No-Fear DIY Bike Fixes

A bike instructor's tried-and-true advice

Dylan Robbins is an instructor at the United Bike Institute—a 30-year-old industry institution in Oregon and the leading technical school for would-be bike mechanics and frame builders. Let this wise mustachioed mentor give you a brief (free!) education in bike repair:

Who are you?
If Mr. Miyagi were a skinny white dude who taught people how to properly adjust V-brakes instead of how to perform the Crane Kick, I would be that Mr. Miyagi.

What’s your history/background in bike mechanics?
I've been working with bikes in a professional capacity off and on since 1998. I got my first job as a mechanic in a shop in Austin, TX, to help support a serious bike parts addiction. It was the '90s, and I was strung out on anodized purple anything. It wasn't pretty. What started as a part-time gig anointing chains turned into a bona fide career. I tried to get out of the bike industry a couple of times, but it's like the mafia: You can't ever leave. You come home and find a severed headset in your bed, and I guarantee you'll have second thoughts about a career change.

What's UBI about?
We are one of the few places in the world where cycling enthusiasts, mechanics of all skill levels and aspiring frame-builders can come to learn real-world skills in a relaxed, professional environment. We've been around for over 30 years, which means we're probably due for a mid-life crisis. So if you see UBI driving a Pontiac Fiero and flirting with a younger career school, don't judge.

Who takes classes there?
We get students from all over the world, from every demographic. Retirees looking for a second career, avid cyclists who want to be more self-sufficient, working mechanics who want to refine their skills: We see it all. Because we're approved by the VA to accept veteran education benefits, we're starting to see more vets come through, which is pretty amazing. Thankfully things have evolved past the all-dude-revue days of yore, and more and more women are enrolling in mechanics and framebuilding classes.  There may be hope for the bike industry yet.

What’s it like to work at the bike school?
I keep on expecting my alarm to go off and confirm my suspicion that it's all been a fantastic dream. I love going to work every morning and interacting with people who are genuinely excited to be there. It is a never-ending stoke-fest of heroic proportions.

When you worked in a bike shop, what were the simplest things people come in to have fixed?
My favorite was the customer who came in frantic about the missing valve cap on their tube, certain that its absence had transformed his bicycle into a rolling deathtrap.

What’s one bike repair best left to professionals?
There are a few procedures, such as facing the headtube and bottom bracket shell, that require some pretty expensive specialized tools. The amount you would save by just having the shop do it instead of investing in a tool you're only going to use once or twice makes good fiscal sense. Plus, cutting oil smells grody.

What encouragement can you offer the non-mechanically inclined who might be scared to mess with their bike?
Every time I teach a class about derailleurs I have my students recite the following affirmation/mantra: "The derailleur has no power over me. I am smarter than the derailleur." That goes for every part on the bike. Ultimately, human beings designed this machine. As such, all of us, as human beings, have the capacity to understand it.

Do you have any secret tricks or a signature move?
Secret trick numero uno: Instead of reflexively throwing away the instructions that come with a component, actually read them. They will fill your mind with a veritable geyser of knowledge and prevent you from making potentially expensive mistakes. I call that move "The LeVar Burton." Reading Rainbow 4 Lyfe.

What’s your mechanical motto?
Leverage is your friend with benefits.

And now, one simple tip to help you get started on these fixes:

  • Patching a tube: Hey, you over there who just put glue on your punctured tube. What's the hurry, champ? Why you got to go and slap that patch on there before that glue has had a chance to dry a bit? That glue doesn't like to be rushed. It must mellow, take on a dull, milky appearance before you go get all slap happy with the patch. Patience, grasshopper. Click here for more on how to patch a tube.
  • Tuning a rear derailleur: Put the screwdriver down. If your derailleur is clattering like a fork in a garbage disposal, 99 percent of the time those limit screws aren't going to help you. Think of the limit screws as the electric fence for your dog: They only tell the derailleur how far it's allowed to wander. Everything in between is done with adjusting cable tension. Click here for more on how to tune a rear derailleur.
  • Checking your chain for wear/replacing it: Get one of them new-fangled chain wear indicators. Ultimately, that's the best way to assess chain wear. The old-school method of taking off the chain and measuring it over its entire length might be more accurate, but it opens up the possibility of re-installing a chain incorrectly. Click here for more on measuring and replacing your bike chain.
  • Repairing squeaky brakes: Squeaky brakes are often caused by flex in the brake arms, which set up high-frequency oscillations. In physics they call these, “Schallamach Waves.” Step one: Using your best Gandalf-y voice declare, "RELEASE THE SCHALLAMACH!" Step two: Set up your brake pads with a slight bit of toe-in, where the leading edge of the brake pad contacts the rim slightly before the trailing edge. This helps reduce oscillations and noise. Click here for more on how to fix your squeaky brakes.