This is the second of the 2-part “Tis the Season” articles on trike riding preparedness – Part 1, on safety equipment, Part 2, on mechanical integrity.
The Delaware Valley Trike Riders’ Club plans to offer a fairly aggressive ride calendar, in this, our first full year of existence. In order to get the most out of this season it is important we assess our machines for proper mechanical operation and safety. Waiting for a “break down” is too risky and, if Murphy has anything to say, it could happen when you are out on a trail without access to needed tools or repair parts.
In researching this topic I didn’t find much existing information focused specifically on recumbent trikes – so I hobbled together a collection from more general “check list” items and attempted to edit them so that they would be more trike-oriented. If you think I’ve left something out, or have presented incorrect information, please consider posting your feedback in a comment for this article – we will all benefit from our shared insight and experience.
I’ll admit it… I abuse my machine. I have an affinity for those unpaved, less traveled trails – and likewise for speed. The thrill I feel riding only inches above the ground while it speeds past just a few inches beneath me is likened to, what I can only imagine, the happiness our canine friends feel when given the opportunity to run full-tilt, off leash, in a wide open field. And much like those happy dogs you’ll know it is me on the trail by my panting and persistent grin. It is a testament to the manufacturer of my trike that it hasn’t fallen completely apart while in motion! But, modesty aside, it is also a testament to my constant checking for potential mechanical problems. It is a never-ending exercise in Preventive Maintenance. While researching this article I learned quite a bit more about this practice, defined below, and with it I feel more confident that I’ll be able to keep on pedaling and trust you can keep pedaling also – all while avoiding many costly repair fees. It is a lengthy list but in practice can take well less than ten minutes, and as such, can be accomplished each time you ride.
Inspect chain for wear with a simple tool or ruler. The chain is subjected to stress forces from pedaling and these forces can cause a chain to stretch (bearing wear) and result in additional wear on sprockets and cassette bearings. There are a few different tools on the market that make this inspection easy but it can also be done with a simple, old-school ruler. The mechanics from “Performance Bicycle Shops” offer the following instructions:
- Place a 12 inch ruler along the bottom chain run, align the 0 mark with the center of a chain rivet. Note where the 12 inch mark aligns on a rivet. If the center or the rivet is at 12 inches the chain is new or nearly new. Off by less than 1/16″ and the chain is showing some wear but is still serviceable. If it misses the 12 inch mark by more than 1/16″ the chain requires replacement and the rear cogs should be closely inspected. Worn cogs on a new chain will typically cause the chain to jump or skip in the worn out cogs.
Inspect gear teeth for wear. Smaller sprockets are more prone to wear than larger sprockets. The sprocket peaks, when in excellent condition, should reveal a machined flat, or smooth top and the sprocket valley should be symmetrical and not show uneven wear. If the peaks are pointed, or the valleys uneven, new sprockets are likely needed. This condition is typically accompanied by, or the result of, chain wear.
Inspect bearings for excessive wear. Wiggle all the places where there are bearings to check for sloppy side-to-side movement. To check the wheel hubs, grab the top of the wheel, apply a little downward pressure to make good contact with the ground and rock the wheel laterally (not rotationally). Any “clunking” sounds or lateral motion jump will indicate the need for bearing replacement.
The method to check the crank set is similar. Grab the crank and push and pull it in a lateral direction (not spinning). Again, any “clunking” or looseness will reveal the need for servicing.
Depending on the type of trike you own, steering mechanisms may also make use of bearings. These are normally found at the intersections of the moving components of the steering mechanism. Some “wiggle” at these bearing joints is often by design (this is true for most tadpole style trikes by TerraTrike), but excessive slop can result in an inability to turn or to straighten again (or at least to do so smoothly). If you find your steering contains some “jitter” it may be the result of failing steering bearings and will require tightening or replacement. It is best to consult with your trike’s manufacturer or your trusted mechanic if questions remain.
Inspect for wheel trueness by spinning each wheel slowly while looking along the rotational line. Of course, your brakes need to be off to do this. If any wobbling of the wheel rim is evident the wheel may require truing, or replacing. I find it easiest to perform this check by raising each wheel off the ground with a small block set under the trike frame nearest the wheel being inspected. This leaves my hands free for spoke adjustments if needed.
Inspect disc-brakes for trueness, cleanliness and integrity. There are a few things that can affect disc-brake performance and most are simple to fix. The first thing to check is disc-brake trueness of the rotor. A simple check is accomplished by spinning the wheel slowly and looking for a wobble along the brake rotor. This wobble may also be accompanied by an intermittent grinding, squealing, or abrasive sound. A true straight edge can also be used to check for any gaps between the flat rotor surface and the straight edge. When using a straight edge you must move it around and check several locations. If the wobble is very slight and has not affected your ability to stop, does not produce braking drift, and does not produce so much friction that your wheel refuses to turn, then you are probably fine and the problem can be addressed at a later time. If the wobble does produce these problems then the rotor must be trued or replaced. There seem to be two main reasons for a rotor to become warped: an accident where some object on your trail strikes and bends the rotor, or more commonly, by leaving the brake pads engaged with the rotor over time (often a mistake made when storing our trikes between rides).
Disc-brakes will fail if the rotor is dirty, particularly when contaminated with some form of oil or grease. If the brake is applied, and the brake pads are engaged with the rotor but the wheel still spins, the rotor is likely contaminated with oil. The simplest way to fix this problem is to apply some isopropyl alcohol to a clean rag and use this to wipe away all of the oils contaminating the rotor (this may take a while). It is best to keep the alcohol from contacting the brake pads as it may affect the stabilizers holding the pad components together. If cleaning with alcohol is not sufficient there are commercial de-glazers (typically a fine abrasive suspended in a water-based paste) available that do a pretty good job.
Check braking integrity by finding a safe area to ride and apply each brake individually to test its ability to bring you and your trike to a stop. If any brake fails, it may be due to a dirty rotor (as above) or the need to adjust the brake pads closer to the rotor. This type of failure is inevitable because the brake pads are continually worn away each time the brakes are applied. Eventually, brake pads will require adjustment and ultimately replacement.
Inspect tire condition. Tires can suffer from a few problems including, improper inflation, excessive tread wear, dry-rot and side-wall or bead damage. Properly inflated tires (as indicated on the tire side-wall) can help to avoid many problems including bead and side-wall damage and bent rims (proper inflation also affects friction, or roll performance). Inflation levels can only be accurately measured using an air pressure gauge. If your tire continues to slowly deflate, the first remedial action should be to check air valve for proper seating. The spring-loaded pin in tire valves can be loosened and retightened using valve tool (often as a built-in tool in some high-end valve caps). An additional check for faster leaks can be performed with a little soap-water solution applied to the valve pin. If bubbles form, the valve is failing and should be replaced if re-seating is not sufficient. If the valve is ruled out the wheel will likely require disassembly to inspect the inner tube for a puncture.
Excessive tread wear is easily determined through visual inspection. Tires with excessively worn treads will likely result in more flat tires due to punctures and can also affect traction necessary for turning safely at higher speeds or on some wet surfaces. Tires with worn treads should be replaced.
Side-wall, bead, and dry-rot is also checked through visual inspection. Worn or damaged side-walls will increase the likeliness of blow-outs and can also result in a failure leading to an accident while turning or when riding over bumpy terrain. While inspecting the side-walls, also check for the appearance of the tire bead. The bead should not be visible as it is supposed to be seated below the inner edge of the wheel rim. If the bead is visible, the tire should be reseated or replaced if reseating does not remedy the problem. Dry-rot inspection is more easily done while the tire is partially deflated allowing it to be manipulated by hand (squeezed, twisted and bent). Dry-rot is present if any cracks are revealed while manipulating the tire and is common on older tires or those that have been in excessive temperatures. A tire suffering from dry-rot is not safe and should be replaced.
Inspect frame for cracks around connections and welded joints. A bent frame is a nuisance while a cracked frame is a hazard. Older damage to welded joints or frame cracks will probably reveal themselves in the form of oxidation rising from under the paint. New cracks may be more difficult to find. The method I use most often is accomplished when I clean my trike after a ride. After washing my trike I like to use a soft terry cloth towel to dry it because it provides an opportunity for a closer inspection. While drying, larger cracks may be visible because their cleft may hold dirt and dust that did not wash off like that on smooth, painted surfaces. Smaller, or questionable cracks can be dusted and rubbed with talcum powder which will become trapped in the narrow gap of a small cracks making them easier to detect. If you find a cracked frame or failing welds your trike needs servicing before your next ride.
Inspecting crank tube extensions for fastness is done by checking for any loose nuts, bolts or other fasteners used to attach it to the main frame. Not every trike is equipped with an extender as they are normally used to provide a proper fit for taller trike riders. If any fasteners are loose, check to see if the crank tube extender has rotated out of position. If it has rotated out of position, loosen the remaining fasteners, straighten the extender, and tighten the fasteners again. Operating your trike with a crank out of alignment will severely shorten the life of your chain, sprockets and cassette.
Inspecting the rear derailleur and derailleur hanger is particularly necessary if you have trouble moving the chain up or down the cassette. While positioning yourself behind the trike, push the pulley cage forward and down, effectively lowering the bottom/lower pulley. If the cage is not perpendicular to the level ground surface it is likely the derailleur hanger is bent. A visual inspection should also reveal that the sprockets of the derailleur and the sprockets of the selected cassette gear should be aligned. In some cases when only a minor adjustment is needed, particularly when out on a trail, you may be able to grab the entire derailleur assembly with your hands, as close as possible to hanger, and gently bend the hanger in or out to achieve a close to proper alignment. This is not an accurate method but might be enough to get you back home if problems arise on a ride. Any proper repairs will require a visit to your trusted mechanic or with a proper derailleur hanger adjustment tool.
Inspect for accurate shifting while avoiding cross-chaining. Cross-chaining occurs when your chain is on the largest front chain ring and the largest rear cog. When the chain is in this position there is a great amount of lateral tension present in the chain that can result in breaking or bending cog teeth. If at any time you experience problems shifting you will likely need to visit your trusted mechanic or spend some time in situ performing a more thorough and nuanced fine-tuning of your shifting mechanisms.
Inspect quick release fasteners to be certain they are holding properly and not projecting their lever in a direction that can catch clothing or poke (maybe puncture) your body. Some quick release fasteners require very little effort to open them and can be accidentally loosened while loading or unloading your trike from a vehicle or carrier. A loosened fastener can simply be tightened again, but if the lever is presented in an incorrect or dangerous position when locked, loosen it and rotate it so that when it is clamped shut the lever is in a safe position.
Inspect seat for fastness. Many seats are fixed with either quick release fasteners or a hex-bolt tensioner. A quick check can be done while standing astride your trike by grabbing the sides of the seat frame and attempt to rock it side-to-side and forward and back. If the seat is loose, check it for proper alignment and distance from the pedals then tighten the fasteners.
Inspect all fasteners and snug them to a proper tightness. Lefty-loosy, Righty-tighty… well, most of the time. Exceptions include non-drive-side pedals and many drive-side bottom bracket cups.
Inspecting free-wheeling chain idler wheels. When inspecting, they should be exactly that… free-wheeling. A simple check only requires the chain to be lifted with one hand so that it is no longer engaged by the idler gear and with the other hand the gear should spin freely with minimal drag. I’ve found idler gears tend to bind with debris from riding on unpaved surfaces. This problem can easily be addressed by thoroughly cleaning them and the chain after a ride. Idler wheels are a wear-and-tear item that do require occasional replacement, but if you follow a thorough cleaning with an appropriate lubricant applied to the chain, the wheels shouldn’t require replacement for a few thousand miles.
Inspect for loose or dangling straps. Straps and strap-like bindings are everywhere on my trike. They are used for tensioning my seat support, on my rear rack, touring rack cargo bag, panniers, pant leg binding and shoe laces. Any of these straps, if too long, can become caught in the moving parts of your bike and have the potential to disrupt your ride or cause a mechanical failure. Inspect your straps after securing all you are carrying and any long, dangling straps should be wound up and secured (I use velcro-like wire ties) or taped or tucked safely away.
Inspect equipment attachment points used for mounting lights, flags, phones, and any other devices you carry. It is a terrible thing to watch a new smart phone fall and go skidding along the road into traffic. After all the investments we’ve made in our machines it is well worth the effort to ensure that our devices are securely attached and remain that way.
I hope that you find this article to be of some value to you. I know that when I begin my ride, after performing these inspections, I can hit the trail without much to worry about except the road ahead.
I’m looking forward to riding with you!