3 Common Cycling Disasters (And How to Do Bike Repair)

Bike Catastrophes

Photo: Pond5

You did it! You plunked down some hard-earned cash for a set of (two) wheels. Your bike fitting is done, and now you’re ready to ride. Right? Not so fast.

While you may not need a license to operate a bicycle, it’s still a piece of machinery — and you need to be careful with it. Just like your car could break down on the highway, there’s a number of minor catastrophes that could take your bike out of commission mid-ride. To an experienced cyclist, most of these are mere annoyances; to a beginner, they could be enough to derail your entire workout.

We spoke to the experts to learn how you can keep rolling, no matter what bumps lie ahead. Here are some of the most common bike catastrophes you could face on the road and how to prevent and recover from them.

Disaster #1: Dropped Chain

You’re riding up a hill and then all of a sudden, you’re pedaling nowhere fast.

Stop immediately and get off your bike. Pull the bottom half of the chain along the smallest chain ring in the crank (the lever between your gears and pedals) to avoid expending unnecessary energy. Then, reset the shifters on your handlebars to the same gear the chain is in. You should be good to go! However, if the chain is stuck, then it’s usually time to take it to the bike shop to have it adjusted.

Watch this demo on how to fix your dropped chain.

Prevent it: The next time you’re riding up a hill, make sure you’re shifting to an easier gear well in advance. You don’t want to wait until it’s almost impossible to pedal before switching, says Rich Conroy, education program director at Bike New York, a non-profit that promotes cycling in New York. That’s when the chain will pop off because it’s under too much tension.

Disaster #2: You Got Too Close to Another Rider

When you’re riding in a pack, it’s possible that you might overlap your front wheel with someone’s back wheel, says Kevin Dessart, coaching education and athlete development director with USA Cycling. No need to panic! Most people’s first instinct is to pull away by applying the brakes, but what you want to do instead is to put pressure on the wheel to counterbalance. 

You’ll know you’re way too close to other riders if you interlock handlebars with a fellow cyclist. If this happens, you’re probably going down. But with their bars locking behind yours, you could be in luck: speeding up a bit and pulling away just might work. Should you go down, it’s always prudent to bring your bike in to the shop to have it checked out so you can continue to ride safely. Though there’s no right way to fall, says Dessart, rolling out of the crash can soften the impact a bit, if you’re able to.

Prevent it: Grab a friend and practice riding in close proximity in a field or other grassy area where it won’t hurt if you go down. Work on putting your hand on another rider’s shoulder to let him or her know you’re there. In a race or during a group ride, you may find yourself needing to do this to pass someone, so it’s best to be comfortable with it in advance.

Disaster #3: Flat Tire

This may be one of the most common catastrophes you’ll encounter on the road. Make sure you have the basic tools you need — and that they work and you know how to use them. If you aren’t carrying around a tube, pump and tire levers, you’re walking or taking a cab home, says Conroy. If you’re not familiar with how to use these tools, check out your local bike shop or cycling club to see if they teach a class in bike maintenance.

Once you get a flat, says Dessart, take the inner tube out, put the new one in, inflate and go. What most people forget, though, is to check the tire. Once you have half your tire off, he says, run your fingers through the entire tire and feel for anything like a staple or a thorn. If it’s still there, you’re going to get a flat again.

Learn how to change a flat tire with this video from Specialized.

Prevent it: Make sure your tires are pumped to the proper pressure. If you don’t know what that is, you can find it on the side of your wheel, or have your local bike shop assess it for you. And it may sound obvious, but make sure you practice how to change a flat in advance of your first ride. Even four-time World Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington has struggled out on the road.

Routine Catastrophe-Busting Maintenance

While sometimes there’s little you can do to prevent trouble, some basic maintenance can prevent these minor hiccups from turning into full-blown catastrophes. 

Know Your Ride: Before hitting the trails, make sure you’ve been properly fitted. If you’re not comfortable with your bike fit, you won’t be getting the most from your ride from an athletic perspective. For example, if your seat’s too low, you’re not getting the power you could be. Plus, an uncomfortable ride can be distracting, says Conroy.

Tune It Up: It’s also important to keep up with routine maintenance as a preventative measure. You should be bringing your bike in — at a minimum — for a tune-up once a year. You should also be pumping your tires at least once a week, says Conroy. If the tires aren’t at their optimal pressure, not only are you working harder to cycle, but you’re also increasing your chances of getting a flat.

One more thing: Make sure that you are regularly lubing your chains and that your derailleurs (aka gears) are properly configured to minimize the chance of the chain falling.

With these tips, you can turn a potential crisis into a minor inconvenience that won’t end your ride.

Have you encountered any bike catastrophes out on the road? How did you recover?