An ominous nagging fear lurks in the back of every bikepacker’s mind: What will I do if my bike breaks in the middle of nowhere and I can’t fix it?
This is certainly a valid concern, and one I used to struggle with too. Sometimes I still do! I’m a big believer in both self-reliance and learning as you go, which is why I’ve written before about DIY bike maintenance and designing your tools and spares kit.
On a recent bikepacking trip during which I experienced a mechanical issue caused by… I am not making this up… cow poo, I had a realization: the things that get you are often not what you expected them to be.
Many of my bikepacking mechanical problems have been surprising, with odd and sometimes mysterious causes. They are rarely the scenarios I worried about or prepared for. Luckily, with some persistence and a good foundation of repair skills I’ve been able to survive them all… So far. (Knock wood.)
So for your edification and entertainment, here are some of the mechanical issues I’ve faced while bikepacking and touring, and what I learned from them. I hope they help you out of a mechanical pickle someday, or at least inspire you to say “Well f*ck it, anything can happen! I may as well just get out there.”
Loose Friction Shifter
Let’s start at the beginning, when I flew to Southeast Asia with a brand new touring bike for a three month solo tour. I had never even, at the time, changed a real flat! (Lest you think I was being too reckless, I had practiced changing tubes in my living room.)
The first issue that popped up wasn’t a flat, of course. It was the strange way my bar end shift lever refused to stay in the low gears. It would gradually slip until my rear derailleur shifted itself from easy gear to less easy, exactly what I needed on those super-steep hills of northern Vietnam.
I pedaled a dozen miles to a guesthouse while holding the shift lever in place with my hand. A gaggle of men watched me fiddle with my shifting and (un)helpfully tried to adjust the cable tension — the only shift-related fix they knew.
I was finally able to get a bit of wifi at the guesthouse, just enough to Google the issue and find — to my great relief — that there was a easy fix!
Solution: MicroSHIFT bar end shifters are easily tightened with an allen key. A quarter turn every few weeks got me through that trip. Once home I learned to disassemble the shift lever and clean the inside parts, which solved the issue more permanently.
Lessons learned: Know the basic adjustment features of your shifters (and other components) before taking off on a long trip. Don’t forget to check online for information. Helpful strangers are heartwarming but may not know what’s right for your bike and components.
Endless Thorn Punctures
In my early days of bikepacking, I was simply riding my road touring bike with MTB tires on all the gravel and dirt I could find. Alone on the backroads of central Oregon I rolled through a stream… and immediately both tires went flat.
Goat head thorns. Have you heard of them? A cyclist’s worst nightmare.
By the time I reached Prineville just 40 or so miles down the road, I had fixed over a dozen thorn punctures. I was cutting patches in quarters! I made a promise to myself that day: If I ever make it back to civilization, I will figure out this tubeless thing.
Solution: At the bike shop in Prineville I restocked on patches and installed tire liners, which got me through the rest of that trip. A few months later I bought a second-hand Salsa Fargo with tubeless-ready rims and have been happily running tubeless ever since.
Somewhere in Nebraska about 1500 miles into my Bike Nonstop US “race” across the continent, my pedal innards exploded: bearings shot, creaking and wobbling and seizing, totally done for.
Somehow I limped into the small town of Valentine – no bike shops nearby – and collapsed into a booth at McDonalds. Maybe a boatload of calories would help my exhausted brain find a solution.
What happened next was pure magic, sent straight from the bikepacking gods. It remains one of my favorite bike travel memories of all time.
Solution: A friendly couple one table over asked where I was headed. “Nowhere, until I get my pedal fixed.” A McDonalds employee overheard me and walked over: “Did you say you need a bike pedal?”
Long story very short, I left town with a replacement pedal and makeshift foot retention strap that lasted me until the east coast. On top of that I got to meet the town’s local ultra-distance road racer, a friend of the McDonalds employee who took me under his wing, though his spare pedals were all too fancy for me (I wasn’t riding clipless at the time).
Lessons learned: The kindness of strangers, while never to be expected, is a beautiful thing when it happens. And if you’re going to ride thousands of miles at least treat yourself to some quality pedals that can go the distance, not the cheap ones lying around the garage.
Bent Derailleur Hanger and Cable
I had just arrived in Boise via bike for the Smoke ‘n Fire 400 bikepacking event, and the wind was howling. “Crash!!!” A sudden gust of wind toppled my bike, which had been leaning against the wall of the convenience store, to the pavement. The damage was immediately obvious: the impact had bent the derailleur hanger and the rear derailleur was completely out of alignment.
The next morning a local bike shop kindly squeezed me in and straightened the hanger. Good to go! I started the race the following day at 3am, pedaling into the chilly darkness with smooth shifting.
But almost immediately my shifting deteriorated. Angry skipping sounds, missed shifts… I continually messed with the cable tension for the next several hours, reaching beneath my handlebar bag to turn the barrel adjuster with one hand while riding trails in the dark. It would get a little better, then worse again. WTF?!
Life got a little easier when the sun came up and the trail flattened out a bit. Eventually the shifting stabilized and I was able to finish the event. It wasn’t until later that I figured out what must have happened.
Solution: Though the bike shop straightened the hanger, the original bend was bad enough that it likely kinked the cable. As I rode, the force of shifting slowly pulled the bend out of the cable, reducing the cable tension and misaligning the derailleur.
Lessons learned: Be careful leaning your bike against things when it’s windy! Maybe even when it’s not windy. Test ride a newly repaired bike for more than a few blocks before starting a 400 mile bikepacking race. Carry a spare derailleur hanger (my Fargo requires an entire spare dropout plate, which I now carry everywhere).
Shoe Stuck to Pedal
I was in Santa Fe National Forest and looking forward to another night of peaceful wild camping on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. But as I went to unclip from my SPD pedals, my shoe only swiveled pathetically and would not release from the pedal.
In order to get off the bike, I took my foot out of my shoe. Sitting around in my sock with no internet connection, my shoe still attached to my bike, I pondered this unexpected new problem. One of the bolts holding my cleat to my shoe had fallen out somewhere in the last few miles, and the cleat now twisted on the shoe instead of rotating in the pedal as needed to unclip.
Solution: After eating a snack and inspecting the pedal closely, I realized I could reach the tension adjustment screw if I rotated the shoe in the right way. I loosened it all the way, which was just enough to release the cleat without too much force. I replaced the lost bolt with a spare I’d been carrying, tightened both bolts thoroughly, and was good to go.
Lessons learned: Put threadlocker on your cleat bolts and check them for tightness periodically. Carry a couple spare bolts just in case. While you’re at it, carry an entire spare cleat.
Front Derailleur Chain Jam
If you’ve been waiting for the cow poo story since the intro, you’re in luck, the moment has finally come.
During a short local bikepacking trip, a friend and I rattled over miles of cow-stomped dirt roads dotted with cow-pie-filled mud puddles. The moment we hit smooth pavement and I shifted into the larger of my two chainrings, the chain jammed badly between the teeth and derailleur. Yikes, that’s never happened before!
I was able to unjam the chain with no damage by loosening the vertical adjustment screw on the front derailleur, giving the chain room to slide out. But as we started riding it immediately happened again. What the heck?
Closer inspection revealed – and I could not make this up even if I tried – a clump of cow poo lodged in the derailleur mechanism where the limit screw would normally make contact. Instead, the screw contacted the cow poo which effectively made the screw act longer than it was. And as you may know, limit screws are what prevent the chain from dropping off the edges of the cogs when shifting.
Solution: Remove the cow poo.
Lessons learned: When facing a new mechanical issue, think critically and don’t make assumptions. Also don’t immediately apply force. If I’d tried to yank the chain out without first moving the derailleur cage upward, I likely would have damaged it.
Mysterious Tubeless Flat
On a washboarded gravel road in Colorado I stopped to let a little air out of my tubeless tires in hopes of a smoother ride. A couple miles later I felt that dreaded squishy feeling: my front tire was nearly flat!
I inspected the situation by the side of the road. No obvious punctures, no spraying sealant. A burp was unlikely; I hadn’t let that much air out and the road had been flat and straight. Could it be the valve stem? Not knowing what else to do, I decided to just pump it back up and see what happened.
Solution: When I removed the dust cap to start pumping, the cause was obvious: I had failed to screw the little nut all the way back down after letting air out. The downward pressure from the dust cap had pushed it down and gradually released air as I rode. Whoops!
Lessons learned: Close your presta valve all the way before putting the dust cap on.
Loose QR Skewer
Somewhere near midnight on my fourth and final night, I was closing in on a personal best time at the Smoke ‘n Fire 2021 bikepacking race. I was hungry, exhausted, sleep deprived, and proud, and I could see the glittering lights of Boise inviting me to push toward the finish line in the distance.
As I lifted my bike over a low ATV gate at a trailhead, my rear wheel fell off. The quick-release skewer had, well, quickly released.
How long had it been like that?! I had been riding, scooting, and walking technical singletrack in the dark for hours, pushing my mental limits and telling myself I was safer than I felt. This was definitely not safe.
Solution: I retightened it and finished the race, checking often to make sure it was still tight. Later I realized the spring had somehow become bent, with two coils stuck together and overlapping, and was no longer quite springy enough. I fixed it, but I now understand the advantage of thru axles for mountain biking.
Lessons learned: You already knew it, but it’s really important: tighten your QR skewers fully and check them periodically, especially while riding rough terrain. A thru axle is a good idea, if you have the choice.
Brake Pad Disaster
That same year at Smoke ‘n Fire (the event is tough on bikes!) I rode about 50 miles in the rain on sandy gravel roads. Shortly before a 4000 foot descent I discovered my brake pads were basically gone. During hours of rolling hills the gritty mud had sanded the pads into oblivion.
Solution: Fortunately I had a spare pair of pads with me. Unfortunately it was 1:30am, and very cold. I spent an hour changing the pads by headlamp on the side of the road, and in the process almost made the situation much worse by accidentally screwing the piston all the way out! Through measured deep breaths and the knowledge that I really had no other option, I somehow managed to work the piston back into its threads and complete the job.
Lessons learned: Always carry spare brake pads. Install fresh ones before a big ride (mine were partially worn but I thought they would last). Expect pads to wear faster in rainy conditions and certain types of dirt. When attempting trailside fixes, be very careful to not make a smaller problem into a big one!
Mangled Rear Derailleur
This one happened to my husband’s bike, not mine, but I helped him fix it. Plus, it’s too epic not to mention.
Long story short, we tried to go bikepacking in New Mexico in November. There was unexpected early snow, death mud, more snow, and Thanksgiving night spent in the back of a U-Haul truck. Then, a few miles into our attempt at salvaging the last couple days of the trip, I heard him call out “Alissa! Mechanical! Bad mechanical!” Oh dear.
His derailleur had gone into his spokes, while not even shifting, on a gentle section of smooth road. We’ll never know why, but I suspect it’s related to the mud that worked its way into every crevice of both our bikes and then froze solid overnight.
Solution: Stuck in the middle of the New Mexico desert and determined to do at least some riding on this cursed trip, we removed the mangled derailleur and did an emergency single speed conversion. He rode on it for two days, strong fellow that he is, but it wasn’t pretty. Toward the end the chain was continually trying to change cogs and jamming every few minutes. We finished the trip, but much of his drive train needed replacing and he almost vowed to never go bikepacking again.
Lessons learned: Beware death mud. Know how to do an emergency single speed conversion, and if you do, choose your cog carefully. When inviting your partner to go bikepacking with you, pay very close attention to the weather forecast.
Broken Chain Ring
My husband doesn’t bikepack with me often, but when he does he has the worst luck with mechanicals. (Now that I think about it, maybe there’s a connection there.)
Years after the unfortunate New Mexico Mud Incident, he joined me for the final thousand miles of the Great Divide. While pedaling an innocuous section of dirt road somewhere in Montana, his inner chainring exploded. His bike had been making creaking noises for days but we hadn’t been able to figure out why. New theory: Loose chainring bolts!
Solution: We removed the broken chainring and bolts, and he patiently rode a makeshift 1×10 for two days until we reached a bike shop. They didn’t have the right replacement ring, but they added a larger cog to his rear cassette to give him back a lower climbing gear. It was a little finicky but we rode like that to Banff, successfully finishing the trip. Once home I replaced his chainring and returned the cassette to normal.
Lessons learned: Bike noises can be hard to diagnose. When it sounds like your bottom bracket is creaking, check to make sure your chainring bolts are evenly tightened. Sometimes creative solutions and a bit of grit can save a trip.
So there you have it: some of my most stressful and annoying bike repair issues from roughly 15,000 miles of bikepacking and touring. Given all those miles, I think it could have been worse!
I promise I’m not trying to scare you. Instead I hope to inspire you to hit the road and learn as you go. It’s important to practice some bike repair basics, especially if you want to ride in more remote places, but you’ll never anticipate every possible issue. I hope this post illustrates that you can deal with much more than you might have expected.
Do you have your own mechanical disasters to share? Drop them in the comments below so we can all learn from them.
Bikepacker’s Companion eBook
I recently poured my heart, mind, and years of experience into a mobile-friendly eBook called The Bikepacker’s Pocket Companion. Out of 140 pages, 19 pages are packed with bike repair how to’s and troubleshooting tips intended to give you a boost when you’re out there dealing with whatever has come up.
The other 120 pages are packed with information about camping, transport, food, water, aches and pains, challenging weather and terrain, emergency outdoor skills, and all the other things bikepackers eventually deal with out on the road or trail.
If you’re itching to get out there but would like a little extra knowledge and support on your journey, check it out!
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