Category: Just Ask Jack

Megan sent in the following question:

“My husband has started riding his bike to work. I am wondering if there is a set of tools that he should have at the ready for any necessary roadside repairs. Any suggestions?”

Great question! While there are plenty of seasoned bike commuters who carry extensive toolkits, it is really only necessary to have a small selection of tools to conquer the most common breakdowns.

My “bare minimum” essential kit consists of the following: one spare tube, one minipump (or CO2 inflator), one packet of glueless “speed patches”, one 1$ bill, two tire levers and a multitool, plus a seatbag or similar to carry this kit in.

the basic setup

If your bike has nutted axles rather than quick release skewers, it is necessary to include a wrench of some type to loosen and tighten those nuts. Surly makes a great tool for 15mm axle nuts, as does Paragon Machine Works.

I have an old Sugino 15mm crankbolt socket wrench that I keep on my singlespeed/fixed gear bike in case I have to replace a tube:

Sugino wrench

For multitools, there are a variety of types on the market, from elaborate fold-out systems with every conceivable tool to very minimalist types that only include the essentials. I lean toward the minimalist variety…especially my very favorite, the Park MT-1 multitool:


I like this tool so much that I have three of them…one in my backpack, one in my seatbag and one that I occasionally wear around my neck as jewelry! I know, I know…I’m a bike geek; what can I say?

What makes the Park tool so special is that it has all the basics rolled into one tool — no moving parts, no “fluff” — 3, 4, 5, 6 and 8mm hex keys (all the common sizes used on bikes), 8, 9 and 10mm sockets (for brake and derailleur cable pinch bolts and a lot of other applications) and a flat-bladed screwdriver for derailleur and brake screw adjusting. Pure genius!

Here’s an example of another common type of multitool — one of the fold-out varieties:


This tool was provided by our team sponsor PricePoint. I haven’t used it yet, though, as it lacks the most important hex key size…a 5mm. Perhaps this was an assembly oversight?

In any case, these are the only tools a commuter really needs to tackle the most common roadside repairs — flat tires, loose assemblies, shifter and brake adjustments and the like. You could carry more, but you don’t have to!

Have a cycling-related question? Just Ask Jack! Click on the link in the right-hand column to send me your questions.

Bernard sent in the following question:

“I have a steel touring bike from 1984. I love the bike because of the all-day comfort these old frames offer, but the 6-speed freewheel/Suntour XC “elliptical” chainrings and prototype index/friction downtube shifters combination don’t work that well, as it tends to want to slip out of gear. Is it a practical alternative to swap in a modern indexed shifting system?”

The bike in question — on tour in France:

Bernard's tourer in France

Good news, Bernard…this is an entirely feasible process. Luckily, just about anything is possible in converting an old bike into something more modern — there are quite a few companies out there who make specialized adapters and such to resurrect an old friend and to teach him new tricks!

To set up modern indexing shift systems on an older bike, there are a couple things to consider: dropout spacing and how many speeds you want in the finished bike (deciding now can really simplify the conversion process, as we will see).

After speaking with Bernard, I learned that he is willing to do the full upgrade — shifters, new rear wheel, derailleurs and new chainrings. The chainring part is easy. Merely swap the old Suntour OvalTech chainrings for modern 8- or 9-speed specific rings…no crank replacement required!

Dropout spacing is really the only tricky consideration. On one- through 5-speed bikes, the rear dropout spacing was typically 120mm. With six speed systems and early “ultra 7” systems, the dropout spacing jumped up to 126mm. Modern 9- and 10-speed drivetrains have 130mm spacing. Since Bernard indicated that he currently has a 6-speed freewheel, the frame’s spacing need to be pushed out an additional 4mm. I’ve covered doing this in another article, but if you’re not comfortable doing it yourself, any competent bike shop should be able to help. Again, luck is on Bernard’s side, as the frame in question is steel. Don’t try this on an aluminum or carbon frame!

The only specialized equipment needed to modernize the shifting system on this bike (aside from the new components themselves) are downtube-mounted cable stops such as these:

downtube cable stops

These cable stops simply bolt to the downtube shifter bosses and provide the anchor (and adjustment) for the shifter cables. If you don’t have brazed-on shifter bosses, there are band-on models available as well.

I won’t go step-by-step into the conversion itself, but after the rear dropouts are spaced correctly, simply bolt on the new components, slip the new wheel in, string your shifter cables and adjust everything so it shifts cleanly.

Here’s a handy trick if you’re strapped for cash or don’t want to do the full-tilt conversion…and the reason I suggested deciding on the number of gears needed before you run headlong into this conversion project: if you have a seven-speed freewheel (Shimano still makes Hyperglide-compatible 6 and 7 speed freewheels in limited quantities!), you can make it work as a modern indexed system with 8-speed indexed shifters (readily available on the secondhand market, such as Ebay). No new rear wheel or rear derailleur required! You’ll just have an extra “ghost click” on the shifter. The only kink is that sometimes there’s not quite enough clearance between chainstay and smallest cog, but that is easily rectified by slipping a couple spacers under the drive-side hub locknut (2 or 3mm is all it takes). Sometimes simple is best…

Finally, the last consideration is not to mix brands. There are adapters to make Shimano components play nice with Campagnolo or SRAM, but it’s better to “keep things in the family” for precision’s sake.

It is really fun and rewarding to breathe new life into an old friend — you CAN teach an old dog new tricks with a little tinkering. Bernard, be sure to tell us how it all works out, and happy riding!

Have a cycling-related question? Just Ask Jack! Click on the link in the right-hand column to send me your questions.

A reader sent in the following question:

If you ride at night, what would you consider to be most important:

1. To be lit on the front
2. To be lit on the back
3. To be lit on the sides?

My gut feeling tells me that if I only had one light to choose from (let’s say a freak occurence disabled all other lighting choices or drained all but a couple batteries), I’d pick the light in the back as most important. My reasoning is that to a certain degree, we have more control over events that happen to the front and sides of us as we ride at night — we can see cars coming from the other direction and can (hopefully) watch out for vehicles turning, road hazards and other perils. That’s really not the case with cars coming up from behind us; a cyclist never knows just how close an overtaking car is until it’s pretty much right alongside!

It turns out, though, that crash statistics don’t bolster my “gut feeling”…overtaking collisions between motorists and bicyclists happen a lot less frequently than you might think (between 4% and 10%, depending on the study).

A couple of studies have suggested that the overwhelming majority of car/bicycle collisions (nearly 80%!!!) come when crossing or turning events occur. Here’s a diagram of two of the most common collisions in question:

I spoke to Julie Bond of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida about this. Julie looks at crash statistics (among other things) for a living, so I thought I’d get her input on this question. Her response was:

“You probably know that in Florida [as in most other states], it is the law that you must have a front light and back light between sunset and sunrise. I wouldn’t want
to use crash statistics to try to justify one light over the other.

In my opinion, if you ride between sunset and sunrise both lights are
mandatory for safety and to abide by the law. I turn my lights on during
the day also. I think it makes me more visible on my ride to work.”

Good points, Julie…but where does that leave us? And how do we defend against turning or crossing collisions? We’ve got lights that point to the front and to the back…but there’s not a whole lot of choice or emphasis on side lighting, right?

There’s hope on the horizon! In addition to Hokey Spokes and RL’s favorite, the LED Spoke Light, Moe sent me a package of Nikko Starlights, an ingenious and inexpensive wheel light from Japan:

Nikko Starlight

The Starlight attaches to the spokes of your wheels and serves as both reflector and motion-activated light. Inside the plastic case is a tiny screw floating inside a magnet…as you roll down the street or bounce over rough spots, this tiny screw makes an electrical connection and fires up the light. I’ll try to shoot a video of it soon.

The light is surprisingly bright, and at cruising speed it creates a red “hoop” effect that’s pretty darn visible. This might just be the neatest solution to side lighting that I’ve seen in a while!

starlight mounted

So, in order to be prepared riding at night, I always preach redundancy: multiple lights both front and rear, spare batteries in your bag or repair kit, reflective tape or other reflectors everywhere you can squeeze some in…and now side lighting to help protect yourself against those turning or crossing collisions. You CANNOT be “too visible” out there!

We’d sure love to hear if any of our readers have other side lighting solutions or additional considerations for nighttime safety. Just leave your comments below!

Have a cycling-related question? Just Ask Jack! Click on the link in the right-hand column to send me your questions.

An anonymous reader sent in the following question:

“How often should I replace my cables?”

Well, that’s an excellent question! There are no hard and fast rules about replacing your cables, but I like to do it once a year. If you ride in really harsh conditions (excessive rain, snow/road salt, mud), you may consider replacing them more often…like every six months or so.


I’m not going to bore you with a step-by-step tutorial on replacing your cables, but I will offer several tips, tricks and pointers to make things smoother. First, when you buy cables, go ahead and spring for replacement casing, too. It’s only a dollar or two a foot (cheaper if you buy it in bulk from Bike Tools, Etc. or the like). Remember also that there are two kinds of cable casings…spiral-wound for brakes, linear compression casing for derailleur systems. Don’t mix the two unless you want inaccurate shifting or blown casings and poor braking!

Next, most inner wire (cable) sets are two-ended. Be careful when you get started that you don’t cut off the wrong leaded end — once the wrong end is cut, it’s too late to turn back!

From left to right: barrel end for mountain bike brake levers, mushroom end for road brake levers, mini-barrel for shifters
Leaded ends

How on earth are you supposed to cut cables and casings cleanly? Proper tools are a must — home wire cutters mash the cables and casings and leave a messy, mangled end, so that’s a no-no. Many bike tool makers (Park, Lifu, Cyclo) make specific cable and casing cutters that are expensive but worth it for a clean, precise job. My favorite, though, is the Dremel tool with a reinforced abrasive cutoff wheel. I’m lucky that my wife has a Black and Decker “Wizard” tool that is cordless…which makes things even easier. Don’t tell her I’ve liberated it for my own nefarious purposes!


A lot of us have Dremel-type tools laying around (and if you don’t, now you have a perfect excuse to run out and buy one — handy for all manner of bike tinkering!). With the cutoff wheel installed, you can make very precise cuts in the casing that need little or no “truing”. To cut cables, just wrap a bit of masking tape at the point you’re going to cut and cut right through the tape and cable. The tape keeps the individual wires from unraveling.

Another trick with the cutoff wheel is to “dress” the end of the casing to give it a nice square end. Just run the casing along the flat top of the cutoff wheel like so:

Dressing the casing end
(I’ll cover making badass .45 caliber zipper pulls in another post)

Once you’ve dressed the end of the casing, reach in the end of it with a sharp nail or file and make sure the liner isn’t mangled.

Swapping your cables and casings out at least once a year will provide smoother braking and shifting and will help keep you from getting stranded with a serious technical problem…no one wants to be late to work, right?

Have a cycling-related question? Just Ask Jack! Click on the link in the right-hand column to send me your questions.

Click here to see a vast selection of cables for your bike.

John, also known as Moveitfred By Bike sent in the following question:

“Do you have any recommendations for fenders? I’m looking for something that’s easy on and off for a steel frame cyclocross bike with cantilever brakes. “

My initial response to him was that unfortunately, you can’t have it both ways: you can either have GOOD fenders, or you can have “easy on/easy off” fenders.

For example, the SKS Race Blade — they go on and off very quickly, but they don’t provide enough coverage to really keep you and your bike clean and dry. Same goes with the seatpost-clamping rear fenders. Same with the clip-on front mini-fender that goes on the downtube.

I’ve tried a couple modern brands of fenders, notably the Zefal Cafe models and the Planet Bike full-coverage fenders with integral mudguards. The Planet Bike ones are substantially better (better hardware, more versatile).

The more I thought about it, though, I realized you CAN “have your cake and eat it too.” One trick some folks use to make the fenders go on and off easier is to thread longer mounting bolts “inside out” (from the inside of the fork/dropout bosses toward the outside of the frame) and using metric wingnuts to attach the stays and struts. Still, it’s not a 30 second removal process!

I had stumbled across a photographic tutorial of this setup on the Web several months back, and rediscovered it while I spoke to John via email. Here are the particulars:

Alex Wetmore (an amazing tinkerer… on his blog, check out the “to die for” workshop in his basement!!!) wrote a tutorial on this method on his website…and has allowed me to share a couple pictures of the setup with you. The first is the fender attachment at the fork crown:

attachment at fork crown

The second photo is one where the fender stays attach to the braze-ons of the fork:

Attachment at fork braze-ons

As mentioned earlier, you might have to find longer mounting bolts for the fenders to make this work, but that isn’t too difficult.

If you go for really blingy, indestructible fenders, I heartily recommend either Honjo or Giles Berthoud fenders. Honjos come in fluted, smooth or hammered-finish aluminum, while the Berthoud ones come in stainless steel. The mounting hardware and struts are without peer, and either brand is so gorgeous that you won’t want to take them off!

Either Peter White Cycles of New Hampshire or Velo Orange in Annapolis, MD carry these kinds of fenders…might be worth checking out!

Setting up your fenders this way makes the bike more versatile. On days you don’t need the protection and don’t want to push the extra weight around, just slip the fenders off and ride. Bad weather in the forecast? Pop the fenders right back on. It’s a great tip, and we’d like to thank John for sending in the question and Alex Wetmore for letting us use his photographs of the process.

Have a cycling-related question? Just Ask Jack! Click on the link in the right-hand column to send me your questions.