By John Yoder
You don’t have to be a skilled mechanic to help a cyclist in distress. A helping hand, a better tool or an encouraging word can often be the most helpful response you can make.
Although I consider myself knowledgeable about cycling in general, I would be the first to admit that I’m not a skilled bicycle mechanic. I can fix a flat tire, tighten loose screws on my water-bottle cage and adjust the brakes so that they don’t squeal, but for any major mechanical issue, I head for a local bike shop. But I also know that my bicycle-related mechanical skills are better than those of the average recreational cyclist, and as a result, I always offer to help fellow cyclists I see stopped on the side of the road with mechanical problems. I may not have the skills to fix what’s wrong, but I can offer another perspective, a helping hand and encouragement. We never know when our collective wisdom can solve a problem that stumps us as individuals.
A dramatic example of this philosophy – offering help even if you aren’t sure you have much to offer – occurred to me several years ago when my wife and I were on a vacation in Vienna, Austria. I was out for an evening stroll down a quiet residential street, when I noticed two very frustrated boys, around 10 or 11 years old, working on one of their bicycles. It was a small, five-speed bike, and as I walked closer, I could see that they were trying to put the bicycle’s chain back on the chain ring. They would get a few links of the chain on the chain ring, turn the pedal, and the chain would come off again.
Their problem was that the chain was too taut, and they were looking in the wrong place for a solution. The force that keeps the chain on the chain ring comes from the rear derailleur, and that force continues to pull back on the chain once it is off the chain ring, resulting in a taut chain that is hard to reset on the chain ring. The solute is quite simple: to get more slack in the chain, they needed to push the rear derailleur forward, but they were focused on the chain ring.
So, I had the solution in my head, but I did not see how I could explain that solution to them. My college German was very rusty and my bicycle-related, mechanical-problem-solving German was non-existent. Without much further thought, I decided that I would simply demonstrate the solution. I walked over to the bicycle, and without saying a word, pushed the rear derailleur forward and held it there. Immediately, they saw that my action had put slack in the chain, and they quickly got it back on the chain ring, said, “Thank you” in German and sped away.
That is perhaps an extreme case of road-side assistance, but there are many ways we can help cyclists with mechanical problems, even though we are not great mechanics.
Help Fix A Flat
It’s much easier for two people to fix a flat tire than for an individual. One can hold the frame while the other loosens the brakes and removes the wheel, for example. When the flat is fixed, it’s much easier to remount a wheel if one person holds the frame while to other positions the wheel. Finding the cause of the flat by inspecting the inside of the tire is also helped by a second set of fingers and eyes. In the rush to finish the job, it’s all too common for the biker to overlook the fact that the edge of the tire (the bead) isn’t seated correctly on both sides of the tire, so again a second set of eyes is helpful. It’s also possible that the cyclist didn’t realize that their flat-tire repair kit was short of patches, glue or tire levers when they left home, and you could help with those basic tube repair items.
Let Them Use Cell Phone
Even though 90 percent of the population has cell phones, not everyone does, or it may be that their cell-phone battery is dead (something I’ve experienced several times). It is also possible that their carrier has poor reception in that area, or they would appreciate someone else calling home to tell the family they’d be late for supper, while they worked on fixing their mechanical problem.
Provide Missing Tools
Not every cyclist carries every tool needed to make roadside repairs. You might have the correct Allen wrench, screwdriver or knife that they need.
Provide A First-Aid Kit
If a rider has fallen, chances are they have a scrap that needs a Band-Aid or two. Too many cyclists fail to carry a first-aid kit, so you can help stop the bleeding with bandages and treat the scrap or cut with triple antibiotic ointment, wet ones and gauze. And water from your water bottle is great for washing the dirt from “road rash.”
Help Pump Up Tires
Not everyone carries a small frame pump or yours might be more efficient or easier to use. It can also be helpful to have more than one person inflate tires with the small frame pump since high-pressure tires they require considerable effort to inflate to a rideable pressure.
You don’t have to be a skilled mechanic to help a cyclist in distress. A helping hand, a better tool or an encouraging word can often be the most useful response you can make.
John D. Yoder is a recreational cyclist, former cycling commuter and League of American Bicyclists cycling instructor. He has been active for over 25 years establishing the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, a rails-to-trails project connecting Goshen, Middlebury and Shipshewana, Indiana (www.pumpkinvine.org).