Mountain biking is the hardest type of riding. It’s speeding over sharp gravel and gnarled tree roots, landing hard after launching over the crest of an incline, and powering through deep puddles and thick mud. Consequently, MTBs are the toughest, most resilient bikes around.
Because of this, owners can be lulled into a sense of complacency when it comes to upkeep. It’s fine for a mountain bike to be mud spattered, right?
So what if the steering feels a bit gritty or the chain is rattling, it’s a tough bike, it can take it — right?
The truth is, the harder the ride, the more care should be shown to the steed.
MTBs can take a lot of punishment, but they have limits, and they will reach them much faster if they are not treated to proper maintenance and care. In other words, MTBs should be treated to regular tune-ups.
Not sure what that means? Let’s start with the basics.
What Does Mountain Bike Tune Up Consist Of?
An MTB tune-up is all about preventive maintenance and upkeep. While there are parts of your mountain bike that are under more stress than others.
A good tune up is about checking the entire bike for signs of wear and tear.
On the upkeep side of things, a thorough cleaning is always part of any tune-up. This is necessary not just because dirt and grit can cause damage, but because they can conceal existing damage.
The application of lube is another part of upkeep, to keep the chain and other moving parts operating smoothly. Then the tires should be checked to ensure they are at the proper PSI.
Once clean, everything should be inspected for rust, wear, and damage. This includes all components, the tires, frame, fork, headset, and drivetrain.
Parts that are at or nearing the end of their operational life, like brake pads or rotors, can be identified and replaced, and light damages can be repaired before they become dangerous or expensive.
Lastly, every component needs to be tested to ensure it functions smoothly.
Each gear should be tried, as well as the brake levers, and suspension. Tightening or replacing cables, and recalibrating suspension will correct any issues that arise.
11 Point Maintenance Checklist for Mountain Bike
1 Clean the Bike Thoroughly
This should be your first step. You’ll want to have a couple microfiber towels handy, as well as a stiff-bristle brush for getting into the nooks and crannies, and degreaser if your chain is very dirty.
A heavily soiled bike can be sprayed with water to wash away crusted mud and grit without risk of scratching your paint. Just be sure to dry everything completely, and to remove all the degreaser if you use it.
2 Inspect the Wheels
Once everything is cleaned and dried, start your inspection at the bottom, with the wheels.
Check the tires for low pressure. If it is very low, search carefully for leaks. If they are found, patch them if possible, or replace the tires.
Also check the spokes for damage and proper tension. If the spokes or rim are misaligned, you’ll need to “true” the wheels, or have a professional do it.
3 Check the Brakes
While you’re on the wheels, check the brakes. For rim brakes, check the pads to see if the wear lines are showing. Make sure there is no rust or damage to the calipers or cables.
It can be tough to see wear lines on disc brake pads, but you should replace them if they are worn down to less than 1 mm. Check your rotors as well. A good rule of thumb is to replace them with the 2nd or 3rd pad.
4 Inspect the Chain
Without proper care, a chain can degrade faster than you might expect. When cleaning, if your chain isn’t actually dirty, don’t bother with the degreasing. Whether you do or not, you should check it for rust or damage.
If the chain doesn’t need to be repaired or changed out, make sure it is properly lubricated. Use dry lube if you generally ride on dry terrain, or wet lube if you’re more likely to hit trails heavy with mud and moisture.
5 Inspect the Drivetrain
After the chain, you can inspect the rest of the drivetrain. Look at the cassette, making sure the gears are straight and the teeth aren’t too worn down, as that could lead to a slipped chain.
The pedals should still have their non-slip tread, and the cranks should turn without grinding or hitching. Rotate them, both watching and feeling the chain run through the derailleur. It should be a smooth motion.
6 Look Over the Frame
With the lower area of the bike inspected, you can move to the frame.
Visually inspect the tubes for nicks and dents, noting any spots where the paint or protective coating is removed. You may want to paint over them to avoid rust.
If you find anything more serious, such as gouges, bends, or rust, you should take the bike to a professional to determine if it is safe to ride, or possible to repair.
7 Check the Front Fork
Examining the front fork is mostly the same process as checking the frame. Extra emphasis should be given to the blades that hold the front wheel, and the connection to frame.
The fork interfaces with the rest of the frame via the steering tube and headset. Where the two connect, there are lubricated bearings meant to insure the wheel turns easily when steering. If you feel any hitching or resistance when turning, you may need to deep-clean this area, or re-lubricate the bearings.
8 Check Suspension
Mountain bike suspension is crucial to your riding experience, so it’s important to make sure your system is calibrated and in proper working order. However, because this can be a complex process, the actual calibration should be performed by professionals.
That doesn’t mean you should ignore the suspension during your tune up. Mount your bike and test the sag and stiffness. If it seems off, whether too mushy or resistant, take note.
Let your local bike shop or mechanic know how you want the bike to feel when you have adjustments made.
9 Inspect the Saddle
Many people ignore this step, but the saddle is one of your primary interface points with your bike. The covering and interior can degrade over time, making for a noticeably less comfortable ride.
If you have a leather seat, it can be helpful to oil it after cleaning to keep it supple and water resistant. A saddle that is ripped or flaking should be fitted with a new cover or replaced. If the cushioning has worn down or compacted, you should consider replacing that as well.
10 Test Shifters
You should make sure your gear shifters switch fluidly, whether you have twist or paddle style shifters. Check every gear, making sure to watch how the drivetrain responds, as well as noting how it feels.
If your shifters are damaged, replacing them is something you can likely do yourself, depending on the complexity. Some setups are better left to a professional mechanic, but you may save some money having already identified the problem.
11 Tighten the Nuts and Bolts
When you have gone over everything, the final step should be to test all the nuts and bolts that hold the bike together. Make sure that none of them are rusting or loose.
If you had to disassemble the bike at all, make sure you properly lubricate and torque the nuts during reassembly. This will keep moisture and dirt out of the connections, avoiding hidden rust and weaken bonds.
How Often Should You Tune-Up Your Mountain Bike
How often you tune your mountain bike really depends on how much riding you do, and the type of terrain you frequent. Mountain bikes tend to take more punishment than other models, but it’s possible that you never hit anything harder than a flat park trail, and that makes a big difference.
In general, a full tune up like the one outlined above should be done at least once a year. However, elements of that tune up should be done more often, regardless of the type of riding you do.
You should clean your bike after any ride where it becomes visibly dirty. This is especially true if it’s heavily soiled with mud.
Likewise, you should check your tire pressure and inspect for holes or flats before every ride. Low tire pressure or a sudden drop while riding, puts your safety at risk — especially when riding on difficult ground.
If you frequent technical trails, pushing your bike to the limits of its endurance with punishing impacts at high speeds, or dangerous riding on narrow high trails.
You should inspect your bike thoroughly before every such ride. Mid-level riding really only requires you to have such a complete inspection performed 3-5 times a year.
If you keep your bike clean and well lubricated, you’ll know when something is off and an unscheduled tune-up is in order.
How Much Does A Tune Up Cost At Shop?
Price shopping for a tune up can be tricky, because not every bike shop defines tune ups the same way. Some do less than we have described here, and others may actually go beyond just a tune up into rebuild territory.
The average price is between $60-80. That usually covers the 11 point inspection.
As an added benefit, having the job handled by a bike shop means that if anything does need to be replaced, they have the parts on hand and the expertise needed to install it.
Keep in mind, however, that parts and labor will incur additional fees.
There are cheaper tune ups in the $35-45 range. These usually only consist of cleaning the bike and checking the tires, rims, brakes, and drivetrain.
Since those areas are most likely to sustain damage and need servicing, you could consider this to be a bare essentials tune up.
If your bike has been regularly tuned, and is performing well, this is probably all you need. Higher prices, $100 and above, tend to involve near total bike teardowns.
The bike and components are taken apart, bearings are replaced, everything is freshly lubed and recalibrated. New pads are put on, hydraulic fluids are replaced — in truth this is more than a simple tuneup and is often far more than necessary for the average bike.
Which prices are available for which services ultimately depends on the market in your area.
You may very well find that some local shops give more for your money than these ranges suggest.
Just keep in mind, the cost of a tuneup tends to be cheaper than individual diagnoses and repairs. You’ll save money, in the long run.
A bicycle can seem deceptively simple. Yet, even the most bare bones fixie consists of more than 100 individual pieces that all have to work together in order to provide a smooth ride. An MTB is far more complicated than that, and so the need for upkeep is that much greater.
However, you don’t have to wait for something to break catastrophically to service your bike. In fact, you shouldn’t wait for anything to break at all. Tune up your mountain bike regularly, and you’ll keep your bike running safely, and likely save money in the process.