Self-Support: How to Repair Your Bike on Tour

The first instalment of a three-part Self-Support series: Equip yourself with the right tools and knowledge for when your bike needs repairing on tour.

29/03/2019

As bikepackers, we must often rely on ourselves when things need repairing on tour. We need to know how to fix our bikes, our equipment, and ourselves – or at least know where to look for help. That’s why we’ve compiled these handy Self-Support guides, with expert advice on how to equip yourself with the right tools and knowledge for when things need repairing.

In the first of our Self-Support Guides, we’re tackling bike repairs, and providing answers for how to prevent and fix a host of common problems relating to frames, wheels, brakes and transmission.

Essential ToolkitBrakes and TransmissionWheels –  Frame

 

Section 1: Essential Toolkit

You don’t know which mechanicals you are going to get on tour, making it difficult to prepare for everything, but with well-chosen tools and spares, you can insure yourself against a lot.

Here, three experts tell us what constitutes their essential bikepacking adventure toolkit.

Tour Divide veteran and oneofsevenproject.com editor, Craig Fowler
Long-distance tourer and editor of cyclingabout.com, Alee Denham
Silk Road Mountain Race finishers and Keep Pedalling bike shop owners, Richard Naylar and Shona Oldfield

Craig Fowler - Heavyweight

 

  • Multi-tool (with pliers) 
  • Chain breaking tool 
  • Chain quick links 
  • Chain lube 
  • Piece of extra chain 
  • Tyre levers 
  • Tyre boot 
  • Tyre plugs (if you are running tubeless) 
  • Tyre sealant (if you are running tubeless) 
  • Puncture repair kit 
  • Pump or Co2 (or both) 
  • Inner tubes 
  • Spare gear cable  
  • Spare brake cable 

 

  • Spare cable housing (gear and brake) 
  • Spare brake pads 
  • Spare nuts and bolts 
  • Spare spokes and nipples 
  • Spare derailleur hanger 
  • Zip-ties 
  • Duct tape 
  • Rag 
  • Needle and thread (for sewing sidewalls or other gear) 
  • Safety pins 
  • Cleat 
  • Brush 
  • Cassette removal tool 
  • Knife  
Craig's list is useful for riders heading to remote areas, where the chance of finding bike shops is slim, and the need for self-sufficiency is increased.
Richard and Shona carry only essential spares, but stress the need to for knowledge of how to use your tools

Richard Naylar and Shona Oldfield - Middleweight

 

  • Multi-tool 
  • Chain breaking tool  
  • Chain quick links 
  • Chain lube 
  • Piece of extra chain 
  • Tyre levers  
  • Tyre boot 
  • Puncture repair kit 
  • Pump 
  • Inner tubes 

Richard and Shona carry only essential spares, but stress the need to for knowledge of how to use your tools

 

  • Spare gear cable 
  • Spare brake cable 
  • Spare brake pads 
  • Spare nuts and bolts 
  • Spare spokes and nipples 
  • Spare derailleur hanger 
  • Zip-ties 
  • Duct tape 
  • Rag 

Alee keeps weight down by making sure important tools are included in his multi-tool.

Alee Denham - Lightweight

 

  • Multi-tool (including Allen keys, Phillips head screwdriver, chain breaking tool and a few different sized spoke keys) 
  • Chain quick links 
  • Chain lube 
  • Tyre levers 
  • Tyre boot 
  • Tyre plugs and sealant (if you are running tubeless tyres) 
  • Puncture repair kit 

Alee keeps weight down by making sure important tools are included in his multi-tool.

 

  • Pump 
  • Spare gear cable 
  • Spare nuts and bolts 
  • Spare brake pads 
  • For longer trips, two spare spokes for the rear wheel (drive side and non-drive side), one for the front (along with brass nipples), plus an emergency cassette lockring tool 
  • For shorter trips, a Fibrefix spoke is a neat universal spoke that will get you out of trouble 
  • Rag 

Alee adapts his toolkit depending on the length of the tour, and the likelihood of needing to make lasting repairs.

Alee adapts his toolkit depending on the length of the tour, and the likelihood of needing to make lasting repairs.

 

Section 2: Brakes and Transmission

The most likely parts of a bike to need some attention during a bikepacking adventure will be the those which are used the most: the drivetrain, the gears, and the brakes.

Here, we’ve picked out some essential repairs, explained how you can do them yourself, and even prevent them happening. We’ve also included some extra hacks and priceless snippets of expert knowledge to help you get out of trouble when you need to.

Snapped Chain

 

A chain breaker and some chain quick links are an absolute must-have for remote bike trips. You’ll want to practice adding and removing links before you leave because there is a bit of technique to it. It’s best to reconnect your chain with a quick links because they do not require tools to add or remove them from a chain.

Alee Denham, cyclingabout.com

 

  • Check chain rings for damage or chain for excessive wear and other issues that might cause the same thing to happen again.
  • Remove any broken or damaged links with chain breaker tool. If you’re unsure if one is damaged, remove it – it’s much better to have a short strong chain than another break.
  • If you have a quick link, insert the two sides to opposing inner links, and join them together.
  • If you don’t, use the chain breaker tool to push one pin almost out of one outer link.
  • Join the opposing inner and outer links, then push the pin back through.
  • Try to limit the stress on the chain by keeping it running as straight as possible between the rear cassette and front chainring. Use the upper limit screws on the front derailleur to prevent the use of the big ring, which will help to keep the chain straight.

View an instructional video for fixing a broken chain here

Rejoining a broken chain can be fiddly with only two hands. Use a shoelace, or cable tie, to take the slack and hold the chain together. This will leave you with two free hands to join the links.

-George Huxford / Apidura
Knowledge of how to use a chain-breaking tool is essential for self-sufficient roadside repairs.

Knowledge of how to use a chain-breaking tool is essential for self-sufficient roadside repairs.

Put sunscreen on your hands before handling a chain. It will make the grease far easier to get off afterwards.

-Tori Fahey / Apidura

Broken Derailleur or Hanger

 

Most of the time if your derailleur snaps off, it’s actually the hanger that has failed, so make sure you carry a spare. A few companies make ‘one size fits all’ hangers, but the one from Mucky Nutz is quite useful and you can use it as a keyring till you need it.

Richard Naylar & Shona Oldfield, Keep Pedalling.

 

How to turn your bike into a single speed if your derailleur or hanger is broken

  • Remove derailleur completely from bike.
  • With the wheel in, put the chain on the middle ring at the front and middle of the cassette at the back (trying to keep a straight chain line).
  • Pull the slack in off the chain until there is none left when it is in this middle-middle position, and mark how many links you will need to remove.
  • Take wheel out.
  • Following steps from above, remove unnecessary links.
  • Put wheel loosely back in and rejoin chain.
  • Manoeuvre the wheel into the dropouts (you may need to use a little force here as it’s going to be tight to maintain some tension).
  • If it’s still too loose trying moving it up a cog.
If your derailleur or derailleur hanger breaks, you will need to remove the derailleur completely and convert your bike to a single speed.

If your derailleur or derailleur hanger breaks, you will need to remove the derailleur completely and convert your bike to a single speed.

Snapped Gear Cable

 

  • Practice at home – all gear setups are different, and you should familiarise yourself with yours.
  • Check where it failed and examine for any bits that are rubbing or damaged that could cause the same thing to happen again.
  • You can only replace a gear cable if you have one! Brake cables will not work for gears.
  • Remove cable end and pull out old cable.
  • Rethread new cable through shifter, then outer, then derailleur.
  • Turn all barrel adjusters fully clockwise then one half turn anticlockwise.
  • Pull cable through cable stop and lock off.
  • Twist the barrel adjusters to align the gears (anti-clockwise if shifting up the cassette is problematic; clockwise if shifting down the cassette is problematic).
  • Cut down the cable and keep old bits of cable for emergencies.

Making sure your barrel adjusters are in the correct position when changing cables will allow you to quickly micro-adjust them on the move.

Snapped Brake Cable

 

  • Practice at home – all gear setups are different, and you should familiarise yourself with yours.
  • Check where it failed and examine for any bits that are rubbing or damaged that could cause the same thing to happen again.
  • You can use a gear cable in an emergency, but these are thinner and more liable to stretch than brake cables. We’d only ever substitute it on the rear, and only until a proper brake cable can be found.
  • Remove cable ends and pull out old cable.
  • Rethread new cable through shifter, then outer, then calliper.
  • Pull cable through cable stop and lock off.
  • Cut down only once totally happy. Keep old bits of cable for emergencies.

Stay calm and think outside the box. When disaster strikes you can always ask locals for help. In remote Kazakhstan, we lost a unique thru-axle nut. To keep us rolling we zip-tied the lever to keep the axle in place, until a local workshop eventually figured out what we needed and lathed a replacement nut.

-Ed Shoote / Apidura Ambassador

Essential Maintenance

 

Simple maintenance tasks, undertaken regularly on your bike, can make all the difference when it comes to preventing mechanical failures.

 

Firstly, get your bike serviced prior to departing on a bike trip. If it’s in good working order there’s a very low chance you’ll have mechanical failures.

A clean drivetrain is the best possible maintenance on the road. I regularly apply a thick layer of ProLink (or any thin lube) onto my chain and then wipe it 99% off with an old sock. This removes debris, keeps the chain lubed and dramatically reduces wear.

Bolts always loosen over the first few days, so check them after a day or two, but then they only really need checking every few weeks.

If you’re using rim brakes, make sure to clean the brake tracks as often as possible. This greatly reduces rim and pad wear.

Check your spoke tension when you can. You can squeeze your spokes near the point that they cross to find the loose ones and then give the according spoke nipples a quarter-turn each.

Alee Denham, cyclingabout.com

 

Section 3: Wheels

A bike is pretty useless without its wheels. Here’s what to do when they come off.

Truing a Bent or Buckled Wheel

 

Spin your wheel and see if you can identify the area that has some ‘wobble’, then give the spokes here a wiggle as you may notice that some are looser than others.

To true it, it’s just a matter of tightening the affected spokes until they’re at a similar tension to the other spokes around it. If you’re looking at your wheel from above you’ll be turning the spoke nipples clockwise to tighten and anticlockwise to loosen.

Always make small adjustments – a quarter or half a turn at a time – and spin your wheel to see how it looks as you do it.

As you won’t have a truing stand, you could try fastening something like pencils or pens to either side of your seatstays with an elastic band (or duct tape), pointing inwards towards the rim. I have even seen someone use two bits of twig stuck into chewing gum before. Then spin the wheel; if the gap between the stick and the rim changes, you know the wheel isn’t true. 

Richard Naylar & Shona Oldfield, Keep Pedalling

 

Unless you’ve had a lot of experience with truing wheels, I wouldn’t bother trying to get your wheel perfectly ‘straight’. Even spoke tension is the most important aspect of keeping a wheel going, as it dramatically reduces the stress on individual spokes. This will prevent further damage after the first broken spoke, even if your wheel is a little wobbly. If you can get the spokes to feel equally tight, you should be able to ride far enough to find a decent mechanic with a truing stand, and get the job done properly.

Alee Denham, cyclingabout.com

A pen or pencil attached to the stays can be used to fine-tune an untrue wheel.

A pen or pencil attached to the stays can be used to fine-tune an untrue wheel.

When fixing an untrue wheel, making sure your spokes have even tension throughout is the most important factor.

When fixing an untrue wheel, making sure your spokes have even tension throughout is the most important factor.

Improvise. I saw someone ding a rim pretty badly at the Silk Road Mountain Race - it looked like it was over for them, but they got medieval on it and knocked it back into shape with a rock and pair of pliers. It held out!

-Richard Naylar

Alternative Tire Boots 

 

If you’ve slashed your tire, you’ll need to use a tire ‘boot’, which is a piece of material (or other object) positioned on the inside of the tire. It protects the inner tube below, and helps the tire to keep its shape despite the tear. You can buy specially made tire boots, or use an old piece of inner tube, but sometimes you might have to improvise.

Food wrappers, crisp packets, old bits of tire of inner tubes can be folded up and positioned against the split. (Plastic) bank notes work well too.

Shona Oldfield, Keep Pedalling

No Tubes, No Patches: Fixing a Puncture Crisis

 

If you have run out of spare tubes or patches, you could try the ‘knot fix’. This is a temporary fix that will hopefully get you to somewhere to find a spare tube.

  • Take out the tube.
  • Find the hole, then cut out the section with the hole.
  • Knot both ends tightly, then inflate to check to see if it’s holding air. You may have to reposition the knot a couple of times to get it in the right place.
  • Pump it up to a little below your normal pressure and avoid any big potholes or jumps.

I knew someone once who stuffed their tire full of grass cuttings, which provided enough shape for the tire to stay on the rim until he found a shop. Just about did the trick!

Shona Oldfield

 

Section 4: Frame

Nobody carries a spare frame with them on tour, which means that knowledge of how they can be repaired is vital. Here, with the help of frame builder Rob Quirk of Quirk Cycles, we explain how to diagnose a broken frame, and what to do if you find yours has broken.

Diagnosing a Broken Frame

 

A broken frame can be hard to diagnose, but there are signs that can alert you to potential problems. Sudden changes in ride feel, strange noises, tyre or brake rub, and chipped paintwork can all point to a potentially broken frame. If you notice any of these signs, give your bike a thorough check over, and look for the following in order to identify a break:

Carbon: Cracks (usually on tubes), spongy spots, excessive creaking, chipped paint.

Aluminium: Cracks (usually on welds), large dents, paint coming away.

Steel: Cracks (usually on welds), chipped paint.

George Huxford, Apidura

 

Even if you don't notice any of the symptoms of a broken frame when riding your bike, do make a habit of looking for the key signs. When cleaning your bike, or doing basic maintenance work, can be a good time for this.

-George Huxford / Apidura

 Steel, Carbon, Aluminium: All Fixable?

 

Steel is the most versatile, as it can be pulled back into shape (up to a point) due to it’s higher elasticity – plus it can continue to be ridden even with dents in it. If the damage is more severe, such as a crack, it can be welded if needed. Welders can be found all over the world, so you are never too far from help.

Carbon requires specialist tools for repair which are not as easy to come across. To repair carbon, you need epoxy, carbon fibre and a vacuum to compress the area. There are few places that offer this, but in a squeeze I would imagine that something could be bodged with a hoover and some plastic bags. Roadside repairs though are pretty much out of the question.

Aluminium can’t really be repaired due to the fact that the frames are heat treated after welding to strengthen the material, so although it could be welded, the frame would lose its strength and would be dangerous to ride.

Rob Quirk

Steel can be repaired by a skilled welder if it fails.

Carbon requires specialist tools and labour, but it is possible to repair.

Aluminium can be repaired with a weld, but at great cost to frame strength and reliability.

Where to Get Frames Repaired

 

For steel frames, car garages will be the most immediate and easy way to find a welder, but anywhere that you can find a welder should be able to do the job.

Sourcing carbon will be difficult. I’d imagine that certain universities may have the tools and materials needed. Depending on the seriousness of the damage, car bodywork shops may be able to repair the frame as a lot of vehicles nowadays use composite materials.

Rob Quirk

Rob Quirk on the Kegety Pass at the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan in 2018

Rob Quirk on the Kegety Pass at the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan in 2018

I broke a carbon frame once when I was riding in Belgium. I managed to find a company that fixed carbon aeroplane fuselages, and took it there. The repair came out fine, and seven years later I even rode the Transcontinental on the same bike.

-Josh Cunningham / Apidura

Long Term or Short Term?

 

Whether a repaired frame can be considered a long-term solution really depends on the quality of the repair and what the damage was in the first place. A carbon repair will often be stronger than it was before because you are essentially adding more material, but it has to be done properly in a clean environment otherwise you can’t be certain of the strength.

With steel, a repair will normally have the effect of weakening the frame, but not to the point where it is no longer safe to ride. If the part isn’t cleaned properly then the weld might not be too reliable, but most jobs will get you home until you have the chance to get it done properly.

Rob Quirk

Summary

Key wisdom that has consistently been a part of our expert’s advice when putting this guide together.

Know your bike
At the side of the road in a remote area isn’t the best place to teach yourself bike mechanics. Make sure you know how your bike works, and how to fix it, before you leave.

Get your bike checked before leaving
The reality is that when bikes are in good working order, they are quite unlikely to go wrong. Get an expert to check over your bike before you leave, and make sure it’s in good condition, to reduce the risk of mechanicals.

Maintenance
Once you’re on the road, make sure you keep on top of basic maintenance. This will dramatically reduce the chances of picking up mechanical issues.

Improvise
In the event that you do run into problems, use your imagination and improvise with what tools and resources you have available to you – whether that’s surrounding objects, materials, or people.

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