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On-Road Repairs
Sheldon Brown photo
by John "Be Prepared" Allen
Spoke Divider

The Need for On-Road Repairs.

A bicycle must make a tradeoff. Reliability, versatility, light weight -- Pick any two, or some compromise among these. Even the simplest, most rugged beach cruiser bicycle can't offer the trouble-free service you would expect of a lawnmower, car or refrigerator. Any bicyclist who rides far from home will have to perform some common on-road repairs, or ride with a companion who can perform them. The mechanical simplicity of the bicycle and the resulting ease of common repairs, performed with lightweight tools, allow bicycling to be a practical travel mode.

Other articles on this site give detailed instruction on common repair tasks. This article describes the tools needed to perform common on-road repairs, and includes links to those articles. There are many other fine references as well, in books and online.

This article also describes some outside-the-box emergency repair techniques.

Simple On-Road Repairs and Safety Checks

There are certain basic procedures which any bicyclist ought to know:

Bicyclists also should know how to check their bicycles. The ABC Quick Check, which instructor Dan Gutierrez demonstrates in this video, covers the basics.

Correct adjustment of quick-releases an brakes is especially important for safety. And, if a bicycle is new to you, take a short, slow test ride to check the steering, brakes and shifting.

Lift one hand off the handlebar, and then carefully try to ride no-hands, keeping the other hand close. If the bicycle steers to one side, something is out of line. Usually it is the front fork, but it may also be the frame, or a misaligned wheel.

A properly assembled bicycle is quiet. A rattle as you ride is a warning something may be about to fall off. When you check your bicycle, lift it and drop it from a height or about 4 inches to locate a rattle.

Sheldon's article on creaks, clicks and clunks describes other noises your bicycle could make as you ride, and how to identify the cause.

The On-Road Tool Kit

What tools should you carry with you, to get you home or to a bicycle shop.?

Stories abound of bicyclists who go on tour carrying 10 or 15 pounds of tools with them, ready to fix almost anything on their bicycles.

At the other extreme, a road racer carries no tools. The team mechanic follows in the team car, ready to supply a replacement wheel or entire bicycle as needed.

A reasonable toolkit for a more typical bicyclist weighs a pound or two and covers the most common on-road repair needs. The weight can be even less on a modern bicycle which exclusively uses Allen wrench fittings. The tools fit into a small bag which straps on under the saddle or is placed into other baggage on the bicycle.

A small tool kit allows a bicyclist to get back onto the bicycle and ride almost every the time. You might carry some extra tools, to lend a helping hand to other bicyclists who are stranded. That has been the start of many a beautful friendship!

Here's my preferred tool list:

Especially if you are traveling in rural areas, you do well to carry a few supplies:

Unusual and Heroic On-Road Repairs

Necessity is the mother of invention. Here we leap past simple repairs and standard shop procedures to some unusual and heroic emergency repairs. I include them here in case you might find one of them useful, and to spur your imagination.

Removing pedals with minimal tools

The trick here is to use foot power, and the chain and rear wheel of the bicycle to keep the cranks from turning .

When you are removing a pedal, it will try to turn the crank backwards (backpedaling). To prevent this, face the pedal toward the front of the bicycle as much as possible. Aim the wrench handle back toward the center of the crank. Secure the wrench to the wrench flats of the pedal and adjust the pedal height until the wrench is horizontal. Most wrenches have offset jaws, giving you two angle choices. Press down on the handle of the wrench with your foot, while holding the rear of the bicycle down so the wheel doesn't spin.

Replacing a pdeal is easier -- place the pedal in a forward position and aim the wrench forward from the pedal.


Replace chain on chainwheel without getting hands dirty.

This is really easy. There's no need to get black chain dirt all over your hands!

Lean against the right side of the bicycle to hold it up. Hold the right crank in your right hand. Hold a stick you have picked up at the side of the road, or an Allen wrench or screwdriver, in your left hand. Use this tool to position the chain on the teeth at the bottom of the chainwheel, and turn the crank backward. You may have to reposition the front derailer to get the chain to glide through it.

Coiling cables

You need to carry replacement inner cables long enough to reach the rear of the bicycle. When using a long cable at the front, you can form the excess into a loop and spiral the last few turns around the others so they stay put. That way there's no need to carry a calbe cutter.

Lengthening cables

If you don't have long enough cables to carry out a repair, you can tie lengths of cable together, if the knot can be where the cable is not inside cable housing.

Form the ends of the cables you will tie together into tight U shapes and slide them over each other to form a square knot.

The knot will tighten as you pull on the brake or shift lever. You will have to readjust the cable once or twice before the knot holds.

Removing sprockets without a tool.

If a bicycle has a modern cassette Freehub, the Mini-Lockring tool (already mentioned) removes the lockring so you can slide off the sprockets to replace a broken spoke. With a freewheel or older cassette, the outer one, sometimes more, sprockets are threaded on. Chain whips are usually not necessary to remove them, except on the oldest freewheels which have sprockets that remove to the inside.

Place the chain on the smallest front sprocket, and remove the chain from the rear derailer. A SRAM chain with a PowerLink can easily be disconnected. With another chain, you may have to remove the lower (tension) pulley of the rear derailer to extract the chain.

With the right pedal behind top position (around 10 o'clock), wrap the lower of chain around the bottom of the outermost outer sprocket and the upper run around an inner sprocket. The closer the two sprockets are in size the better this works. Get as much slack out of the chain as you can. If you haven't disconnected the chain, shape it into a figure-8 behind the sprockets.

Now step down on the right pedal, backpedaling. Because the outer sprocket is smaller, it will turn faster and unscrew. You may have to reposition the chain once or twice before the sprocket is completely loose.

Repeat as necessary to remove additional sprockets until you reach a splined sprocket and can lift the rest of the sprockets off. Be sure to keep all sprockets and spacers in order for replacement.

Shortening the chain-one-speed.

Straightening rims.

A potato-chipped wheel will often pop back nearly into shape if you press the two high points down. Remove the quick-release skewer

Strightening frames and forks.

aligning wheel with missing spoke

Improvised tire boots

Brazing and welding

Steel is by far the preferred frame material for cyclists who tour into remote areas. Welders anywhere can repair a steel bicycle frame. Aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber frames are much more difficult to repair, if they can be repaired at all.

I have personal experience with this. My wife and I were on tour in the summer of 1989, passing through a small town in France one afternoon when the front fork of her bicycle broke. (Lesson here: she had noticed pedal strikes on the pavement. These were not normal, on her recumbent.bicycle. To her right in the photo, you can see the little bump in the road which finished breaking the fork, and the scrape marks the bicycle left as it fell. Saving grace: because the bicycle is a recumbent, she got away with only a bruised hip, slightly sprained ankle and scraped elbow.

Elisse follwing her crash

We walked back to the middle of town, wondering how we might possibly salvage our tour. The fork was nonstandard, the manufacturer was in California and it was July 4th weekend. We wouldn't be able to get a replacement for several days.

We happened on a wedding party at a small hotel in the middle of town. There we met Phillipe Raby. He is holding up the fork and wheel in the next photo.

Wedding party

Philiipe has a home welding shop. He dropped everything he was doing, drove us to his home and performed an ugly but strong weld on the fork. His wife fed us cheese and crackers and we watched "Who's the Boss" on television, dubbed into French.

Philippe welding

When he finished, we asked what we could do for him in return. He replied that we need do nothing, we would do the same for him.

The little hotel held a late dinner for us. We spent the night there and resumed our tour the next day.

You might not be as very fortunate as we were, but again: if your bicycle has a steel frame, you can get it repaired anywhere in the world.

Another lesson from this experience would be to choose a bicycle with standard, widely-available components. But my wife can only ride a recumbent, so that was out of the question for her.

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