Bike Tools 101
You can't get around the fact that having a solid, dependable bike to ride depends on some periodic maintenance. While many riders get by for a few years neglecting their cycle while problems build up, the end result of this approach is usually an expensive trip to the repair shop.
Instead, we recommend that all riders get at least a basic set of tools and learn how to keep their bike in tip-top shape -- it's an investment that will pay off very quickly and will make your riding more enjoyable, as well.
Types of bike tools
Let's go over a list of some of the basic tools on the market and what they are used for. This information should allow you to make an informed decision about what tools to buy and what to hold off on for now.
Also known as hex wrenches or keys, Allen wrenches just might be the most important tools for your bike. Matching up with the common 6-sided bolts that can be found all over modern bicycles, Allen wrenches allow you to make some of the most common repairs on your bicycle, like adjusting brakes, installing fenders or racks, and adjusting the seatpost. These should definitely be at the top of your list and can be found very cheaply. Look for long handles for firm grip.
Failing to keep tires well-inflated is one of the mistakes often made by new riders. Tires that aren't full of air will get flats more easily and provide less control and less comfort on the road. A proper floor pump makes topping-off your tubes easy, quick and simple. We recommend that every rider keep a floor pump in their garage or shed next to their bike. Basic models can be had for around $20, while high-end floor pumps cost more than $100.
While standard flat-head or philips-head screws aren't super common on bicycles, the ubiquity of screwdrivers means that every rider should keep a standard pair of screwdrivers in their toolbox, if not on the bike itself. From adjusting derailleur alignment to tightening brake levers, these will come in handy.
While proper air pressure can go a long way towards reducing flats, totally eliminating them is still not a reality. A good set of reinforced tire levers is the only tool around that can make changing a tire easy. If you've never used these before, they will rock your world. A set usually costs less that $5. Make sure to carry them with you on every ride.
The unfortunate reality of cycling is that problems with the chain can arise, and if you don't have a chain tool on hand you might be out of luck. Chain tools work by means of a guide that holds the chain in place and a driving pin attached to a crank that can be used to remove a chain from the bicycle or put a new chain in place, as well as to remove single links. This can be invaluable if your chain gets bent or otherwise damaged during a ride. This is another tool that should be in your bike bag.
The spokes of a bicycle wheel are typically screwed into place with using a tool called a spoke wrench, which slots over the rim-end of the spoke and twists to loosen or tighten the spoke. Over time, bike wheels can go "out of true," meaning that the spokes have loosened unevenly across the wheel, causing a corkscrew to develop. This can be dangerous, so it is important to periodically check your spokes for looseness and your wheel for straightness. A spoke wrench, which usually costs less than $10, is the right tool for the job.
A few small wrenches -- generally 8, 9, and 10mm -- are useful for securing the various bolts that can be found on your rack, fenders and other locations on your bike. Wrenches like this can be found for only a few dollars and are important to have in the toolbox back home. Check your bolts for tightness before long rides, because you likely won't want to carry around these heavier tools on your bike.
A simple set of needle-nose pliers is very nice for working on your bike, as it allows you to grab cables and hold them in place while making delicate adjustments of your brakes or derailleurs. Inexpensive pliers are easy to find and are another tool that should probably live at home in the toolbox.
Keeping dirt and grime off your bicycle is important for extending the longevity of your ride (and let's be honest, we like to look good too). A set of basic brushes to clean your drivetrain and the muddy spots on your bike will go a long way. Many riders get by with old toothbrushes, but you will save yourself a bunch of time by going for a basic brush set for bikes, which generally costs in the $10 to $20 range.
Instead of packing their whole toolbox on every ride, most riders bring a multi-tool -- a small product similar to a Swiss Army knife that includes the most important tools. Commonly included are Allen wrenches, screwdrivers, a chain tool, a spoke wrench and tire levers. Some multi-tools contain other options as well. High-end multi-tools cost up to about $70, while basic versions can be bought for around $20.