Trailside Troubleshooting: 5 Must-Know Maintenance Techniques

Jonas Ernevi
July 27, 2023

Essential On-the-Go Maintenance & MacGyver-inspired Solutions for Mountain Bikers on the Trail

Are you an avid mountain biker, seeking adventure and adrenaline in the great outdoors? If so, you likely understand the importance of being prepared for anything that may come your way on the trail. While breathtaking views and thrilling descents may be the main attraction, it's essential to have the knowledge and tools to handle any unexpected mishaps or mechanical issues that can arise while mountain biking.

In this article, we will share with you the top 5 must-know techniques to be able to fix your bike on the trails. Additionally, we'll provide you with a list of crucial items you should always carry while mountain biking. And for those times when you find yourself in a sticky situation without the necessary tools, we'll also offer some inventive MacGyver-inspired solutions for common on-the-go issues.

1. Fixing a Flat Tire

One of the most common issues that mountain bikers encounter on the trails is a flat tire. Being able to fix a flat tire quickly and efficiently is crucial to minimizing downtime and getting back to enjoying your ride. Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Remove the wheel: Flip your bike over, loosen the quick-release skewer or axle nuts, and remove the wheel from the frame.
  2. Deflate the tire: Use a tire lever to pry the tire away from the rim and release any remaining air pressure. Once deflated, remove the inner tube from the tire.
  3. Locate the puncture: Inflate the inner tube slightly and listen or feel for escaping air. Once you find the puncture, mark it with chalk or a pen.
  4. Patch or replace the tube: If you have a patch kit, locate the puncture again, roughen the surface with sandpaper, apply glue, and let it dry before applying the patch. If the puncture is too large to patch or you don't have a patch kit, replace the inner tube with a spare.
  5. Reassemble the tire: Insert the repaired or spare inner tube back into the tire, making sure it sits evenly without any twists. Use a tire lever to carefully reseat the tire onto the rim.
  6. Inflate the tire: Use a portable bike pump or CO2 cartridge to inflate the tire to the recommended pressure. Double-check that the tire is secure and not bulging off the rim before reattaching the wheel.

If you have a tubeless set-up there is a slightly different procedure and for that we recommend taking a look at the below video:

2. Adjusting a Slipping Chain

A slipping chain can be both frustrating and dangerous while mountain biking. It can cause a loss of power transmission and may lead to accidents if it slips unexpectedly during a technical climb or descent. Here's what you should do to address this issue on the trail:

  1. Identify the problem: Determine whether the chain is slipping under load or if it's sagging and hitting the chainstay. Slipping under load may indicate a worn chain or cassette, while a sagging chain suggests a loose chain tension.
  2. Fixing chain slipping: If the chain is slipping under load, try adjusting the rear derailleur's barrel adjuster or limit screws. Typically, turning the barrel adjuster clockwise will tighten the shifting, while turning it counterclockwise will loosen it. If the problem persists, it might be time to replace the chain and cassette.
  3. Adjusting chain tension: If the chain is sagging, locate the rear derailleur's chain tensioner screw or adjuster. Turn it clockwise to tighten the chain or counterclockwise to loosen it. Find the right balance where the chain has enough tension to prevent sagging but can still shift smoothly through the gears.

3. Dealing with Braking Issues

Properly functioning brakes are essential to safe mountain biking. If you experience any issues with your brakes while on the trail, take the following steps to address the problem:

  1. Assess the brake lever: If your brake levers feel spongy or pull all the way to the handlebar, they may need to be bled or have their hydraulic fluid replaced. This is a more advanced repair best left to professionals or until you are back home in the garage, so if you don't possess the necessary skills and tools, focus on other quick fixes instead.
  2. Adjust brake pad position: If your brakes are not engaging properly or making noise, check if the brake pads are hitting the rotor evenly. Use a 5mm Allen key to make small adjustments and align the pads with the braking surface. Make sure there is a small gap between the pad and the rim or rotor when the brakes are not engaged.
  3. Clean contaminated brake pads and rotors: If your brakes are squealing, not functioning to their full potential, or engaging unevenly, it may be due to contamination. Remove the wheel and examine the brake pads and rotor for dirt, oil, or debris. Use rubbing alcohol or a disc brake cleaner to clean these components thoroughly (might be difficult to do on the trail unless you brought some disc brake cleaner).

If your brakes are rubbing against each other we recommend taking a look at this video how you can sort it out on the trail or in your garage:

4. Handling Shifting Problems

Smooth and reliable shifting is crucial to maintaining momentum and conquering any terrain while mountain biking. If you encounter shifting issues, follow these steps to get your gears back on track:

  1. Check cable tension: If your gears are not shifting smoothly or are skipping, the cable tension might be off. Find the barrel adjuster on the rear derailleur, usually situated where the cable enters the derailleur. Turn the adjuster clockwise to tighten the cable or counterclockwise to loosen it. Make small adjustments until the shifting improves.
  2. Align the derailleur hanger: A bent derailleur hanger can cause poor shifting. If you suspect this is the case, carefully straighten it, preferably using a derailleur hanger alignment tool. On teh trail this might be difficult so try to bend it straight with both your hands (carefully). If you can't seem to solve it yourself, consult a bike shop for assistance.
  3. Lubricate the drivetrain: Clean and lubricate the chain, cassette, and chainrings regularly to ensure smooth shifting. Use a bike-specific degreaser to remove dirt and grime, then apply a suitable lubricant to the chain.

As always, GMBN has some very good tips & tricks on how to solve your shifting problems:

5. Carrying Essential Tools and Inventive Solutions

Being prepared with the right tools and supplies can mean the difference between a minor hiccup and a major setback while mountain biking. Here is a list of items you should always have with you on the trail:

  • Multi-tool: A small multitool with various Allen and Torx keys, a chain breaker, and a spoke wrench is indispensable for on-the-go repairs.
  • Spare tube and patch kit: Carrying a spare tube and a patch kit ensures that you can handle most tire-related issues promptly.
  • Pump or CO2 inflator: A portable bike pump or CO2 inflator allows you to inflate flat tires quickly. CO2 inflators are lightweight and convenient but have limited uses, so it's good to have a backup option like a pump.
  • Tire levers: These small tools make removing and reinstalling tires much easier.
  • Chain quick-link: A spare chain quick-link can come in handy if your chain breaks or you need to remove it for maintenance.
  • Duct tape: Duct tape can be a lifesaver in various situations. Use it to temporarily fix broken components or secure loose parts.
  • Zip ties: These versatile ties have countless uses, from securing cables to temporarily fixing broken parts.

Remember that improvisation is sometimes necessary when facing unforeseen bike problems. Channel your inner MacGyver and consider these inventive solutions:

  • Use a piece of a rubber tire as a makeshift tire boot to cover a large puncture or sidewall tear.
  • Wrap a strip of an old inner tube around your water bottle cage to provide extra grip and prevent bottles from rattling.
  • Utilize twigs or a stick together with zip ties/ duck tape as an improvised brake lever should it snap during a ride. Ride carefully back to the nearest bike shop to get it replaced.
  • Secure a broken spoke to neighboring spokes using zip ties, allowing you to ride back to civilization without further damaging the wheel.

By equipping yourself with these essential on-the-go maintenance techniques and creative solutions, you'll be well-prepared to handle unexpected bike issues and keep riding with confidence. Remember to prioritize safety, and always carry the appropriate tools and supplies for your mountain biking adventures.

Now, get back to the trails and enjoy some epic mountain biking with a new found confidence that you will (almost) always be able to make it back to town if something happens to your bike.

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