On-The-Road Repairs


Hey, Baby, I’m your handy man. (Jimmy Jones)

A paper cup can be a wondrous thing. More times than I can remember, one of these has gotten me out of a tight spot. (MacGyver)

I have good news.

First, road bikes are nearly bullet-proof and need almost no maintenance or repair. There are, in fact, only three things you must do to maintain a road bike: inflate your tires, oil your chain, and fix flats. Everything else is really just a good idea.

Second, bicycle maintenance (aka service or mechanical repair) has been revolutionized in the past ten years by YouTube. Now, for whatever maintenance operation you can imagine, there are free videos that will lead you through the procedure. It’s easier to learn to do it by watching it than by having me tell you, so I’m going to assume you have the internet at your disposal and only tell you the stuff the videos don’t.

Third, road bikes, unlike mountain bikes, are simple machines and almost all maintenance tasks are easy and intuitive. You can do any service task there is to do on a bike with minimal skills and simple tools, with the exception of servicing bottom brackets, hubs, and disc brakes.

There are two kinds of bike maintenance or repair tasks. One kind you do on the road in the midst of a ride, like fix a flat. These you must know how to do. The other kind you do in your garage, if you want, or you pay a wrench to do it for you at a bike shop. These you do yourself if you want to save time or money or if it’s rewarding to do your own work. We’ll discuss the first here and the second in the following chapter.

Fixing Flats

If you have conventional tubes, this is the repair you will most often need to do. If you have tubeless tires, flats become less frequent but still a remote possibility. Either way, you want to get good at it—otherwise you’ll always be dreading the possibility that you’ll get a flat. Check out the YouTube videos and practice in your driveway before you need to do it on the road. Remember, you are more likely to flat in the rain than in good weather (probably because wet rubber grips debris), and you may flat in cold conditions and at sunset, so you want to be able to do this fast. The good news is, three-quarters of your flats will be in your garage, not on the road. That seems absurd, but most flats are slow leaks, so you puncture during the ride but don’t notice it until the next morning.

How often you’ll flat depends on where you ride and what kind of tires you have. A friend in the big city was getting flats on every other ride until he changed to puncture-resistant tires. He hasn’t had a flat since. I ride on light puncture-loving tires, but I ride in the country on back roads and I clean my tires with my gloved hands as I roll regularly, so I get about 1 flat a year. If you ride on dirty roads, there are many ways to avoid flats: tires with puncture-resistant layers, puncture-resistant tire liners, and foam tire inserts (yes, they’re a thing). There is a weight penalty with each of them.

Three-fourths of your flats will be in the rear tire. That’s because 75% of your weight is on the rear wheel (which is why when you ride over something it feels like fa-LAM) and the weight drives pointy things into the rubber . So you have to get practiced at removing and reinstalling the rear wheel around the derailleur. Practice this. Pull the derailleur as far back and out of your way as you can with one hand while you install the wheel with the other. This is vastly easier if you can hang the bike from something, like a riding buddy.

If you rest your bike upside down, make sure your water bottles aren’t leaking and you aren’t scuffing your saddle or your computer.

The two worst things about fixing flats are

  1. You get dirty, especially if it’s the rear wheel. Which is why Handi-Wipes should always be in your seat pack. Otherwise, you spend the rest of the ride smearing chain muck all over everything you touch, including your face.
  1. If you use a mini-pump, most of them are ineffective torture devices, so you exhaust yourself using them and end up with a tire inflated to 70 lbs. Carry the best mini-pump you can buy. I like Lezyne. Make sure the pump has a hose that screws onto the valve stem threads—otherwise the air will escape as fast as you put it in.

It would seem like an obvious no-no, but many riders will flat, remove the punctured tube, replace it with a fresh one, and inflate the new tube, thus puncturing it as well, because the flatting culprit is still in the tire. It’s laborious, but you must search for and remove the culprit. Check the outside of the tire for anything obvious, then run your hands along the inside of the tire feeling for anything out of the ordinary. It helps to find the puncture in the tube and use that to zero in on the area in the tire where the puncture occurred. Over-inflate the punctured tube with your pump and locate the escaping air if necessary. Half the time you’ll find nothing, because the culprit is gone—that’s OK, but you need to do the search.

It is wise to look at where the puncture is in the tube circumference and draw a conclusion about what caused the flat. If the hole is under the tire tread, it was probably road debris—you need to clean your tires more often. If the puncture is along the sidewall or by the rim, and/or there are two holes next to each other, it was a pinch flat: you compressed the tire when you hit a pothole and smashed the tube between the tire and the rim—you need more air pressure in your tires. If the hole is in the tube where it sits against the rim and there’s only one hole, you’ve got a rough spot in your rim bed or your rim tape has failed—if you don’t find it and smooth it out or tape over it (with the tiny roll of duct tape I told you to carry in the Accessories chapter), it will just blow tube after tube. If the hole is against the tire’s sidewall and there’s a matching cut or tear in the tire, you ran through glass or some other sharp debris on the road—resolve to keep an eye peeled for road debris ahead of you from now on.

Usually the problem with the hole in the tire is, it’s so small it’s hard to find, but sometimes the problem is it’s so big. Then you have to find a way to keep the new tube from working its way into the hole and exploding. The solution is a tire boot, which is what you call a patch when it’s on a tire. Cyclists love to boast they can MacGyver this problem with dollar bills or stuffed grass, but do it right and buy a tire boot, a heavyweight version of your tube patches. It costs 2 or 3 bucks, weighs nothing, and allows you to ride home with confidence. Just stick it to the inside of the tire over the hole and proceed. If you don’t have one and you are foolishly riding without a patch kit, supposedly you can get home by tying a single knot in the tube on either side of the puncture and reinstalling the tube, but I’ve never tried that.

On the road you won’t have a tire pressure gauge, so you won’t be able to tell when to stop inflating. Just inflate to your physical limits—unless you’re the Hulk, that will be 80-90 lbs.

If you’re working with an inflator and cartridge (small canister of compressed air) instead of a pump, the main challenge is figuring out how the thing works. It isn’t obvious—different inflators work in different ways—and many’s the cyclist who tries using their inflator for the first time on a deserted country road, spills all its air into the atmosphere, and is stranded. Practice with it at home—it’s worth wasting a cartridge or two to make sure you’ve mastered it.

Don’t think you’ve done something wrong when you remove the “empty” inflator and a bunch of air rushes out of the cartridge. Physics says you can only move air from a cartridge to a tube until the air pressure in each is the same. Then the cartridge seems empty, until you remove it from the stem, at which point the cartridge has more air pressure than the surrounding atmosphere and the last of the pressurized air rushes out.

The cartridge gets freezing cold when it releases its air, by a basic law of physics, to the astonishment and pain of every first-time user. So wear your gloves.

Whenever you inflate a tube inside a tire for the first time there is a danger of pinching the tube between the tire bead and the rim and pinch-flatting it. To prevent this, put in just enough air to firm up the tube and tire, then work your way around the tire on both sides, rolling the tire halfway off the rim with both hands in 9-inch sections. Any pinched sections of tube will free themselves. Then finish inflating to operating pressure. This is a good idea with any inflation, but it’s a must when you’re using an inflator because an inflator inflates the tube in an instant.

Tires and tubes are happier if you dust them with talcum powder (baby powder), because it keeps them from sticking to each other. You can’t carry talcum powder on the road, so either dust your tube at home before putting it in your seat pack (in a ziplock bag), or resolve to remove the new tube and dust it when you get home from the ride. There’s more on talcing in the next chapter.

When it’s time to reinstall the wheel, if you’ve got skewers you’re facing a moment when you can easily put your life at risk. It is almost impossible to reinstall a rear wheel and get it seated securely in the dropouts when the bike is upside down. So what everyone does is, they get the wheel in part-way, close the quick-release lightly to hold it there, and turn the bike upright. At this point the tendency is to ride off with the wheel only partially secured in the dropouts. Which means the wheel is likely to fall out of the bike at inopportune moments, like when you’re climbing hard. So make sure, after you set the bike upright, that you release the quick-release, put weight on your saddle, make sure the wheel is seated as deeply as possible in the dropouts, and tighten the quick-release firmly.

Adjusting Your Rear Derailleur

There are two kinds of shifting systems on road bikes, cable shifting (on all but high-end bikes) and electronic shifting (only on high-end bikes). If you have the latter, it’s pretty much bullet-proof—read the manual and ignore the rest of this section.

If you have cables, it’s a fact of cycling life that derailleurs go mysteriously out of adjustment. Often I’ve done a ride with perfectly adjusted derailleurs, put the bike in the car, taken it out, tried to ride, and found the shifting had gone to the dogs during the drive. You’ll know it’s happened because the rear derailleur will start ghost shifting (shifting on its own), refusing to shift when you tell it to, overshifting, or just clattering while you pedal, or the front derailleur will clatter or refuse to shift from one cog to the other.

90% of shifting problems are in the rear derailleur, so let’s talk about that first. Cable adjusting is often treated as a sacred mystery among wrenches, but the reality is, there are only two likely problems: the cable is too loose, or the cable is too tight (if it’s something more serious, you’re probably going to have to wait until you can put the bike in the shop). In either case, the problem is fixed with the barrel adjuster, the little barrel-shaped thingy the cable runs through just before it enters the derailleur. Threading the adjuster (like tightening a nut on a bolt) makes the cable housing shorter, which makes the cable’s path shorter and loosens the cable tension. Unthreading it tightens the cable tension. This is counter-intuitive—your mind thinks “screwing in” is tightening. The cable pulls the derailleur uphill (a spring pulls it down), which is why shifting to a larger cog is more work than shifting to a smaller one. Thus tightening the cable tension makes the derailleur happier to go up and more reluctant to go down, and vice versa.

Since we’re talking about a problem with only two likely solutions, without knowing anything you can just try turning the barrel adjuster in either direction and seeing if the problem gets better or worse. If it’s better, turn it some more; if it’s worse, go back to where you started and turn it the other way. Keep track of the changes you’re making—the adjuster has little steps you can feel it clicking into, and you want to count how many clicks you’ve done. Try three to start (one click isn’t enough difference to tell you anything), and if it’s not better go back three and try tree more in the other direction. It’s highly unlikely you’ll need to turn it more than 5 clicks.

Cables never shrink as they age, but they can stretch, so 9 times out of 10 you’ll need to adjust the barrel adjuster to make the cable tighter (thus turning the adjuster out).

If random trial-and-error isn’t your style and you want to diagnose the problem, as you ride, do a half-shift—squeeze the shifter lever hard enough to put tension on the cable but not enough to move to another gear. Does the clatter get quieter? If so, that means the cable is too loose and needs to be tightened. If the clatter gets louder, that means the cable is too tight and needs to be loosened. Or you can shift up and down, noting if the up-shift seems reluctant and the down-shift eager, or vice versa.

If turning the barrel adjuster doesn’t fix the problem, you can try one other thing (if you’re carrying a multi-tool): shift to your smallest cog and see if there’s slack in the shifter cable. If there is, loosen the nut gripping the cable near the derailleur, pull the slack out by hand (as tight as you can get it by just pulling with your fingers is just right), and retighten the retention nut.

Front derailleurs go bad less often than rear derailleurs, which is a good thing—they’re harder to adjust on the road because they don’t have barrel adjusters. If mine goes bad mid-ride, I try to get home on the gears I have left. If you can’t live with it, you can shift to your smallest gears, loosen the bolt holding the cable, and pull the cable as tight as you can, then retighten, as we did with the rear derailleur above. But much of the time a front derailleur problem has nothing to do with cable tension—it’s that the derailleur cage (the shiny box the chain runs through) has gotten cock-eyed. Eyeball it, and if it’s not parallel with the chain shift it around the seat tube with your hands until it is.

Replacing a Dropped Chain

Sooner or later your chain will come off your chain ring, usually as you shift the front derailleur. The instant you sense that something is wrong, stop pedaling and look to see what’s happened. If you don’t, you can make a bad situation much worse by jamming the loose chain between the chain ring and the frame or between the chain ring and the crank arm, a problem which may require a trip to the bike shop to rectify.

If you see that the chain has come off to the outside and the chain is floppy loose, you can often fix the problem while riding by shifting to the small chain ring and pedaling slowly and cautiously while the chain finds and re-mounts the large chain ring. It’s noisy and awkward, but it works. If pedaling doesn’t work, it doesn’t work—stop and remount the chain by hand.

To re-mount a loose chain by hand, shift to the small cogs in front (if you can) and in back to slacken the chain as much as possible, and simply pull the chain forward and place it on the smaller chain ring. This is inevitably messy, so have your Handi-Wipes nearby.

If the chain has come off on the inside (toward the frame), do not try to fix the problem by pedaling. Stop pedaling instantly, get off the bike, and physically replace the chain on the chain ring. If it’s jammed (and it almost always is), pry the chain out of there. It can take much manhandling. Try putting what chain you can onto the small chain ring and hand-cranking the pedals. Try grabbing the chain behind the jam and lifting it up. Try the same thing from below, grabbing the chain below the jam and pulling forward. Oil applied liberally to the mating of the chain and the frame may help, if you have any. Releasing the back wheel from the dropouts will give you more chain slack if you need it. Eventually the chain must come out. After all, it went in.

If the dropped chain becomes a regular thing, it means your limit screw, the bolt on the derailleur itself that controls side-to-side movement of the derailleur, needs adjustment. It’s a job better left for the garage, but you can take the Phillips head on your multi-tool and turn the appropriate limit screw in ¼ turn (no more). If the chain is going to the outside, crank in the outside limit screw (usually marked with an O); if the chain is coming off to the inside, crank in the inside screw (usually marked I); if they aren’t marked, eyeball the derailleur to see where the two limit screws go, and tighten the one on the appropriate side.

If a dropped chain is a frequent thing for you, consider installing a K-Edge or similar chain guard.

Fixing a Broken Chain

Chains don’t in fact “break”; they wear out enough that one of the pins or pin holes gets worn and the pin pulls out. But everyone calls it “breaking the chain,” so we shall.

Road bikes don’t break chains often, unlike mountain bikes. So fixing a broken chain isn’t something I’m prepared to do on the road. But if you want to be prepared for anything (say you’re doing an adventure ride where you’re down a deserted dirt road and you’re on your own), you’ll need a chain tool (larger multi-tools have them) and either a spare chain pin or a quick-link. Remove the link the pin pulled out of and reconnect the chain using either the spare pin or the quick-linkI. It’s a moderately tool-heavy and difficult process, and I’m willing to hitch a ride home should I ever break a chain.

Fixing a Jammed Cleat or Pedal

Occasionally (usually right after you’ve been walking around and remounted your bike) your cleat refuses to clip in. It means you’ve gotten a pebble or other small object jammed in the cleat or pedal mechanism. Eyeball the pedal or cleat, find the object, and remove it. You’ll need a thin nail or other small prying tool, carried just for this purpose, or you’ll have to dismantle the mechanism, which requires a stout screwdriver. I opt for the nail.

Cleaning Your Tires

It’s preventive, but it’s a kind of maintenance. Scrape your tires clean with your gloved hand while you roll whenever you ride through glass or rubble or notice your tires are covered with debris. We described how in the Advanced Skills chapter.

Finding the Squeak

One of the joys of cycling is the silence. That tranquility is often spoiled by clanks, clicks, or squeaks coming from some mysterious source on the bike. Such noises are rarely dangerous, but they can be, and they’re always obnoxious and it’s fun to chase them down. The actual repair is usually done at home, but the deduction has to be done mid-ride.

The tricky thing about running the mystery noise to ground is, you can’t trust your ears about where the noise is coming from. Something is touching something, but bike frames are resonance chambers, so the noise of that contact is reverberating all over the bike and fooling your ears. For months I chased a noise I just knew was coming from my cleats—I could feel it in my feet. It turned out to be a shot bottom bracket. But there are likely culprits. It’s a process of isolation and elimination:

Stand up and pedal. Did the noise stop? If so, it’s probably in your seat. Back home, remove the seat, grease the rails, and retorque the seat bolts.

Stop pedaling. Did the noise stop? If so, it’s probably somewhere in your drive train. Unless it’s a quiet little ticking, in which case it’s the Bitter end of your shifter cable whacking your crankarm.

Shift gears. Did the noise change noticeably? If so, it’s probably in your drive train. Adjust your derailleur. Make sure your front derailleur cage is square to the chainring. Stop cross-chaining.

Is shifting just generally noisy? At home, torque down your rear cassette. Clean and lube your chain.

Is the noise in time with the wheel rotation, even when you’re coasting? If so, it’s probably somewhere on the wheel or something the turning wheel passes. Clean your tires, clean your brake tracks and rotors, eyeball the brake pads to make sure there’s clearance, and look for anything protruding from the wheels (like a bend computer magnet) or making contact with the wheels. If nothing is visible, you may have cracked the wheel’s inner rim. Have a shop check it out, and replace the wheel if that’s the case.

Is the noise a grinding when you brake? If so, debris has gotten imbedded in your brake pads (see below). Is the noise a one-time clunk? If so, your headset needs servicing or the top cap is loose. To check, stop the bike, set the brake, and rock the bike forward and backward with your hand on the head tube. Do you feel any looseness? If so, tighten the headset’s top cap or service the headset.

Grab your seat pack with one hand. Did the noise stop? If so, something in the pack is banging against your frame. Rearrange your pack so hard things like inflator cartridges are away from the frame.

Hold your water bottle in one hand. Did the noise stop? If so, it’s water sloshing in the bottle as you ride.

Stop riding, release the skewers on both wheels, and retighten, hard. Did the noise stop? If so, your skewers were too loose or need oil.

Grab everything within reach—water bottle cage, mini-pump, shifter levers, cables—one at a time, with your hand. Does the noise stop? If so, that component or accessory is loose.

Is it a random rattling coming from a wheel? Take the wheel in one hand and bang the tire onto the ground, listening for rattles or buzzing. If the noise seems excessive, try oiling the spoke nipples and spoke crossings. Check spoke tension (just squeeze each pair of spokes together with your fingers) to make sure all spokes are evenly tensioned.

Does the noise seem to come from the pedals or cleats? If so, your pedals or cleats may be worn. If so, pedals and cleats are largely unserviceable, so there isn’t much you can do except replace the unit. But before you spend the money, ride the bike using different shoes/cleats/pedals and see if the noise goes away. If it doesn’t, you need to get your bottom bracket serviced.

Beyond this, all you can do is wait till you’re home, then start removing, greasing, and retorqueing every threaded thing you can find, beginning with the bolts in the crank spider, the stem bolts, and the pedals.

As a last resort, you can always take the bike into the shop and say those words mechanics most love to hear: “It’s making a funny noise. It’s real faint, and it only does it sometimes.”

Cleaning Brake Pads

If you have rim brakes: when you apply the brakes and you hear grinding, it means you’ve gotten debris stuck in your brake pads and it’s wearing grooves in your brake track. Sometimes just putting the brakes on and off repeatedly will clear the problem. If not, it’s up to you how long you want to let the issue go unattended. If you want to fix it now, before more damage is done to your wheels, stop, remove the noisy wheel, and visually inspect the brake pads for debris. It should be something you can see and feel. Most of the time the offenders are metal shavings coming off your brake tracks if you have alloy wheels. Dig out anything you can. Most people are happy to let the problem slide until they get home.