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Cyclist's guide to roadside repairs

James Spender
3 Aug 2018

When you’re on a ride do you expect the worst or hope for the best? And what is the greatest bodge of all time?

A Scout is never taken by surprise,’ said Lord Baden-Powell. As cyclists, we should aspire to the same level of preparedness – after all, you never know what might befall you miles from home on a country lane.

However, does that mean you load up with every tool imaginable just in case you need to perform a roadside bottom bracket overhaul, or do you just carry a single 4mm allen key and keep your fingers crossed?

The former necessitates lugging around unwanted extra bulk; the latter risks spending the night in a hedgerow. 

‘Many unfortunate things can occur on any bike ride,’ says Park Tool tech guru Calvin Jones.

Tools

‘So taking along some tools and things to take care of these issues is wise. However, although many things can possibly occur, it’s improbable that certain things will. 

'So while it is possible that your frame will just divide in two on a ride, we assume that it won’t.’

This means it’s not as simple as prescribing an exact list of tools that you should carry on a ride.

Mike Kangelos is head mechanic at Push Cycles in London. As a general guide he recommends the following:

‘All the usual suspects: tubes, patches, tyre levers, pump or CO2. Then perhaps a multitool with whatever size tools you need for your bike.

'And if you want to go more in-depth, a spoke key or mini chain tool.’

While that list might sound like the bare minimum to some, for other riders it will sound like overkill.

They will argue that a properly maintained bike won’t need any adjustment out on the road, hence the only things to take are the tools needed to fix a flat.

As Jones says, ‘I carry a chaintool, and in 40 years of riding I have never broken a chain.’

Broken chain

But there’s always that one time. Kangelos says, ‘I haven’t broken a chain for years, but the last time I did it was 3am, I was halfway between London and Dunwich on the Dulwich Dynamo and I didn’t have a chain tool.

'It was one of those classic “Oh my God, what am I going to do?” moments.’ 

As it was, a fellow rider came to his rescue, but it highlights an important point: however prepared you may think you are, there will always be times when the gods of the road will thwart you.

In which case, what are you going to do?

Getting home

Speak to pretty much any cyclist about improvised roadside repairs and you’ll get at least one outlandish tale of a head tube welded back together with chewing gum.

When Cyclist raised the matter with readers on our Facebook page, we immediately received images of a severed down tube fixed with zip ties and a broken derailleur hanger replaced with a stick and some gaffer tape. 

We’ve heard tales of punctured tyres stuffed with twigs and grass; blown out rim walls lashed back together with zip ties (again); making a 10mm hex wrench out of a 4mm and a 6mm; fixing sheared handlebars with a branch; booting slashed tyres with an energy gel wrapper and even stripping electrical tape from a bike’s handlebars to replace a broken rim tape.

Put a cyclist in a tight spot, it seems, and our ingenuity will blossom.

‘I used to be a bike messenger and one day I punctured with no spares,’ Kangelos laughs.

‘Then I remembered a fake tattoo I had in the bottom of my bag that came free with a packet of chewing gum or something, so I used that.

'The tattoo held so well that I forgot all about it until I came to replace the tyre some months later.’

Odd repairs

And it doesn’t end at bikes.

‘My favourite repair was done on some Colorado single-track,’ says Jones.

‘I passed a pair of elderly trail runners, a man and a woman. Oddly the woman was running while pulling down her T-shirt and carrying her running shorts in her hand.

'Passing as politely as I could, she blushed and offered the explanation, “The elastic in my shorts isn’t working…” 

‘I continued and saw yucca growing on the trail. Yucca is a desert plant with long stringy leaves, ending in a needle-like point. I cut one leaf off with a knife, removed the fibres down to a few threads and waited for the shorts-less athlete to catch me.

'I explained that this was a needle and thread and could be used to cinch up the shorts. “Oh, sewing, I can do that!” she said. My work there was done so I rode off, leaving her to her sewing.’

Roadside bicycle repairs

Our sister magazine Bikes Etc gathered together the quickest and dirtiest bodge-jobs that they could think of, to ensure that should your trusty bike let you down, you’ll have enough smarts to get you and your ride back to civilisation without having to call out a taxi.

Snapped gear cable

Snapped gear cables can be a flipping nightmare – and they happen with infuriating frequency. And yet you won’t find too many cyclists riding around Britain’s roads carrying a spare loop of wire in their jersey pockets.

So what do you do if this particular misfortune befalls you when your 20 miles from home? Well, if the cable in the left-hand (front) shifter fails, it’ll simply leave you stuck in the smallest chainring. Annoying, but no real biggie unless you’re racing.

If the right (rear) pops, however, you’re in more trouble, as the derailleur will dump the chain onto the smallest sprocket, leaving you stuck in a knee-poppingly high gear. 

On a flat ride home, you might just survive this, but if there are hills or you don’t fancy returning home straight away, it is possible to jerry-rig your bike as a single speed and continue on your way. Here’s how…

Option one

Drop the bike into the smallest chainring. This will get you a long way towards a usable gear.

Next, find the high-limit screw on the rear mech, this is usually the upper of the two located on the back of the derailleur and controls how far down the cassette it can move.

If you’re lucky, fully dialling in this screw will bring the mech down one or two gears (ie move the chain to a larger sprocket), making your ride home much easier.

Serious geek points are available for cycling survivalists who swap the stock screw for one 5mm longer so as to allow them to access the full range of gears should this happen.

Option two

If you can pull the derailleur into position, the bike will stay in whatever gear its jockey wheel falls below. One way to do this is to loop a zip-tie between the two parts of the derailleur that are normally joined by the cable.

Hook it behind the barrel adjuster and above the bolt that secures the cable to the mech body.

Once the zip-tie is in place, pull it tight until the upper jockey wheel sits below the desired sprocket. No zip-ties? A less delicate but effective method is to simply jam a bit of wood or a piece of stone between the plates that make up the parallelogram.

Next you will need to flip yourbike upside down in order to spin the pedals. So do that then manually push the derailleur up into the larger sprockets. As you do so, the parallelogram will open up.

Now drop your object of choice (stone, sturdy piece of wood etc) between the plates.

As you let go of the derailleur and spin the pedals, the parallelogram will try to close and move down towards the smallest sprocket, clamping the stone or the wood in place.

With a bit of  luck, this should freeze the whole assembly in a usable gear. Simple, huh?

Option three

The final quick and dirty alternative is to simply swap the two cables. Sadly, the front cable will be too short to use in the shifter. However, it can help you set up the bike as a 100% reliable single-speed.

First, ditch the broken cable from the rear and remove the cable from the front shifter.

Now dial in the barrel adjuster on the rear derailleur. Thread the end of the cable without the head through the barrel adjuster. Push the mech into position under the gear you wish to use, remembering the bike will now run in the smallest chainring.

Finally, you’ll need to pull the cable tight and fix as you would normally to the body of the mech. Et voilà, your bike is now set up as a fully functioning single-speed cycling machine.

Now all you need to do is simply coil up the excess cable and use the barrel adjuster or tweak the cable tension to make sure your single gear is running correctly.

In the event that your rear cable has snapped at the derailleur end, obviously you can use that instead of disconnecting the front. This also has the benefit of allowing you to still shift between the front chainrings.

No tube

So you’ve got a puncture having  committed the cardinal sin of going out for a ride  without taking an inner tube with. Or worse still, you did take one but your ill-prepared mate’s had to pinch it earlier in the ride and now you’re stuffed. How will your friendship ever survive?

Thankfully, it’s not game over as long as one of you has remembered to bring a pump.

First remove the tube and check the tyre for anything that might cause a second puncture, because at this point you really don’t want that to happen.

Find the hole in the tube. If it’s not obvious where this is, pump it up and listen for the hiss. Once you’ve found it, you’ll need to cut through the tube at this point.

If you haven’t got a cutting implement, the teeth of your largest chainring are surprisingly sharp. If Fran Ventoso's descripton of 'giant knives' is anything to by, disc brake rotors should be pretty useful here too.

Be careful, as it’s crucial to get as straight and clean an edge as possible.

Tie both ends of the tube together using a  simple loop knot . Pull this as tight as possible without leaving too much tube overhanging, as the shorter the tube the trickier it’ll be to fit.

Pump up the tube slightly to check that it holds air.

With one bead of the tyre hooked into the rim, carefully fit the tube, starting with the valve. Leaving a little air inside the tube will make this easier. Once the tube is in place, make sure it isn’t twisted.

Pop the bead of the tyre back onto the rim and slowly pump up the tube, making sure none of it has become trapped between the tyre and rim.

There may be a slight flat spot where the tube splits but if you’ve managed to get it into a state where you won’t be riding on the rim, you can count that as a success.

This is a real emergency-only bodge. Leave the pressure below 40psi and take it easy while riding home, particularly when going round corners or downhill and you should make it back in one piece.

No levers

So you need to swap a tube but you’ve no levers. No worries. All you really need are strong fingers, or failing that a little bit of know how. 

Option one

If your tyre is fairly loose fitting, or you fancy yourself as a bit of cycling tough guy then you may be able to simply pull the tyre clean off the rim using just your bare hands and some kind of accompanying macho war cry.

To this, though, you’ll first need to let all the residual air out of the tube. 

Next, push the beads on both sides of the tyre off of the hooks and into the centre of the rim. To do this, press the sidewall of the tyre away from the braking surface and into the well located in the middle of the rim.

Brace the wheel against your knees with the valve uppermost.

Go all the way around the tyre using both hands simultaneously and meeting at a point opposite the valve. This will often create enough slack for you to then use the flat of your hand to roll one side of the tyre clean off the rim.

You will now feel like the Bear Grylls of cycling – and you didn’t even have to drink your own pee.

Option two

If you can’t remove the tyre by hand you’ll need to improvise a lever. Luckily, there’s probably a pretty good one sitting in the middle of your wheel. Pop out your quick-release. Odds are its handle has smooth edges and if you’re really lucky, a concave shape.

Find the spot in the tyre with the most slack and use the lever of the quick-release as you would a traditional tyre lever. If necessary, you can even use the axle itself for additional leverage – just be careful not to snag the tube or bend the axle.

Snapped bolts

Although a fairly infrequent occurrence, it’s possible that bolts on your bike will snap without warning. Or they might just rattle loose and roll off down the road, which is a particularly common fate for those who fix panniers and mudguards in place.

Should this happen (and, in the case of a broken bolt, you’re able to extract the residual stub from its hiding place), the easiest solution that doesn’t require a trip to the hardware shop is to locate a donor.

The best candidate for a replacement M4 bolt (that’s the size on most seat clamps, stems, mudguards and panniers) is one from your bike’s bottle cage bosses.

Take the lower one out of the mount on your seat tube and you’ll still be able to leave a bottle in place, as long as you treat it gently.

Slashed tyre

You’re all set for a run-of-the-mill puncture repair when you notice a ruddy big hole in your tyre. Don’t let this scupper your plans! Find something to patch the hole and you’ll be (almost) shipshape again in no time.

If you’ve got some tyre-boot patches or a swatch cut from an old tyre in your emergency kit, you’ll be feeling as smug as a person with a big hole in their expensive tyre can feel.

However, if you have neglected to pack either, fear not – you’ll just have to improvise.

A folded-over energy gel wrapper can be a good substitute for a dedicated patch. Otherwise, our roadsides are littered with junk and anything tough can do at a push – such as a piece cut from a plastic bottle or foil from a cigarette packet.

Once you’ve found your material, cut it into a patch around 5cm square. With one side of the tyre on the wheel rim, fit the patch under the hole. Carefully fit the tube and seat the other side of the tyre on the rim.

Slowly pump up the tyre, keeping a close eye on the patched area. Don’t go overboard with the air pressure – it’s probably best to stay south of 50psi to avoid a blow out.

Emergency stash

A few miniature heroes it’s worth bringing along for the ride.

Genuine Innovations Hammerhead 20G

Mini pumps are great but sometimes CO2 inflators are just plain better – especially if you’re in a hurry. This Genuine Innovations kit has a push-butt on inflator for an easier action and is supplied with a 20g cartridge, which is plenty enough to fill larger volume 25-30mm tyres.

£22.99, zyrofisher.co.uk

Blackburn Local CO2 Ride Kit

A quality seatpack preloaded with a few ride essentials including tyre levers, CO2 canister and head plus multitool. Just add inner tube and patch kit and it’ll keep you and your bike on the road and out of trouble.

£44.99, zyrofisher.co.uk

Lezyne Power Lever XL

Getting your tyre off doesn’t always have to involve tyre levers but sometimes it’s just easier. And then there’s tubeless tyres that near guarantee the need for levers. These not-so-little beauties from Lezyne are just under 150mm long, fibre-reinforced and have an aggressive hook to get under the bead.

£4.99, upgradebikes.co.uk

Panaracer Tubeless Tyre Repair Kit

It’s not often we get needles in for a test but this kit for repairing punctured tubeless tyres comes with one. Designed for low pressure tyres, it can fix up to 25 punctures. Just cut off a strip of the supplied patch to make a plug for the puncture.

£11.99, zyrofisher.co.uk

Parktool TB-2 Tyre Boot

A simple pack of three ‘boots’ will allow you to patch your tyre if you’ve been skidding on the same spot too long, or more likely had some road detritus cut either the sidewall or main tread. Each boot measures 45mm by 75mm and should allow you to get home again.

£4.99, madison.co.uk

Specialized Swat Tube Spool

If you’re not the most organised person, the Spool from Specialized could be your ride saviour. The simple holder comes with a 16g CO2 cartridge (enough to inflate a road bike tyre to full pressure) and inflator head, tyre lever and provides a holder around which to wrap an inner tube – so all you have to do is stick it in your pocket.

£19.99, specialized.com

Important note: Personal liability

Of course, under pain of death from our lawyers we cannot recommend any of the aforementioned fixes.

They are nothing more than highly bodged jobs, and for every successful one there are likely dozens of life-threatening failures.

So the fact remains that, wherever you ride, whatever you ride, packing the necessary tools is ultimately a case of hedging your bets (rather than your bike) and working within whatever parameters make you feel comfortable. 

As Jones from Park Tool says, ‘What you take with you is in some ways a reflection of your personality. If you invest your life savings in aggressive portfolios, then ride in a skinsuit with just a cell phone in the saddlebag.

'But if you keep your savings under the bed, and store a year’s worth of canned food in your pantry, then you will want not only tools for the ride, but maybe a spare chain and spokes.

'Then there’s your attitude to fellow cyclists. If you are the type that feels a responsibility to others, that will likely translate into carrying more equipment, not less.’

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