The Amphibious Paddler
All Systems Go! The Pre-Ride Check
By Tamia Nelson
February 1, 2005
The days are getting noticeably longer now in
the northern latitudes, and a lot of paddlers are starting to look ahead to
ice-out. I'm no exception. I'm already making plans for spring. And a lot of
those plans mix bikes and boats. This got me rethinking my usual pre-trip
Of course, no prudent canoeist or kayaker launches without doing a
prefloat check. Then, at trip's end, we follow up with an informal
debriefing. Taken together, these help us stay organized and keep out of
trouble, making it much less likely that we'll forget essential gear or
neglect critical maintenance. But as important as these checks are for all
canoeists and kayakers, they're sometimes not enough. Amphibious paddlers,
boaters who travel to and from their put-in on a bicycle, need to do more.
Why? That's easy. A bike especially one that's hauling
gear or pulling a
trailer along a forest road is a complex machine operating under
extreme load in a hostile environment. If just one critical part fails, it
means trouble. Luckily, most mechanical problems are easy to fix, even in
the backcountry. But who wants to begin (or end) a trip with an unscheduled
stop for repairs? I'd rather fix what's broke at home, instead of on the
trail. That's why I do a
The idea's the same as in a prefloat
check. You want to stop trouble before it starts. So look your bike
over to be sure everything is in working order before you head out.
- Tires. Look for cuts, bulges, or badly worn tread.
Dig out any small pieces of embedded glass or bits of sharp metal. And check
tire pressures. You'll need a gauge that fits your valves. If you don't have
one, now's the time to get it. The recommended inflation pressures are
embossed on the sidewalls of most tires. They're flexible guides. Lower
pressures are best on soft stuff like mud and sand (or snow, come to that).
Higher pressures are better for firm surfaces like pavement and hard-packed
dirt. Gravel roads fall somewhere in the middle. Here's the logic. Low
pressure improves traction and softens the ride, but it also makes you work
harder and leaves your wheel rims vulnerable to damage, as well as making
flats more likely. High pressure makes pedaling easier and protects your
rims, but it hurts traction in sloppy going and transmits every bump in the
road right up your spine.
Since I usually stick to jeep trails and forest roads, and since my forks
soak up much of the shock when the going gets rough, I run close to the
maximum recommended pressures. Your needs may differ. It's a good idea to
experiment near home. And don't forget to check your minipump, while you're
at it. It's a real pain to discover that your pump has lost its puff only
after you get a flat. I know.
- Chain. Spin the pedals slowly while you hold the
rear wheel off the ground. (A workstand makes this easy.) If the chain is
obviously rusty or clotted with gunge, if it squeaks, or if it kinks when
going through the rear derailleur, it needs to be cleaned and lubed. A
little surface rust on the outer plates is no big deal, but it's best to err
on the side of caution. Don't lube a dirty chain. Clean it first. You
can do the job while the chain's still on the bike. Use WD-40®, an old
toothbrush, and a rag, or spritz on detergent solution from a spray bottle.
(If you opt for detergent, spray the chain with WD-40® when you're
done, to displace any water that's found its way into the rollers.) Clean
the rear cog, the two small wheels on the rear derailleur, and the
Once the clean chain is dry, lube it. Household oils like 3-in-One®
aren't much good here. Choose an "all-weather" chain lube, instead. Avoid
dry lubes. They're great on the road when it doesn't rain, but not so good
on wet forest trails. Chainsaw bar oil will work in a pinch, and it's cheap,
though cost really isn't a problem. You won't be using gallons of the stuff.
In fact, since oil holds dirt, less is more. Put a small drop of lube on
each roller, and wipe the chain down with an oily rag. That's it.
If your chain starts squeaking when you're on the trail, it probably
means it's dry. A small spray can of WD-40® will silence the squeak
temporarily, as well as freeing up any stuck links. But don't expect this
quick fix to last long. The oil in WD-40® is very light. There's
no substitute for proper lubrication.
- Drivetrain. Your cassette it's a freewheel
on older or cheaper bikes should run smoothly, as should the jockey
and tension wheels on the rear derailleur. If not, try dripping in a little
light oil. The stuff you used on your chain will do fine. If this doesn't
put things right, you'll have to flush out any gunge and relube. It's a big
job. Don't plan on doing it on the trail.
Check the bottom bracket, too. It should spin easily with no obvious
shake. (What's "shake"? Grab both crank arms and push-pull. Do you feel a
little click with each tug? That's shake.) If it binds or grinds, or if
there's noticeable shake, and if your bike has an "old-fashioned"
cup-and-cone bottom bracket, try adjusting the play first. Then try
relubing. WARNING! This is NOT a job you want to do on the road. If you have
sealed bearings, you're in luck. They shouldn't require any attention until
they fail. Then you'll have to replace them.
- Derailleurs. Work through the gears. Watch for
overshoot. You don't want to throw the chain into the spokes when you shift
down into your lowest gear. The other side of the coin hesitant
shifting is almost as annoying. Either way, lube and adjust as
- Brakes. These are important, especially in the
mountains or in heavy traffic anywhere. Spin the wheels and apply the
brakes. Smooth stop? Good. Or do the brakes drag, bind, or slip? Not good.
Inspect and adjust. Be sure your brake levers don't bottom out against the
bars, too. If you'll be wearing heavy gloves, you'll want at least one inch
of clearance when the brakes are applied. Otherwise, three-quarters of an
inch will do. But no less. Adjust as needed.
- Wheels. While you're spinning your wheels to check
the brakes, look at the wheel rims. Are they centered? They should be. Do
they wobble from side to side or hop up and down? If there's more than an
eighth of an inch (3mm) of slop in either direction, you'll need to "true"
the affected wheel. This is one job you'll probably want to leave to a pro
and not just any pro. If you're still determined to do it yourself,
first get a good repair manual and a junk wheel to practice on. And when
you're ready to tackle your working wheels, take your time.
That's not all. If the brakes aren't dragging, both wheels should come to
rest slowly and smoothly after being given a spin, with the heaviest bit
usually the spoke with the reflector ending up on the bottom
after a period of back-and-forth oscillation. (The freewheel pawls will
prevent the rear wheel from oscillating, but it should still coast smoothly
to a stop somewhere past bottom dead center.) If not, you need to back off
the cones. On the other hand, if the rims wiggle when you shake them from
side to side try it the cones are too loose. Tighten them.
One more thing: Make absolutely certain that the quick releases or
nuts that hold your wheels in place are secure. Being up the creek
without a paddle is nothing compared to hurtling down a hill without a
- Handlebars, Stem, and Headset. Except for the
headset, which should turn easily without excessive shake if the
bearings are too loose, you'll probably hear a sharp knock when you brake
hard tight is right here. You wouldn't drive a car with a loose
steering wheel, would you?
- Pedals. Spin the pedals. If they don't spin freely,
and if they have cup-and-cone bearings, try adjusting the cones first. If
that doesn't fix the problem, they'll need to be overhauled
disassembled, cleaned, and greased. Be careful. The ball bearings are tiny,
and if you lose just one, your pedal is out of action.
Make sure the pedal is screwed tight into the crank, too. WARNING! The
left-hand pedal usually has a left-hand thread. It tightens
- Saddle. Is the saddle at the right height? Does it
have the proper amount of tilt? Reference marks make checking easy. (Use ink
or paint. Do NOT scribe lines in the seatpost with an awl.) If the seatpost
is fitted with a quick-release, double-check that it's tight.
- Impedimenta. Be sure that everything attached to
the bike is securely fastened. Pay special attention to the rack(s), bottle
cages, and reflectors. And check that your tool kit is where it should be.
If you'll be pulling a trailer, its tires and wheels need the same care that
the tires and wheels on the bike get. You'll also want to be sure the hitch
- The Load. Go through your gear list to be sure you
haven't forgotten anything. Check that the load is well-balanced. (Optimal
load distribution varies from bike to bike. Experiment near home, well in
advance of any long trip.)
Don't know where to look for your freewheel or what a seatpost is? Best
get a good repair manual. Until you do, though, this should put you in the
OK. You're ready to hit the trail, but don't stop listening and looking.
As soon as you get under way, check the brakes. Then, as you pedal along,
pay attention to any strange sound or unusual vibration, and be alert for
any change in steering or braking performance. Mechanical problems don't go
away by themselves. At the first sign of trouble, stop as quickly as
possible and put things right well out of the way of traffic.
Trip's over? It's time to "debrief" your bike. Unload your gear first.
Then remove water bottles, bags, and pump. Now
Road dust can be ignored, but mud and grit should be washed off every
part of your bike, even the brake blocks. The trailer, too. I use ordinary
dishwashing detergent in a hand-operated pump sprayer, along with a bucket,
a sponge or rag, and a stiff brush (for wheels and tires). I'm thorough, but
I'm also careful not to spray water directly into the freewheel or bearings.
If the chain is dirty it almost always is I clean and lube it,
along with the derailleurs, cogs, and chainrings. I inspect the tires and
wheels minutely as I clean them, using a hand lens
when necessary, and probing all cuts (very carefully) with the point of a penknife
to dislodge any leftover glass. (WARNING! These tiny, sharp sherds often fly
out with surprising force. After one bounced off my nose, I started wearing
safety glasses. I'd suggest you do the same.)
When I'm done washing off all the muck, I make a mental note of any chips
or dings in the finish for later retouching. Then I repeat the mechanical
checks on my pre-ride list, noting everything that requires attention. I
make any necessary repairs as soon as possible, replacing wearing items
brake blocks, chain, tires well before they're "worn out." I
also overhaul all bearings regularly: pedals every few months, wheels twice
a year, bottom bracket and headset annually. Some of this work is
doubtlessly unnecessary, but it's worth it. On-the-trail repairs are no fun.
Worried that you aren't mechanically inclined? Don't be. By comparison
with cars and motorcycles, bikes are wonderfully easy to work on. Get a good
book, a basic tool kit, and a workstand. And begin with easy jobs.
Overhauling an old-style cup-and-cone pedal is a great way to learn how
bearings go together, for example. Tackle more complicated jobs when you
feel ready, buying specialized tools only as you need them. There's not much
point in owning a tool you can't use, after all.
Sound time-consuming? It can be. My first wheel-bearing overhaul took me
three hours, and Farwell took three days to get his bottom bracket
working properly. But these jobs now take us only a fraction of the time
they once did, and a properly maintained bike needs surprisingly little
unscheduled repair. In fact, if you do your post-ride "debriefing"
religiously and clean your bike thoroughly after every trip, you'll find
that your pre-trip checks take only a few minutes at most just long
enough to top up the tires, check the brakes, and spin the wheels. It's time
paddling can be a blast. As long as you don't let it become a bust, that
is. So get into the habit of doing pre-trip and post-trip checks, just like
you do with your boat and paddling gear. Draw up a list. Then follow
through, making sure all systems are go before you pedal off down the road
to your put-in. It's the secret of a trouble-free trip.
"Down the road to the put-in." Just writing the words makes my pulse
race. I can't wait for spring!
Copyright © 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights