Bike

Ask A Gear Guru: How Hard Is It To…

Tri bikes are tricky beasts—something that looks simple to adjust can take hours. We break it down so you don’t have a breakdown.

You know it’s time to buckle up when a story starts with “Back in my day,” but back in my day, when I was working on bikes as a kid, then later as a mechanic, things like changing out cables and housing weren’t a chore, it was a treat. Weeks of gritty and sticky shifting could be erased with 15 minutes of cutting, pulling, measuring, and rerunning. In less than an hour, you felt like you had a brand new bike. You could see all of your cables and housing—from your shifters to your brakes—all at one glance. But of course progress often causes complications, and in our race to go faster and be sleeker, the life of the bike shop or home mechanic became much tougher. Cables disappeared into frames, then they were replaced completely—in many instances—by electronic wires for shifting and hydraulic housing for disc brakes.

Today, something as simple as trimming your aerobars or (God forbid) swapping out your base bars can take as much time, if not more, than building a pre-cabled bike. Rather than simply replacing stretched brake cables, you need to get out rubber gloves and hydraulic brake fluid. Changing your bottom bracket used to take 30 minutes and one tool; now it could be literally impossible, assuming you can even figure out the right replacement BB. But fear not! Below we’ve put together a guide to help you decode how long various repairs and adjustments could take, what level of special tool you might need, and if you should just bag it, and take it to your poor, overworked (but now hopefully very appreciated) mechanic—along with however many beverages it would have taken you to do the job.

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Tires/Wheels

How hard is it to change a tire?

Difficulty rating (scale of 1-6 beers): 1 beer
Price of parts required (scale of $-$$$$): $
Amount of tools required (aside from allen keys): 1
Stand or no stand required? No stand

This is one of those things that every triathlete should learn how to do and do it often. The more comfortable you become changing a tire, the easier it’ll be on race day if the unthinkable happens or during that inevitable rainy ride on the grimy truck-traveled road miles away from your house. Don’t skimp on tire levers, get the best you can find, and always lightly inflate the tube before you start to mount the tire bead to the rim (trust us). We won’t detail the process in this article (see blow for a link to the step-by-step instructions), but it only gets easier with practice.

Related: It’s Time to Learn to Fix a Flat Tire

How hard is it to change your cassette?

Difficulty rating (scale of 1-6 beers): 1-3 beers
Price of parts required (scale of $-$$$$): $$
Amount of tools required (aside from allen keys): 2-3
Stand or no stand required? No stand

This is another one many triathletes have to deal with and should probably be able to do at home. If you have a set of race wheels or if you use a wheel-off indoor trainer, there’s a good chance you’ll need to swap out a cassette; if you’ve been riding for more than two years, there’s a good chance you’ll need to replace your cassette (and chain, of course). Simply shift your rear derailleur into the most difficult gear, remove the rear wheel (lay the bike on the ground, hang it somewhere, whatever), and then use a chain whip and the appropriate cassette body socket and wrench to remove the cassette. Make sure you transfer all spacers and cogs (caution: you might need more or less spacers on the new wheel/freehub body), then tighten the cassette lockring with the socket, and put the wheel back on. In many situations, you may need to adjust your rear derailleur, so have another beer or two handy, just in case.

Related: Ask a Mechanic: How to remove and install a cassette

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Shifting/Braking

How hard is it to adjust your derailleur?

Difficulty rating (scale of 1-6 beers): 2 beers
Price of parts required (scale of $-$$$$): $
Amount of tools required (aside from allen keys): 1
Stand or no stand required? Stand

Sometimes adjusting a derailleur can be a little more art than science, but for the most part, it’s not difficult if you really dig into how a derailleur works. You’ll for sure need a stand to let the wheel spin and gears change, and you’ll need small allen keys to adjust the upper and lower limiters. The cable tension barrel adjuster can be tuned by hand, but you’ll definitely need to know what does what (we won’t get into that here). If you’ve got electronic shifting, it can be both more and less complicated, but once you do it, you shouldn’t need to do it again—unless you make a dramatic cassette swap.

Related: How to Adjust Your Rear Derailleur

How hard is it to replace brake (or derailleur) cables?

Difficulty rating (scale of 1-6 beers): 2 beers
Price of parts (scale of $-$$$$): $
Amount of tools required (aside from allen keys): 1
Stand or no stand required? Stand

Though it may seem scary, simply replacing your brake or derailleur cables is not particularly tough. If you leave the housing alone, you won’t need to reroute or measure anything—you only need to find where the cable ferrule is (on the brake lever or shifter lever), expose it, loosen the cable bolt on the brakes or derailleur, pull (zzzzip, it’s fun, trust me!), and rerun a new cable starting where you just pulled the old one. Cut the excess with wire cutters, pop on an end cap, and you’re basically set. Just be sure you have the right size cable—brakes and derailleurs are different widths—and you have the right type of ferrule. From there, it’s just a matter of tightening the bolt and properly adjusting the tension on the brake or derailleur, but we won’t get into that here.

Related: **Member Exclusive** Bike repair basics: Installing and adjusting road brakes

Related: **Member Exclusive** Bike repair basics: Derailleur cable replacement

How hard is it to replace brake (or derailleur) housing?

Difficulty rating (scale of 1-6 beers): 3-6 beers
Price of parts required (scale of $-$$$$): $$
Amount of tools required (aside from allen keys): 2
Stand or no stand required? Stand

Replacing your standard shift or derailleur housing is a little tougher than replacing your cables, but sometimes it’s necessary when they get full of grime, corrosion, or when you need to lengthen, shorten, or change your front end substantially. If you have internal cable routing—like most tri frames do—it could be a little trickier or a lot trickier, depending on whether or not there are housing sleeve guides inside the frame itself. No housing sleeves? You might be fishing around for housing (or a cable if necessary) for a while, increasing this to a six-beer job. There are tricks to make this less horrifying, but that’s beyond the scope of this article. Again, we won’t get into the specifics of this procedure here, but be warned that it could get tricky and time consuming—less so if you have experience.

Related: **Member Exclusive** Bike repair basics: Derailleur cable replacement

How hard is it to bleed hydraulic disk brakes?

Difficulty rating (scale of 1-6 beers): 5 beers
Price of parts required (scale of $-$$$$): $$
Amount of tools required (aside from allen keys): 3+
Stand or no stand required? Stand

This is one that’s probably better suited for a mechanic, simply because it can be frustrating, messy, and requires some very specific tools that depend on your brake setup. The basics involve removing your wheel, installing a brake block, tilting the bike to the perfect angle, opening the reservoir, and then adding/removing fluid and air with a syringe plugged into the caliper body. Obviously there’s more to it than that, and even the order and process can change based on the system. Basically if your disc brakes feel squishy or need to be pulled super hard to engage, take it to the shop.

Related: How to bleed SRAM road disc brakes

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Cranks/Bottom Brackets

How hard is it to replace your cranks?

Difficulty rating (scale of 1-6 beers): 1-2 beers
Price of parts required (scale of $-$$$$): $$$
Amount of tools required (aside from allen keys): Usually 2
Stand or no stand required? No stand

This is one of those surprising swaps that isn’t very hard at all. Assuming you’re replacing your cranks with the same size chainrings (and it fits your BB), you won’t even get through one beer. If you’re going to or from a compact crankset or getting a beefier big ring (look at you!), you’ll need to reach for that second beer and do some front derailleur adjustment up or down on the hangar and loosen or tighten the front derailleur cable. Either way, you’ll need to loosen the crank bolts, then remove any compression cap (in that order), and possibly tap out the crank arm shaft with a mallet or towel-covered hammer. Reverse the process to install! Pro tip: Be sure to remove your pedals first.

How hard is it to replace your bottom bracket?

Difficulty rating (scale of 1-6 beers): 2-6 beers, depending
Price of parts required (scale of $-$$$$): $$$
Amount of tools required (aside from allen keys): 3 or more, depending
Stand or no stand required? No stand (for the simplest)

If you have a threaded bottom bracket with external cups (you’ll know because it has notches for the big wrench you’ll need), then you might be done before you even finish your first beer—assuming the threads haven’t frozen from corrosion. Simply use an allen key and compression cap tool to remove your cranks (it’s surprisingly easy), then pop that bike on the ground and get ready to step on the BB wrench (make sure you’re loosening in the right direction!) to remove. Reverse the operation for the new BB and pray you got the right thread count/size/etc. If you have a press fit or internal BB, basically all bets are off, and bring it to a shop or invest in some fairly pricey tools that you’ll only use a few times.

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Front End/Frame

How hard is it to change your bar tape?

Difficulty rating (scale of 1-6 beers): 1 beer
Price of parts required (scale of $-$$$$): $
Amount of tools required (aside from allen keys): 1
Stand or no stand required? No stand

This is one of those maintenance tasks that triathletes should perform far more often than they usually do, but it’s easy, and sometimes thicker or better bar tape can actually affect how the bike feels. If you’ve got a bike with a rough ride, get your hands (literally) on some gel tape or double wrap your bars. It’s way easier (and cheaper) than getting a new set of carbon wheels, bars, or a new frame. With experience and practice, this can be done in a beer-free afternoon, and while we won’t go into the tricks and tips here, it’s definitely worth doing at home.

Related: How to Wrap a Handlebar

How hard is it to replace your aerobars and/or base bars?

Difficulty rating (scale of 1-6 beers): 5-8 beers, depending
Price of parts required (scale of $-$$$$): $$$
Amount of tools required (aside from allen keys): 2
Stand or no stand required? Stand

This is a swap that can be much, much tougher than it looks, as you’re probably looking at a full cable and housing swap, potentially with the dreaded “housing-remeasure-and-recut.” Multiply the horror factor by two (and get another six pack) if you’re dealing with wired electronic shifting and hydraulic disc brakes. If this is your situation, you suddenly fall right into the bike shop category, unless you’re willing to spend a lot of time, buy more tools than you want, and probably make a mess. Our advice: Go to the shop; be prepared for side-eye when you walk in.

How hard is it to swap frames?

Difficulty rating (scale of 1-6 beers): 12-pack
Price of parts required (scale of $-$$$$): $$$$
Amount of tools required (aside from allen keys): A lot
Stand or no stand required? A really really good stand

Basically if you’re reading this article for instruction and not simple entertainment, do not try to do this on your own: The potential for part incompatibility alone is enough to turn this into a weekslong project, and even then, there’s a lot of on-the-fly “improvising” that requires lots of mechanical experience around lots of different kinds of bikes. Building a bike up from new parts and a frame in a box is one thing, but swapping parts is a whole other beast. If you have your eye on a new frameset and are thinking about swapping parts, just be prepared for a pretty costly bike shop visit and some additional purchases along the way.