Photo of Tom Allen pushing his broken, muddy bike up a dirt road in Armenia, with a Lada in the background. Copyright Chris Goodman.

No Stupid Questions: Will I Be Able To Fix My Broken Touring Bike?

A reader writes:

Will I be able to repair all what could happen to the bike?

Thank you for this wonderfully simple question! It encapsulates one of the biggest fears for newcomers to long-distance cycle touring and bikepacking: roadside mechanical catastrophe!

Fortunately, I have an equally simple answer for you:

No. You will not be able to repair all that could happen to your bike.

This holds true regardless of what preparations you might make. 

You may have signed up for and attended a bicycle maintenance course at a local bike workshop.

You may have followed my recipe for a fix-anything cycle touring toolkit (the one I’m about to prove is misleadingly named).

You may have watched every YouTube tutorial out there about fixing common mechanical problems with bicycles, or diligently followed my advice to completely disassemble and reassemble your bike before you leave, or bought the most expensive “maintenance-free” internally-geared belt-driven titanium touring bike on the planet, and it still won’t change the truth.

Nope. Ride your bike for long enough and Murphy’s Law – whatever can break will break – shall eventually be enforced.

And so, one day, you will find yourself on the side of a road or trail with a mechanical problem that – whether for lack of tools, parts, skills, time, energy, or some other resource – you’ll be unable to fix.

Allow me to illustrate:

Last year, while riding the Old Gibber Track up the coast of New South Wales, a sudden clattering noise announced a broken spoke, miles from anywhere on a bumpy gravel road through the bush. I know how to replace a spoke, true a wheel, and even build one from scratch, and I had a bundle of spare spokes with me for just such an event. But did I have the very specific splined tool needed to remove the sprocket cassette’s locking ring in order to actually fix the problem? No. Why? Because I’m human, and I forgot to pack it.

A couple of years earlier, while leading a group of bikepackers across the mountains of Armenia, my rear derailleur spontaneously took a dive into the spokes of my rear wheel, smashing itself into several pieces in the process. This was three days into a two-week ride, halfway up a long climb into a backcountry stage of the route. Did I happen to have a spare rear derailleur in my frame bag? Of course not.

Then, a few days later, my bike’s freehub body seized at the beginning of the longest backcountry stage of the ride, leaving me with – essentially – a fixed-gear bicycle on which to ascend to 3,100m and cover 125km of off-road riding through the most remote volcanic mountain range in the country. Did I have a spare freehub, or an Allen key fat enough to remove the broken one? I think you can guess the answer by now.

Yet in all of these cases I was back on the road within a few hours of my roadside mechanical catastrophe.

And therein is the point I want to make with this answer.

As soon as you accept that you will not be able to repair all that could happen to your bike, the calculation changes. Instead of asking how else you could avoid the problem, you’ll start asking how you might respond when a problem inevitably does arise.

In other words, developing a problem-solving mindset is probably the best thing you can do to prepare for the many unpredictable things that might happen to your bike while touring. (I wrote more about this philosophy a while ago.)

To be clear, I’m not saying you should leave your tools at home, or assume the fairy godmother will magically appear to put things right, or anything like that. Navigating the problem is still up to you.

To return to the three examples above: I taped the broken spoke to its neighbour with Gaffer Tape, wrote a Tweet to find the nearest bike workshop, and ended up at Derek’s place; I removed the broken rear derailleur and a few chain links and spent the next two days riding (and pushing!) my bike in single-speed mode; and I strapped my bike to the roof of an ancient Volga, found a bike shop to rebuild my rear wheel in Yerevan, and called a friend to drive me back to the group the same afternoon.

In each case, the simple question was: ‘How can I move forward now and solve the problem later?’. It’s usually the case that the solution to your roadside mechanical catastrophe basically involves getting yourself and your bike to the nearest location where the tools, parts, skills, time, energy, or whatever other resources are available.

Getting through it is about keeping a clear head, being proactive, and working with what you’ve got.

And knowing this in advance will, at the very least, give you a good head-start.

Hope this helps!