Bike Maintenance In Latin America

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People sometimes ask us what kind of bike we recommend, and how we manage bike maintenance. Here are some thoughts.

Ride a bike that's maintainable. In Latin America, that means a 26" mountain-bike style bike with standard components (V-Brakes or cantilever brakes, not disk brakes). You can buy 26" tires and tubes in even a small town, and you can find a mechanic who will have at least some tools for working on your bike. In a medium-sized town, you can get a rim and maybe spokes. If you have a 700cm wheel, you may have to send away to the nearest capital city and wait for a few days to get some of these things. Some people with difficult-to-obtain parts have spent lots of money on international shipping (and then on customs duties) and have waited ages to get going again when they've had a failure.

Ride a bike that's strong. It's better to be heavy than fragile. Get 36-spoke wheels (we're committed to this after a long failure of a 32-spoke back wheel in Canada. We haven't had a broken spoke since we switched to 36 spoke wheels). Get straight-gauge, strong spokes.

Carry a few spare parts. You can't carry everything. We always have tubes and patch kits, some spokes and the tools to replace them. Many people carry a spare tire. We don't, at least until now.

Keep the bike clean. We think that a bike that's clean doesn't wear as fast, especially the drive train. About every month, more in dusty dirt roads, less on clean pavement, we take our bikes and clean them and completely clean the chain and drivetrain. Often we'll go to a lavadero, a place where they wash cars, and either pay them US$1 to wash the bike or borrow the hose and do it ourselves (don't let them put high pressure water against the axles or bottom bracket or headset!). And we take off our chains (we love the SRAM chains because you can just remove the magic link and take them off, without a chain tool). We put the chains in plastic bottle with a little gasoline or diesel or something and shake it and get it all clean, the wipe it up with a cloth and put it back on. We have also paid a little bike shop US$2-3 to clean up the bikes.

Keep it maintained. The chain and cassette and rings are going to get worn out, as are the tires, of course. Keep ahead of these things, and you won't have a crisis down the line. You can get drivetrain components for 9-speed bikes in most cities in Latin America. We try to change the chain every 2000 miles or so, and the whole drivetrain after 2 or 3 chains. We have had the advantage of a few trips home in which we could bring back parts as well, and on one of these we brought back a whole drivetrain to Panama.

Our maintenance schedule: We try to tighten all the nuts and bolts every month, and clean the bikes and drivetrain. We remove the chains (we use SRAM chains with the magic links, so can remove them without damage and without tools) and soak them in some gasoline. Then we clean them up, dry them out, and re-lube them. Getting the dust and dirt off the other parts of the bike and drivetrain also helps prevent numerous kinds of wear.

Use the local talented bike mechanics. There are lots of good and "OK" and very useful bike mechanics in Latin America. More than at home. And they're far more creative and can do far more with less than you might expect. And they charge next to nothing. I'm not going to say that you shouldn't take responsibility for your own gear and watch closely, but you'll find more talent and experience and moxie than you might expect to find. Our friend Tim Malloch wrote about his many good experiences with mechanics on his ride.

Keep your screws tightened. We try to tighten our screws every month or so, especially the rack screws. Don't overtighten, of course. But a failed front rack has thrown many a cyclist over the front handlebar. And loose screws lead to mechanical failures of all types.

Parts are available in the big cities. You don't have to have (most) parts sent to you from home. Almost all parts are available in the major cities. If you have a major need, you can get on a bus and take the wheel or whatever to the city and get it fixed. Also, your local mechanic can probably arrange for almost any part to be sent to you via bus, if you can wait a day or two.

Rims and Wheels. We had hoped to buy 36-spoke wheels that would go the whole way, but it didn't happen. Rims wear out due to braking (unless you have disk brakes), and due to the load we put on them. We have had great experiences with getting new rims installed in both Colombia and Peru. In just an hour or two, a mechanic put on a quality rim, rebuilt the wheel, and life has been good. And the charge for the wheelbuilding was perhaps US$5. So I'm now more inclined to get a new cheap rim more often rather than to worry about how to get a fancy one sent from the US. But so far, the local ones have lasted as long as the really fancy ones we started out with. Never buy Mavic rims of any type for bike touring. I don't know what's wrong with them, but they always crack. They're terrible.

If you're interested, take a look our Bike Maintenance Log.

Update, September 17, 2008: I (Randy) had a rear axle just a bit loose probably since Trujillo. When I first tried to get it adjusted in Huanuco, they didn't have cone wrenches! How can they not have cone wrenches! Same result in Huancayo. Today I found a deaf-mute bike mechanic in Ayacucho who did have them, and got it adjusted. Now I will carry cone wrenches when traveling in Latin America.

Another update: My beloved multi-tool got lost or stolen above Huanuco, so I went looking for a replacement. I was able to come up with a pretty nice set of Allen wrenches, but I still wanted tire levers (Nancy has some, but we try to be independent on the ability to change tires.) So I went all over Huanuco and Huancayo looking for them. All the shops held up screwdrivers and said that's all I needed.