Six Things To Check Before Your First Spring Mountain Bike Ride
Ah, spring. That magical time of year when mountain bikers emerge from hibernation to cough and wheeze up their first singletrack climbs, usually after a winter spent sitting on chairlifts, drinking too much beer, and eating too much queso dip. (Or maybe the author of this blog is just projecting.)
Regardless, when the snow starts melting and the trees start blooming, the stoke is understandably high to get back on the trails and feel your tires rolling underneath you. But before you go charging out the door to your favorite trailhead, you should spend a few minutes making sure your bike and a few other things are all good to go. Read on for our list of the top six things you should be checking before your first ride of the season.
Check Your Bolts (All Of Them)
Mountain biking tends to be, well, bumpy. And that means bolts can slowly work themselves loose over time, leading to everything from minor headaches to catastrophic failures. To prevent either of those, spend several minutes with a multitool or set of hex wrenches making sure the bolts on your frame, cockpit, and components are all nice and snug.
Check your chainring bolts, your derailleur bolts, your disc rotor bolts, and the bolts that hold your brake calipers in place. As for the cockpit, inspect the pinch bolts and faceplate bolts on your stem, checking for even tension on each side. It’s also a good idea to check your pivot bolts if you’ve got a full-suspension bike.
The one bolt you don’t want to snug down is your headset top cap. Overtightening this bolt can cause your steering to bind. If your headset feels loose, loosen your stem’s pinch bolts fully, then turn the top cap around a quarter-turn before retightening your stem. You should be able to move the bars back and forth freely without any grinding or seizing.
Best-case, you have a torque wrench and can tighten everything exactly to the manufacturer's specifications, but if not, just use some common sense and you’ll be fine. (Snug is good, but if you’re making grunting noises—maybe calm down a little there, Hulk.)
Check & Lube Your Drivetrain
There’s nothing quite like pulling up to the trailhead, unloading your bike, and realizing on the first climb that your gears sound like a garbage disposal with a rusty spoon trapped inside. Make sure you throw on a quick coat of your favorite chain lube before the first ride of the season to keep your drivetrain running quiet and smooth. It’s also smart to shift up and down your entire gear range to make sure everything is functioning properly and help you spot any slow shifts or skipped gears.
Many minor shifting issues can be corrected with slight adjustments to your shifter’s barrel adjusters or your derailleur’s limit screws. If you haven’t adjusted your own shifting before, there are many helpful tutorials available (we recommend Park Tool’s videos)—just remember that small adjustments go a long way. And if you feel like you’re in over your head, don’t be hesitant to ask for help from your local shop.
Check Your Brakes
Straight from the journal of Captain Obvious, it’s generally advisable to make sure your brakes are functioning properly before you pedal to the top of a large hill. Give your brake pads a quick look to make sure they’ve got plenty of material left, and double check that your brakes are in good working order, with no leaking fluid or other funny business.
If your levers feel squishy or bubbly when you pull them toward your bars, try riding up and down your street and gently cycling them a few times to see if they return to normal. If the issue persists, you may need a brake bleed and should probably hold off on your first ride until you can either do it yourself or take your bike to your local mechanic.
If your tires are picking up any more mud than this, you might need to reevaluate your ride plan.
Check Your Wheels & Tires
Of course you’ll want to check your tires for proper air pressure, but if your bike uses tubeless tires and has been sitting unridden all winter, you may also need to add some tire sealant. It tends to dry up slowly over time, and you don’t want to be walking back to the car because your tubeless system doesn’t have enough sealant left to plug holes due to thorns or other minor punctures. Adding sealant is simple—all you’ll need to do is fully deflate your tires, remove the valve cores from your stems, and squeeze in 1-2 ounces per tire, before reinstalling your valve stems and reinflating your tires. No need to fully remove your tires or mess with breaking the bead on your tubeless system.
In addition to your tires themselves, check the spokes on your wheels for even tension all the way around. If you find a loose spoke or two, you can tighten them yourself with a quarter-turn from a spoke wrench, but be careful here—overtightening can cause your wheel to get out of true or become egg-shaped. Wheel tension is one of those things that can be best left to a trained mechanic if you’re not sure what you’re doing.
Finally, whether your bike uses bolted through-axles or quick-release levers, make 100% sure your wheels are securely tightened in the dropouts before you even take a test ride around the neighborhood. Wheelies are awesome, but only when you’re planning on doing one. They’re not so much fun when your front wheel decides to take itself for a spin down the trail separately from the rest of your bike.
Check Your Bottles & Bladders
If your hydration pack or bottles have been sitting with your leftover sports-drink backwash for the last several months, you’ll want to give them a good deep-cleaning (assuming they haven’t already grown legs and tried to escape to a more nurturing home). Don’t forget to wash the hose and nozzle of your hydration bladder, either. Warm water and dish soap should do the trick just fine. Once you’ve rinsed all the soapy water out, be sure to give it a cool-water rinse to get rid of any lingering soap residue, before hang-drying somewhere with good airflow.
If soapy water isn’t quite cutting it, or you're noticing a weird plastic-y smell, you can fill your bottle or bladder most of the way up and add a spoonful of baking soda. Let it sit for an hour or so and rinse thoroughly, and any remaining funk should be gone.
There's nothing like the first sunny ride of the year after a long, cold winter.
Check the Trail Conditions
In addition to making sure your bike is good to go, you’ll want to do the same thing for your local trail network, as spring is a particularly sensitive time for bike trails. Snowy or wet winters can turn your favorite trails into sloppy mud bogs—and while it might make you feel like a badass to ride in muddy conditions, you could do real damage to the trail that makes the rest of the riding season a lot less fun for everyone else. Nobody likes getting their wheel stuck in ruts left behind by somebody who just couldn't wait for the trails to dry out properly.
Bike shops usually have up-to-date intel as to what trails are good to go and which ones will be Paleozoic mud pits until they get a little more sun. Be patient. As a general rule, if mud is sticking to more than the tops of the knobs on your tires, or your tires are leaving visible ruts in the dirt, the soil is too soft and you should probably turn around.
Now that your bike’s good to go, the trails are ready to ride, and your hydration system doesn’t qualify as a biohazard, you’re ready to get the mountain bike season started off right. Have fun, remember to yield to hikers and animals, and try your best to keep the rubber side down.
TJ Parsons is a semi-reformed snowboard bum who now has a semi-adult career as a professional writer and creative. He's a self-proclaimed perpetual intermediate who thinks the outdoors are for everyone, and who wants to help dismantle gatekeeping and elitism in outdoor sports. When he's not squeezing brain juice into a keyboard, you'll find him riding boards or bikes throughout the Intermountain West.
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