While bicycles are typically no match for motorized vehicles, they still provide a dependable and reliable means of transportation should society break down and the car engine conks out.
But even with its simpler mechanism, even the humble bicycle can fail. Here, we provide tips and quick fixes for some of the most common problems that you’ll encounter when cycling.
Loose or broken chain
A broken bicycle chain will turn any bike from people mover to foot dragger in a blink. If you’re going downhill, this won’t be much of an issue, but on flats or going uphill, especially with cargo, you won’t have much choice but to push the bike by your side. Chains usually break when they’re poorly maintained, old and worn or too much force is applied while pedaling.
Fixing a broken chain is easy, and the only thing you’ll need is a chain tool and a connecting link. Different manufacturers use various names for these special chain links, such as Missing Link, Master Link, Power Link, Power Lock, etc. Just make sure to use the right link for your bicycle. If your bike is a 10-speed (it has 10 sprockets on the cassette in the rear), use a 10-speed link, if it’s a 9-speed, and so on. They have different widths, and you might not be able to use your bicycle properly if you use the wrong link.
You may be able to use a hammer, pliers and a nail, but if you own a bike, a couple of dollars for a chain tool is a good investment and a more efficient way to do it.
1. If you’re on a geared bicycle, switch your shifter so your chain rests on the smallest rings (both on the front chain ring and the rear cassette sprocket) so you can relieve some of the tension on the chain. If you’re using a single-speed bicycle, you’ll have to slide the rear wheel a bit forward by loosening the rear skewer or axle on your rear wheel.
2. Rest the end of the chain against your chain tool and push the pins out. Do the same for the other end. You should be left with the inner plates for both ends of the chain.
3. Use the power link to join the two ends together. If it’s difficult to keep the two ends together because of your rear derailleur, push the derailleur forward with your foot until you can make both ends meet.
4. Once your link is in place, lock it into position by positioning it between the chain ring and the rear cassette (above the chain stay) and standing on the pedals. If you’re using a single-speed bicycle, don’t forget to pull the rear wheel back until your chain has the proper tension.
If your chain keeps falling off, it could be stretched or too long for your bicycle. You can use the same method to shorten it to the proper length.
If your bike uses pneumatic tires, always carry a spare inner tube and a handheld air pump with you. Your tires are vulnerable to punctures, and while it may be possible to go on airless tires for some distance, it won’t be as comfortable and you can permanently damage not only your tires, but your wheel as well.
1. If it’s your rear wheel that’s flat, switch your shifter so the bicycle chain rests on the smallest rings.
2. Flip the bike to make it easier to take out the affected wheel. If you’re using quick release skewers, pull the quick release and unscrew it until you can remove the wheel. Otherwise, you’ll have to use a wrench.
3. Take the tire lever and stick it underneath the bead of the tire to pull it out from its seat. If you don’t have a tire lever, other makeshift levers like house keys may work, although you risk damaging your rim and your keys.
4. Pull the inner tube out.
5. Check the inside of the tire for the cause of the puncture—be careful, if it could puncture a tire, it can easily cut you, too. If you find the cause of the puncture, take it out.
6. Take out your spare tube and pump some air into it, just enough to give it shape.
7. Place the inner tube on your rim, valve stem first until it wraps around the whole rim.
8. Seat the tire back on the rim. Once the tire is seated correctly, inflate the inner tube to the recommended pressure.
9. Put the wheel back on the bike, taking care to tighten it in place.
If you don’t have an inner tube, you should at least have a patch kit with you. Use the same method to pull out the inner tube, find the hole on it, and patch it to keep air from escaping.
But what if you don’t have a spare tube or a patch kit?
You can use tree sap or pitch to seal the hole in place of a bicycle patch. To make sure you’ll have enough air to get you to your destination (or the nearest place where you can get it fixed properly), fold the tube in half on top of the patched hole and secure the fold by wrapping it tightly with some rope or a shoelace.
Broken spokes and bent wheels
A crash or a sudden fall can result in a bent (also called taco’d or pringled) wheel or broken spokes. In most cases, it will do more harm to keep riding a wheel in such a shape, if you can even stay upright on it.
If the wheel is just slightly out of shape, you can adjust the spokes until it’s in a more acceptable condition. This is easier done with a spoke wrench, but if all you have is a pair of pliers, that will also work.
1. Flip the bicycle upside-down.
2. Determine the part where the bend is at its worst. You will have to tighten the spokes away from the bend (when upside-down, tightening would be counter-clockwise).
3. Tighten the spokes opposite from the bent side and loosen the spokes around it.
4. Inspect the wheel by spinning it. If it’s still wobbly, adjust the spokes again. This will require a lot of trial and error, but it doesn’t need to be perfectly aligned, just enough to make it spin freely and get you to the closest place for proper wheel repair or replacement.
If the wheel is damaged so much that adjusting the spokes won’t do much to get it aligned, you may have try more drastic measures.
1. Take the wheel off the bicycle.
2. Lean the wheel against a solid object like a rock or a log.
3. Carefully push against the bend of the wheel until the bend is minimized.
4. Once you’re able to get it in better shape, you can proceed to adjusting the spokes until it’s aligned enough to spin freely.
If it’s just a spoke or a couple of spokes that are broken, take out the damaged ones, or wrap them around the adjacent rod to keep them from getting tangled or cutting you when you’re riding. Adjust the spokes around them with your spoke wrench to straighten the wheels as much as you can.