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A little tinker goes a long way…

Which bike will be the nicest to ride: a £300 entry level MTB, or a £3000 top of the range? Well, if the £3000 bike is set up like a bag of spanners and the £300 as sweet as a nut, then the cheaper one will ride better. No amount of flashy, expensive components can offset the horror that is rusty cables, brake blocks half missing the rim and a loose headset. I see this all the time, expensive bikes which, for the need of a tweak of an allen key may as well be a pile of rusty scrap.

I’m not so much talking about maintenance here, as set up. Small, effortless and most of all free adjustments that can transform any bike from a bag of nails to a singletrack monster. I like things that are free, and I’m sure many of you do also. So, by application of the sacred northern art of fettling, here are a few tips on how to provide your steed with an almost Zen-like ride quality. For free! (just thought I’d say it again!)

Bars and controls

Your brake levers should be in line with your arms when seated on the bike. That way they’ll lie most comfortably in your grip when applied. Similarly with the gear lever, whatever type you use – try to achieve the minimum hand movement or wrist strain when operating them. If in doubt loosen all your controls and slide them around the bars while sitting on the bike until you find the most comfortable angles. Position Rapidfire return triggers (the ones in front of the bars) so that they are easy to tap, but not continually rubbing against or getting in the way of your fingers when braking or simply holding on. Many people have personal (or even strange) preferences for brake/gear positions – set them up how you like, but putting a little thought into the subject will remove a little thought needed to operate them.

If your cycle computer has a long enough lead, try to position it just inboard of one of the grip so that you can operate it without one hand having to move almost to the stem where it can provide no leverage if you hit a rock or pothole.


Don’t ride with a loose headset – please! This is the number one cause of that ‘bag of nails’ ride quality. Every bump or application of the brakes produces a nasty clunk and wobble right at the business end of your bike. With modern Aheadsets there is also no excuse for running a loose headset, as it only requires a single 5mm allen key to adjust. If you are unsure whether it is your headset, fork bushings or brakes that are rocking backwards and forwards then simply place a finger over the seal in either headset race. When you rock the bike to and fro on its brakes you will feel any movement very easily.


Firstly, try to get the correct spring rate for your body weight (25% to 35% sag depending on preference and usage) BEFORE playing around with preload or damping. Set damping levels (especially compression damping) as low as possible to provide supple movement. There is no point owning a 100mm fork that only moves on big hits and never uses more than 30mm of travel! Keep the internals well greased, whether that be during servicing or external grease-ports and clean around the seals with a clean rag as often as possible. If anything else goes wrong, I’m afraid that a zero-cost fettle will not help you!


Well built wheels should never need re-truing or spokes replaced unless you stack badly or get a foreign body in your spokes. If you are having to re-true wheels regularly then get a better wheelbuilder and/or rim.

Many people never check to see where punctures emanate from. If they did, they will discover than an alarming amount come through the tyre sidewall or the spoke heads inside the rim. Therefore a good quality rim tape such as Velox or Michelin (OK then, not zero cost, but low cost) is a must.

Check hubs for side-to-side wobble. If they are non-adjustable cartridge bearing hubs then leave them until they get really nasty, then replace the bearings. If they are adjustable hubs, such as Mavic or Shimano, retighten the cones to remove play – but even better, loosen the cones a little and inject some fresh waterproof grease in there before re-adjusting them.


Just how old are your tubes? How many patches are on them and did you make a decent job of the repair in the first place? A rotten tube or dodgy old patches are an avoidable puncture waiting to happen. Replace tubes after a given time span and/or number of patches, whichever comes first.

Also check tyres for sidewall damage and deep cuts. As the tyre, not the tube, provides the major puncture protection large openings will lead to punctures sooner rather than later. If the tyre is almost worn out then holes can be patched with park tyre boots – they only last a few months so if a newish tyre is badly ripped then it is needle and thread time, or new tyre.

Find a tyre pressure that you like and maintain it. Soft tyres and hard tyres both have their disadvantages so find use you prefer. Remember that narrow tyres need higher pressures to achieve the same ‘feel’ so don’t flinch at running 1.8” mud tyres at 60psi nor 2.3” monsters at 30.


A really major cause of woe. Cantilever brakes were a nightmare of cables angles to achieve. Conversely it is child’s play to set up V-brakes to achieve maximum power. Blocks, however are still a major problem!

Brake blocks should hit the rim squarely (in both directions) and with just a little toe-in. For the wobbly, rattly parallelogram Shimano V’s a little extra toe-in helps due to the movement in the linkage. Also be extra sure that the brake block is far enough away from the tyre sidewall, the wobble in the linkage can provide up to 2mm of movement which can easily lead to slashed tyres. If the linkage rattle really annoys you then a couple of tiny cable ties around them will put that to bay. The beauty of replaceable pads is that all this faffing need only been done once.

If your back brake has difficulty in pulling back the long cable run, then the rear springs can have their strength boosted by bending them outwards about 30 degrees with a pair of pliers (you can do it over your finger mid-ride, if you can stand a little pain).

Centralise the brakes to stop them from rubbing, and take up pad wear at the barrel adjuster and/or cable pinch bolt. Having the levers coming back to the bars mid ride is disconcerting!

The occasional scrub with emery paper benefits both rim and disc brake pads, as does cleaning of the rim/disc with meths or similar.

Disc brakes hate oil, and even a blue smoke exhaust from the car in front when driving to the MTB venue can cause enough contamination to render brakes ineffective. What mis-sprayed WD40 can achieve is truly frightening! A simple diagnosis of disc brake failure is as follows:-

Brake lever solid and no brakes. = contamination on pad and/or disc, or useless pads. Clean pads and disc and try again. If still no joy try new pads / type of pads. BLEEDING WILL NOT HELP.

Brake lever spongy = leak or air lock. Bleeding necessary, and/or new seals.


If you can select bigger cogs/rings but not smaller cogs/rings then you very probably have a sticky cable. If you are using a Gore-Tex type PTFE lined cable then remove the inner and search for frayed PTFE. By removing the frayed material, or replacing the inner cable with a ‘normal’ one, usual service should be resumed. Add a little light oil or WD40 to prevent water ingress. With ‘normal’ type cables the culprit is usually grit, muck, gunk or rust. Clean up the inner (with light emery paper if rusty) and replace, adding a little light oil. If the outer is rusty then unfortunately you’ll need to dip into your pockets for a new set.

If the cables are new but exhibiting this non-return problem then there may well be a burr on the end of one of the outer runs. Dismantle, check, locate and remove the offending article with wire cutters.

Make sure cable outer runs are just the right length to provide the smoothest curves, and check what happens at full-lock of your steering. Having the outer cable just before the rear mech quite a lot longer than normal helps provide a much smoother action.

And lastly, fit cable end stops or solder the tips. There’s nothing worse than frayed inner cables.

Pedals & shoe plates

Shoe plates have adjustment – so use them! Don’t just bolt them up willy-nilly. Find the most comfortable and efficient position for you and stick to it. Old cleats leave behind a distinct mark in the shoe sole, so lining up the next pair is easy. Try to use bolts with 4mm allen-key heads and smother the threads and heads with copper grease. Or the only tool that’ll be getting those cleats off is made by Black & Decker!

Drivetrain & Gears

Ensuring that all the limit screws on both mechs are set correctly minimises the chances of a shipped chain – the worst offender is the low gear limit on the rear, which can also cause spoke gouging.

If you get chainsuck then replace the offending chainring (NOT the chain, else it will get even worse!) Inner chainrings have no ‘special’ teeth so when they become hooked they can often be reversed to provide twice the life.

Try to keep the whole caboodle relatively clean and lightly lubricated.
If you find the chainring shifting not up to standards it can be improved dramatically by filing away parts or even whole teeth. Rather than attack your chainrings randomly with a dremel it is best to copy from an existing ring that shifts well.

Saddle & Seatpost

Before investing in a new saddle, try adjusting the one that you already own. Perfectly flat, or a very slight forwards tilt are usually the most comfortable settings over a long distance (radical tilts may feel better for the first 2 or 3 miles only). It is amazing how much difference a tiny amount of tilt, or forward/backwards movement can make to your comfort.

The height of your saddle (extension of seat pillar) can also effect posterior comfort, but they are often run low to provide extra security while riding steep descents.

And last but not least seatposts. KEEP THEM WELL GREASED. Or it’ll be a trip to borrow the 6 foot long ‘stilsons’ pipe spanners for you my son!

So after all this training in Yorkshire’s only martial art (feel the power of the fettle!), do you, your bike, and your soul feel 100% better? Are your brakes snappy and powerful? Your headset smooth and rattle free? Gears all functioning perfectly through smooth cables? Hopefully, even your backside has stopped complaining!

So in future resist that temptation to spend, spend, spend until you have unleashed the power of fettle upon your machine. Achieve Karma by allen key.

Kevin Hodgson

Feb 2001


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