Pedal Basics

As long as you ride a well-maintained bicycle, serious breakdowns should be pretty rare. Out on the road or trail you’ll mostly be repairing the occasional flat tire because it’s hard to avoid every piece of glass, and those rocks and potholes out on the trails. But other than that, it’s amazing how long a maintained bicycle will run trouble free.

Still, it’s smart to be prepared for mechanical emergencies so that you never get stranded and have to walk home. And, by putting together and carrying a small and simple bicycle repair tool kit you’ll be able to fix just about anything that could go wrong. Obviously, if you want, you can put together a large comprehensive repair kit and carry that along. That would make sense for an extended multi-day tour where you might have to deal with problems with a variety of different bicycles.

For everyday riding, though, where you only need to keep the bike you're on going, every additional ounce in your tool kit is more weight you’ll have to pedal up and down hills, so usually, the smaller and more efficient the tool kit you carry is, the better. This holds true even more if this is the repair kit you’re carrying as you go for a new personal record on your local century ride or attempt to win the Sea Otter cross-country race, for example.

A small everyday kit like this can be carried in a seat bag or trunk bag on your rear rack or even in a backpack, a pocket or a hydration pack. Just be sure to bring your tool kit along every time so you don’t leave your all-important tools and spares at home where they won’t do you any good. That can happen if it’s in your hydration pack, which you may not bring on every ride. If the kit’s in your seat bag strapped beneath your seat, it’ll be there when you need it. If you have several bikes, a good practice is to have a kit on every bicycle.

It’s actually fairly surprising how few tools you can get away with in your repair kit. I recommend carrying a pump, tire levers, spare tube, patch kit, tire boot, a bicycle mini-tool (sometimes called a multi-tool or all-in-one) and a repair link for your chain. You can get by with less, but this kit will make it relatively easy to repair the common problems you’re likely to run into on the road and trail. Keep reading to learn more about each of the tools.

Pump
The majority of the tools in your take-along bicycle repair tool kit are for fixing the most common repair, a flat tire, and the most important tool may be the pump. Get one that’s right for your bicycle, one that works well and one you like. If you’re not sure, ask your riding pals what they recommend or ask your local bicycle shop. The pump must fit the valves (Schrader or Presta) on the bike you plan to use it with. Usually the pump head can be converted to fit your valve type, but check to make sure and then convert the head to match your valve so you don’t forget to do this and get stuck on the side of the road with a pump that doesn’t. If you ask at the shop when you buy the pump, they should be happy to convert the pump head as needed to fit your valve.

If you’re not sure how to use the pump, also ask the shop to give you a demonstration. Also, you’ll want to mount the pump on your bike frame, or tuck it in your pack if you prefer to carry it that way.

Manufacturers come out with new lines of pumps every year so it’s hard to recommend any particular model. I’ve have had excellent luck with pumps made by Blackburn, Crank Brothers, Planet Bike, Silca, Specialized, Topeak, Zefal and more. If you ask at your local bike shop they’re sure to have a good selection and can show you the differences and recommend their current favorites.

You might see CO2 pumps, which use compressed CO2 in small cartridges to inflate tires quickly. The advantages of this type of pump are ease of use since they inflate tires almost immediately. Plus, because they’re so small they can be carried anywhere, even in a small pocket. The disadvantage is having to purchase cartridges and always have one on hand. Plus, using this type of pump in frigid weather can prove problematic as the CO2 super cools the valve when it blasts the CO2 in. Cold weather increases this effect and the pump can actually freeze to the valve and be nearly impossible to remove until you warm it up. My preference is a regular pump, which always works and doesn't require any additional parts to do its job (no cartridges to buy).

Another consideration is whether to use a frame-fit pump or a mini-pump. Frame-fits are typically used on bicycles with standard frames. They're spring loaded to fit snugly between 2 frame tubes so you can carry them without any clips. They’re also on the long side, which means a little more pumping power and faster inflation, making them ideal for high-pressure road tires.

Mini-pumps are ideal for suspension mountain bikes that have complicated frames with limited pump mounting options. The minis typically come with mounting clips that attach to the water bottle screws allowing the pump to ride right next to the bottle. Or, you can tuck the mini in your hydration pack, too. It takes more strokes to inflate tires with a mini-pump, however a good mini will do the job just fine, plus the beefy nature of mountain bike tires usually means reduced risk of flats so you you’re less likely to need your pump.

Tire Levers
When you get a flat, you need to remove the tire and replace the tube (or patch it) to fix it. While, with a little experience you can remove tires with only your hands, tire levers ease tire removal by giving you a mechanical advantage. Also, if it’s cold and your hands get numb, you might not be able to remove the tire by hand and will need the assist of the tire levers.

Tire levers usually come in sets of 3. To use, you let all the remaining air out of the tire and then slip a lever under the edge of the tire (called the bead) and pull to start prying the tire off at that point. Tire levers usually have a thin curved end that fits under the tire and a hook on the other end that you can place on a spoke to hold the lever in place. Then you insert another lever about 6 inches away and pry a little more of the tire off. And, repeat with the last lever, and the tire should be ready to be pulled off by hand letting you get at, remove and replace the tube.

Tire levers are NOT used for installing tires. You should always only use your hands for that. If you use the levers there’s a risk that you’ll pinch and puncture the tube again causing a very frustrating second flat.

Spare Tube
Carry one that’s the same as what’s on your bike: match the valve type and length and the tube size. If you’re not sure, bring your bike into the bike shop when you buy your spare tube. They’ll be able to tell what size tube you need by looking at your tires and wheels.

The valve must be the same type or it might not fit in your rim and your pump might not be able to inflate it. And, the size must match or it might not fit correctly. Match the diameter (for example 26 inch or 700c) and the width (for example, 1.5 inch or 25c). If you can’t match the exact width, get a tube that’s slightly narrower, such as 23c instead of 25c. Tubes stretch so it won’t cause any problems. However, if you make the mistake of getting too wide a tube, such as a 28c instead of the 25c, it can make it significantly harder to install the tire and tube, so don’t make that mistake.

The other consideration is valve length. With so many aero rims and wheels on bicycles today, the valve on your spare tube has to be long enough to reach through the rim and extend far enough for you to be able to inflate it with your take-along pump. So, be sure to match the valve length, too. Or, in some cases you might even need a valve extender, a small tool that screws onto Presta valves making them longer.

Patch Kit
These are used for patching tubes. If you’re lucky, you’ll never have more than one flat tire while riding and you won’t ever use your patch kit on the road, but only at home when patching popped tubes in your shop or garage so that you can put them back in service again.

But, if you carry a patch kit, you’ll be ready on that day that you find that your spare still has a hole in it because you forgot to patch it. Or, if you’re unlucky enough to fix a flat on the trail and then puncture the new tube because something sharp was hiding in the tire. When that happens, you’ll be glad you have your patch kit.

There are glueless patch kits today with which you simply find the hole, rough the surface of the tube and then stick on the patch, no gluing or waiting for the glue to dry is required. These glueless kits work fine on low-pressure tires, such as mountain bike models. For road tires, which are high pressure, I recommend sticking with a regular patch kit. With these you must find the hole, mark it, scuff up the area at the hole, apply glue, let it dry thoroughly and then install the patch. The advantage of the regular patch kit is that it is a permanent repair and can handle even the highest pressures.

TIP: When using the glue in these patch kits be sure to roll the tube from the bottom to remove any air and ensure the glue tube only contains glue when you screw on the top. Otherwise the glue will dry out and there won't be any the next time.

Tire Boot
A tire “boot” is a patch for tires. It’s used when you run over a piece of glass or some debris that gashes your tire. When this happens it usually ruins the tube. And, if you’re not careful, when you install your spare tube and inflate the tire the tube will expand out of the gash in the tire and explode making a surprisingly loud ka-pow, and scaring the daylights out of you. It might even happen when you’re riding again thinking that you just fixed your flat, which can be quite the revolting development. It’s why you should always carefully inspect tires after flats, and why always having a tire boot in your repair kit is such a great idea.

If you suffer a tire cut like this and you have a tire boot, the repair is as easy as adhering the tire patch over the cut on the inside of the tire. When you install the tire and tube, the tube pushes against the boot and the boot prevents the tube from expanding through the hole. The photo shows Park Tool’s tire boot, which is a handy one to carry. It’s the right size for most cuts, is self adhering and made of a thin, durable material.

TIP: If you don’t have one of these, you can use paper money, small squares cut from canvas, denim or sailcloth that you prepare ahead of time, and tuck in your seat bag, or even something you find on the side of the road. We once got away with using a piece of aluminum we tore from a Coke can, believe it or not. I’ve also heard of people stuffing other trash in the tire and even cutting patches out of their clothing, though, with the price of cycling clothing, I can’t recommend that.

Mini Tool
A good mini tool takes up little space yet contains all the important tools you might need on the road including common Allen wrenches, such as a 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8mm, a torx wrench (if you’re using disc brakes), regular and Philips screwdrivers and a chain tool. I recommend always carrying one that includes a chain tool because as we’ve gone from 6-speed to 10-speed drivetrains, chains have become narrower and more delicate. As long as you have a chain tool along, you can get going again.

There are all kinds of different mini-tools available from many popular manufacturers and the tools and features vary. Look for one that has the tools you need for the bikes you’re taking care of on rides. For example, you’ll want an 8mm Allen wrench if your bicycles are equipped with crankarms held on by 8mm bolts. You may not need some of the extras these tools often include, such as bottle openers, knife blades, etc., though only you can judge for sure what you might encounter on your rides. And you should select the one that makes the most sense for you.

Chain Master Link
As long as you have a mini-tool that includes a chain tool, you can fix a broken chain, but it can be a messy and tricky job if the damage is bad enough. So, I always carry something that makes chain repair much easier called a repair or master link. I like to think of this handy device as a chain patch because of how easy it is to fix broken chains with it the same way a tube or tire patch makes fixing those thing easy. When you go shopping for these, every manufacturer has their own name for theirs so you might hear, Powerlink or Connex link or Quick Link or even master link. Just tell the shop that you’re looking for a special repair link for a derailleur chain so they don’t give you one for a coaster-brake-type bicycle, which won’t work on you bike.

It’s also important to get one that fits your chain. If you have a 9-speed drivetrain, you need a 9-speed repair link, and so on. You can see from the picture that these links come in 2 parts and simply snap together. Each has its own special installation instructions so be sure to read them when you get the link or ask your bicycle shop for advice to ensure you know how to use it.

With one of these master links in your repair kit, should you or one of your riding buddies break a chain, you simply remove the broken chain parts and reconnect the ends of the chain with the repair link and the bike is good to go.

TIP: The most fun I have with these is fixing other people’s bikes that I encounter on the trail. They’re usually hiking out of the woods unhappy about the long walk ahead and their broken bike. And, when I get them pedaling again with this simple little part it really makes their day.

Spoke Wrench
Most good mini-tools include spoke wrenches, but I like to carry a quality spoke wrench because they’re easier to use. The minis usually integrate their spoke wrenches into other tools making it more difficult to true wheels because the body of the tool gets in the way. Sometimes the spoke wrenches on these tools don't fit on the spoke nipples quite properly, either, which can increase the chances of rounding and damaging the nipples.

So, by carrying my own, I know I’ll be able to fix my, or my friend’s wheel easily and accurately should we tweak a wheel. Spoke wrenches are small, so it’s easy to tuck one in my kit. And, in the event of a seriously pretzeled wheel I know I have the right tool to get us home when all looks lost.

Other Goodies
The items above sum up what I carry, however, you might like to bring some waterless hand cleaner and a small rag, too. If so, a good way to carry the hand cleaner is in a 35mm-film container. And the container makes a handy place to wrap a little duct tape. That’ll make a nice tire boot, too. Back to Flat Repair