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Perfect Your Mechanical Skills Before Race Season Begins

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You’ve got your training and nutrition strategy dialed. But there’s another element to being a successful triathlete: mechanical skills. As you prepare for your next season, work on improving your wrench skills in the following areas.

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The Basics

Fix a flat. It’s every novice (and sometimes experienced) triathlete’s nightmare, but it doesn’t need to be. Ask your local bike shop when they are offering their next flat-changing clinic, or tap an experienced fellow cyclist to show you how. Then practice in the comfort of your own garage before your luck runs out far from home or during an important race. If you have tubeless tires on your rig, it’s super important you understand the process involved in removing a tubeless tire (it’s tough). The good news is that in a pinch (no pun intended), you can put a regular tube in a tubeless tire if it gets critically punctured. Just be prepared to wrestle with the tire (and get a little messy).

Adjust rear derailleur. Most bikes have a small barrel adjuster where the cable housing meets the rear derailleur. If your shifting is not spot-on, shift into the middle cog in the back, then try turning the barrel a quarter-click at a time in either direction until shifting improves. If you’ve tried a full rotation in both directions and shifting is still subpar, ask your go-to mechanic to fix it while you watch on.

Remove pedals. If you plan to travel for a triathlon, you should know how to do this. Many pedals can be removed with a simple Allen wrench, while others may require a specific pedal wrench (most cost about $20). Again, ask your local shop which tool will work best and to show you how to remove and reinstall your pedals. Be sure to use grease on the axle and don’t over-tighten them.

Change bar tape. This simple upgrade should be done regularly so that your sweaty hands do not lose grip during sharp cornering or when hitting a bump in the road. New tape is also one of the cheapest ways to keep your bike looking spiffy and new, and clean is fast!

Tune brakes. Triathletes who use different wheelsets for training and racing should learn how to adjust their bike’s brake calipers to account for different rim widths. Although some newer tri bike frames hide the brakes from plain view, you should still be able to access them and simply turn the barrel adjuster to widen or tighten the brake pads.

RELATED: Do-It-Yourself Bike Tune-Up: A 5-Step Checklist

Next Level Know-How

Swap a cassette. If you train and race on assorted terrain, then you may want to change your cassette based on topography. While a widely spaced 11-28 is nice for hilly rides, you may prefer a tightly spaced 12-23 for rides and races on flatter roads. Your area bike shop will stock the tools you need and carry a selection of reasonably priced cassettes ($50 on up) and can show you how to swap them out.

Replace cables and housing. Even if you have the cleanest bike with the nicest shifters and derailleurs, they won’t shift or stop worth a damn if the cables and housing are full of gunk, kinked, or overly stretched. You can’t adjust your way to better shifting and braking if you need to replace your housing (the plastic-looking tubes that run to your brakes and derailleurs) or your cables (the wire-looking things inside the housing itself. Replacing just the cables are a pretty easy job, but unfortunately it’s typically better to replace the housing as well. The good news? It’ll cost you very very little to do yourself.

Bleed hydraulic brakes. Disc brakes have recently become all of the rage, and for good reason: Disc brakes stop better, more consistently, and in more extreme conditions. They’re also far easier to maneuver when it comes to changing or removing a wheel. The thing that’s not easy about them? Installation and bleeding the hydraulic lines. Unless you’ve learned from an experienced mechanic, worked on motorcycle brakes, or are super ambitious, bleeding your hydraulic brake lines is something probably best left to a pro. If your brakes feel “spongy” aren’t stopping as hard as they used to (or barely at all with full pull), bring those into a shop ASAP.

Remove a crankset. This surprisingly simple task is critical if you own a crank-based power meter like an SRM or Sram Quarq and like to use it on more than one bike. This skill can also be handy for cleaning your bike, travel and storage. A $12 crank removal tool and a 5mm hex key is all you need to get the job done for many crank types (some require additional tools).

True a wheel. Wheelsets these days withstand quite a pounding and still spin true most of the time, but an out-of-balance wheel can be annoying and slow. Pick up a spoke wrench ($5) at your local bike shop, along with a few tips about how to use it, and make the minor adjustments needed with your wheels still on your bike, using the brake pads to guide your progress.

Tighten the headset. If the front of your bike shutters and shakes when you brake, then you likely have a loose headset. Loosen the bolts on the sides of the stem, then tighten the cap on top by going about as tight as you are able with one hand, and then back it off about a quarter-turn before realigning the bars and retightening the stem bolts.

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