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Tooling along

Simple repair gizmos can put a biker back in the saddle.

March 02, 2004|Julie Sheer | Times Staff Writer

The snap of a chain is all it takes to bring a mountain bike ride to a grinding halt -- and leave you pining for tools that could have saved the day.

A portable tool kit is essential for any off-road cyclist who regularly rides on backcountry trails. You don't need to bring along a bike shop's worth of gadgets; a few high-quality, lightweight tools can provide a quick fix for a variety of mishaps and allow you to band-aid broken parts well enough to get you home. Most of these tools are small enough to fit in a seat bag or hydration pack.

At the very least, carry the basic tools for the most common bike repair: fixing or changing a flat tire. You'll need two or three tire levers to pry the tire off the rim, a spare tube to replace the damaged one and a hand pump to inflate the tire. If you have a really unlucky day and get two flats, it's also good to have a patch kit to mend the second tube. Some riders pump up tires with CO2 cartridges instead of air. They are tiny and work well but cost $2 to $3 apiece for a one-time shot.

A damaged chain can be a bigger problem. With a chain-breaker tool, a bent chain link can be broken off and links replaced. Many cyclists carry along a few extra links, but if you don't have any the chain can be reattached using the chain tool. The fit will be a bit tight, but, according to Gabe Rosello, action sports supervisor at REI in Manhattan Beach, "It will get you off the trail and back to civilization."

Rough trails, bumps and jumps can loosen spokes and make wheels wobble. Normally, spokes are evenly tensioned to keep the wheel rim aligned, or "true." What to do when a wheel's not true? A spoke wrench can tighten or loosen the nipples that attach spoke to rim. They come in various sizes, so make sure the wrench you buy fits your wheels.

Many bike experts swear by multitools in which anywhere from six to 30-plus tools fold out Swiss Army knife-style from a single unit and perform a variety of functions -- from tightening a seat post to replacing a broken chain. Rosello says an entire bike can be taken apart with one.

Multitools range in price from $11 to $50. Some popular brands include Topeak, Park Tool and Crank Brothers, according to Nick Ponsor, service manager at the Supergo Bike Shop in Laguna Hills.

Even multitools can't fix some trail mishaps, though. Bent components, a busted hydraulic brake line or a broken wheel usually require a trip to the shop. If a few spokes are broken, you can still ride by wrapping the broken spoke around an adjacent one.

It's a good idea to practice using the tools before hitting the trail. And preventing repairs begins with basic maintenance. Chris Blake, a salesman at Pasadena Cyclery, recommends tightening all the bike's bolts a few times a year -- especially those on the handlebars, stem and crank arms -- and cleaning and lubricating the chain before each ride because a brittle chain is more likely to break. To prevent flats, Blake says some cyclists insert a nylon and plastic liner between tire and tube, or line the tire with a Kevlar belt.

Sometimes trail repairs require improvisation. Poke a hole in your tire? Eat an energy bar. Its wrapper -- or even a dollar bill -- can become a makeshift tire patch, says Rosello. Then, if your chain breaks and you forgot the tools, at least you'll have some extra energy for the long walk back.

To e-mail Julie Sheer or read her previous Outdoors Institute columns, go to

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