The best mountain bike rides are the kind where you don’t even notice the bike. You feel intuitively connected to the trail, shifting smoothly and descending silently. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. If you ride enough, odds are you’re going to run into some mechanical issues out on the trail. Having some basic tools knowledge can be the difference between a few minutes of downtime (snack break!) and hiking your bike for miles. So here’s our list of bike tools everyone should own, and know how to use, along with how-to guides for some common on-trail issues you might face.
If you own a mountain bike, you need to own these tools, and know-how to use them. And those tools and skills are no good if you don’t have your tools with you. So whether you’re carrying a backpack, fanny pack, or just slipping a multi-tool into the pocket of your mountain bike shorts, make sure you’re always prepared. Here’s what we recommend carrying at all times:
- Multitool with an allen set, a t25 key, and chain breaker
- A pump or CO2 inflator
- Tire levers
- Spare bike tube (that’s the same size as your tires, check out Tubolito for an ultra-light option)
- Quick link
- Plug kit
- Spare derailleur hanger
- Zip ties
Note: You can’t take CO2 cartridges on an airplane, so if you’re traveling for a Chasing Epic trip, think about using a pump, or stopping at a bike shop when you arrive. Chances are your guide will have what you need, but sometimes things happen when you’re by yourself even during a group ride.
There are a few things that you can do before and after every ride that go a long way toward making sure that your bike is less likely to fail you miles from the car.
Before Your Ride
A quick bike check before every ride can help you fix mechanicals before you’re miles away from a shop, and it only takes a minute or two. Make sure both tires have air, check your front and back brakes, make sure your bike is shifting smoothly, check all your suspension and cockpit bolts, and make sure nothing on the bike is rattling or loose. After you check your bike, check your gear, like your helmet and bike shoes. If you run clipless pedals, make sure the cleats on your shoes are tight. It’s easier to adjust them now than when they’re on your feet. As for your other gear, this is a good time to make sure you don’t forget anything.
Bikes break unexpectedly. It’s your job as a rider to be prepared to fix them and get yourself back to the car. Problems usually happen in three main areas: tires, drivetrain, and brakes.
When you get a flat tire, the first question to ask yourself is, “are my tires set up tubeless?” If they are, it’s worth trying to keep them that way. That means pumping the tire up until sealant bubbles out of the puncture, and then using a rubber “bacon strip” to plug the hole. If you can fix a flat without taking the tire off the rim, always do it.
If the flat is too big to fix with a bacon strip, or you’re running tubes, you’re going to need to install a new tube. The first step is to take the wheel off the bike, using either the quick release lever or the bolted axle. Then you’ll need to remove the tire from the rim. To do this, break the bead off the rim with your hands, and work one side of the tire off with your tire levers. It’s a good idea to make sure you can do this before you’re stuck out on a long ride. Some tire and rim combos are really hard to change. Make sure you are physically able to get your tire on and off of the rim. If you can’t, you might want to reconsider your setup.
Broken chains do happen on the trail, meaning this is a fix you should know how to make. The first step is to re-route the chain through your derailleur -it helps to look at a friend’s chain to make sure you’re putting it back correctly. Then, slip half of your quick link into each end of the chain, and then push them together, lock the back brake and push down on the pedals to lock the new link in.
If your drivetrain is skipping, or won’t shift into one end of its range, you probably either have a bent derailleur or hanger, or need to adjust your derailleur. If you’re only having problems after a crash, something is probably bent. Look down your derailleur from directly behind your back tire, if something looks like it’s not perfectly vertical, you probably bent it. Either replace your bent hanger, or bend back the derailleur with your hands. Derailleur hangers are meant to bend and break instead of your expensive derailleur, that’s why we recommend carrying an extra.
If nothing is bent, there’s a good chance you just need to adjust the cable tension. This can be done with the barrel adjuster at the shifter. Spinning this barrel out increases the tension on the cable, this means it makes your derailleur want to be in a lower gear. So if you can’t shift into first gear, adjust the barrel a little. Similarly, spinning it in decreases that tension, so if you’re losing your chain off the top of your cassette into your spokes, you probably want to decrease that tension. Spin the barrel adjuster in quarter turn increments, while riding, you’ll be able to feel and hear when it’s properly adjusted.
If you’ve tried the barrel adjusters, and you’re still having issues, you might need to adjust the limit screws on the derailleur itself. Check out this video to learn how to make these adjustments.
If your brakes are making horrible metallic noises every time you pull them, it’s probably time for new pads, but if they’re just rubbing a little as you ride along, they’re easy to fix. To do this, you need to re-center the calliper. Loosen the two bolts that hold the caliper to your fork or frame until the caliper can move freely. Then have a friend hold your bike in the air, and spin the wheel hard, before grabbing the brake. Do this a few times, and then hold the brake lever down while you tighten back up those bolts. This helps the caliper re-center over the disk and eliminate rubbing.
Once you’ve mastered these tools and skills you’ll be ready to fix the most common trail issues. That said, part of the magic of mountain biking is that you never really stop learning how to better take care of and work on your bike!