** This topic is a bit dry and may be difficult to understand. I encourage you to ask questions or seek help at your local bike shop or bicycle repair collectives. When it comes to working on your bike, you can’t substitute what you read with actual hands-on experience.
There will be times when a bicycle tour will lead you off to remote areas, where you won’t find any towns, densely populated cities, or even bike shops nearby. If your bike suffers from a mechanical setback, you or your travel partners will have to make the repairs so that A) you can get yourself moving along or B) you can get yourself moving far enough to reach the nearest bike shop for further help if needed.
There are a few things that you should know how to do prior to leaving for a bicycle tour or even just a bicycle ride. Knowing these repair skills may mean a more enjoyable bike touring experience. So without further adieu, let’s checkout the 5 essential bike repair skills you should know prior to setting out on your new adventure.
1. Fix a Flat
The most common issue that you will most likely face during your bike tour, or even just out riding, will be a flat tire. All bikes will eventually suffer this setback regardless if it’s a new bike or an older bike, so knowing how to remedy this situation is important.
Contained in most bike tires are inner tubes. These are round rubber tubes that are inflated with air to give you the cushion and comfort when riding the bike. If a foreign object from the road is lodged into the tire, it may puncture the tire and pass through to the inner tube resulting in a flat tire caused by air escaping the inner tube.
What You Need
- Spare inner tube
- 2 tire levers
The first thing you will need to do is remove the flat tire off the bike. If the flat is your front tire, you can do this by unlatching the brake pulley, so that it does not get in the way once you are pulling the tire off. Loosen the skewers so that the wheel comes out of the fork easily. With the front tire, laying the bike on its side is all you have to do to pull the tire off. If it’s your rear tire (which almost always feels like it is for me), shift the rear chain so that it falls on the smallest cog for easy removal. You can try the same technique of laying the bike on its side, or you may have to remove everything off the rear rack and flip the bike over. Unlatch the brake pulley and unscrew the tire skewers before pulling the tire out of the drop-outs away from the chain.
Once the tire is out, examine it visually to see if you can locate the offending object. Hopefully, you can spot it easily and find the source of the puncture, so that you can remove it. You then use the first tire lever to pry out the bead of the tire and then have the other end lock against your spokes to hold the lip open so that you can take the other tire lever to run it along the inside of the tire bead to expose the inner tube. Pull the inner tube out starting at the side away from the valve until the entire tube is removed.
Run your fingers on the inside of the tire to either find the offending object, or even if you found the object visually, it may have broken apart after you removed it. It’s just a good idea to do this than to end up having the new tube punctured as well. Once the object is removed and you are satisfied that the debris is completely removed, inflate the new tube slightly with your pump. This will help prevent the tube from being pinched between the tire and rim and cause a blow-out flat (which is a bad thing – renders tube unrepairable and loud noise). Once the tube is reinserted back between the tire and rim, begin reinserting the bead of the tire back into the rim. This can be the most frustrating part of the entire tire change if you have tires like Schwalbe or Gatorskins whose sidewalls are really stiff. It is usually the last few inches that will require the most effort. Try to avoid using the tire levers if possible.
Once the tire bead is reinserted, make sure that the tube isn’t being pinched on either side of the tire. Once satisfied, start inflating the tire to the recommend PSI listed on the side of the tire wall, or if you don’t have meter to see, just feel it with your hands.
2. Removing Pedals
Chances are, you may have to travel with your bike and knowing how to remove and install your pedals will be essential knowledge. In truth, this is probably the most easiest things to do once you remember which direction to turn (“lefty loosy, righty tighty” rule works only on 1 side) and having enough leverage to loosen the pedals.
What You Need
- Pedal wrench or a hex wrench
Depending on your pedals, you may be able to use a hex wrench instead of a pedal wrench, which may be more ideal as you don’t need to acquire a pedal wrench. We will assume that you do not have a pedal with a hex pattern bolt. The important thing to note is which side of the bike you’re working on. If you are facing the side of the bike where the front wheel is to your left and rear wheel is to your right, turning clockwise will loosen the pedal. If you are facing the side of the bike where the front wheel is to your right and rear wheel is to your left, turning counter-clockwise will loosen the pedals.
Another way of remembering this is to turn the direction of the drive-train or the rear of your bike. This pointer has served me well whenever I am installing or removing my pedals. Another tip to remove stubborn pedals is by using the curb or sidewalk to hold the crank arm in place so that you can use it as leverage to remove the pedals. Just be careful not to scratch your crank arm or any other parts of your bike against the curb if it slips.
3. Adjusting Brakes
Once you start traveling on your bike, you’ll notice that your brake levers may start to inch closer to the handlebar as you squeeze it to stop, or you may lose some stopping power even when the brake lever is compressed. Let’s make sure we minimize this by adjusting your brakes properly.
What You Need
- Hex wrench
Many times, you can make your brake adjustments just by turning the barrel adjusters on your brakes counter-clockwise while facing the brake lever. The idea is to loosen it to add tension on the brake cable using the cable housing. This should fix most of your brake issues, but if that is not enough, you will need to add tension at the actual brakes near the tire. While the brakes are compressed against the tires, loosen the hex bolt (with your hex wrench) that is holding the cable, and pull the cable out to add more tension to your brakes and then tighten the hex bolt. Next, go back to your barrel adjuster and screw it back clockwise to back off the tension, this should essentially give you a brake lever with more space between the lever and the handlebar.
4. Adjusting Derailleurs
One of the most annoying things on a bike tour is when your derailleurs get out of alignment. You find yourself riding up a hill and suddenly the gear skips and scares the bejeezus out of you. Another scenario is when you’re looking for that lowest gear and your derailleur does not cooperate and you’re finding yourself struggling to spin up hill. Both scenarios have happened to me before, and they’re both equally frustrating.
What You Need
- Not required
The way derailleurs work is based out of cable tension. The more tension you put on it, the more it pulls upward on the derailleurs. This concept is the same for both front and rear derailleurs. When you’re adding more tension to the cable in the front, you’re moving the chain from a smaller chainring to a larger one with the derailleur. You are also doing the same in the rear. Therefore, knowing how to adjust the derailleurs is based on what tendency the chain is moving towards. For example, if the chain keeps on dropping to a smaller cog or chainring, that means you need to add more tension to the cable to keep it from doing that. You do this by turning on barrel adjusters. These are located in various places based on what bike you’re riding. Mine is actually located on the down tube. The concept is similar to brake cables, where if you move the barrel adjuster away from the cable housing, it tightens the cable.
This should take care of most of your derailleur problems until you get to the next bike shop. The good thing about derailleur or gearing issues is that you can typically continue on your journey, even if you have to walk for a short distance up a hill if required. The other gears should be able to get you to the next bike shop for them to fine tune your derailleurs.
5. Replacing Chain Links
There comes a time when your chain may be so worn out, or if you’re adding so much stress on it, that it snaps apart. You’ll need to know how to replace the bad link or links so that you can continue on your way.
What You Need
- Chain breaking tool
- Extra chain links
You take the broken chain and remove the bad links using the chain breaking tool. The tool should allow you to hold the link in place as you turn it to push the pin or rod out. Be sure not to push the entire pin out or it will be very hard to reinsert it in. Push it just enough so that you can break the chain apart. Check for the break often. The pin should still be snug on one side while the link should come out the other side.
Replace with the extra chain link by lining up the holes of the link to the extra link. Screw the pin back in so that you back it into the link to hold it together. Put the chain back on the bike and reattach the other side of the chain so that you have it connected together. With enough practice, swapping out chain links should be easy. I recommend trying to do this with a chain that you no longer use or get one from a bike shop for practice.
If you’re still not comfortable doing some or all of these things, I recommend that you go to your local bicycle repair co-op, or even bike shop if you don’t have any co-ops where you live, to ask for some pointers. Some bike shops, or even REI, offers repair clinics that you can take which go through these repair skills and a lot of other things. Be sure you are working on the bike you will be bike touring with and ask questions with a loaded touring bike in mind.
Part of the appeal of bike touring is being self-sustaining should a mechanical mishap happen. Unlike an automobile or even a motorcycle, a bicycle is much less complicated to work on, so you can pretty much get yourself moving without having to tow your vehicle and rely on the expertise of someone else. If you spend a lot of time traveling, I would also recommend that you spend time working on your bike. It will save you on repair costs and makes you appreciate your bicycle more.