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Bicycle Maintenance and Riding by “Feel”: Know Thy Steed(s)


Over the winter I had a new chain put on the Venge.  I also took the steering assembly (head set) apart, had it cut down then cleaned it up, lubed it and put the front end back together.  I also completely cleaned and lubed every component on the bike that could need it….

Saturday two weeks ago I took the Venge out for a spin with my wife and buddy, Phill.  On the way home my saddle didn’t feel right…  It was squishy.  We stopped by the local bike shop to say hi and I looked at my saddle.  This is what I saw:


No big deal, right?  Well, I’m sitting there wondering what would make the leather rip like that…  Sure enough:


I was lucky, the shop had the exact make and model (even year) in stock.  I had the new one put on and we were on our way.  You’d think with the saddle busted like that, it would be quite flimsy but it’s not.  I have to squeeze quite hard just to get it to separate by a few millimeters (as I did in the photo above).  It sure felt weird sitting on it though.

A few days later, after going through and making sure every bolt on the bike was properly torqued down, I headed out to the club ride.  Now, the ride is fast and requires a little bit of brake from time to time in order to bleed speed to maintain a safe distance in the pace line.  So after two hours in the saddle on that bike the other day, on the club ride I noticed a mild pulsation in the front brake when I hit it at high speeds.  Even with a mild wobble in the rim (which I don’t have), brakes don’t do that.  I knew what the problem was though.  The headset was just a smidge loose from when I’d cleaned and lubed it.  Not loose enough that the brake test would show it, but the brake applied lightly at 28 mph, it was fairly obvious something wasn’t right.  I loosened the stem bolts and tightened the stem cap a little more than an eighth of a turn.  Problem solved.  Or so I thought.  It happened again so last weekend I took apart the whole front end again and found a problem with the way I’d installed the collar that fits into the fork – it was sticking up two millimeters.  To get into how I fixed it will be quite long and drawn out and rather unnecessary for this post.  Once I realized the mistake I’d made, fixing it and getting the bike back together took ten minutes.  Now the front end is solid as a rock again.  What’s important is that I didn’t assume that I was being too sensitive and I didn’t ride a bunch of miles like that before looking into it which could have ruined my headset if I’d let it go for too long.

I’ve got some serious miles on both the Venge and the Trek and I know them intimately enough that if anything is a little bit off I can feel it.  If the shifting is off, as happens with a lot of miles, I know it.  Also, I know of something doesn’t quite feel right, it probably isn’t. The trick is to trust my instincts. That and know one important rule: If I don’t know, ask.

My dad used to tell me, the trick to driving in the snow is to feel the road with my butt. Cycling is the same idea, feel the bike through my shorts, with my feet and my hands, the contact points.  My bikes are well cared for so they should not feel funny in any way…

Last season, my wife and I had just gotten back from a ride and I did her the favor of taking her bike inside.  We have a small step-up to our porch and I always let the front wheel lightly hit that step rather than lift the front end up because if anything in the front end is loose, I’ll feel it when the tire hits the step.  Sure enough, her headset had some slop in it and I immediately tightened it back up.  I mentioned that I’d tightened it later that day and my wife responded by thanking me and adding that something didn’t feel right but she didn’t know what it was.  My friends, if you don’t know, ask.

Getting the lingity down when dealing with bikes can be tough, I know this as well as anyone (I wasn’t a noob all that long ago – and to many seasoned cyclists I still am a noob).  No doubt it can seem a little daunting going into a bike shop when you know something’s wrong but you can’t quite articulate what it is.  Doing nothing is the wrong thing to do.

The right thing is to suck it up and push through it. Eventually your vocabulary will catch up, it just takes a little time and effort…  And don’t feel bad if you don’t get all of the lingity down – I’m still corrected on a fairly regular basis at the shop.


  1. Archetype says:

    The ‘feel’ is what separates top moto/car/bike racers apart. In fact that same piece of advice your father gave you, was what I was given when I began racing. After decades of cultivating my own ‘feel’, I can say that like you Jim, I have a very acute sense of what a vehicle is doing, on 2 or 4 wheels. Not only important for knowing the limits of your machine, but as you point out, it is vital to when something is ‘off’ and just not right.


  2. samosarider says:

    I never thought I would ask this but how easy is it to crack a saddle.? I never even heard of someone cracking one.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Late last summer I hit a pothole so hard I put five stress fractures in my rear wheel and busted a bottle cage. If was a bad one. I believe that was the beginning of the saddle. The other day, when the saddle finely gave way, I hit a bump just right, just a tiny one, and the saddle felt off right away.

    • MJ Ray says:

      Harder than you’d think. I smacked through a pothole last year hard. Stayed on the bike somehow but crashed down onto the saddle with the backs of my thighs hard enough to bruise them almost knee to bum for over a week. The saddle was fine and is still in use. I’m amazed that crash only did minor damage to the bike and only bruised me: I thought it was a wheel buckler and would not have been surprised to finish in the ditch beside the road. They’re tough things, bikes.

      • samosarider says:

        what kind of frame do you ride? I’m guessing steel. Carbon(even alloys) usually don’t live through such hard hits.

      • MJ Ray says:

        I usually ride steel but that particular crashdown was on a 7005(I think) aluminium alloy frame. The saddle was a Brooks Flyer, so not exactly a lightweight racing snake saddle, though.

  3. MJ Ray says:

    Amen. And remember that even when you’ve been doing this a few years (who am I kidding? A few decades 😉 ), you’re not fixing stuff every day (hopefully), so you will still sometimes forget names of parts or meet new and interesting failures!

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