Photo of a snapped rear derailleur entangled within the spokes of a muddy bikepacking bike. Copright Chris Goodman.

No Stupid Questions: What’s The Most Likely Thing To Go Wrong On A Bike Tour?

A reader writes:

Planning a long tour next year*. Europe mainly right now. What are the most common bicycle parts to repair on such a tour? Not flats, but other problems. 

* when the question was asked, “next year” referred to 2024.

Thanks for the question! It sounded vague at first, but on second reading I realised it was deceptively specific.

You already know you’ll be going cycle touring in the near future, and, having got past the basics of planning the trip, you’re keen to understand what the most likely mechanical issues with your bike are going to be, and what parts are involved.

This is a sensible line of questioning when you’ve started thinking beyond departure day and are trying to visualise what life on the road is actually going to be like on a longer-term cycle tour.

Before we get stuck in, I’m going to make a couple of assumptions upfront. First, that when you say a “long tour”, you mean a few weeks or months. Second, that you’re riding a fairly traditional touring bike, because if you weren’t, you’d probably have mentioned it.

Given those assumptions, I imagine your most likely repair items could be summarised as normal wear and tear, accelerated by the high daily mileage of the typical cycle tourer – plus a couple of additional scenarios we’ll get to shortly.

And what are those wearing parts? Simply put, anything that rotates, resists, or rusts. (Hey, that’s neat! I’ll remember that one.)

Let’s dig into that a little.

A List Of Common Short- & Medium-Term Mechanical Problems With Touring Bikes

This, off the top of my head, is a list of common mechanical issues with touring bikes that, in my experience, may need repair or adjustment over a ride of a few weeks or months, either on the roadside, in the yard of your hotel/hostel/campsite/Warmshowers host’s house, or in a bike workshop.

I’ve presented it in very rough order of likelihood. Note that you will easily find bike nerds on the internet who will disagree on principle or want to argue about the complexities, but you asked me, not them:

  • Micro-adjustment of fitting components (especially when new),
  • Gear shifter cable stretch and consequent indexing issues (especially when new),
  • Brake shoe/pad rub or wear (both rim and disc brakes),
  • Chain suck, skip, or shifting issues (often due to “chain stretch”, aka: chain wear, or damage),
  • Pedal bearing loosening/wear,
  • Tyre damage and/or wear,
  • Sprocket cassette and chainring wear,
  • Wheel bearing loosening/wear,
  • Bottom bracket bearing wear,
  • Shifter unit/cable failure,
  • Wheel out of true and/or spoke damage/breakage,
  • Frame mounting bolt seizure/breakage,

…and I could continue, but now we’re making a much longer list of items that become increasingly less likely and infrequent unless you’re on the road for years, so I’ll stop there.

While that could technically be a complete answer to your original question, a few additional thoughts naturally follow, because I’m just that kind of blogger. So let’s continue.

Tips On Diagnosing, Preventing & Fixing Mechanical Problems On A Cycle Tour

The first step in fixing any mechanical issue with a touring bike (or any bike, or any machine) is correctly diagnosing the problem.

This takes time. Symptoms usually have causes. It’ll serve you well to get into a habit of inspecting all the moving parts of your touring bike on a regular basis so you’re used to seeing them in good working order, as this will help you better understand when something isn’t right.

Because most of the issues listed above are normal service items for a bicycle, you can (and should) reduce their likelihood on an actual tour by having your touring bike fully serviced before you go. That means having every component inspected, adjusted, and renewed if necessary.

Many small mechanical problems with bicycles can be detected long before they become big mechanical problems. Sometimes you through thorough inspection at regular intervals. Left unresolved, issues with complex systems have a habit of multiplying. Remember that a regular interval is usually a function of mileage, not the passage of time.

Drivetrain wear varies enormously from one cycle tourer to the next, for a few reasons, including 

  • riding style (spinning fast hurts less than cranking hard), 
  • road conditions (dust, road grime and metal particles mixed with chain lube makes a really good grinding paste), 
  • terrain (steep climbs involve greater forces than flat cruising), and 
  • maintenance frequency (some clean their drivetrains daily, others wait until the chain snaps). 

It follows that you can help your drivetrain last longer by changing your riding habits.

Spare parts for most common mechanical issues are small and lightweight. It adds very little to your overall luggage quota to pack a set of brake pads/shoes, a couple of spare chain links, pedal and wheel bearings, an uncut inner gear cable, at least one rear drive-side spoke, and a couple of spare bolts long enough and of the right thread size to replace those used for your rack(s) and other frame mounts.

If you’re touring in an area with plenty of bike shops (like much of Europe), you don’t need to carry every tool for every eventuality. If you notice something’s wrong but it doesn’t stop you riding, simply divert to the next workshop with a full toolset and a storeroom full of spare parts. Any roadside mechanic will have a tub of lithium grease and a set of spanners (wrenches).

Repairs are easier if your touring bike uses standardised, commonly-available consumables (chains, cables, brake shoes, tyres, etc). If you have a mainstream Shimano drivetrain, carrying a full spare chain probably isn’t necessary until you’re almost ready to replace it. Recabling most bikes involves the exact same parts the world over, whereas hydraulic brakes have different parts for every model, and don’t get me started on electronic shifters. There’s a reason almost all touring bikes have one of two standard wheel sizes. Indeed, such considerations feed directly into touring bike design, as I’ve elaborated upon elsewhere.

As mentioned at the start, most of the service items in the list above can be classified as wear and tear. But there are a couple of sudden failures that you’ll hear about relatively often from cycle tourers: broken spokes and snapped mounting bolts. These are perhaps more common issues on touring bikes because of the heavy loads they tend to carry and the increased stresses on these fixtures. Luckily, they are also easy things to prepare for as part of your tools and spares kit.

When it comes to unexpected catastrophic mechanical failures, this is outside the scope of your original question, and in any case you’re better off relying on your wits, as I wrote more about in a previous edition of this series.

But I might as well mention that there are quite a few well-established “bush mechanic” techniques for keeping a broken touring bike on the road long enough to reach the next bike shop. These include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • fashioning a makeshift chain whip to remove a cassette lockring,
  • performing a single-speed conversion a bike with a destroyed rear derailleur or gear hanger,
  • maintaining drive on a broken freehub by lashing the cassette to the spokes,
  • splinting frame and rack breakages in a variety of inventive ways,
  • using a drift/punch (or a cold chisel if desperate) in place of all those proprietary tools,
  • and the list goes on (and might make for a good YouTube series).

Many of these temporary fixes involve cable ties (zip ties), Gaffer Tape, or both, which is why these items are in my recipe for a fix-anything cycle touring toolkit.

The lesson here is that even if it looks irreparable, it probably isn’t!

I’m sure there’s more to add, but I wanted to answer your question first with a simple list, and secondly with my usual rambling, elaborated thoughts on the matter.

Hope this helps!

Thanks to Chris Goodman for the header photo of that memorable day in 2019 when my rear derailleur ended up in my spokes!

Comments (skip to respond)

3 responses to “No Stupid Questions: What’s The Most Likely Thing To Go Wrong On A Bike Tour?”

  1. Colin Wellman avatar
    Colin Wellman

    I’ve heard of many long distance bike tourers who only had punctures and worn brakes. Sometimes you can be lucky but better to be prepared and not need it than get stuck.

    1. Absolutely. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst!

  2. Peter West avatar
    Peter West

    Rear wheel drive-side spokes. There are technical reasons for this but the real reason is they are the hardest to fix. At least take a cassette removal tool and spare spokes.

Something to add?