Even though bikes have run my life for almost thirty years, it’s only been in the past six or seven that I’ve needed my own comprehensive tool set. I used to have keys to the bike shops I worked at. Then I finally gained entry to the golden cage that is a career in cycling media, and I lost my satellite workspace. So, after having been spoiled for two decades, I had to make some choices. What tools were worth buying, even if I almost never needed them? Thinking back to the early days of my post-retail life, I remembered the first seven purchases I made to ensure I wouldn’t have to come crawling back to the shop. Everyone’s needs will vary, but these are my suggestions.
Derailleur Hanger Alignment Gauge
If you have a wide-range cassette, simply eyeballing your derailleur isn’t as reliable as it used to be. For one thing, Shimano 12-speed derailleurs don’t orient their pulleys on the same plane as their mounting bolt, so it’s nearly impossible to just use The Force to line them up. But more importantly, wide-range cassettes require the derailleur to stretch several inches out from the hanger, which will amplify any imperfections. Plus, even if you’re not using a wide-range cassette, modern derailleur hangers aren’t as easy to bend as they used to be. It takes a lot of force to get them to move, which I find makes it harder to perform accurate adjustments. Hanger alignment tools offer leverage and precision, but they’re not cheap. I once bought a $30 Amazon model, and it had a frustrating amount of wiggle. It was still better than nothing, but the required guesswork convinced me it’s worth dropping $85 on the US-made, wiggle-free Park DAG-2.2. I can’t comment on the countless other lower-priced options out there, like the $45 knock-offs that look identical to the DAG-2.2. But tolerances have to be really tight, and tight tolerances cost money. That $85 brings with it some priceless peace of mind. If you’re still haunted by a ghost shift after installing fresh cable and housing, there’s no better way to exorcize it than with a quality hanger-alignment tool.
M5 and M6 Thread Taps
Jumping straight to the other end of the spectrum are these cheap little guys. They’re actually what inspired me to write this list. I was doing a hasty no-look install on a dropper-post remote, and I didn’t realize I was cross-threading the clamp bolt. Wasn’t quite closed, so the bolt was hitting the threads crooked. Hack move, I know. Still keeps me up at night. Anyway, there were plenty of threads, but the ones I’d buggered up wouldn’t let the bolt start. But I had an M5 tap, and in a few twists, it was good as new. I once had a similar mishap on post-mount brake interface, which uses an M6 thread. Those two sizes are really all you’ll need if the part you’re looking to save can be saved at all. A tap handle will make it a lot easier, but if you want to go really cheap, you can use a small adjustable wrench or small vice-grip. I just recommend storing these somewhere they won’t get banged up. Most of their lives will be spent at the bottom of the toolbox, and you want to keep the threads fresh.
Suspension Service Tools
Hopefully, my recent story on volume spacers helped make a case that suspension is not a black box that only the pros are allowed to open. A lot of the functional bits are just on the other side of a single set of threads. You just need a few specialized tools to get there. To recap, that usually means a chamferless socket for the fork and a strap wrench for the rear shock. But you may want to do more to your suspension than add volume spacers. Regular preventative maintenance on the fork requires you to drop the fork lowers, which is a little more messy and involved. You’ll want a graduated cylinder to measure the oil volume, and some sort of press to seat new dust wipers in the lowers. Fork brands offer their own tools for that part, but you can always use a piece of PVC. Just measure the lip around your fork’s dust wiper, and cut a short section of pipe that will fit over it.
Guessing component size is unreliable, and looking it up takes time. I prefer measuring. Does that frame take a 30.9 post or a 31.6? Is that hub a 142 or a 148? Is that rim’s inner width shy of what my tire recommends, or can I run it? It’s nice to be able to find this stuff out quickly and accurately. Like all of the items on this list, you can live without a digital caliper. You don’t really need one all that often. But once you have one, you may be surprised how often you reach for it. Maybe you need to measure the distance between two things that can’t be reached with a ruler. Maybe you need to measure an exact depth. Simply the shape of a caliper adds a lot of utility. And I think it’s key to have a digital one. Most often, that’s because of the fractions of millimeters between seatpost diameters. But it’s also just quicker to read a number than to squint and count lines. Plus, they’re, like, $20.
Most bike-tool brands seem to favor saw guides for cutting steerer tubes, handlebars, or seat tubes. But they have a tendency to leave you with crooked cuts. That’s why I recommend owning a pipe cutter for any round metal object you find needs shortening. They always leave a perfectly square cut, and most will actually cost you less than a saw guide. The only minor snag is that a pipe cutter might leave a more pronounced burr around the rim of the pipe you’re cutting. There are nifty inside / outside reamers out there that will clean that up in a jiffy, but I find a few licks with a flat file will even things out just fine. After all, in the spirit of this list, it’s not something you’ll do that often. But especially when we’re talking about steerer tubes, you may be cutting a pretty expensive component. Even if you only use it once every few years, it’s worth it to know you’ll always end up with the cut you want. Plus, you might be surprised how often you come across a home project where this tool comes in handy.
Internal Cable-Routing Guide Kit
Headlining the “Solves Problems We Shouldn’t Have in the First Place” department is this handy device now made by a few different brands. If you haven’t tried one, these use powerful magnets to guide one end of a slick braided cable into your frame’s downtube, along the inner wall, and safely back out so that you can then attach the other end to your housing and pull it through behind it. Sure, in many cases, this is something you can technically do without any fancy tools. Maybe it’s just a matter of putting a little bend on the tip of the housing so it’ll find its way to the exit. Maybe it’s tilting the frame so gravity is on your side. Or maybe you’ve got the forethought to use the old hose or housing to shepherd the new line through. But as anyone with unguided internally routed frames knows, it’s never easy. And to be honest, it’s still not easy, even with one of these kits. But it’s almost definitely faster and less frustrating. You don’t have to use it often, but you’ll be glad you have one when you do.
The homemade bearing press is the perfect Bike Hack. You can do a lot with a stack of washers, nuts, and threaded rod. But it’s not optimal. You need to hold the cup, washers, rod, and probably two wrenches as you’re setting up and cinching down. Pressing cups is already a little harrowing. It’s important to get them started straight, and even doing it one-at-a-time (as you should), it’s nice not to have to fight to line everything up. That’s why I think a consumer-level bottom-bracket and headset press is a worthy purchase even if you’ll only use it once every couple years. “Consumer-Level” has a pretty broad definition. I’ve got a US-made Wheels Manufacturing one that’s about $60, but there are decent options for under $30, and even less if you go to Amazon. That’s maybe where I’d send the amateur mechanic if they want an equally refined experience when removing bearing cups. I didn’t include cup removal tools on this list because, presumably, you’re pushing out a component to replace it, and it’s ok if you bugger it up a bit in the process. Those are the four-tined splayed pipes that act as impact drifts, distributing the load along the inside edge of the bearing or cup you’re removing. But unlike the press, you can’t use the same one for headsets and bottom brackets, so you’d have to buy two of them. So, for most home mechanics, the hammer-and-giant-screwdriver removal method works fine.
Of course, there’s another solution to all these rarely encountered problems: Sharing. I personally wouldn’t hesitate to loan any one of these tools to someone who needs it. We’re not talking about 5 mm allen wrenches here. It’s totally reasonable if someone can’t justify purchasing their own suite of shop-quality luxuries. Problem is, at least in my world, bike repair is often a last-minute and/or late-night affair. And even if it weren’t, I’d rather not add a half-hour fetch quest to an already annoying press-fit bottom bracket installation. So, take these as suggestions for filling in potential blindspots in your tool library. You never know when you’ll need them.