GRAVELBIKE

Tech Tip: Essential Tools & Spares for Gravel Riding

In these pandemic times, many people are discovering–or rediscovering–the joy of riding bikes on dirt and gravel. And why not? In addition to being good for you–both mentally and physically–it’s downright fun! What’s not fun, though, is walking home because of a flat tire or mechanical problem. Fear not, friends, GRAVELBIKE has come up with a list of essential spares and tools for gravel riding that’ll keep you happily rolling along, mile after mile.

The Essentials

Gravel and mountain bikes may have burlier tires than their skinny-tired siblings, but that doesn’t mean the chunkier rubber is impervious to punctures. While you probably won’t find broken glass, nails, or pieces of metal on your local trails, thorns and rock shards are common puncture sources when riding dirt and gravel. Thankfully, though, the tools and supplies needed to fix a flat are a relatively small investment.

What you’ll need:

When shopping for inner tubes, be sure to match your bike’s tire/wheel size (printed on the tire’s sidewall) and valve type (Presta or Schrader). One spare tube will suffice for most rides, but you may wish to carry a second tube for more remote adventures (glueless or conventional patches are cheap insurance if you run out of tubes). Some riders prefer certain brands’ inner tubes, but any basic tube from your local bike shop or sporting goods store will suffice. For tire levers, however, I only use Pedro’s levers. They’re inexpensive (about $5/pair), sturdy (I’ve never broken one), and work great. Pumps–like tubes–need to match your bike’s valve type, and come in a variety of sizes, with higher-volume models better suited to gravel and mountain bike tires. Some pumps attach directly to the (tube’s) valve, while others utilize a flexible hose. I find the latter easier to use, and I’ve been happy with the offerings from Blackburn, Lezyne, and MSW. If you’re wondering why I carry both a pump and CO2 inflator, the plus-size tires on my mountain bike can be difficult to reinstall using only a compact, mini-pump.

They author’s everyday carry essentials for dirt and gravel riding.

“But I have tubeless tires,” you say. “I can’t get a flat!” Tubeless setups may be extremely reliable, but they’re not completely immune to punctures. If your bike is equipped with tubeless tires, I recommend carrying a small container of sealant (in case yours has dried up) and a compatible valve core tool (so you can add sealant without unseating the tire). It’s also a good idea to carry some sort of tire plug (aka, bacon) in the event that a puncture is too large for the sealant alone. For extensive damage such as casing cuts, an innertube and tire boot can mean the difference between riding or walking home. And if you can’t remember when you last checked your tires’ sealant, consider topping them off before your next ride.

Now that we’ve covered tubes and tires, what about the rest of the bike? Even if you’re fastidious about maintenance, there’s always a chance of bolts loosening or components coming out of alignment (especially in the event of a crash or fall). But unlike a car or motorcycle, a bike doesn’t need a big, heavy set of expensive tools. The metric-threaded hardware found on modern bikes is compatible with 3, 4, 5, or 6 mm hex keys (aka, Allen wrenches). Brakes and derailleurs can usually be adjusted with a small Phillips or flat-blade screwdriver, but some require 2 mm or 2.5 mm Allen wrenches.  And although less common, some components utilize Torx-style fasteners, with T25 being the most common size. Metric hex keys can be purchased individually at nearly any hardware store, or you can go with a multi-tool such as the ones from Blackburn, Crankbrothers, or Topeak. Whether you opt for the à la carte or all-in-one route, make sure you have the correct sizes for your bike’s particular components.

Beyond The Basics

Although the aforementioned spares and tools will get you through most trailside repairs, I have, on rare occasions, needed the following items (for myself or fellow riders).

Chain tools found on (bicycle) multi-tools are usually compatible with many types of drivetrains (e.g. 9, 10, 11, 12-speed), but quick-links are often brand- and/or speed-dependent. Additionally, some quick-links are designed for single-use, while others can be opened and joined multiple times. If you’re not sure which one you need, ask your local bike shop. Duct tape and zip ties are useful for securing damaged components or accessories, and nitrile or latex gloves help keep your hands clean during grimy repairs. Remember when I said that your bike’s valves and pump needed to be compatible with one another? Carrying a Presta/Schrader adapter is extremely helpful if you encounter a stranded rider on a bike with different valves. And because I once broke a tubeless valve during a careless trailside repair, I now carry a spare (which I thankfully haven’t needed since).

A place for everything and everything in its place.

Ask ten riders the best way to carry tools and spares, and you’ll get (at least) ten different answers. Whether you choose an on-the-bike bag, wearable storage (e.g. waist pack, hydration pack, backpack), or simply strap stuff to your bike’s frame, it’s a good idea to protect inner tubes from sharp objects and abrasion. I usually wrap tubes in repurposed Tyvek shipping envelopes, but zip-lock bags or bandanas also work well (and the latter can be used for other purposes as well). If you plan on transferring your repair kit between multiple bikes or packs, consider storing the items in a brightly colored stuff sack or dry bag so they’re less likely to be forgotten or overlooked.

Summary

If you’ve never worked on your bike, practicing beforehand can make your first in-the-field repair much easier. Finding out that you’re missing a crucial tool is far less stressful in the comfort of your own home than on the side of the trail as the sun is going down. If you need to brush up on particular skills or techniques, the Park Tool website has an entire section devoted to repair and how-to articles. And for those who prefer hardcopy, check out this printable zine by SRAMbassador Sam Scipio on how to fix a flat.


Some of the aforementioned companies provided review samples for this article, but offered no other form of compensation in exchange for editorial coverage.

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