You don’t need a vast array of specialist bike tools. Most essential jobs can be done with a few good quality standard tools and just a handful of bike-specific ones. Here's our guide to basic bike maintenance equipment.
If there’s an area where the adage ‘buy quality, buy once’ applies, it’s bike tools. Good tools work better, last longer and are less likely to damage the parts you’re working on. Think of them as an investment, not a cost.
Each bike’s different, but there are many tools common to almost all bikes. Here’s what you need for straightforward jobs such as changing cables, adjusting brakes and gears, tweaking saddle position and angle, setting up handlebars, changing and inflating tyres and changing your chain and sprockets.
Ball-end Allen keys. Don’t skimp on these; you’ll be using them a lot. Ball-end keys allow you to turn a bolt from an angle, which speeds up many jobs. As well as being harder and more accurately made, and therefore less likely to mash the bolts you tighten with them, high-quality keys have a narrower neck for the ball, and therefore work at steeper angles, making them more versatile.
Screwdrivers. You want a couple of flat-blade screwdrivers and Phillips (cross-head) No 1 and 2, and possibly a size 0 too. A more extensive set will include sizes that are useful round the house too.
Combination spanners. I almost hesitate to include these because bolts with spanner flats are now rare on good quality bikes. You will almost certainly never need more than 8, 9 and 10mm, plus a 13mm if you have bolt-up hubs. If you need spanners for other jobs, then the sets we've suggested have everything you need for the bike too, but if bike fettling is your only need, then it'll be cheaper to buy individual spanners.
Pliers. A set of combination pliers has lots of uses, from generally holding and pulling parts to crimping cable ends.You'll also find lots of uses for long-nose pliers, so a set of three with side cutters is good value.
Torx keys. Torx fittings are becoming increasingly common. Like Allen keys, you can get them with plain or ball ends.
Tyre levers. You need a couple of sets, one for your home toolbox and one for your on-bike toolbag.
Floor pump. It’s much easier to keep your tyre pressures up to snuff with a floor pump (aka a track pump) than any portable pump.
Pedal spanner. If your pedals have 15mm flats, then you'll need a 15mm spanner to take them on and off. A standard 15mm spanner will fit some pedals, but others need the thinner jaws of a specific pedal spanner.
Cable puller. Owners of hydraulic-braked bikes with electronic shifting can ignore this. The rest of us will find fitting and adjusting brake and gear cables a lot easier with a tool that pulls the cable snug and holds it in place while you tighten the clamp bolt.
Cable cutter. Do not try and cut cables with pliers, sidecutters, tin snips or any other vaguely sharp snippity-chop tool you have kicking around; you’ll just make a mess of them. Get yourself a proper set of cable cutters with blades shaped to keep the cable strands together. Also useful for sending defective iPhone cables back to the Great Apple Shop in the Sky.
Chain wear gauge. You can keep an eye on the wear of your chain by measuring its length over 12 full links with a good quality ruler. If it’s 12 1/16in long, then it’s time to replace it and if it’s reached 12 1/8in you will probably have to replace the sprockets too. A wear gauge makes this easier by telling you when your chain needs ditching.
Recommended: Pedros Chain Checker Plus II — £15.59
Chain tool. Essential if you want to replace your own chain. If you've a Campagnolo 11-speed transmission you'll need a tool with a peening anvil like Campagnolo's, which has a wallet-clenching £153 RRP. Fortunately, Park Tool and Lezyne, among others, have cheaper alternatives that will tackle other chains too.
Chain joining link pliers. Almost all chains now come with a joining link. SRAM calls it a Powerlink, KMC a Missing Link and Shimano a Quick-Link, but they're all basically the same thing: a pair of outer link plates with a permanently mounted pin in each that fits into a slot in the other. Once upon a time, joining links like this could be opened by hand, but for 10-speed and 11-speed chains there's just not enough room to leave slack for hand operation, and they have to connect tightly enough that you need these pliers to separate them. Shimano's 11-speed master links are an extremely tight fit and need force to join them too, which is why these pliers have an extra set of jaws.
Workstand. On the one hand, this is a bit of a luxury; on the other being able to hold your bike steady and well clear of the floor makes any job easier. Your back will thank you for not leaning over a bike for hours on end too.
Torque wrench. Expensive, but essential to prevent damage if you're wrenching carbon fibre or other super-light components.
Recommended: Effetto Mariposa Giustaforza II — £118.99
Sprocket tools. Two very specific bike tools here. To change your sprockets you’ll need a chain whip — to hold the sprockets in place — and a lockring tool to undo the nut that holds them in place.
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John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc founder Tony Farrelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.