Nothing can deflate a bike trip faster than a mechanical issue. But don't sweat: it’s more than likely that the issue is as simple as a flat tire.
It can be an intimidating experience, especially if it’s your first breakdown. We’ve been there. Though we’ve learned a few tricks along the way, we’re not mechanical experts here at Bikeout. But with a little patience, bike maintenance can be much more simple than it looks.
Who better to help than Philadelphia-based bike mechanic Marzhel Salvador Pinto Mojarro, who works as a shop manager at Main Line Cycles. Before the pandemic he was also busy with Full Speed Ahead NRS, a growing traveling mechanic service he operates for bike races around the greater Philadelphia area.
Recently, we asked Marzhel to offer his expertise in this short guide to help get people back on the road, focused on the most common—and fixable—issues that he sees from customers.
These tips only require you to have a handful of tools, all affordable accessories you can purchase at a local bike shop. Ahead of trip, just plan on bringing an allen wrench key, tire levers, spare tubes, portable air pump, plastic food wrapper or patch kit, spoke wrench and possibly a Phillip’s head screwdriver.
Hopefully, Marzhel’s advice can fix your problem. Or at the very least, get you rolling so you can make it to the nearest bike shop for a closer look.
Do you have a flat tire?
Tools needed: Tire levers, spare tube, portable air pump, plastic food wrapper or patch kit
Take the wheel off the bike. If it’s a rear flat, shift to the highest gear. This will make it easier to reinstall the wheel.
Once you’re holding the wheel, run your hands around the tire to try and see if there are any visible punctures and remove any foreign objects.
Grab your tire lever (they come in packs of two), and with the concave side of the tire lever facing up towards the wheel, place the tip between the rim and the tire and scoop the ridge of the tire up while also tipping the lever down towards the spokes and hook it into place.
Shimmy the second lever in the gap that’s been created between the rim and the tire and drag it around the rim in order to unseat it.
Pull the flat tube out.
Run your fingers around the inside of the tire to feel for any sharp bits or debris that might have caused a flat. Remove any debris.
At this point, you may find that the puncture is minimal and can be patched. You may not need to completely replace the tube, especially in a pinch. My favorite thing to use as a tire boot is Mexican currency. It’s cheap, colorful, and durable. Plastic nutrition or food wrappers are also good. You can also purchase adhesive patch kits from your local bike shop. Typically any puncture that you can stick an entire finger through would be too big for a patch and would require a new tube.
If you do need a new tube, install it at the valve first and massage the tube into the tire. Sometimes it helps to inflate the tube with a little air (just a few pumps) to help you guide the tube into the tire.
Place the tire back on the rim, starting valve side and ending on the side across from it.
Once the tire is seated, check to see that the tube isn’t caught between the tire and the rim.
When that’s confirmed, inflate! If you used a patch, inflate your tire slowly to make sure the patch doesn’t shift.
Is your chain bent or resisting?
Tools needed: Allen key wrenches
Occasionally chains get bent during the course of a trip. Whether it’s a stick that gets lodged in the drive train, or something as simple as your bike falling over on its side, a bad drivetrain can inhibit your trip.
Place your saddle on your shoulder and lift your bike enough for the rear wheel to clear the ground.
Spin the pedals gently so that the chain rotates the drivetrain. Identify the bent chain link by isolating the section that makes the most noise.
Using an allen wrench key, straighten the bent link by twisting the adjacent links in the opposite direction. Voila: the chain is now un-bent.
You’re best off heading to the next bike shop for a replacement.
Are your wheels resisting when they spin?
Tools needed: Spoke wrench
Wheels eventually will go out of true, meaning that they aren’t rolling in a straight circle. A number of things can cause this issue, but the most likely is extended use without tuning. A bike shop can fix the issue by adjusting the spokes, which true a wheel.
First, place the bike upside down on its handlebars and saddle. Rotate the wheel, and look straight on the wheel from the front or back. Do you notice it rotating unevenly? Is it rubbing the break?
If it is rubbing the brake and you have standard rim brakes, identify which spot on the wheel is getting caught on the brake. Try to open the brake to see if the wheel will spin uninterrupted.
If it does not, you can use a spoke wrench to fix the issue. Adding tension to a spoke will move the rim towards the direction it’s coming from. Removing tension will “push” it away. Add or remove tension from the spoke closest to the place on the wheel where the interference occurs. Do this until the wheel clears.
If you have disc brakes, use the same procedure as before, but we use the frame as the point of reference for truing the wheel instead of the rim brake caliper.
Whether or not you are able to work out the resistance in the wheel, it’s always best to take it to your local bike shop. All shops are equipped with a truing stand that can very quickly determine if there’s still more work to be done. If the issue continues after a shop takes a look, it might be time for a new wheel.
Has your rear derailleur cable snapped?
Tools needed: Allen wrench key or Phillip’s head screwdriver
If your rear derailleur snaps, it can usually be very difficult to finish a ride. Being stuck in the hardest gear when fully loaded or during a hilly ride is no fun.
To address this, start by locating the High and Low Limit Screws on your rear derailleur usually marked with a “H” for High.
The high limit screw tells the derailleur how far to the outside of the bike the derailleur can travel. This corresponds to where the higher gears are located on the bike.
Screw that “H” limit screw clockwise (which will move the derailleur position closer to the frame) until you get to a gear that feels comfortable.
This will usually move the derailleur 2-3 gears inward and allow you to ride home despite some small hills.
Of course, you’ll want to have a bike shop take a closer look, as soon as you can reach one.
Is your rear derailleur hanger bent, but not broken?
Tools needed: Allen wrench key
You go to shift your bike and it feels like it’s caught between gears. Does the bike feel like it’s shifting by itself? Your derailleur hanger might be bent.
Identify how bad the issue is by shifting the bike unto both extremes of the cassette, both to the high gears, and then to the low gears. If the chain jumps off the cassette (gears) in either extreme it’s best to use the H and L limit screws to remedy the issue.
Tighten the screws in a quarter-turn at a time until it no longer jumps off the cassette at that extreme.
One of the dangerous things that can happen is the derailleur cage will make contact with the spokes of the wheel. If this happens, the wheel could potentially rip the derailleur and the derailleur hanger off the frame. To prevent this, tighten the L limit screw until you can no longer access the easiest climbing gear on the cassette. This will ensure that the cage won’t make contact with the spokes or the wheel.
Did your front derailleur cable snap?
Tools needed: Allen wrench key or Phillips Head Screwdriver
If there’s a lot of climbing ahead on your ride, best practice is to keep the front derailleur in the small gear and to not move it. You can keep riding safely until you can get it checked out.
However, if the front cable snaps, much like the rear derailleur, follow these steps in order to continue riding to your nearest bike shop.
First, tie the ends of the cable to your frame and/or accessories to keep them far away from the drivetrain.
If the remaining ride is mostly flat, moving the chain to the bigger chainring is recommended by tightening the L limit screw until the front derailleur moves into a position where the chain won’t derail into a smaller gear.
Sometimes it’s best to manually move the chain unto the bigger chainring after moving the L limit screw a few turns. Sometimes it won’t be enough to actually shift but enough to have it not derail.
If you don’t have a front derailleur, then enjoy not having a Front derailleur cable to worry about. Lucky you!
Marzhel is a shop manager at Main Line Cycles. He is also the owner and operator of Full Speed Ahead NRS, a growing traveling mechanic service for bike races around the greater Philadelphia area.