This week's Ask BikeNerd deals with the all-important subject of maintaining your wheels to keep them round and rolling.
Christine asks: My front bike tire looks a little wobbly, but it isn't rubbing against my brake or anything. Is it worth it to take it in to the shop and get the wheel trued? And what the heck does that even mean? Am I getting ripped off by paying for something I could do myself?
Yes, it's worth getting your wheels trued if they're starting to wobble. It depends to some extent how anal you are and how much tolerance you have for the inefficiencies and reduced ride quality of an untrue wheel, but the sooner you deal with the problem, the easier it will be to fix (also, it's likely it'll get worse---and potentially rub against your brake). Wheel truing involves adjusting spoke tension to eliminate side-to-side wobbles as well as vertical "hops" that throw the wheel out of round.
Getting rid of the side-to-side wobbles isn't too difficult, but getting rid of side-to-side wobbles, eliminating vertical hops, and maintain even spoke tension is a talent that takes experience and knowledge. It also takes special tools. On the subject of wheel truing, D.I.Y. bicycle guru Sheldon Brown writes:
Of all the maintenance and repair jobs that may be needed on a bicycle, the trickiest is truing (straightening) wheels. A good wheelbuilder, in many cases, can do amazing things for a wheel that might appear to be totally destroyed. But a person who tries to "touch up" a slightly out-of true wheel without proper knowledge could turn an imperfection into a disaster. If you have a badly damaged wheel of basically good quality, take it to a good wheelbuilder.
So, no. It's not a ripoff to take your wheel to a quality mechanic and doing so will likely prolong the life of the wheel. I personally suck at truing wheels and take them into the shop for anything but the most minor touch-up jobs.
If you are interested in learning to true wheels by yourself, that same Sheldon Brown article offers a step-by-step guide. Or, if you prefer a guided approach with lessons from an instructor (probably the wiser choice), several shops in town offer wheel building and truing classes. Bike Works in Columbia City has both truing and wheel building classes. Wright Brothers has a wheel building class (though the fall session already ended). Recycled Cycles teaches basic wheel truing as part of their Park Tool School class and also offers a wheel building class.
Of course, another reason it's worth taking the wheel to a mechanic is that it might not be out of true at all. If your hub bearings are too loose, the wheel could wobble side-to-side as well. It's an easy fix, but again, one that takes a little know-how and special tools.
That's all I've got for this week. As always, send your bike questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.