman’s Bicycle Company at 913 Bathurst just north or Barton is a great local guy and cycle enthusiast. He and his guys will look after your bike for a reasonable price.

A well tuned bike is a pleasure to ride.


The Maven is a Serotta-certified bicycle fitter who lives, works, and cycles in the Annex. Visit his blog at

For other cycling articles by the The Maven on the West Annex News, visit the Bike Maven archive.


Ask the Bike Maven: bike fitting 101

In Ask the Bike Maven on April 11, 2011 at 8:05 AM
A properly fitted bike: seat positioned so legs can deliver maximum power to the pedals, elbows slightly bent when hands resting on the hoods

By the Bike Maven | It’s spring, prime bike-buying season. Whether you’re buying new or used, you need to know a bit about bike fitting before you make your purchase.

I know that not everyone is into long distance or fitness riding. Sometimes a quick toodle to the store is all you’re out for. So who cares how your bike fits and what position you are in on your bike? Well, l it can make a real difference. Your position on the bike affects both the efficiency with which you pedal and your comfort in doing so.

And if you are more comfortable and more efficient, you are going to enjoy riding your bike more. Unlike Stephen Harper, I admit to my agendas: I want to see as many people as possible on their bikes, and I want to see them riding as much as possible.

So what’s involved in making sure your bike fits and that you are properly positioned on it?

Your body contacts the bicycle in three areas; your hands, your seat, and your feet. Their position determines your comfort and efficiency on the bike.

The parts of a bike: note the seat tube, cranks (crank arm), stem, brake hoods, and hub, all of which I will refer to in this article (click to enlarge)

The wrong size bike can’t be made right by a bike fitting. So your first priority: buy the right size of bike. But what size is right? I am often dismayed to see “bike fittings” take place in bike shops with staff who have little or no qualifications to fit a bike. The customer gets on the bike, the bike shop employee asks “how does it feel?” Well, if you’ve been used to riding a wrong-sized bike, or you’re an adult getting back on a bike after many years, or if you’re used to riding a bike with a straight handle bar and you are getting your first bike with drop bars, a new bike will feel weird and unfamiliar. Asking you how it feels is a useless question.

Bike fitting has some scientific aspects to it. It’s not just an eyeball affair, and it’s not just how it feels to the individual rider. I’ve lectured U of T Phys. Ed. students on the basics of bike fitting–a quick overview–and it’s taken me almost 90 minutes. A proper fitting on a road bike can take an hour.

But I’m not going into that kind of detail here. What I am going to try to do is give you the basics so you at least walk out the store with the right size bike. As you get more proficient and interested in better performance on your bike, you can then go to a qualified bike fitter who will help you dial in the fit exactly to your body specifics.

Step one: proper seat height. Your leg should not be not quite fully extended at the bottom of the down stroke (leg in foreground). Aim for 20 to 30 degrees flexion at the knee

Step one: get the  seat height right. When I look at casual bike riders out on the street, the most common mistake I see is that their seat height is too low. When stopped, they can put both feet on the ground while still seated in the saddle. When I look at serious cyclists, the most common mistake I see is that their seats are too high. When at the bottom of their pedal stroke, their leg is fully extended.

When your seat height is properly adjusted, your leg will be not quite fully extended on the down stroke. You want about 20 to 30 degrees flexion at the knee at  the bottom of the pedal stroke like in the photo above. Note that the bottom of the down stroke is when the crank is parallel to the seat tube (the tube that your seat sits on top of) and not when the crank is vertical.  Also note that the ball of your foot should be on the pedal, and your foot should be level to the ground. Don’t let me ever see you riding with the heel of your shoe on the pedal, or I will stop you and chew you out.

Why is this the desired seat height? Muscles have an efficient dynamic range. Stretch them too much and they won’t contract back as strongly (think of a rubber band). If the seat is too high, your legs will be extended beyond their point of efficiency as well as comfort. Additionally, you will be swiveling your pelvis from side to side to reach the pedals. That is going to chafe your private parts. That isn’t good for you or your significant other. If the seat is too low, you aren’t getting all the power you could by stretching your legs out more, resulting in a more tiring ride.

Step two: get the bike saddles fore-and-aft adjustment right. The front of your knee should be just in front of the pedal spindle

Step two: get the seat fore-and-aft adjustment right. Correctly placing your seat over the pedals helps efficiency as well as knee comfort. With your foot parallel to the ground, the front of your knee should be just ahead of the spindle of the pedal.  The proper way to gauge this is to either drop a plumb line from your knee, or a metre stick or other straight measure (see photo above).

My choice of saddle: the Selle SMP Strike: minimally padded with good sit bone support, and radical cut-outs for long ride comfort

A quick word about saddles. Those over-padded, big-ass bike seats are much less comfortable than a smaller, firm seat. Think of wearing a Birkenstock sandal (firm, molded) compared to slippers on a long walk. You are looking for a saddle that flares a little at the back to support your sit bones. Women’s saddles flare a little wider than men’s since most women’s pelvis are wider. Rather than being heavily padded, these saddles are indented or entirely cut away at the common friction points between rider and saddle.

The tilt of the saddle also needs attention. You often see bike saddles with the nose tilted radically down. This is usually done to try to ease the pain of an uncomfortable saddle. But with the nose tilted down, the rider’s weight is thrown forward on to the handlebars, resulting in numb hands, and wrist, arm, shoulder and even neck pain. Get yourself a saddle that you are comfortable sitting on when it is flat so that your pelvis is level, and your weight is properly distributed. If you are going to splurge on any part of your bike, make it your saddle.

Step three: with your hands on the brake hoods, your elbows should be slightly bent

Step three: get the distance from saddle to handle bar right. So now that your seat is in the proper position, put your hands lightly on the brake hoods, and rest your fingers on the levers. There should be some bend in your elbows so they act as your suspension as you go over bumps and other imperfections in the road.  See the photo above. Now look down to your front wheel; the handlebar should obscure the hub.

If you have to straighten your arms to reach the handle bar and when you look down, you can see the wheel hub well behind the handlebar, you are on too large a bike frame. Conversely, if your elbows are deeply bent and when you look down, you see the wheel hub well ahead of the handlebar, you are on too small a frame. If the reach is just slightly off, then the frame size is probably okay, but you need a different length of stem (that part of the bike that connects the handlebar to the frame). Reputable bike shops will have a variety of stem lengths on hand to swap out with yours to make the fit right.

In conclusion. A full bike fitting involves many more adjustments, including adjusting handlebar height, width and stance as well as several other contact points on the bike. Tires, handlebar tape, wheels, and gear ratios all contribute to a bike’s comfort. Most of you likely won’t care about a detailed fitting. But the three basics I give you above should at least get you on the right sized frame. If the shop where you’re test riding a bike doesn’t offer at least these adjustments above, run, don’t walk to another bike shop that does.

And if you start to develop an interest in rides of greater lengths, or in racing or triathlon, then you will want to take your bike in to an expert and have a proper fitting. While we are lucky to have several good bike shops in the neighbourhood, none are equipped to do an advanced fitting. In my view, Heath Cockburn at La Bicicletta, 1180 Castlefield Avenue is the best bicycle fitter in the city. Go for the fitting, and enjoy the eye candy while you’re there; this is THE bike store in Toronto for high performance cycling. La Bicicletta has the most wonderful, luscious, sexy, fabulous bikes you can imagine. Try not to fall in love–it will be an expensive affair.


If you have any particular bike comfort question you want to ask the Bike Maven, or you want to know more about bike fitting, post your question in the comments section below.

The Bike Maven is a Serotta-certified bicycle fitter who lives, works, and cycles in the Annex. Visit his blog at

For other articles by the Bike Maven on the West Annex News, visit the Bike Maven archive.

Ask the Bike Maven: How to lock your bike

In Ask the Bike Maven on March 21, 2011 at 12:05 AM

Nothing is sadder than coming across the remains of an improperly locked bike. The mistake here? Locking only the front wheel to the bike ring. The thief just flipped the quick-release lever on the wheel, and bye-bye bicycle.

By the Bike Maven | Spring is here and with it legions of cyclists are venturing back out on the streets. Which reminds me of a subject of perennial puzzlement: in a city as bike-mad as Toronto, why do so few cyclists know how to properly lock their bikes?

Bicycle theft is a major deterrent to cycling in Toronto. Even with Igor Kenk out of business, Toronto is still one of the bike theft capitals of the world. And don’t think your cheap beater bike is immune to the vermin bike thief. It can and will get stolen if you aren’t careful.  A bit of thought goes a long way to deterring bike thieves. I say deterring because there is no way to make your bike completely theft-proof.

I’m going to talk today about how to secure your bike with a single lock. Yes, you can nail it down even further with multiple locks, chains and cables, but who wants to ride around the city burdened with all that heavy paraphernalia?

Replace your quick release skewers, right, with a set that requires a wrench or allen key to remove, left.

So let’s start by at least making it a little harder for thieves to take your bike or its parts. First, replace the quick-release skewers on your wheels and seat post with a set that needs a wrench or an allen key to remove. Conversion kits are available at your West Annex LBS: Bateman’sCurbside, and Sweet Pete’s. There are fancy anti-theft skewers out there for $45 a set and more, but the simplest sets starting at about $20 will do.

Next, invest in a good quality lock. U-locks (like Kryptonite) are more secure than cable locks. And I believe the smaller the U-lock the safer it is. Why? Because smaller makes it harder for a thief to get an instrument in the U to lever it open. My lock of choice is the Kryptonite Evolution Mini. For a U-lock, it’s light and easy to carry.

So what’s next?  The biggest mistake most cyclists make when locking their bike comes when selecting which part of the bike to lock to the bike ring. The most expensive part of the bike is the frame, followed by the rear wheel with its cassette of gears. In fact, if you have an internally geared hub on the rear wheel as is becoming popular these days on city bikes, the entire (and expensive) gear system is in the rear wheel. Really, relatively speaking, the front wheel is pretty cheap to replace compared to the rest of the bike.

So why do some cyclists insist on locking the front wheel and leaving the frame and the rear wheel unsecured? I think the answer is that most non-mechanically inclined riders find it harder to remove the rear wheel than the front since they have to disengage the chain from the cassette. They reason that the rear wheel is less likely to get stolen.

Wrong. Anyone with a bit of experience can remove the rear wheel in a snap.

So how to lock your bike?

The proper way to lock your bike: within the bike frame's rear triangle, lock your back wheel to the bike post.*

Close-up detail of the image above. Note that only the rear wheel--not the bike frame--is locked to the bike post.*

The best way to lock your bike securely? Within the bike frame’s rear triangle, lock your back wheel to the bike post. Yes, I know, it seems a little freaky at first because the bike frame itself is not locked to the post, only the rear wheel is.

But the rear wheel rim has tremendous strength. It’s built to carry most of the rider’s weight and to resist the torque placed on it by the chain and the derailleur.  That with the tension created by the spokes means that only the most determined of professional bike thieves are capable of cutting through a wheel rim. And so long as you catch the wheel within the bike frame’s rear triangle with the U-bolt, it’s impossible to separate the wheel from the frame.

I learned this technique from my personal bike guru, the late great Sheldon Brown. His Lock Strategy article is worth a read, as is everything on his comprehensive website.

Yes, thieves can still take your front wheel. But they won’t bother, since the owner of the bike locked next to yours hasn’t read this article, and his rear wheel is available to rip off.


* Note: the City recommends that you lock to the bike post, not the bike ring as pictured above. Thank you to Jody Levine for pointing this out.

The Bike Maven is a Serotta-certified bicycle fitter who lives, works, and cycles in the Annex. Visit his blog at

Read the Bike Maven’s previous article:

For other articles like this, visit the Bike Maven archive.

Ask the Bike Maven: What are the best tires for winter cycling in the city?

In Ask the Bike Maven on December 22, 2010 at 8:56 AM

Photo by Nikolas Masse

By The Bike Maven | Ah, the joys of winter cycling:  the slush, the salt, the snot; the unplowed bike lanes; the frozen fingers…and worse.

If you are thinking the Bike Maven does not enjoy riding his bike in the winter, you would be correct.  Once the snow flies, my steel single speed commuter and the carbon fibre road bike I ride for fitness and recreation are cleaned and lubed and put away until the spring.

Copenhagen Chic by Mikael Colville-Andersen

But that doesn’t mean you should put your bike away too. There are many reasons to cycle all four seasons. They do it in Copenhagen and all over Scandinavia, so why not Toronto? Cycling is still the fastest way to get around the traffic-choked streets.   It saves you money; it’s good for the planet.  And cycling’s health benefits, to relieve stress, maintain leg strength, and to build cardiovascular fitness know no season.

And  Toronto is blessed with many winter days with clear dry roads, which makes cycling a natural.  It’s when the streets aren’t clear and dry that you have to consider whether to leave the bike at home, or to invest in some winter cycling tires to help keep you safe and upright through the worst of winter road conditions.

But what kind of tire to buy?  For snow on top of pavement, a narrow tire with widely spaced treads are best.  The narrow width helps cut through the snow, and the tread gives you traction on snow’s uneven surface to stop you from spinning out.  The wide tread self clears of snow. For wet and/or icy conditions however, the recommendation is just the opposite:  a wide, untreaded slick tire is best to keep maximum amount of rubber in contact with the ice surface.

If money isn’t a concern and you own an extra set of rims and quick-release hubs, you can install a snow tire on one set of rims and an ice tire on the other, and swap them out as conditions demand.  But if you’re like most people, you don’t have the money or the space to keep multiple rims around, and you need a good compromise tire that will perform reasonably well in both snowy and icy conditions.

The inverted tread of the Continental Town & Country tire

When it comes to winter tires, my favourite multi-purpose tire is the Continental Town and Country, which sports a brilliant inverted tread design.  On dry pavement or ice, the tire runs like a slick on the continuous ring of rubber that runs down the centre of the tire (the “contact patch“).   In dirt, slush, or snow, the inverted tread provides added traction.   In my opinion, the Town and Country is the best all-season multi-purpose tire. What a shame it is available only in the 26 inch size most commonly used by mountain bikes and some hybrids.

A word here first about tire sizes.   You’ll see the size of a bike tire embossed into the rubber or printed on the tire’s sidewall, expressed as something like “26 x 1.9” or “700 x 28”.   The first number refers to the diameter of your rim, and the second number refers to the tire’s width.  So in the first example above, the 26 x 1.9 means a tire is 26 inches in diameter and 1.9 inches wide.  Most mountain bikes and many hybrids take 26 inch tires.  The tire described as 700 x 28 means it is 700mm in diameter and 28mm wide. Most road bikes, including touring and cyclecross bikes, and some hybrids take 700mm tires.  But there are many exceptions to the general rule.

For road bikes, many turn to cyclecross tires, or a combination of tires for snowy roads. Generally, the choice is a knobby cyclecross tire up front and a slick tire at the rear.   The late Sheldon Brown was an advocate of mixing tire types this way.  His classic and comprehensive article on tire and tubes is worth a read.  But remember, this particular tire set up will help you in snow, but not ice.  In Toronto, where snow is cleared reasonably quickly from arterial roads at least, snow isn’t the main concern.  Because our weather goes through repeated cycles of thaws and freezes, ice is the biggest challenge to Toronto urban cyclists.  And for ice, many cyclists consider studded tires.

I haven’t ridden studded tires myself, but my friend Richard Fink has been riding them for almost 45 years.  Richard put together his first set of studded tires in 1967 by putting  industrial rivets into the 26 inch tires of  his CCM bike when he was just a boy. “Things worked great for 50 miles” Richard says.  With the hill formed by the old Lake Iroquois shoreline standing between Richard’s home in Cedarvale and his office at Bathurst and Dupont, Richard faces some daunting bike-handling challenges when the roads are icy.  He now runs 700mm Nokian studded tires from Finland on his winter ride, a Lightspeed touring bike.  But even with studded tires, an experienced winter cyclist like Richard still reports at least one fall every winter.

The website Peter White Cycles has one of the best run-downs about studded tires that I’ve read.  If you’re thinking of investing in studded tires, devote some time to giving the entire article a careful reading. “Riding on ice with studded tires is like walking on ice that’s been lightly covered with sand” says White. “It’s pretty safe. You’re not likely to fall unless you do something stupid. You’re not going to have the same traction you would have on dry pavement. But you’re going to have far more than you would with regular tires on ice. Keep in mind that there’s ice down there and you’ll be fine.  Try to be a hero, and you’ll probably pay a price.”  And keep in mind that on clear roads with no snow or ice, your studded tires will be noisy, slow, and won’t handle as well as a conventional tire.  The studs will wear fast on pavement.  Since these tires will run you upwards of $200 a  pair, you want to get as much mileage from them as possible.

Both Schwalbe and Nokian both make good quality carbide-studded tires for both 26inch and 700cm tires.  But the narrowest studded road tire that I’ve come across is the 700 x 32 Nokian A10.  That width will fit many cycle-cross, touring, and hybrid bikes, but not a pure racing road bike;  there won’t be adequate clearance in the front fork or at the rear brakes.

Nokian A10 700 x 32 studded tires from

Where to source your tires?  Your first choice should be to patronize your LBS: local bike shop.  Both Curbside Cycle and Sweet Pete’s carry the Schwalbes, and the obliging Rob Bateman is always willing to order in special items.   But if you can’t find what you want in our West Annex LBS’s, try Mountain Equipment Co-Op for Continental Town and Country and Schwalbe, Duke’s Cycles for Nokian, and Urbane Cyclist for slicks and cyclecross tires.   You can also try mail order with the aforesaid Peter White Cycles.  I’ve also had good luck with, a mail order company based in the U.K. which offers good selection, great prices and prompt delivery on tires, parts and accessories. But if you’re going the mail order route, take care.  If in doubt, order the same size tire that you’re now running on your bike, or seek advice from your local bike shop. They’ll help you measure the clearance in your front fork and back brakes, to make sure you can handle a wider tire.

Schwalbe studded tires for sale at Curbside Cycle

A final word, and that’s about tire pressure. Automobile snow tires improve traction in two ways:  they have an aggressive tread design that grips and then self-clears of snow, and they are made with a special rubber compound that keeps the tire soft and pliable even in sub-zero conditions, helping adhesion to snow and ice.  Bicycle tires have no such special compounds.   For each degree below zero, your bike tire becomes harder and stiffer.  To compensate, many, including the City of Toronto cold weather cycling page recommend that you release some air pressure from your tire.   Release only a little air at a time, and try out how your bike handles, until you find what works for you.  But remember, don’t go below the minimum pressure marked on your tire’s sidewall, or you’ll risk a pinch flat.

These tips, together with a modicum of common sense should keep you out from under the streetcars this winter.  Enjoy your ride, and don’t forget to wave if you see Don Cherry.


The Bike Maven is a Serotta-certified bicycle fitter who lives, works, and cycles in the Annex.

For other articles by this author, visit The Maven archive.

Visit Nikolas Masse‘s and Mikael Colville-Andersen‘s photostreams on Flickr.