What To Do When You Break a Bike Spoke
When you’re pedaling your bike, you might be thinking about many different things. You may be taking in the scenery, watching for road hazards, or noticing that your saddle is getting uncomfortable.
What you’re probably not thinking about, though, are your bike spokes.
They’re an integral part of your wheels, essential for support and balance. But, most of the time, you just trust them to work and do their job. Typically, they do just that — until they don’t.
When a spoke breaks on your ride, it can catch you by surprise, leaving you to wonder whether you’re safe to keep pedaling or what you need to do about the dangling spoke. Fear not. Longtime cyclist and coach Darryl MacKenzie will help you know what to do about a broken bike spoke.
A Little Bit About Bicycle Spokes
“Metal spokes are as old as bicycles are,” says Coach Darryl.
They’ve changed over the years and even come in a few different styles today. Some wheels, such as those designed to be highly aerodynamic for speed trials, don’t have them. But, for the most part if you’re riding a bike, your wheels have spokes.
The spokes serve two key functions. First, they provide structural support for the wheel. If enough of them were to give out, the wheel would collapse. That’s not all, though. The spokes also provide balance. At the rim, they typically alternate, with every other spoke attached at the right or the left side. When the spokes are properly tensioned, this balances the wheel, so it stays perfectly round with no bumps or flat spots.
One way to easily see the importance of this balance, even when your spokes are in good shape, is to put your speed-tracking magnet near your valve stem. Because there’s already a little extra weight in that spot, you’ll notice this throws your wheel out of balance. That’s why Darryl always recommends putting your magnet on the other side of your wheel, directly opposite the valve stem — to maintain the finely tuned balance of your spokes.
Given the key role they play, the more spokes there are, the stronger and more evenly balanced the tire will be. Wheels can come with anywhere between 18 and 36 spokes — sometimes more.
The Problem With Broken Spokes
It’s also not surprising, then, that broken spokes can present a problem for the cyclist. They’re not as common as they once were, but it’s still something you’ll face if you ride enough.
“For every 30,000 or 40,000 miles you ride, it’s either going to happen to you or someone on your ride,” says Darryl.
If a spoke on your bike does break during a ride, your primary concern is likely to be your safety. Although one broken spoke isn’t likely to cause a wheel to collapse, this could be more of a danger if you have a wheel with only 18 spokes.
More likely, though, the broken spoke will cause less dangerous — but still irritating — problems. Because the broken spoke will throw off your wheel’s balance slightly, it could cause the rim to pull in one direction. If it pulls far enough and you have rim brakes, your rim might rub against your brake. This will slow you down and sap your energy.
Even if your wheel holds up and you’re not rubbing your brake, a loose spoke will flap around as you pedal, which is noisy and obnoxious.
What To Do When You Break a Spoke
So, what do you do if your spoke breaks in the middle of a ride? In most cases, you’re safe to keep riding, but if you do have fewer spokes on your wheels, it may be a good idea to stop and find a ride home. In any case, it’s probably best to turn around and head back so you’re not riding any longer than you need to.
You don’t want to ride back with a loose spoke, though. So, before you continue, there’s a quick trick for a temporary fix. You can wrap the loose spoke around the one next to it. That way, it’s not flapping around for the rest of the ride.
Once you do make it back home, you’ve got to repair the broken spoke. And here, Darryl emphasizes that this isn’t everyday maintenance — it’s a job for professionals. Mechanics use a truing stand to install new spokes and perfectly adjust the tension. If a spoke is even slightly off, it can create problems for your ride.
A good mechanic can replace your broken spokes and get your bike road-ready again in no time. If you experience another broken spoke soon after, though, it may be time for a bigger job. In fact, that leads to Coach Darryl’s most important rule of thumb when it comes to broken spokes:
“If you break a spoke, replace it,” says Darryl. "If you break a second one within a month or so, re-spoke the whole wheel.”
Be Prepared for Broken Spokes
Now that you know a little more about spokes, you should be better prepared for the likely event that you’ll break one. When you do, there’s no need to panic. Wrap the spoke up and assess whether you’re safe to ride back home.
And, finally, if you do plan on doing a long cycling tour, Coach Darryl notes that it’s a good idea to bring a spare spoke along. When you’re planning on several long days of cycling, it’s best to have one handy for a quick replacement.