The bike in the basement, gritty and stiff in the joints, needs a chiropractor. Bike shops will charge $18 to $30 for a tune-up, but the yin and yang of it is: You'll never be at one with your bike until you're actually greasy.
"You have to get your hands into it and see what the parts are," says Bob Oram, treasurer of the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, who, back in 1976, clocked 5,000 miles in 66 days on a Bottechia racing bike from Astoria, Oregon, to Yorktown, Virginia. Going without showers was the worst of it, he says. His only mechanical problems concerned aluminum toe clips (he's since reverted to steel) and a couple of flats, which he fixed in 15 minutes each. Oram is at home dissecting gears, cables and derailleurs and demonstrating a do-it-yourself checklist on a 10-speed Peugeot:
* TIRES: They're flat if they've been sitting unused for months. Pump them the night before a trip to allow small punctures or leaky valves to reveal themselves. Most tires take 75 to 100 pounds of pressure -- much more than auto tires. Besides pumping them, check for baldness, dangerous on wet pavement; you might want to switch the better treads to the front.
* WHEELS: Check the nuts around the axles for tightness if you don't own a quick-release wheel bike. The "true" can be tested by spinning the wheel and looking directly down to spot a wobble. The roundness of the wheel is affected by adjusting the tension of the spokes with a spoke wrench. "If you're not really into it, this is difficult. It takes some time to get proficient at it," says Oram. A shop will charge $5 to $10.
* HUB BEARINGS: The ball bearings are okay if the wheels spin freely. If there's a rattle, the cones need adjusting. Cones? This requires a special wrench (roughly $15), which again may take things out of your hands.
* FRONT BRAKES: The brake handles shouldn't touch the handlebars when squeezed. If the cable is loose, you need to adjust the barrel. Hold the brake locks against the wheel rims and tighten the cable with a wrench (not as complicated as it sounds). Check inside the handle for fraying.
* FORK: Put on the front brakes and shake the front of the bike. If there's looseness in the fork, the ball bearing may need tightening. Also check the pedals for looseness by grabbing the ends of the crank arms and shaking them. If the pedal is really sloshing around, you'll need a tool to loosen the lock ring before you tighten the workings.
* REAR BRAKES: Check to see that the brake pads are in line with the rims, front and back. If the pads are hitting the tire, the brakes will still work but the tire will wear out quickly. Any wrench will do.
* REAR DERAILLEUR: If it shows a mind of its own -- shifting without your help -- there's a simple solution. Springs work against the cables, meaning you have to tighten the wing nut on the gearshift lever. Make sure the derailleur will shift into all cogs and gears.
* FRONT DERAILLEUR: It's got to be far out but not too far out, Oram says. It's fine as long as it's shifting up and the chain stays on the sprocket. It's best not to turn the bike upside down to check this, he adds, since the bike's then resting on the brake cables and may bend wires. Instead, do a balancing act, holding the bike and pedaling with one foot while turning the gears.
* HANDLEBARS: Hold the front wheel between your legs and see if the bars are centered. Tighten the bolt if loose. Attack the grime on the chain and cogs with a rag, and oil the pivot points, preferably with a 30-weight automotive oil. The seat should be raised to precisely 109 percent of your inseam measurement -- so your leg is fully extended.