By Jim Langley
If you watch the Tour de France as intently as I do, you’ll notice the amazing mechanics, racing to the scene of a crash, spare bike in hand, diving into the wreckage to extract their rider, slipping his spare bike under him and mightily pushing him up the road. Or even crazier, leaning out of the windows of speeding team cars and fine-tuning a rear derailleur while hanging upside-down! Whatever the problem, they’ve got the know-how, parts and tools to fix it.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen on the rides most of us go on. And when it comes time to troubleshoot, we’re on our own, or if we’re lucky, we’ve got a buddy along to help. What’s more, most roadies carry a pretty basic tool kit to handle simple problems, like fixing flats, making small adjustments and tightening loose components.
Usually that’s all you need. But, what if something else goes wrong, something you’re unprepared to deal with, that might even leave you stranded by the side of the road? Dealing with those problems is what this article is about: big problems that seem hopeless.
The good news is that even without a team mechanic, or many parts, or much experience or skill, you can usually fix these problems, at least enough to keep rolling and get home. To help, here are some common breakdowns and how to try to fix them. Read mine and then post a Comment sharing the clever ways you’ve gotten back on the road when all seemed lost.
Tip: I carry a little more in my basic tool kit so that I can handle most common stuff and the unexpected. Here’s my list: http://jimlangley.net/wrench/roadandtrailrepairs.html
BREAKDOWN: You get a flat tire and then discover you have no way to fix it (maybe you left your seat bag and pump on your workbench when you cleaned your bike?).
WORKAROUND: There are lots of options for this one. If the tire holds air at all (slow leak), you can just keep stopping and pumping it up when it gets too soft, and limp home that way. If you’re on a popular cycling route, just waiting for a cyclist to come along and asking for whatever you need is usually the best bet.
If there are no other cyclists coming along, it’s possible to remove one side of the tire, stuff the tire full of grass or leaves, pop it back on and ride home slowly, trying to keep most of your weight over your fully inflated tire so you don’t damage the rim on the tire with the flat. You can also ride on a flat tire if you’re careful cornering, which is when the tire is most likely to squirm and cause a loss of control. Keep your speed down and take the turns very carefully. I’ve ridden 10 miles on flat tires like that without damaging the rim at all. But I rode gingerly and kept an eye out for potholes that would have damaged my rim had I hit them on the flat tire.
Tips: A trick I’ve seen done but haven’t had much luck with, is finding the hole in the tube and repositioning the tube so that the hole is trapped beneath the bead of the tire. When you inflate the tire, the bead pinches and seals the hole, letting you ride on the tire. Just don’t inflate the tire too hard or you could lift it off the rim since the tube is trapped beneath it.
Yes, that one is a little bit desperate, but it might get you home. Similarly, some riders have told me they tied knots in their tube at the puncture and were able to get the tube to hold enough air to limp home.
BREAKDOWN: You hit a rock, pothole or large piece of glass and put a gash in your tire. You can install a new tube but you can’t inflate it or it will blow-out at the hole in the tire making a loud explosion and causing another flat.
WORKAROUND: Most of you already know this trick, but for those who don’t, all you need is some type of patch material to place inside the tire and over the hole (called “booting” or “patching” the tire). You can use paper money, an energy-bar wrapper, pieces of DuPont’s Tyvex house weatherproofing wrap (that’s an RBR reader tip), etc.
Or buy and carry Park Tool’s adhesive Emergency Tire Boot. If your patch isn’t adhesive, inflate the tube slightly when you place it inside the tire and it will hold the patch in place over the hole.
Tip: You only need to patch tire cuts that are large enough for the tube to escape through. And, if the cut is large, usually it ruins the tire casing. So the patch will get you home, but you’ll want to replace the tire ASAP.
BREAKDOWN: You crash, or shift into your rear wheel, or get a stick stuck in your drivetrain and seriously bend your rear derailleur.
WORKAROUND: This one’s tricky. Sometimes you can sit next to your bike, grab the rear derailleur with your dominant hand and pull, and it will magically get straight enough that you can pedal again and get home. The shifting won’t be tuned correctly so shift carefully or you could throw the chain and derailleur into the spokes. But, you can at least get home.
The tricky part is that if you have a frame with an integral derailleur hanger (the tab on the bottom of the right rear dropout that the rear derailleur is screwed into), you have to be careful bending the derailleur back by hand. You might break the dropout in half, which would mean a more serious frame repair.
A more benign way to get your bike back on the road so you can ride it home is to use the chain tool in your mini tool to separate the chain and place it on the gear you think is low enough to get home on. Then size the chain with your tool so it will stay on the chainring/cog combination you selected — and your new 1-speed will be ready to go.
Tip: As long as you don’t break the dropout hanger, they can almost always be straightened; or replaced in the case of dropouts with replaceable hangers. Rear derailleurs, however, aren’t so easy to straighten and your best bet may be to replace it.
BREAKDOWN: You’re powering down some forgotten road and ‘snap,’ your chain breaks and falls off.
WORKAROUND: Hopefully when the chain broke you didn’t crash. Fixing the chain is easy if you have a chain tool. Just remove the broken link and reconnect the chain at the next good link. The chain will be shorter so you may not be able to shift into all your low gears but you’ll still be able to get home.
No chain tool? Try looking for a piece of wire on the side of the road that you can wrap around two links to get the chain working enough to soft pedal home. No wire? A piece of stout string, a zip tie, or even a piece of a shoelace could do the trick.
Tip: I have broken enough chains that I prefer to ride prepared by always carrying a Wipperman Connex link. Like a patch for your chain, it’s inserted by hand into the ends of the chain and your chain will be as good as new.
BREAKDOWN: You reach for the brakes and get a handful of air because that brake cable broke.
WORKAROUND: This one’s a no-brainer. But keep reading. If you happen to break a brake cable, it’s not a serious problem because you can just rely on your other brake to slow and stop. You won’t have the stopping power of two brakes but you’ll be able to get home.
Tip: I said keep reading because I wanted to mention that I once broke both cables at the same time. They had corroded inside the levers where I couldn’t see them and both cable heads broke when I applied the brakes hard on a long downhill run. Luckily I knew to use an old trick, the foot brake!
It’s easier to do when you’re wearing shoes with treads than with slick-soled roadie shoes. But what you do is remove your left foot from the pedal, rest the front of your foot on the left side of the bottom bracket so that it stays in place, and then carefully rest your heel against the rear tire to create drag to slow the bike and regain control.
BREAKDOWN: Uh-oh, that ‘snap’ was the shift cable breaking.
WORKAROUND: If it’s a broken front shift cable, no worries: the derailleur will shift onto the small chainring and you’ll be able to keep riding. But, if the rear shift cable breaks, the rear derailleur will shift down onto the smallest cassette cog putting you in a potentially knee-busting high gear.
Depending on where the cable broke, try pulling on the cable while pedaling by hand and shift into the gear you know you can ride home in (you’ll still be able to shift your front derailleur, so you’ll have a 2-speed bike to pedal home). Now, holding the cable like that so the derailleur is in the right gear, loosen one of your bottle cage bolts, slip the cable beneath it and tighten the bolt to hold the cable in place and the derailleur in gear.
If the cable broke too short for that trick, you might be able to tie a knot in it to hold the derailleur in the right gear. No? Then look for a small stick. Next, shift the derailleur by hand into the right gear and wedge the stick into the derailleur in such a way that it can’t change out of that gear (in most cases the derailleur limit screws won’t provide enough adjustment to do this).
Tip: Sometimes a shift cable will break at the lever. When this happens you can often shift by using the cable. Just reach down and pull on the cable. You have to hold it or else the derailleur will shift right back. But, it’s not hard to ride while holding the cable and getting home that way sure beats riding in way too hard a gear.
BREAKDOWN: You hit a pothole or take a tumble and bend your wheel so badly it won’t spin because the wobble hits the brake or frame.
WORKAROUND: This type of damage usually means that the wheel will never be perfect again. So you have nothing to lose by trying to straighten it. You aren’t trying to get it perfect. You just want to get it good enough to ride home.
An easy technique is to remove the wheel and spin it in your hands and find the worst wobble. Now, as if you were breaking a stick, rest your hands on either side of the wobble in the rim so that the bad spot in the wheel projects toward you. Then bend your dominant knee and rest it on the wobble’s high spot, and pull with both hands while simultaneously pushing with your knee. You will likely be able to get the wheel straight enough to ride on. If there are several wobbles, repeat with each one.
Tip: An “advanced” version of this wheel repair (and even more fun), consists of raising the wheel over your hand and slamming the wobble onto the ground (grass, please, not pavement) to straighten it. Important note: Never attempt to ride home if the wheel is warped so badly it’s rubbing against the frame because it’s entirely possible to wear a hole right through your frame or fork, especially if you ride a carbon bicycle.
I hope these last-chance repairs help you out on the road. Don’t forget to share your stories of fixing bicycles with nothing but inspiration and roadside debris in the comments.
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s cycling streak ended in February 2022 with a total of 10,269 consecutive daily rides (28 years, 1 month and 11 days of never missing a ride). Click to read Jim’s full bio.