Whether out on a ride or at home, some products are obviously more essential than others. Choosing the right kit that suits your riding and maintenance routine is something worth spending time considering.
- Essential Bike Tools & Accessories
- 1. Bottles and cages
- 2. Racks and pannier carriers
- 3. GPS and navigation
- 4. Lights
- 5. Workshop tools
Essential Bike Tools & Accessories
1. Bottles and cages
One of the most important factors to consider before going out riding is hydration. For many riders this involves packing a bottle of water in their daypack. However if the main purpose of the ride is to crunch through a long distance as quickly as possible, or to ride out for some sprint training, a backpack isn’t always the most practical item to carry.
The bottle cage is possibly the first item that springs to mind when the term ‘cycle accessories’ is mentioned. The principle behind it is extremely simple – to provide a method for carrying bottles that is fixed onto the bike itself.
The idea of a bottle cage is just about as old as the idea of riding a bicycle on the road: pictures from the first Tour De France events during the early 1900s show bikes loaded up with bottles ready to take on the world on two wheels.
These early examples of bottle cages usually featured a basic wire frame, located on the front of the handlebars. These bar-cages remained popular for a while, until the bikes became more competitive and lighter, with weight distribution a factor. During these early days, the rider position was much more upright, so a high bottle cage helped with access. However as the years went by, the rider position gradually became lower and lower and so the need for a handlebar mounted cage decreased on racing bikes.
One factor that became more apparent, as the riding position became less upright, was how the bottle position affected the handling of the bike. Two full bottles on the handlebars was not good for handling, and often created an uneven and twitchy turning feel. In addition, the weight was high up on the bike, which was detrimental for cornering or sprinting (the lower the centre of gravity, the more stable the bike).
Over the years other locations for the bottle cage have been tried, including behind the saddle and on the front forks. However, today the standard place for water bottle cages is affixed to the frame, most commonly on the inside of the seat tube and/or the inside of the downtube. Most modern bikes come with two bolt holes on either or both of these tubes, to which the cages attach. This position is easy to reach and is the most stable place to add any extra mass, as well as proving far more aerodynamic than other locations as the airflow is disrupted first by the frame tubing.
Cages are available in many materials for many applications, and are most commonly made of plastic, aluminium, titanium, steel or carbon fibre. The main factor to consider when selecting the cage is the shape of the bottle. Manufactures often offer combinations of bottles and cages, which would be recommended to ensure an optimal fit. Other differentiating factors are durability (aluminium is the most impact resistant), weight (plastic or carbon are the lightest), and of course aesthetic design. There are hundreds to choose from, so finding one that best suits the bike shouldn’t be a challenge.
When choosing a bottle, the main things to consider are the nozzle design and size. Different manufactures offer different systems for releasing water, and finding one that is practical for you is most important. Bottles are available in a huge number of sizes and designs, so obviously if the ride is short and sweet, one bottle will be enough. However if you are touring and on the saddle most of the day (especially in the heat), the advice is simply to carry as many water bottles as the bike allows.
2. Racks and pannier carriers
As with bottle cages, bike racks have been around for over a century. Of course many of us simply use our bikes for enjoyment or training, but the large majority of the bicycles used around the world are primarily a means of transport or a tool to transport goods from A to B.
Whether it’s a flock of live chickens, street food or simply a couple of books and a laptop, attaching baggage onto a bike is a brilliant way to carry more than the rider alone could carry.
Specialist bikes with frame adaptions, or designs based purely on lugging things around, are popular as it is better for the environment, better for the rider and of course cheaper than using motorised methods.
For more conventional bikes, the best way to carry extra weight is by fitting a rack or two. These extra metal frames bolt onto various parts of the bike and provide a strong structure for holding or hanging bags and boxes.
The most common style of rack is an aluminium frame that attaches to the bike just above the rear wheel and the frame somewhere below the seatpost. This style of rack provides a flat surface for fixing a box or basket, as well as rails running along both edges, for clipping on pannier bags, or hanging baskets.
Front racks are also popular, these can be in a traditional style, which act as a shelf, or in a modern style, which usually takes the appearance of a slightly shorter rear rack. As with rear racks, these are designed to give panniers a place to hang, but over the front wheel instead. Traditional style baskets remain popular for in front of the handlebars, ideal for groceries (and small dogs).
These racks usually attach to ‘tabs’ on the frame or fork, near the wheel axles, or bolt onto the frame tubing. If a frame does not have these, racks are available that bolt onto the wheel axle itself, or p-clips can be used to create tabs on a frame. Rear racks are available that attach only to the seatpost, which is ideal for any bike with rear suspension or tricky fittings. The same is available for the front end, with a system that hangs baskets and racks from the handlebar or stem.
One factor to bear in mind is weight distribution. A front rack can upset the steering, so adding weight over the rear wheel is much more advisable in terms of stability. Arranging the weight evenly between each side of the bike is also important to prevent the bike pulling to one side or the other due to excess weight on that side.
All front and rear racks and baskets come with an upper weight limit. While some racks are built to be light and streamlined, others are built with much thicker tubing to accommodate more weight, so be sure to check the weight limit of the rack against the weight of your luggage before investing.
3. GPS and navigation
When setting out on a ride into the unknown, navigation isn’t something that should be an afterthought.
Whether it is racing across the city, exploring trails up in the woods, or riding an alpine pass, the potential for getting lost is always present. The go-to tool for navigation today is the smartphone, which is more than sufficient when cycling in the city. However, when cycling in more remote locations where phone signal can be an issue, or in other countries, it is always advisable to carry a hard copy map of the terrain.
Specialist cycling maps are easy to pick up, and provide a great overview of all the tracks and trails, and as they are designed specifically for riders, most of the irrelevant information is left out. Pocket books or fold out maps are important to take touring when in other countries, where potential language barriers can add to the confusion.
GPS systems are becoming more and more popular due to the increase in accessibility for the everyday rider. Once seen as an expensive tech toy for the few, GPS units can now be readily picked up at a reasonable price. Different systems have different features, but the two main types of GPS units are those that track the route taken, and those that help navigate the route ahead.
GPS trackers generally take the form of a watch or a small unit mounted on the bike, and can relay information such as distance, speed, average speed and altitude. Rides can be recorded and the data uploaded and analysed for a number of purposes.
The other option for GPS units is as a navigation system. As well as providing the same functionality as the trackers, these units are designed to aid the navigation and highlight where the rider is currently located and how you can best reach the desired destination. These units usually have a small screen showing a map or route. This live feedback is very helpful when navigating unknown regions, especially as the planned route can be programmed into the device so that if any wrong turns are taken the GPS navigator will let you know.
GPS navigation units are great for touring, as they reduce the need to stop and decide which road to take, and which road shouldn’t have been taken.
Whether riding on the trails or an urban environment, lights are vital when riding in the dark. Generally speaking, the reason for having lights depends on the scenario.
The main reasons for having lights are:
To be safe and visible – By letting others know where you are (drivers, pedestrians and other cyclists)
To see – By illuminating the path ahead to increase visibility and avoid obstacles (hedges, trees, rivers, animals)
To avoid getting a fine – Police are quick to write up a fine for cyclists without lights in the city!
Lights that are designed to throw a beam onto the path and light up the surroundings will also work perfectly as a safety feature, although the same is not true the other way around.
Small, basic lights are popular in urban environments as the roads are fully lit by streetlights, so the main function tends to be about increasing visibility to others: they will not help you navigate in the dark, as most of the time they do not throw a beam on the road, but have a blunt, limited illumination.
Urban lights are often fully detachable and do not require any brackets on the bike; they are commonly attached through an elasticated rubber strap or cord. However, more heavy-duty lights rely on brackets, which are fixed onto the bike to hold them in place. If the lights are used regularly then brackets are recommended as removing and attaching lights is then relatively quick and simple.
The UK law dictates that cyclists riding in the dark must have (at least) a front light (white/yellow) and a rear light (red). Take care to ensure the lights are the correct way around, as having the colours back to front can cause confusion (and a fine). Whether the lights are flashing or not is up to the rider, however it is recommended to set lights to a flashing setting if attracting the attention of other road users is the goal.
The most obvious place for a front (white) light is on the handlebars, which is great as it is relatively high up and gives a clear beam. Many riders also ride with lights on the fork blades or with a head torch. Rear lights are best mounted to the seatpost if possible, or if a rack or basket is fitted then the rear facing edge of this is most advisable. Additional lights can also be attached to a backpack, belt loop or helmets.
Bike lights generally run on regular-sized batteries (such as AAA, AA, etc.), however the increasingly popular rubber LED bike lights mostly run on small flat disk batteries, as found in watches.
Today there are many bike lights that are fully rechargeable, which is great for year-round riders who will spend half of the year riding home in the dark. Some lights plug straight into a USB slot, others need a cord. For more specialist and heavy-duty lights, battery packs that are recharged through mains electricity are used. These battery packs can be heavy and cumbersome, but do provide great lighting power.
5. Workshop tools
Organising all the tools needed to fully service and repair a bike can seem like a tall order, but take comfort in the fact that tools are for life: investing in good quality tools for every job will save time and money in the long run.
Obviously some tools are more important than others, as some will be used more than others. For example, some tools that may not see action very often in the personal toolbox can be essential ones in any professional bicycle workshop.
The tools below are broadly ranked in order of relevance, but it is important to consider that the necessity of the tool depends on the bike being ridden. For example an Allen key set would not get you very far on a 1950’s 3-speed in the same way that a spanner set would not be much good maintaining a racing bike of today.
The most important tool of all when servicing or maintaining modern bikes is a decent set of Allen keys. This industry standard hexagonal head is the fitment of most bolts found on bikes today.
The most common sizes are 4 mm, 5 mm and 6 mm. However it is often most economical to get hold of a full set, usually including a range of eight or so sizes. Often these individual Allen keys will also make use of a ball-end, which is great for those hard to reach areas as it allows variation in the entrance angle of the socket to the bolt.
With bikes of the past, a spanner was the most important tool to have when it came to maintenance. Any bike with threaded axles will make use of nuts, most commonly the wheels or seatpost. Generally the most useful sizes are 8-16 mm, but full sets are not expensive so it is probably worth picking up a complete collection. If these spanners are to be used frequently, it is worth considering also investing in a ratchet set – this saves time when constantly having to tighten and loosen nuts and bolts.
A decent set of screwdrivers is important to have, not only for use with the obvious screws located around the bike, but also to act as an assisting tool with bearings and seals. Apart from on older bikes, basic screws are only used for items such as bells and reflectors. While the hex-headed bolt has taken over from the screw overall, fine screws are located in the front and rear derailleurs, which are used for adjusting the ‘stops’.
A pair of pliers is important to have when manipulating or holding metal in place. Generally they are used more for repairs than maintenance, but well worth having. Many different types are available, but it is best to have a standard pair and a needle-nosed pair for sensitive work, such as loose bearings.
A decent set of cutters is worth the investment: if there are more than a couple of bikes in the house then cables can potentially need fairly frequent replacement. Whether it is the inner or outer cable, a decent pair of cutters will cut cleanly and consistently every time. The inner cutting section of a pair of pliers simply won’t cut it (pun intended).
This is an essential tool to have, very cheap and very transportable, and very handy. Although wheel truing can seem daunting, practise is the only way to improve. Spoke keys are available in a number of sizes for the workshop, but generally a standard-sized one will work for all modern bikes. A spoke key and a little patience will save a lot of money.
Not commonly associated with bicycle maintenance, a selection (metal and rubber) of hammers is always useful to have when carrying out repairs, especially with older bikes and seized-up parts. A rubber mallet is useful to have when disassembling hubs or older chainsets/bottom brackets.
Tyre levers and tyre fitter
Tyre levers are essential, as they are needed for any puncture or tyre change. Especially on racing bikes where the tyres can be extremely tight on the rim, it is important to have a good set made from a plastic compound. Metal ones can seem like a good idea, but can easily damage the tyre beading, puncture the tube or mark the wheel rim.
A tyre fitter is useful when fitting extra tight tyres, and works by hooking the bead over the rim from the far side.
This term refers to all of the sharp pointed tools and blades that are needed in the workshop. One of the most useful tools to have in the workshop is a ‘pokey’ – this can be made from anything that has been sharpened to a fine point (such as a spoke). This tool can be used for prying small objects (such as glass and thorns) from tyres easily, and proves very handy when a fine pressure is needed.
Stanley knives or folding blades are also very useful, obviously primarily to cut things, such as handlebar tape, or zip ties: a sharp blade is essential in any toolbox.
These are similar to standard spanners in design, but are usually much thinner and much flatter. They are designed to slot into small spaces and grip onto the cones of bearings, such as those in the wheels. Generally, if a wheel is wobbling when fully tightened in the frame or fork, cone spanners are the tools required to tighten up the cones and illuminate the play in the bearings.
Similar to the cone spanner, a pedal spanner has a thinner profile, but a much longer handle for extra leverage. Pedals traditionally have a 15 mm flat edge, but often do not have enough room between the pedal and the crank arm for a regular spanner. So a pedal spanner is essential for removing seized-on pedals, or torqueing up a new pair.
Any home mechanic should have a good quality chain tool. Whether for packing up a bike to be shipped, or changing a cassette and chain, having a chain tool is crucial as it allows an individual pin to be pushed through the chain to dismantle the links. Poor quality tools lack precision making them difficult to use, so a good quality one is recommended.
There are many different fitments of cassettes and freewheels available, so it is best to check which one is specifically needed for the bike before buying. Common types are Shimano, Campagnolo, and basic freewheel. This tool slots into the end of the cassette or freewheel, and provides purchase so the lockring/freewheel can be loosened and removed.
Chain whip/cassette grip
Although these are different tools they both complete the same task, so only one of them is needed. When a cassette is to be removed, the cogs actually need to remain in a fixed position for the lock ring to torque against. So these tools provide a method for gripping the cassette. The chain whip is a metal handle with a length of chain attached to it, which wraps around the cogs to fix them in position, whereas the cassette grip is like a large pair of mole-grips that locks onto the cogs to hold them stationary.
Bottom bracket tool
As with cassette/freewheel tools, there is a huge variety of bottom bracket tools available depending on the manufacturer, type and the era of the bike However, if it is only one style of bike that is being ridden (such as newer road bikes) then one tool will fit the job. Acting as a socket, the BB tool will slot inside, or over the edge of the shell, and lock into place thus providing the purchase to tighten or loosen the BB in the shell.
Generally not often used, this tool can prove a great investment, as BB jobs are usually costly at a bike shop.
As with the spanner set, a socket set isn’t always as important for newer bikes, but for older style bikes they can prove very useful. Any mechanic’s workshop will have a set of sockets, and the most common use would be on a BMX bike (with extension bar) or the suspension pivot on a mountain bike.
Torx head tools
With the same design principle as the Allen key, the Torx set utilises a star headed pattern instead of a hexagonal head, and these can provide more torque on smaller bolts. As Torx head bolts are usually found with disc brakes (particularly the rotors), they are not really needed for the home toolbox if this type of brake is not used.
Often called ‘locking pliers’, or ‘vice grips’, these are a variation of pliers whereby the clamp can be adjusted and then locked into place. They are very handy when dealing with old rusted bolts or other corroded metal parts. Not as useful on newer bikes, but essential in any cycle workshop when older bikes may be encountered.
Mostly referred to as an ‘adjustable’ for short, these spanners can be altered to clamp around various sized bolts and nuts. In some instances, a large sized adjustable is essential in a workshop, for example when tightening the lockring on a threaded headset, or for providing extra leverage to undo a lockring. They should not be used as a lazy alternative to a correctly fitting spanner, but more as a means for twisting something that even mole grips cannot open to. Mini adjustable spanners are also useful for grappling with bolts that may be odd spanner sizes, such as older imperial-sized bolts that fall between the modern conventional sizes.
Third hand tool
This tool essentially does what it says on the tin – it provides extra assistance when cable tension is needed on top of other tightening. If you have ever wondered whether there is a simpler way to pulling cable tension on a brake or mech whilst at the same time trying to tighten the cable in place – this tool is the answer. While locking the cable in place, this tool (when squeezed) pulls the inner wire taut, which saves asking for help. An unconventional but very useful tool to have in the home toolbox.
These tools are all useful, although many are not needed for the everyday rider. It is good practise to learn how to fix the problems encountered with a bike yourself. A good way to collect the correct tools is simply to buy them individually as they are needed. This avoids any unjustified kit purchases, and also means the cost of the tool can be offset against that of the bike shop repair.