- the faint, but horror-inducing sound that accompanies the slow loss of air from your tire.
Click… Click… Click… - the annoying ticking noise that indicates something is coming loose on your bike.
- the more-sensation-than-noise, usually accompanied by some pain in your legs that indicates your chain just jumped off the chain ring and is now wrapping itself around your bottom bracket on that big hill. All of these sounds can be either minor annoyances or harbingers of doom, depending on two things: whether you have learned the art of making minor repairs on the road, and whether you have the tools and parts on hand to keep yourself from walking back to the car or waiting by the roadside.
In camping and hiking, there is a commonly shared list known as the “ten essentials” – ten items that one should never be caught without in the wilderness. This list includes such basic items as a map, compass, flashlight, small first aid kit, fire starting tools, and so on. These items aren’t intended to make your trip enjoyable, but in case of emergency they may literally mean the difference between life and death. We’re not so worried here about life-or-death situations, but certainly a basic ten-item list will do well to ensure that minor breakdowns and problems do not become major inconveniences.
In this first of a series of articles, we will take a peek into the lowly saddlebag to see what needs to be in there in case of emergency. Much of this may be common sense, some might surprise you, and some are simply just my opinion. Some selections will depend on the conditions of the ride, some upon the type of bike you are riding, and some upon your personal preference. Think of this as a recipe: Take my list, learn from it, and then season and spice to taste. Add a little here, leave a little behind, but always do so with a mind to what could happen out there, and what you will need to fix it.
We’ll start with where to stash these items. There are a number of choices, ranging from panniers to jersey pockets, from a handlebar bag to a trailer. In many cases, these items may be somewhat scattered in more than one location. We’ll give some thought to the ideal location of each supply item below, but first let’s consider the bag itself.
The most common location for most repair supplies is the lowly saddlebag. Quietly, it hangs beneath your saddle out of the way and out of the slipstream waiting for the moment when you need to access it. The bag is intended as an emergency kit, not a place to stow your lunch, so it should be small and unobtrusive. It needs to be large enough to carry the necessary items, but should be no larger than needed. A too-large bag is a temptation to over-pack and weigh the bike down. Also, using a larger bag and mixing emergency supplies with convenience items can make it hard to locate the emergency supplies when needed and make it easy to accidentally leave one behind when digging through the bag for a convenience.
There are an amazing number of saddlebags on the market, and assuming they meet the size and durability requirements, most will do the job. A few examples include the Topeak Survival Tool Wedge Pack which includes a toolkit in its own separate foam-lined pocket, and the Jandd Mini Tool Kit bag, which is notable for its very small size.
You can also use a small stuff bag or ditty bag that is then stored in a larger pannier, rack bag, or handlebar bag. The key is to separate the emergency tools, keep them in one (or two) easy to find locations, and have them ready at hand. The main advantage to the saddlebag is that it can be a semi-permanent part of the bike, and therefore is very unlikely to be left behind (no pun intended).
The Ten Essentials
Now that we have briefly discussed the container, let’s dissect its contents. The ten most important items to have on your bike in case of emergency, in some vague attempt at priority order are:
First Aid kit
Mini pump or CO2 dispenser with cartridges
Energy bar or other small snack
Some of these items may be a bit controversial. The priority of ordering is definitely open for discussion. There is much debate on whether a cell phone is an essential or a nuisance. The mini-pump vs. CO2 argument can border on a religious war, and the energy bar could be a curious addition. Let’s look at the list in more detail.
Whoooo are you? Who Who, Who Who?
In my opinion, the single most important item by far to have with you at all times on the road is identification. My favorite form is the Road ID, which comes in a shoe-top, ankle or wrist strap, or “dog tag” form. However, you can also carry your driver’s license or simply a slip of paper with the necessary info in your pocket. In a true emergency, such as a serious crash, ID is a critical part of getting the appropriate aid. Even if you are riding in a group of friends, the group members might not know how to contact your family, or they might not be aware of a crucial allergy or medical condition that can be easily included on an ID bracelet. On a solo ride, your ID may be your lifesaver.
ID is best carried directly on your person – either in a jersey pocket or, in the case of a RoadID or similar product, strapped around some body part. However, as a backup, a simple business card or slip of paper stuffed in the saddlebag could be useful.
E.T. Phone Home
Cell phones on bike rides are a hotly debated topic. Many folks consider the presence of a cell phone on a ride to be anathema to the idea of a peaceful ride. Others (myself included) bend to the practicality of being able to phone yourself out of nearly any problem. With the widespread cell coverage available today, one is almost never out of range, and a simple call can change the worst disaster into a short, quiet roadside wait for help.
Another novel use of the cell phone makes use of the increased availability of internet connectivity. I have more than once resolved a route problem by firing up Google Maps on my phone to decide whether the left or right fork is the road less traveled, and logging onto Weather.com to see if the radar says I should take the short or the long way home.
For both of these reasons, the cell phone earns a #2 spot on my ten essentials list. Feel free to disagree with me on this one, though. Cell phones should be kept reasonably handy, but can realistically be stowed anywhere you like. Mine goes in a jersey pocket on vibrate.
Ouch! That Hurt!
There’s not much that needs to be said here. Blood and guts can certainly ruin an athlete’s day, and a small, strategic collection of band-aids and other first-aid items can save the day. For certain, if you are allergic or are prone to exercise-induced asthma or other serious conditions, make certain that your medications are on board. A few companies, like Brave Soldier and Arkel, produce small, cycling-specific first aid kits that are geared toward the road-rash type injuries that are common in cycling accidents.
It goes without saying that the first aid kit needs to be handy. Not everyone in the group needs to carry a kit, but at a minimum, a small collection of band-aids and some gauze and tape in your saddlebag would be a wise addition.
Patches and Spares
The most common mechanical problem you are likely to face on the road is a flat tire. A good patch kit and a spare tube or two on hand can keep a pleasant ride from turning into a long walk. Some folks carry only spare tubes, preferring to replace rather than repair, or at least preferring to do the repair work at home. That is fine, but without the patch kit, you’ll be out of luck when you run out of tubes. Patch kits are quite small and lightweight, so I always carry one, along with at least one spare tube.
We will discuss the “how to” of patching a tire in a later article in the series. For now, make sure you grab a kit and a couple of tubes at the bike shop and toss them into your saddlebag.
Mini Pump vs. CO2 kit: Battle Royale
All the tubes and patches in the world are worthless if you do not have a way of inflating the repaired tire. Therefore, you need to have either a mini-pump or a CO2 kit (or both) with you. Mini-pumps are effective, if not labor-intensive, and can inflate as many tires as you can lay your hands on. CO2 is very fast, easy to use, and compact in size, but once you are out of cartridges you are out of luck. This is a bigger deal than it may seem (the cartridges are small), because it is not hard to waste a cartridge if the tire needs to be re-seated on the rim or if the inflator pops off the valve stem during inflation.
There is currently a vigorous debate regarding the merits of these two systems. The convenience of CO2 is a major selling point, but there is also a significant ecological downside. While some cartridges are recyclable, it does take a significant amount of energy and material to manufacture them, and many cartridges must be disposed of once used. Mini-pumps are seen by some as a more ecologically friendly re-usable method of solving the flat-tire problem. Some excellent pumps are available from Crank Brothers, Blackburn, Topeak, and a very nice one from Swedish firm Quicker.
As with many things, one can also take the middle ground. Several companies – most notably Genuine Innovations, the makers of the most popular CO2 systems – make units that can serve as both a CO2 inflator and a mini pump. This is the belt-and-suspenders approach that I personally use.
CO2 can be stored in the saddle bag. Some mini-pumps will fit there, but these usually come with a mounting bracket for a bike tube somewhere, or they can also easily slip into a jersey pocket.
Tire Levers? What For?
Tire levers are handy little devices that, used in pairs (or sometimes threesomes), can help you get a tire off and back on the rim. They are not strictly required, and if used improperly can actually damage the tire and/or tube. It is certainly quite possible to change a tire without using tire levers at all, but they can be useful for weak hands or stubborn tires. Tire levers fit nicely in the saddlebag.
Where in the World Am I?
Here is yet another somewhat controversial inclusion, at least in the sense that many will think it is far from necessary, especially on shorter rides or those on familiar roads. Still, I believe at least one member of the riding group should carry a map of the area, including the proposed route.
Everyone in the group should at least have a cue sheet listing the turns and distances on the route, in case someone gets separated or has to stop for a repair. Getting lost is no fun. Paper weighs next to nothing. Call me a Boy Scout if you must (I am one), but this goes on the list. I would keep the map handy. You can make a nice clip for it on your handlebar stem using a couple of wire-ties and one of those large, black paper binder clips from the office supplies. Or use one of these. Or stuff it in a jersey pocket.
Just How Many Tools DO I Need???
We’ve covered the tools needed for a tire repair (by far the most likely one) above, but what do we do if something else breaks? The simple solution is to make sure you bring a tool kit. Fortunately, several companies provide small multi-tool devices customized for the bicycle. These usually include a selection of Allen (hex) wrenches, a Phillips and/or flat screwdriver, sometimes a chain tool (see below) and some additional toys. These tools are not meant to serve as a one-tool repair shop (though some could…) but they will get you home in a pinch.
My personal favorite is the Crank Brothers Multi tool, but very good alternatives are made by Topeak, Park Tool, and others. As long as you have the tire tools above, a good set of Allen wrenches, and a chain tool you are probably okay. If your multi-tool does not include a chain tool (or if you simply do not like the one included), several good, small, lightweight tools are available. I ride with the Park CT-5 Mini Brute chain tool.
Finally, we need to deal with the possibility of an engine failure. Bicycles do not propel themselves, and if the engine (you) runs out of gas (food), you are going nowhere fast. On rides of less than an hour or so, it is very unlikely that you will bonk, but it is possible, especially if you are already hungry. Over an hour, and you are wise to pack a snack. Energy bars may not taste great, but they don’t weigh much, and they can save your ride. Toss one in your jersey pocket just in case.
There it is. My ten essentials for on-bike safety. There are certainly some items that might not be right for you, and there may be some additional items that aren’t listed here that you could use on your ride. Of course, all the tools in the world are useless if you don’t know how to use them. In future installations, we will look at various mishaps that can occur on your ride, and how to address them and get back on the bike.
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