Thursday, October 11, 2012

Bike Tools: The Top 11 You Need Most

Cyclists have a tendency to want to be self-sufficient. Think about it: there are a lot of areas revolving around cycling that you'll hear a cyclist say something like "I want to do that myself someday." Riding a century or a multi-day tour; racing, climbing the nastiest hill in the area (or tackling the scariest descent); or moving up to the "fast group" in the Tuesday night group ride. You want to take that next step and say "I did that."

Working on your bike seems to be no different. There are many things that I have happily helped cyclists learn to do themselves. Having a simple mechanical understanding of how to take care of your bike is a big key to enjoying your cycling experience and gaining some security and self-sufficiency. Changing a flat; adjusting your brakes or shifting; properly tightening a bolt or adjusting a saddle; and installing new parts are all things we long to learn to do.

Due to the bike-specific nature of those operations there is a limitation on how much I can cover in this medium; although there are some topics I have attempted here, but I can still help with one of the questions I answer a lot. "What are the tools I need to work on my bike at home?"

Some of this may vary a little depending on your bike or what level of mechanical ability you have, but for the most part these are my main suggestions. You can use this as your shopping list as you head to your local bike shop. Or you can contact me and I'll gather everything for you. Whatever your preference; I hope I can help.

1. A Set of Metric Allen (Hex) Wrenches.
Most of the bolts on your bicycle require a metric allen wrench. There are rare exceptions depending on the age and quality - but this is the overwhelming majority. A set that ranges from 2mm up to 8mm will tackle a lot of the jobs with the 4, 5, and 6mm wrenches carrying the bulk of the load. I recommend a separate set from the multi-tool you might carry in your seat bag, similar to my favorite Pedros' set pictured. Wrenches like this offer more leverage than a multi-tool which is handy with a stubborn seized bolt.
2. Phillips and Slotted Screwdrivers
The rest of the bolts or screws on your bike are likely to need this. A "bit-driver" like the one in the photo is nice too so you can switch between the different bits you may need. Derailleur limit screws are the most common and infamous example.

3. A Grease Rag
Wiping chains, hubs, excess grease, or just dust and dirt - as simple and cliche' as this seems - I always have one with me.

4. Tire levers
Necessary for changing tires and tubes and a separate set from what you carry in your seat bag. This will prevent you from forgetting to put them back in your bag which immediately results in getting stranded from having a flat on your next ride. The pictured Park TL-1 is the definitive tire lever; but I am also a big fan of the Soma Steel Core Levers.

5. Grease
Anything on your bike that involves metal-to-metal contact; especially if it is threaded (like your pedals) needs a thin layer of grease to keep it from seizing and squeaking and allow easier removal and servicing. Grease is necessary if you will be getting in to servicing loose-ball bearing sets in some hubs and headsets too. A small tube or tub of your preferred grease will do.
6. Pedal Wrench
It may not become the most oft-used tool in your toolbox; but the times you need it - the value will be immeasurable. Better leverage and proper size and width are they keys here over a regular wrench. A nice pedal wrench like the one at left or the Park Pro wrench is a pleasure to use; but something simple like the PW-5 Home Mechanic Pedal Wrench from park is effective and affordable at $15-20.  

7. "Pokey" Tools
Sometimes you need to clean out a bolt head or pry a shift cable head out of a shifter. There is no better tool than the "pokey" tool. I make these from broken spokes and sometimes have an assortment of almost purpose-built ones (the one on the left in the photo is actually a spoke nipple tool I made for wheel building). Save your next broken spoke, bend it with pliers, and sharpen the end on a grinder if needed. I use mine on almost every tune-up in one way or another.
8. Chain Checker
I should probably move this one further up the list; but for now just make a mental note that this one is probably more important than it's status on this list might imply. Measuring your chain for wear and replacing it before it gets too bad is one of the best things you can do to keep your maintenance costs under control. Worn chains make everything more expensive.

9. Chain Tool
Of course if you'll be replacing that chain yourself this is the next tool  you'll need. Go ahead and spend the extra money on the shop grade one. I've broken 2 or 3 of the cheaper ones which are great for single use or carrying in your seat bag. For your tool box and regular use though: you'll save time, money, and effort with the good one in the long run.

10. Cable Cutters also belong further up the list - but who's counting (obviously not me...) Don't cut your cables with diagonal cutters (wire dikes). And DEFINITELY don't cut cable housing with them. They crush and mangle the cable and housing making it difficult if not impossible to service and may also dampen performance. The Pedros seem to cut the cleanest for the money.

11. Ruler and/or Tape Measure
Yup, you will need to measure something: seat height or angle, shifter placement, cable lengths, where to stop wrapping your handlebar...a bunch of stuff.  Just do it. I have both in my toolbox and use them regularly.

These are convenient; make some jobs easier, are needed for more advanced jobs, or are just nice to have from time to time...

Chain Whip, Cassette Lockring Tool, Wrench:
Changing cassettes or swapping them among wheelsets is sometimes nice to have the capacity to do. These aren't terribly expensive tools. However, make sure you're getting the proper lockring tool for your cassette: Shimano and SRAM use a different one than Campy and some older equipment uses a different one still. Questions: take your rear wheel with the cassette you want to remove to the shop with you.
Third Hand Tool:
I'm probably going to take some flak for this one as some mechanics consider this cheating; but there are times when you need clamp a cable in place or pull it harder than you can with your bare hands. Also handy for tightening zip ties.

Torque Wrench:
If you're a regular; you saw this coming from a mile away and are probably surprised it's not higher on the list. File this under the "nice to have but not necessary" category unless you own lightweight aluminum or carbon fiber bits on your bike or are doing a lot of adjusting of handlebars, stems, and seatposts. They range from $25 to much more than that - but check my post on torque wrenches for more details.

Seriously. Just like everything else pictured on this page; this pack of trail mix was pulled out of my tool box for photographing. There are times when I'm doing ride support or have just finished a ride that I just need to eat. This can help bridge the gap until you get a real meal. Focus on non-perishables though... :)

Other niceties: Nitrile gloves to keep your hands clean, small brushes to apply grease, small organizing containers for the bolts and chainlinks (and other tiny items) you may want to keep close, metric open end wrenches and cone wrenches for bearing adjustments, a pen or marker, torx wrenches for disc brakes and some SRAM parts, spoke wrenches (careful on this one...know what you're doing).

What did I miss? What could you never do without in your toolbox? Like my snacks and pokey tools; what is your secret weapon? Share in the comments.


  1. Is duct tape verboten?

    1. Nice question! :)

      On my bikes and the ones I work on, in short: Yes.

      However - there are times when you must come up with a solution with minimal resources which is, shall we say; unconventional. If Duct tape is the best *temporary* solution - then go for it!

      I simply don't like the sticky, nasty adhesive residue that is left when you remove it. That is what is at the core of my dislike of duct tape.

      Also; note that the post is about the tools you need *most*. Not everything you need... If you have a need for duct tape in your bike tool box; rock on!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!



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