Just remember the ABCs of your bike.

It’s understandable that you’re eager to get outside and ride your bike, but before you roll out, take five minutes for a pre-ride check. A properly working bike is not only a fast bike, but a safe one. Ensuring your ride is truly road-ready can make the difference between a ride that ends with a victorious fist pump and one that ends in facial reconstruction surgery.

A pre-ride check isn’t complicated. In fact, it’s as simple as ABC – Air, Brakes, and Chain. Nathan Riddle, Instructor at United Bicycle Institute, breaks down what to check before every ride.

Pre-Ride Check A

Air

Because your only contact point with the ground is through your tires, it’s important to make sure they’re in prime shape to roll. “Proper inflation is key to extracting the best rolling efficiency and speed out of your bike,” says Riddle. “It’s also key to creating traction and control.” Too much pressure, and you’ll lose your grip and rolling efficiency over rough surfaces; too little pressure, and the tire loses stability in corners, is slower on smooth surfaces, and is more susceptible to certain types of flats.

Though there are a lot of variables that factor in to a rider’s “perfect” tire pressure – rider weight, tire volume, rim width, and tire casing, to name a few – the manufacturer PSI recommendations (which you can see here) are a good place to start. From there, experiment with tire pressures until you find what works best for you, and once you know your sweet spot, inflate your tires to that number every time, using a tire pressure gauge – Riddle prefers a digital one for accuracy, but says any gauge will do. What you shouldn’t do, however, is the “thumb test,” or pressing down on your tire to guesstimate the PSI: “I only know one person whose ‘hand-o-meter’ is within 2-3 PSI of a digital tire gauge. Like it or not, the vast majority of us are not finely calibrated tire pressure gauges,” says Riddle.

While you’re handling the tire, also do a quick once-over to check for tread wear, cracks or dry rot in the sidewall, and debris that may be stuck in the tire. Your valve should also be exiting straight out of the rim (not at an angle) and the nut to hold the valve in place should be set properly. Finally, check that the tire is evenly seated where it meets the rim – an improperly seated tire can wobble a bit when rolling or cause a blow-out if the tire pulls off the rim.

Pre-Ride Check B

Brakes

Checking your brakes is more involved than just a quick squeeze on the handlebars, says Riddle:

“First off – and I mean before you even look at your brakes – make sure that your wheels are seated all the way in the frame and fork, and that whatever retains your wheel, be it a quick release or through axle, is properly secured. You wouldn’t believe how many times a person who thinks they need a brake adjustment really just needs their wheel properly installed.”

Once wheel position is verified, spin the wheel. If you have rim brakes, check the condition of the brake track on the rim – your rim wears down, just like your brake pads (albeit a bit slower). This is a safety concern, as the rim can become too weak to support the tire pressures. Next, check the brakes themselves. Start at the caliper – is there sufficient pad material? Is the pad lined up appropriately with the brake track? Is any part of the pad touching the tire? Squeeze the brake levers as hard as you think you’d squeeze them in a panic-stop situation. Did anything change? Did both levers move the distance you wanted them to move? Did either of the brake levers not have a smooth pull? If your brakes aren’t in full working order, consult a mechanic ASAP.

If you’re using disc brakes, pay attention to the rotor. It should be running true, centered between the pads and not rubbing the pads. Next, take a look at the rotor’s braking track – ideally, this will be a silver color. Any rainbow colors or brown-grey discolorations on the braking track could indicate an overheated or contaminated rotor, which can decrease stopping power. Finally, check what Riddle calls the “lines of communication.” Squeeze the brake levers and assess for proper lever travel and lever feel. If you have hydraulic brakes, bump the lever in rapid succession ten times – is there any change in lever feel from beginning to end of this cycle? This could indicate air somewhere in the system that needs to be bled.

Pre-Ride C

Chain

Your chain is made of a lot of little metal pieces, moving against each other under a lot of strain. To keep the chain (and your ride) running smoothly, reducing that strain is key:

“If your chain is run dry, and you hear those squeaking noises coming from it, that is your chain screaming at you that it’s dying,” explains Riddle. “And it’s not going to go out alone. It will drag all the other gears down with it as it goes, ensuring that the next new chain doesn’t fit your old worn out gears. So keeping that chain lubed is going to keep it quiet and happy.”

To lubricate the chain, apply a wet or dry chain lube before every ride: Riddle advises one drop applied to one chain roller at a time. “It’s tedious, especially compared to quickly soaking the chain while pedaling the bike in the stand, but it puts the lube where it needs to be and decreases the messy build-up that does  you no good.” Avoid spray-on lubes, which are messy, wasteful, and easily contaminate braking surfaces. 

While applying chain lube, always inspect your chain for damage. Look for twisted or bent plates, plates that look like they are not connected properly to pins, and stiff links. If anything looks off, err on the side of caution and skip the ride until you can replace the chain. “Chains are also a safety item,” says Riddle “Anyone who has ever had a chain break on them while riding will tell you just how bad it was.”