Even the sturdiest workhorse of a commuter bike needs weekly maintenance to continue running smoothly and reliably, and to keep its more expensive parts from wearing out. We researched 35 kits, tested the six most promising, and think the Birzman Travel Box is the best pre-assembled at-home bike repair kit for most people. It’s great because it includes all the tools you’ll need yet isn’t cluttered with useless or outdated choices, and its tools are well-designed, well-made, and even stylish looking.
Our top pick is the sleek Birzman Travel Box, whose array of 20 tools includes the five we think are absolutely necessary for basic repairs at home (tire levers, chain-wear indicator, chain-breaking tool, hex wrenches, and spoke wrenches) plus the four you’re most likely to “grow” into (pedal wrench, cable cutters, chain whip or cog wrench, and cassette removal tools) as you spend more and more time riding. Both the aesthetics of the tools—especially the Damselfly chain-breaker—and the materials used to make them (in this case, high-quality steel) are better than what we found in the other kits we tested. This is also one of only two kits to include a chain-wear gauge, the most underrated tool in the kit according to our experts.
Our budget alternative is Pedro’s Starter Tool Kit, which is packaged neatly in a plastic and fabric burrito wrap secured with Velcro straps. Pedro’s tire levers are a universal favorite with mechanics as well as reviewers (including us). Most of the other 18 tools included in the kit, especially the hex and the pedal wrenches, are sturdy and easy to use, although the cog wrench was a disappointing exception. The kit doesn’t include a chain-wear gauge either, although Pedro’s does make one, or a socket handle to hold the kit’s cassette lock-ring tool.
If you’re a cycling gearhead whose idea of a great weekend is pulling out your bottom bracket and repacking its bearings, this guide isn’t for you—you’ve no doubt already amassed most of the tools you need. But if you’re not quite sure what a bottom bracket does, or where on your bike you’d even find such a thing (hint: look between the pedals), read on.
Specifically, this guide is for you if you want to get into doing minor repairs on a regular basis. The benefit of owning a bike-specific tool kit is that the tools included have been designed and manufactured specifically for working on bicycles and their components. What’s fine for assembling an IKEA bookcase or hanging a mirror might not be suitable for working on your bike. These days, even entry-level road bikes have featherweight aluminum fasteners with such delicate threads that an ill-fitting hex wrench could easily strip them.
Which raises an alternative strategy: assembling your own tool collection, either all at once or in stages. Going à la carte, you should expect to pay about $100 total for the first batch of must-have tools: tire levers, chain-wear checker, chain tool, hex wrenches, and spoke wrench. (We’re not including the floor pump in that total, as you’ll have to buy that separately no matter what.) For the next batch of tools—pedal wrench, cable cutters, and whatever you’re using to remove your cassette—figure on an additional $150. (Here, too, we’re not including the work stand.) Again, you can find cheaper versions of all these tools, but Jon Stynes, one of the experts I talked to, said it best: “If you buy quality, you only cry once—when you pull out your wallet!”
For this review, we grilled repair-manual author Lennard Zinn, San Francisco bike-shop owners Jon Stynes and Uri Friedman, and cyclocross pro Elle Anderson, who races for the US in Belgium (the sloppy conditions ’cross racers face there are ridiculously hard on a bike). We asked them about their favorite tools and maintenance rituals. We also canvassed some serious commuters, too, including Jenny Oh Hatfield, a Sacramento-based randonneur who frequently completes rides of 300, 400, and 500 kilometers at a stretch––for fun––and the 100-plus active members of SF2G, a group of Bay Area commuters who consider a 40-mile ride to work a pleasant start to their day. (Most of them do take a train back home at night. Most of them.)
Editorial coverage of bike tools is spotty at best. We found some valuable in-depth user reports on Road.cc, and the occasional feature in Bicycling magazine or on Pinkbike, but in general, the most extensive discussions of tools appear on online chat boards like Forums.roadbikereview.com, Bikeforums.net, Socaltrailriders.org, Forums.mtbr.com, and Forums.thepaceline.net. We combed through those sites for recommendations and complaints.
Then, to figure out what a basic bike tool kit should include, we had to come up with the key maintenance tasks that any cyclist should do at least once a week. Along with asking our experts and civilian cyclists and doing Internet research, we combed through every bike-repair manual we could find (17 in all). Here’s the consensus:
1. Make sure tires have enough air, and that the tires are in decent shape. This calls for a good floor pump and a set of tire levers.
2. Clean and lubricate the chain, which will increase the life of both the chain and your bike’s drivetrain, and check the chain for wear, because a worn-out chain will start to erode the teeth on the gears (gears are a lot more expensive to replace than a chain). For all this you’ll need a degreasing liquid, chain lube, a brush, rags, and a chain-wear gauge. When it’s time to replace the chain, you’ll need a chain-breaking tool. (If your bike has a rubber belt drive instead of a metal chain, congratulations! You don’t have to worry about lubing or replacing it.)
3. Clean brake pads. If your bike has brakes that grab the rim of each wheel, make sure the pads have enough meat to them, that they’re not covered with grit from your last ride, and that they’re centered properly and not rubbing against your tires’ sidewalls. (If they do that for very long … blowout!) To clean a pad, you’ll need rubbing alcohol and a rag. To replace or adjust a pad, you’ll need a 4- or 5-millimeter hex wrench. If your bike has disc brakes, peer inside them to check the depth of the pads, though you don’t have to worry about the tires’ sidewalls. (If you have disc brakes, you’ll need to take special care of them—especially making sure never to touch the rotors with bare hands; the oils from your skin will reduce braking effectiveness.)
4. Check the tension of wheel spokes and the trueness of the rims. A loose spoke is likely to break, and an untrue rim—one that wobbles as it spins like a warped vinyl LP—will rub against the brake pads. To true a rim, you adjust the tension of the spokes with a spoke wrench. In a pinch, you can do it yourself by using your brakes as a guide, although to do a thorough job, a shop mechanic would take the wheel off the bike and put it in something called a truing stand, which measures the amount of wobble more precisely. (They’ll also use a gauge called a tension meter to measure the exact spoke tension.) Heavier riders, whose wheels tend to be under more stress, will probably find their wheels going out of true often enough that they’ll want to carry a spoke wrench with them while out riding.
5. Check your headset (where the handlebar stem meets the tube connecting the front fork to the bike’s frame), your cranks (these connect your pedals to the bike), and your wheel hubs for any play. Some of these things can be tightened with hex wrenches (you’ll need a full set), while others require specialized tools that come in a bewildering range of sizes and shapes. This is where your friendly local bike shop comes in handy—let them fix these things.
Once comfortable doing basic weekly maintenance, you may want to expand your skill set. You, or a shop, should replace your bike’s brake and shifter cables every year (more frequently if you’re covering a lot of miles, or riding on muddy trails) and fresh cables will make shifting and braking feel quick and smooth. You might also want to install clipless pedals—which, despite the name, attach to cleats on your cycling shoes and convert more of your pedaling effort into actual forward motion—or a bigger range of gears, so you can climb steeper hills. Which means, of course, more tools! We think a great tool kit should provide the tools you need to grow into these new tasks, so we searched for models that also include the most important “I’ll-need-these-someday tools”:
The Web is awash in a sea of very cheap (usually about $40, for some reason), apparently identical 44-piece “bicycle tool kits,” and we eliminated almost all of these from consideration. According to our detective work (researching trademark registrations, comparing tool lists and marketing copy, and talking to industry sources), all come from a handful of companies in Taiwan or China. None of these sellers have US-based offices or distributors, none offer credible warranties, and what few posted reviews we could find either warn you to save your money or rave about the tools in a suspiciously vague fashion. The exception is a kit sold by Performance Bikes under its private label, Spin Doctor, and it’s covered by the store’s lifetime guarantee.
The risk of damaging pricey bike parts with cheap but poorly made tools isn’t worth the up-front savings. As bike-shop owner Jon Stynes said, “You don’t want to be doing something totally normal, but the tool’s made so imprecisely that it slips and scratches your frame or strips a bolt that can’t then be removed. At a certain point, you’re getting ripped off if you buy the low-end stuff, because you’re still paying money for garbage. Don’t buy garbage.”
We also discovered that not many decent-quality entry-level home tool kits exist, period, and among the six we did find, there isn’t much consistency in terms of what tools were included. They range in price from $40 to $400, which is quite a spread. In the $40 kit we tested, the tools are worryingly lightweight and not comfortable to use. Those in the $400 kit are of much higher quality, but you’d be buying stuff you have no need for now, and maybe never will, like crank pullers and bottom bracket tools (those again!).
The rest of the kits tested cost between $100 and $200. But most of those kits are missing at least one of the eight tools on our combined lists (minus the floor pump and work stand, of course). What’s more, the tools you do get are often not the best versions available from that company. For instance, Park Tool makes sturdy, 14-inch-long, chain whips with plastic-covered handles—yet the chain whip that comes with the Park Tool Starter Kit is just a 10.5-inch-long piece of metal that hurt my hand and provided little leverage.
We called in six repair kits for testing, and over the course of five months, I spent three hours swapping cassettes from wheel to wheel, and six hours breaking and reconnecting chains of all different widths, from 8-speed to 11-speed. When I had replaced all 12 cables on the half dozen bikes in my custody, I snipped 60 feet of shifter cable housing (plastic enclosing a steel spiral that encloses the cable) and brake cable housing (plastic embedded with steel wires running lengthwise) into inch-long pieces, then tested the cable cutters on naked shifter and brake cables, to see if they still cut cleanly after that abuse. Over the course of two months, I fixed two to three flats a day at work with the levers and hex wrenches that came in the beginner tool kits.
Of the six pre-assembled tool kits we tested, the Birzman Travel Box is one of only two kits that come with the nine tools (minus the floor pump and the work stand) we think are necessary for basic home repairs—and the other one costs quite a bit more. The quality of the 20 tools is consistently higher than that of the other kits, and Birzman incorporates small design features into individual pieces that go above and beyond what other kits offer. The case is pretty stylish, too.
The Birzman Travel Box is one of only two kits that include a chain-wear gauge and a socket handle to hold the cassette lock-ring tool. We were puzzled to discover how few tool kits include a chain-wear gauge—not even kits sold by companies that happen to produce very good gauges. The importance of monitoring your chain’s condition—the cost of new chainrings and a cassette can easily top $250—makes owning a gauge seem like a no-brainer. Sure, you could use a ruler to do it, but the gauge makes measuring easy and accurate. The easier it is to do a task, the more likely it will actually get done.
The fact that so few kits include a socket handle surprised us less. You can hold a cassette lock-ring socket tool with a big adjustable wrench, and the odds are decent that most people can dig up one of those. That’s how I used to remove my cassettes—at least until I started the testing for this review. Now, I’ll never go back: A socket handle gives a much more secure purchase than an unwieldy wrench can.
Another nice touch: The lock-ring tool in the Birzman kit has a guide pin, which helps keep it in place. Park Tool and Pedro’s do make lock-ring tools with and without pins, but they include the less expensive “pinless” versions in the kits we tested.
The quality of the tools is as important as the quantity. Oftentimes the tools you get in a premade kit are not the best versions available from that company. For instance, Park Tool makes sturdy, 14-inch-long, chain whips with plastic-covered handles—yet the chain whip that comes with the Park Tool Starter Kit is just a 10.5-inch-long piece of metal that hurt my hand and provided little leverage. Birzman’s pedal wrench, chain whip, and socket wrench handle are made of sturdy steel, with comfortable-to-grip rubber handles.
The combination spoke wrench can adjust five sizes of spoke nipple, as opposed to only four (the Topeak combo wrench) or three (Park Tool’s Triple Spoke Wrench or Pedro’s Six Pack Chain Tool, which has integrated spoke wrenches). The hex wrenches aren’t the tightest fitting of the sets we saw, but they were adequate, and they’re made of S2 tool steel, which is harder than ordinary tool steel and less likely to wear away and then slip. The cable cutter has a stubby little awl head welded to its face that you can use to pry open cable housing that’s been squished shut by the cutters—Topeak’s cable cutters are the only other ones in the kits we tested to have an integrated awl.
No doubt, functionality should trump style—but in addition to working well, these tools and their distinctive looks prove that they aren’t just knockoffs of another company’s products. Take the Damselfly Universal chain tool, which, yes, resembles an insect. The unusual shape makes it much easier to hold than any of the other chain tools we tested. What’s more, it really is almost universal—unlike those other chain tools, it works on thicker, single-speed chains as well as the usual 8/9/10/11-speed ones.
None of the chain tools in any of the kits will work on chains made for drivetrains from the Italian company Campagnolo. If your bike has Campy components, though, you’ll find this is only one example of bike-tool injustice in a world that’s full of them. Oh, and the tools are all labeled, as are their molded plastic “beds” in the case.
Who else likes it? We read positive reviews of the box on Pinkbike.com, VitalMTB.com (3.5 stars out of five), and the UK-based website Road.cc (four out of five), as well as equally positive reviews of its big brother, the Studio Box. But at the time of testing, the Travel Box had no reviews on Amazon, and we couldn’t find a kit for sale anywhere. When we contacted the company’s headquarters in Taiwan, as well as Birzman’s rep at mega-distributor QPB, to ask where we might find one, we got no reply. But when we interviewed San Francisco bike-shop owner Jon Stynes, he raved about his Birzman Studio Box, and let us borrow it for a few weeks to test, and now both boxes are available online in the US.
As Mike Levy at Pinkbike and Stu Kerton at Road.cc point out in their reviews of the tool kit, Birzman’s cable cutters do feel light and not very substantial—less so, I thought, than the pair included with the kit from Pedro’s—and they have no integrated crimpers, which you’d use to clamp a metal cap onto an exposed cable end, to keep it from unraveling. Then again, most of the other kits didn’t include cable cutters at all. The Birzman cassette lock-ring tool doesn’t fit quite as snugly onto its socket handle as the Topeak one does, and the Birzman pedal wrench is flat, unlike the Topeak pedal wrench, which has a slightly offset head that keeps your hand away from the sharp chainring teeth.
If the Birzman Travel Box pulls its disappearing act again, our next pick would be the Pedro’s Starter Tool Kit, whose ingredients generally live up to the company’s rep for making sturdy, user-friendly tools. In fact, its tire levers are the top pick in our patch-kit guide, and every mechanic and shop owner we’ve ever talked to prefers them. The reason it couldn’t beat out the Birzman is because two of the 19 tools included were hit-or-miss in our tests, and it does not include a chain-wear gauge, which is a pity—Pedro’s makes an excellent one.
The tools the kit does include, especially the hex set and the pedal wrench, are solid, even hefty. The plastic-lined fabric case is sturdy and yet easier to wedge into odd spaces than a more traditional tool box would be. With half a dozen empty-on-delivery pockets, it also leaves you some room to customize your kit, or to house tools you might already have.
There are a few flaws, and the most serious is the cog wrench, a design that’s exclusive to Pedro’s. It’s supposed to replace the chain-whip element in the cassette-removal equation, but the one I had didn’t fit onto the first cassette I tried it on, a ten-speed SRAM PG-1050 11t-28t. It did fit properly on a Shimano ten-speed CS-5700 11t-28t, but Shimano and SRAM cassettes are considered interchangeable, and there’s no good reason the wrench shouldn’t have worked. Whether it was a design flaw or a quality-control issue doesn’t really matter when you’re sitting there with a cassette you can’t dislodge. Frustratingly, Pedro’s already makes the near-perfect alternative to a chain whip, the Vise Whip. At $65, it’s a lot more expensive than the Cog Wrench ($30)—which explains why it’s not included in this kit—but it always works.
The second caveat is that the Pedro’s kit doesn’t come with any way to grip the (included) cassette lock-ring tool. You’ll either have to dig out your trusty old adjustable wrench or buy a socket wrench handle separately. (Pedro’s sells one for $40.) The third caveat is that, like most of the other kits we tested, this one doesn’t include a chain-wear gauge.
Mountain-bike specific tools: If you have a mountain bike with front and/or rear suspension, the shocks will need to be oiled a few times a year—generally, you’ll use a plastic syringe to inject the oil underneath the gasket, but you’ll want to follow the instructions provided by your specific fork manufacturer (which isn’t usually the same as the company that made your bike.) If your fork is air-sprung, you’ll need a shock pump to keep the shock at the right air pressure.
Once upon a time, only mountain bikes had disc brakes; now they’re appearing on nice commuter bikes, cyclocross bikes, and even road bikes. No matter what kind of bike they’re on, hydraulic disc brakes—the kind that use brake fluid, though not automotive brake fluid—need to be bled once or twice a year—to do that, you’ll need the brake-bleed kit that’s made for your brand of brakes. (Or just take it to a shop.)
You still tend to see more Torx bolts—like hex bolts, only star-shaped—on mountain bikes, though, again, they’re occasionally showing up on road bikes now. For them, you’ll need a set of Torx wrenches.
Carbon fiber specific tools: Used for frames as well as individual components (seatposts, handlebars, forks), carbon fiber is lightweight and strong, but also very, very easily damaged—you can overtighten a bolt on your frame and pretty much ruin your bike. What’s worse, the damage might not be visible, so you won’t know what you’ve done until the affected part gives way while you’re out on a ride, which can be catastrophic for your health as well as your bike. Along with regular hex wrenches, you’ll need a small torque wrench or individual torque keys, which can keep you from using too much force. (One made for cars might be too big—that is, you won’t be able to dial it down to the small torques needed with bike parts.)
Park Tool’s SK-2 Home Mechanic Starter Kit
We’ve seen the SK-2 described on Bikerumor and in more than one cycling forum as a good way to start a tool collection, but we have to disagree. While Park Tool’s shop-quality products—their middle- to top-of-the-line tools—have a reputation for durability, some of the bottom-of-the-line versions included in the SK-2 were uncomfortable to use for long periods of time. The combination chain whip/pedal wrench doesn’t perform either of its intended tasks as well as our picks. The chain tool works fine, but it’s small and hard to hold.
The SK-2 doesn’t include cable cutters, a chain-wear gauge, or a means of holding the cassette lock-ring tool (you’ll have to provide your own massive crescent wrench). It does includes some things we’re not convinced a beginning mechanic needs, such as cone wrenches. And if you really are someone who’s ready to tackle hub adjustment, then no doubt you already owns tire levers and patches—throwing them into this kit just seems like padding.
The area in which this kit does excel is in its collection of nine hex wrenches (1.5 mm up to 10 mm): From among the six kits we tested, these were the best-fitting.
Spin Doctor Essential Tool Kit
The Spin Doctor Essential Tool Kit closely resembles kits sold by a company called Bike Hand, which also supplies them to such online retailers as Jenson USA to market under their own private labels. (In the photo of the kit on the Jenson site, you can see the Bike Hand logo clearly on many of the tools.)
Like the Bike Hand kits, the Spin Doctor version contains such relatively obscure items as an integrated bottom bracket wrench adaptor and a crank-arm dust tool but lacks some basics: cable cutters, for instance, and a chain-wear gauge. It does provide a way to hold its cassette lock-ring tool: a small piece of metal that fits over one end of an 8 mm hex wrench to convert it to an ad hoc socket handle. This worked when we tried it, but the whole affair fit together loosely, and we didn’t dare try it on a truly stubborn lock ring and cassette. The hexes were among the worst-fitting we tested, and the chain tool’s handle tended to bind.
Super B Essential Tool Kit
Although the mix of tools included in the Super B kit was closer to what we were looking for (cable cutter, check; individual spoke wrenches, check), the quality of the tools themselves was worse: One of the guide teeth on the chain tool broke the first time we used it, and this cable cutter was the only one we tested that had trouble severing basic brake-cable housing cleanly.
The Topeak PrepBox is a step up in many ways from the Birzman Travel Box—as it ought to be, because it costs about twice as much. In it, you get more tools (including a beam torque wrench and a cog brush), of an even higher quality. But a full-on tool kit already comes with a pretty hefty price tag, and the additional tools in the PrepBox are really specialized. Most people will find everything they could ever need in the Birzman.
Bike tools are relatively low maintenance—for the most part they don’t require oiling, cleaning, or tuning. The one thing to be aware of is when they start to wear out … that’s when it’s possible to start stripping threads and rounding out bolt holes. Torque wrenches do require some special treatment, but that’s an issue for a separate guide.
(Photos by Eve O’Neill.)
Originally published: December 6, 2016
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