It’s Day 8 of a two week tour. You’re in the middle of nowhere, which means there are over 200 miles separating you in every direction from the nearest bike shop. All of a sudden you hear a snap and you lunge forward. Luckily, you didn’t flip your bike, but what just happened? You look down and see your chain dragging on the ground. What’s the first thing you think? Is it:
A. Crap! This means I’m going to have to flip the bike. Gawd!
B. Uh oh! I didn’t bring a chain tool… not that I’d I know what to do if I had one…
C. What the hell is that metal rope thing? Eh, I’m sure I don’t need it.
If you answered “A.” good for you! If you answered “B,” shame on you (shaking head and wagging finger). If you answered “C,” please leave; you’re distracting the rest of the class.
Breaking things on tour is inevitable, so you need to be prepared for it. Do you have to know how to completely disassemble and reassemble your bicycle? No (though I would recommend it)! You just need to know how to fix the most common issues, and carry cable ties for the rest. That said, let’s go through a list of basic bike maintenance tasks that everyone on tour should be able to handle, as well as the tools you’ll need to carry to do so.
Everyone on a bicycle needs to know how to do this. On tour, you’re going to get these. In the city, you’re going to get these. Anywhere you ride, you’re going to get these. No matter how amazing your tires are, you are going to get these.
To fix a flat tire, you need a pump, tire levers, and spare tube or patch kit/stick-on patches. The bigger the pump, the less time you’ll spend pumping, so frame pumps are nice. The wider the tire levers, the less likely they are to snap. As for the spare tube/patch kit debate, when you’re on tour, just pop in a new tube, and when you’re done for the day use that free time to patch your old tube. Keeps a Ziplock full of good tubes, and add the patched tube to it once repaired.
This is less likely to happen, but if it does, can leave you dead in the ware. Luckily, it’s extremely easy to fix if you prepare for it. To fix a broken chain the easiest way possible, you’ll need to carry a chain tool, a spare link, and two quick release links (sometimes called ‘powerlinks’, though that may be brand specific, these are chain links that snap together to make chain removal easy).
When your chain snaps, use the chain tool to remove the bad links, then replace them with two quick release links joined by the spare link you’re carrying. This will keep your chain the same length. Otherwise, you could repair the chain with a single quick link, but it would shorten the chain. This is what I usually do since this only stops you from being able to cross chain on your top chainring.
Once you get to a bike shop, get a new chain. If it broke once, it’ll break again. Trust me. You may also need a new cassette too to prevent hop, but check with the mechanic if you’re unsure. If you’ve worn out your chain to the point that it snapped, you’ve probably worn your cassette out too.
This is an easy, but important one, as riding on a broken spoke can cause all sorts of rim problems. All you need are a replacement spoke and a spoke wrench. Any small spoke wrench of the proper width is fine. As for the spoke, carry a replacement spoke of each length your bike has (you have multiple spoke lengths on your bike based on your hubs), and replace them as you use them. I attach my spare spokes to my rear rack with cable ties, but they can be hidden anywhere.
On the road, all you have to do is flip your bike, let the air out of your tire, move the tire and tube to expose the nipple hole, cut a small hole out of the tape above the nipple (you should always have a knife), pop out the old nipple, drop in a new nipple, and replace the spoke. Voilà!
Wheels out of True / Loose Spokes
You don’t need to be a master mechanic to true a rim. Most of the time, if a rim is out of true, it’s because a spoke or two has gotten loose. All you need to fix this is your spoke wrench. To find loose spokes, just check the tension of them all with your finger. If a few are loose, tighten them up to match the other spokes. In most cases, this will resolve your truing issues.
If it’s not an issue of a very loose spoke, and you can’t make it to a shop for a proper truing, you can do it on your own. As truing is an article unto itself (or more accurately, a reference manual), here’s a brief explanation of how to true out a wheel on the road:
- Flip your bike.
- Spin your untrue wheel, and use the brake pads to watch for rim movement. You’ll see the rim move towards the brake pad at certain points. That’s the ‘bump’ or ‘hop’ of an untrue wheel.
- Once you find the hop in the rim, you’ll need to use your spoke wrench to fix it.
- The spoke located directly on the hop will need to be tightened or loosened by ¼ of a turn. Tightening is used to pull the rim hop back towards you, and loosening to push it away. So if the hop is going away from you, tighten the spoke. Make sense?
- With the two spokes on opposite sides of the spoke from Step 4, perform a ¼ turn in the opposite direction as Step 4.
- Spin the wheel and see how much it helped. Adjust as required.
Alternating spokes go to opposite sides of the hub, so if you’re tightening on one side of the hub to pull the rim hop towards you, then you’ll loosen on the other side so it stops pulling it the other direction. Not making sense? Understandable. At the end of this article, I’ll list out some other sources for much better instructions. On tour, your wheel doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough to get to the next shop.
Snapped Brake/Derailleur Cables
Doesn’t happen often, but you should carry spare cables (and caps) and a small pair of snips just in case. You’ll need a hex wrench, likely 5mm. Also, make sure you know how to adjust your brakes and derailleurs. This falls under the same category as fixing a flat. Everyone should know how to do it. As drivetrain and braking systems can vary widely, I’m not going to even bother getting into it.
These aren’t exactly breakdowns, but can very easily lead to them. I’ve had bolts wiggle out of racks, pedals, crank arms, pretty much anywhere they can wiggle out of. They’re bolts, it’s what they do. Every few days, check all of your bolts. To do this you’re going to need a metric hex (Allen) wrench. Additionally, you should also carry some spare bolts and grease. If you lose any bolts, you may not be able to find them, so be ready.
Before you leave, make sure you have wrenches to fit all of your bolts. The 6, 5, and 4mm wrenches handle most repairs, but your crank bolt might be 8mm and your brake pads 2.5mm. Also, make sure each bolt was put in with grease. If a bolt rusts itself in, you’re going to need a shop.
Depending on the length of your tour, it may be necessary to carry lube. Touring chains usually prefer a nice dry lube. Other moving parts (brake levers, derailleurs, pedal joints, etc) like wet lube. Don’t use grease on your chain.
Other items you should carry are spare brake pads, cable ties, a knife, small adjustable wrench (for pedals and other odds and ends), small threeway socket wrench (Very optional. I carry one for my cantilever brake hanger as well as my fenders), work gloves (you’ll love them after chain work), and a small stuff sack to hold everything. I even have a smaller bag to put the essential items in. I then carry this smaller bag with me when not touring. It has my patches, spoke wrench, chain tool, small screwdriver, tire levers, and a few hex wrenches.
Ok, so that brings us to this final check list:
- Patch Kit/Stick-on Patches
- Tires Levers
- Chain Tool
- 2 Quick Release Chain Links (aka ‘Powerlinks’)
- Spare Chain Links (optional)
- Spoke Wrench
- Replacement Spokes (one of each length)
- Brake Cable (plus cap)
- Derailleur Cable (plus cap)
- Small Snips
- Hex/Allen Wrenches (one for each size on your bike) or a Multi-tool
- Spare Bolts
- Brake Pads (optional)
- Cable Ties
- Small Adjustable Wrench
- Work Gloves
- Small Screwdriver or Multi-tool
- Stuff Sack(s) for Tools
Wow, that was actually a whole lot of stuff. Remember, that list isn’t for day to day cycling, that’s for touring. For when you could be in the middle of nowhere and the only mechanic for hundreds of miles is you! I’d rather carry a little extra weight on my bike than get stuck somewhere with banjos.
Very importantly, do not forget that an ounce of prevention is worth sixteen ounces of cure! Before you go on tour, tune your bike up properly, and then ride at least 100 miles on it (two weeks of riding). Why 100? That’s usually enough to break anything that’s just hanging on. Before you leave, make sure you lube the whole bike, every possible moving joint as well as the chain, inflate the tires properly, and give it a big kiss (they need love too).
Finally, this article may have read like I assumed you knew how to fix everything listed above (excepting truing), but I know you don’t. This is perfectly ok. The fact that you are interested in learning is all that matters. If you want to learn how to do this on your own, go to Google, go to YouTube, go to SheldonBrown.com, go to one of the many online resources, and you’ll find a ton of tutorials on everything. If you’re like me, and prefer to learn from a guide, go to your local bicycle co-op (I recommend bicycle co-ops very highly. They won’t work on your bike for you, but they’ll walk you through fixing anything with your own two hands.), go to your local bike shop, heck, even leave a comment on this article if you have a question and I can either help or point you in the right direction. The important part is to start trying to fix things, start making mistakes, start learning from those mistakes, and in the process, get yourself ready to tackle any challenge the road may throw at you. Because really, that’s what touring is all about; the environment and your bicycling conspiring against you in an effort to break your body and spirit.
All photos by Troy Moustache