Roadside Bicycle Repairs - What's in Your Seat Pack?

Back in the 70s when my riding buddy and I first started touring, I, the head mechanic, carried all but the kitchen sink in my seat pack for emergency road repairs. We could have done a complete overhaul on the side of the road with what I carried.

Since then, and after many years of mechanical experience, I've found that I could reduce the number of tools I carry, to only those required to address the four most critical roadside repairs: flat tire, broken gear cable, broken spoke and broken chain. If you're equipped to make these four repairs, you'll be able to cycle confidently around the block or across the country.

The first road repair for which to be prepared is a flat tire. This, of course, is the most likely repair you'll have to make. This fix requires three things: a spare tube, some tire tools, and an air source, either a pump or CO2 cartridge. (Fixing a flat tire is one of those things where you need all three tools for the job or you can't do the repair. It's an all or nothing proposition.) If you want a little extra security, especially on a tour, you may want to add a tire boot and a patch kit to your flat tire kit. A tire boot is simply a tire patch applied to the inside of the tire in case you get one of those really big punctures that damages the tire as well the tube. The patch kit is your backup in the event that you have more than one flat on a ride. It happens.

The next most common road repair for which to be prepared is a broken gear cable. The rear cable is the critical one, the front one less so. When the rear cable breaks, the bike shifts into high gear and stays there. You'll still have a couple of gears up front to use, but having the rear gears stuck in high, makes it extremely difficult to pedal up hills. This scenario usually involves a good bit of walking. If, on the other hand, you break a front gear cable, the bike shifts into a lower gear. In this case, you won't have to walk your bike up the hills because you still have the low gear, but going down hills may be a little slow. Fortunately, if you break a front gear cable, you still have access to the multitude of gears in the back, so you can more easily continue your ride. Given the choice, you'd rather break a front cable. In either case, a 5mm allen wrench and a spare cable is all you need for this fix.

Third, it's good to be prepared for a broken spoke. If you've ever broken a spoke on a ride, you know that the problem here is that it throws the wheel out of true and causes it to rub on the brake pads. A spoke wrench is all you need for this fix. Simply loosening the two spokes on either side of the broken one two or three turns, will bring the wheel back in true enough to ride until you can get to a bike shop.

Fortunately, a broken spoke is not a critical issue. You can always open the quick release or disconnect the brake cable in order to alleviate the wheel rub. Although you'd rather not loose the use of one of your brakes, you still have the other one available. However, a broken spoke is an issue in the respect that if you don't replace it, all of the other spokes will loosen up after a while. Although a wheel has lots of spokes in it, all of them are required for it to function properly.

And finally, carry a chain tool in the event that you break your chain. You're more likely to break a chain mountain biking, where you more often find yourself shifting gears under load, but being prepared for a broken chain on the road is a good idea too, especially if you're touring. It's definitely a show stopper to break your chain. No chain, no go.

So, if you've been taking notes, your tool list should include:

  • an air source,
  • tire tools
  • a 5mm allen wrench
  • a spoke wrench
  • and a chain tool
Your parts list should include:
  • a spare tube
  • patch kit
  • tire boot
  • and a gear cable

This sounds like a lot of gear, but it will easily fit into your seat pack.

This is certainly a minimalist's tool kit. I actually carry a couple more items to compliment my tool kit. I use a "three-way" allen wrench, which has a 4mm and 6mm allen as well as a 5mm on it. These three sizes will fit the majority of the bolts on a bicycle. I also carry a small tube of waterless hand cleaner and a shop towel so I can clean up after a repair. The shop towel also doubles as a wrap for your tools to prevent them from rattling around in your seat pack.

Of course, numerous mechanical issues could arise on a ride in addition to the ones I've addressed here (most of which can be avoided with regular maintenance, (bicycle service recommendations)

but if you'll carry the tools listed above, and learn how to fix these four most common mechanical problems: flat tire, broken gear cable, broken spoke, and broken chain, you can ride confidently around the block or across the country, and you won't have to carry the kitchen sink like I did.

Happy Trails


1 Comment so far...

This is great advice. We are taking a three day bike ride and we will take the things that you suggest.

-Posted on Aug 2nd, 2008 by gtprof