I’ve been riding bikes for about 20 years. I’ve ridden my road bike 100 miles in a day, bike-packed to remote campsites on a touring bike, and tackled all manner of singletrack (including some that was well over my head). In other words, I’ve spent a lot of time in the saddle. But for most of it, I kept a deep, dark secret.
Most of the time, I didn’t think about it. But a couple of years ago, as I rode my rattletrap commuter bike down the trail to work one morning, I heard that telltale sound: psssssssst. I had a flat, and I didn’t know how to change it.
I weighed my options. I could walk my bike to work, which would make me at least half an hour late. I could call my husband and have him give me a ride, which would mean swallowing my pride and admitting that I had zero bike repair skills. Or I could take option #3, which is what I did—I called my bike-geek dad and had him talk me through the process. It took an embarrassingly long time, but I managed to change the flat, albeit after a few curse words muttered under my breath.
When I finally made it to work that day, at least as late as if I’d just thrown in the towel and walked my bike, I vowed to never be a damsel in bike distress again. I didn’t want to have to call someone to help me out of a bind the next time I had a flat (or worse); I wanted to be self-sufficient.
Since that humbling incident, I’ve practiced changing flats at home a half-dozen times. I signed up for a basic bike maintenance class at my local bike co-op and bought myself a copy of ParkTool’s Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair, which has proven to be an invaluable resource. There are still plenty of things I don’t know how to do, but I know I can get myself home most of the time—and, more importantly for my ego, I can at least say I gave it a shot.
But, as anyone who rides is well aware, fixing a flat isn’t the only trick you should have in your toolbox. Every self-sufficient cyclist should know a few essential bike repair skills, which will help keep them riding safely and smoothly—not to mention keep more cash in their wallet. A great place to start is your local bike shop or co-op, which offer basic maintenance classes, ranging from a few hours to a few weeks. If you learn better with hands-on practice than you do by watching a few videos online, consider signing up or even volunteering at a local bike co-op, where you’ll get tons of experience.
Trust me—that feeling when you change your own flat is totally worth it.
1. Fix a flat.
There’s a reason this one makes the top of the list: No one wants to have to call a lifeline for something as simple as a flat tire. It’s among the most common bike maladies, not to mention that it’s terrible for your wheels to keep riding along on a flat. Fortunately, it’s also among the simplest fixes. Most of the time, it makes the most sense to simply carry a spare tube and hand pump to replace the flat one, then find and patch the hole back at home. Pro tip: If you carry a CO2 cartridge to inflate up your tire with minimal effort, plan to deflate it and refill with a floor pump back at home—or you’ll find yourself with a flat next time you take your bike out.
2. Change your brake pads.
You wouldn’t let the brake pads on your car go beyond their recommended wear-and-tear, would you? Same goes for your bike: Those little rubber blocks regularly come into contact with friction from your wheel, so they wear down as they age—and worn brake pads aren’t what you want when you’re bombing down a hill. The type of brake pads on your bike varies depending on what sort of brakes you have, but the principal remains the same. Since functioning brakes are essential to your personal safety, it’s important to check them on a fairly regular basis and replace them when you notice they’re wearing thin. It’s a pretty simple fix, and watching a quick YouTube video will walk you through it––just Google “replace brake pads” plus the type of brakes on your bike.
3. Replace a broken spoke.
Spokes are what makes wheels strong enough to carry our weight, not to mention able to withstand physical forces like pedaling, braking, and whatever you’re riding over on the trail or road. So when one breaks, there’s more strain on all the other spokes. All kinds of things can cause a spoke to brake: landing hard on those rims, getting something caught in the spokes, even the industrial-grade salt typically spread on roads to melt snow. Spokes most commonly break closer to the hub on the driveside (the side with the chainset and chain) of your rear wheel, so if you hear a little “ping” and suddenly your wheel feels out of true, that’s where you should check first. You’ll need to remove your wheel for this one, so it’s best done at home. It’s a fairly simple fix, though it takes a little patience to finagle the spoke into the correct position. If you’re a visual learner, watching a pro do it should help.
4. Inspect (and clean) your chain.
Ready to get your hands dirty? This skill is absolutely essential, since chains pop off all the time. Next time you head out on a ride, take a second to look closely at how the chain sits on the chainring. Think you could replicate that? You can use a chain checker tool to check for wear, or check manually by lifting the chain up off the chainring. If this exposes more than three or four teeth, you’ve got a worn-out chain on your hands. You can slow down the wearing process by regularly brushing grit out of the chain (an old toothbrush works wonders) and applying a chain lubricant. Ideally, you’d at least wipe off your chain after every ride, especially if you’re been riding through mud, dirt, or roads with ice-melt on them. Lube your chain when it starts to get dry—as a rule of thumb, if you can hear your chain, it needs to be lubed.
5. Adjust derailleurs.
Your bike’s derailleurs are the mechanism that moves your chain—that’s how you shift gears. When your derailleurs are adjusted correctly, you can shift smoothly and avoid chain rub. When they’re misaligned, you’ll find shifting more difficult (it can even be impossible, if you’re riding uphill). This can happen for all kinds of reasons: If you’re a mountain biker, even a relatively minor crash can cause derailleurs to be out of whack. Regular wear and tear, too, bumps them out of place, and adjusting the cable tension to pull upward on the front and rear derailleurs makes all the difference. It’s really just a series of fairly minor adjustments, but as with a lot of bike maintenance, it’s much easier to do if you see it demonstrated. Park Tool has a great series of videos on adjusting both front and rear derailleurs.
5. True a wheel.
When you’re riding fast downhill, the last thing you want is a wobbly, out-of-true wheel. Every part of your wheels should remain the exact same distance (or as close to it as possible) from the brake pads during every rotation; if it’s not, you’ll feel that terrifying, telltale wobbling. Crashing your bike, or even just lots of riding, can cause a wheel to be out of true, which is why you should put throw wheels on a truing stand occasionally to makes sure they’re spinning straight. (You don’t necessarily need a truing stand, though it does make this process easier.) Play around with the tension with a spoke wrench to get a feel for what keeps your wheel perfectly aligned. Alternately, anytime you drop off your bike at the shop for a tune up, you can ask your mechanic to check for you.
6. Fix a broken chain.
Every chain has its day. When parts of yours are too worn out to keep around (or if the chain snaps apart on its own), you may need to replace a few chain links. You can find them at your local bike shop, along with a chain breaker, which makes it possible to hold a link in place so you can push out the little pin that connects it with its neighbors. Consider practicing on an old chain before you apply your skills to a bike you’re currently riding, as a broken chain is a real pain when you’re out on the trail.
7. Carry the right tools.
Carrying the right tools for the job is a skill unto itself. Depending how far you’ll be riding (and how far from help you’ll be), the repair kit you’ll need to carry varies, but there are a few essentials you’ll never be sorry to have. A spare tube, two or three plastic tire levers, and a hand pump or several CO2 cartridges are absolutely crucial, since they’ll get you home after a flat. It’s also a good idea to carry a patch kit in case you’re unlucky enough to get more than one flat. A good bike multi-tool goes a long way, too, since it’s used for all kinds of things on a bike, and zip ties or ski straps are helpful for lots of minor repairs in a pinch. Those are the basics: If you’re heading out for a bikepacking trip or long tour, you’ll want to get to know your bike even better, and carry a first-aid kit for it just like you do for the humans in your group.
Written by Emma Walker for RootsRated Media in partnership with RootsRated.