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Saturday, April 25, 2015


Over the course of 300+ miles, the Black Hills BackBone will challenge both body and bike.  In addition to all those miles of grouchy gravel and dinged up dirt roads, water, mud, thorns, pine needles, timber, tumble weeds and debris will wreak havoc on your treasured ride.  Mechanicals.  Some you prevent by preparation, some you fix by preparation, some you just prepare to endure.

Black Hills mud and pine needles filled my fork in a hurry.  No turning that wheel.
The most common mechanical on a long gravel ride is a flat tire.  I don't run road tires tubeless, unlike my trend setting friends, but I don't have many flats because I don't run tires skinny or worn.  I run 38 mm Schwalbe Marathon Racers, with significant flat protection in the tread and from the width.  They're not light, but neither am I.  In any event, I still carry a patch kit, 2 tubes, 2 tire irons, a tire boot, tweezers and a pump.  Just in case.  As much as I don't like to stop to fix a flat, I like to ride more than walk.

My tool kit: 2 tubes, 2 tire irons, tweezers, spare links, tire boot, patch kit, multi-tool, pump, bag.
Another common mechanical in muddy, gravelly conditions is broken chains and derailers.  The smaller pieces of gravel can stick with mud inside the chain, causing it to jam or twist in the derailer pulleys.  Even if it doesn't break, a twisted chain will not run through the derailer, at least not smoothly, and may not stay on a given gear.  The derailer itself then may bend or break, maybe taking the derailer hanger or even part of the frame with it.

My first line of defense is installing a higher end mountain bike rear derailer and a new 9 speed chain.   Simple, strong, durable.  Choose all three.  Keep the chain clear of debris and well lubed at all times, stopping to do so, if necessary.  Watch for mud build-up on the chain and on the derailer pulleys.  Be attentive to complaints from the drive train.  Cranking harder on the pedals to overcome resistance from mud and rocks in the drive train is not recommended.  Stop to clean it.  If a chain were to break, I would use the chain breaker on my mini-tool to remove the damaged links and replace them with spares.  If a derailer were to break, I would shorten the chain to convert the drivetrain to a single speed.  That's not as complicated as it sounds, but it's too much for this post.  Know that it is not an uncommon occurrence at many gravel grinders.

Broken chain, broken derailer, and broken dreams early on at Odin's Revenge 2014.
My 2x9 Shimano LX/XT drivetrain carried me to the finish.  (photo by Scott Redd)
Sometimes, the mud is just so much that even the wheels won't turn.  Not only will you stop, but you will actually be carrying your suddenly very heavy bike unless you clear some mud.  Rather than search for a stick, I carry a mud shank fashioned out of a metal marshmallow roasting stick.  Dainty it ain't.

No flimsy twig.  Now, that's a mud shank.
Other issues abound.  Wet and muddy conditions may cause balky braking.  Dry, dusty roads will drain the life from a chain.  Higher speed descents on washboards may rattle some parts loose or slip a seat post.  A properly maintained bike prevents much of this.  I check every bolt, every screw, every part before a long event.  Carry a mini-tool and know how to use it, just in case.

It's a long ride.  It's a lot longer walk.  And you're out there alone.  Keep your ride rolling.

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