By Jim Langley
In a previous Tech Talk, I explained that shifting into the spokes and damaging your frame’s derailleur hanger was a very common accident. I also gave some examples of what could cause it to happen and explained what to do to fix the problem.
This week, I thought I’d provide some slightly MacGyver-like tips for what you can do after shifting into your rear wheel so that you can ride home. It assumes that you carry an all-in-one tool that includes a chain tool (or a separate one). Your multi-tool should also have the right wrenches for working on your rear derailleur.
We’re talking about dealing with the worst-case scenario here, which is when the derailleur goes into the rear wheel, gets snagged by a spoke and pulled into the rear wheel. Because the bicycle is moving and the wheel is turning with it, there’s ample force to bend the frame derailleur hanger and the derailleur, too, and usually the spoke(s) that hook onto the derailleur. The chain usually gets bent, as well.
Sure, you could probably whip out your mobile and ring for a ride home. But what fun would that be? It’s much more satisfying if you can actually ride your rig home, plus it gives you a great story to tell – like my old friend and colleague Geoff Drake, who still talks about pedaling his jury-rigged 1-speed back to civilization during a tour in Baja.
6 steps to making your bike rideable again
Step 1. Separate and remove the chain. Because the rear derailleur no longer works, you’re going to turn your bike into a 1-speed. This requires shortening the chain. First, inspect the links to find any that are bent. Then, working close to the bent links, use your chain tool and separate the chain by pushing out a pin just far enough. If you carry the small parts for chain repair, such as a connecting link or special pin, follow the right steps for your chain to remove it. Separate the chain and pull it out from between the rear derailleur pulleys and cage. You can leave the chain dangling on the bike for now or remove it if that’s easier.
Step 2. Disconnect the rear derailleur from the frame. Using the wrench that fits, loosen the rear shift cable anchor bolt and free the cable and housing from the derailleur. Tighten the derailleur cable anchor bolt so it doesn’t fall out. Next, using the right size allen wrench, remove the rear derailleur by turning the attaching bolt counterclockwise. Lastly, tie the cable to the chainstay so it can’t unravel as you ride.
Step 3. Inspect the rear wheel. Now that the derailleur is out of the way, you can spin the rear wheel to inspect it. If you were lucky, the derailleur going into the spokes only ruined the derailleur and bent a couple of spokes. If the wheel spins freely and nothing’s rubbing, you’re good. If the wheel is rubbing or if the spokes are bent or broken, you’ll need to fix the wheel (next step).
Step 4. Get the rear wheel spinning. Modern wheels can have very few spokes and if even only one breaks it can throw the wheel wildly out of true. If that’s the case, your goal is to just try to get the wheel true enough to spin without rubbing on the brakes or frame. First, remove the broken spoke(s) or, if that’s too difficult, twist it around another spoke so it stays put. Then, find the wobbles one by one and loosen and tighten the spokes on either side of it to get the wheel as straight as you can. If needed, open the brake quick release completely for maximum rim clearance.
Step 4, continued. Repairing wheel wobbles MacGyver-style. This step is recommended only if you really are in a pickle and can only count on yourself to get home. If you can’t get the wheel to spin freely working with the spoke tension, you may have to use force by holding the high point of the wobble(s) over your knee and pulling on either side of the rim to actually bend it – kind of how you break kindling wood. Try gentle force first and combine the force with adding and loosening spoke tension. Usually, using these techniques, you can get the wheel spinning again.
Caution: If the wheel still rubs against the brake slightly, it won’t keep you from riding home and won’t harm anything. But don’t ride a bike with the wheel/tire rubbing the frame because in only a few miles you can rub right through the frame – even a steel frame. Also, if you had to loosen the spokes to the point that they seem too loose, try riding your bike and see if the wheel holds up. Usually even with very loose spokes you can keep riding long enough to get home.
Step 5. Choose your gear and size the chain to fit. For the ride home, your bicycle is only going to have one gear. So think about your route and choose a suitable gear – easier is usually better than harder. I recommend using the small chainring because it will ensureyou have plenty of good chain links, even if you have to remove quite a few that were bent. Size the chain so that it’s snug on the gears but not too tight, or else you may have trouble putting the chain together and getting it into your chosen gear. A little slack in the chain is okay, too. Don’t worry, it won’t fall off.
Tip: Save the links you removed so that you can more easily replace the chain with the correct length when you get home.
Step 6. Hit the road! You should be ready to ride home now. Be sure not to forget that you’re riding a one-speed and don’t try to shift your front derailleur because it won’t like it. Also, take it easy on your ride because damaged wheels can reduce riding control and braking power.