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Hedge-blog: broken spokes and what to do about them

Spoke wrench

The unexpected 'ping' of a spoke broke my flow. I'd been cycling in the countryside, lost in thoughts about the traffic, how much energy I had left, how much further I had to go, the wind direction, my speed - in fact, everything that usually goes through my head when I'm absorbed in a long-ish bike ride. I certainly hadn't been thinking about my wheels.

Now a front wheel spoke had broken, and it was flapping around and getting in the way. I bent over the bike to look, but a couple of fast-moving vehicles passed close to my lowered head, displacing air in my direction in an unnerving way, so I wheeled the bike over to a farm gate, where I would be a few feet away from the traffic.

Bike at the roadside

The spoke had broken near the rim of the wheel. According to David Fiedler on bicycling.about.com, this is less common than a spoke breaking near the hub, because the curved head of the spoke where it laces into the hub is the weakest part. The curved part is called the elbow:

Spoke elbow

I 'unthreaded' the spoke from the rim, and stuck it in my back pocket - no littering the countryside! Then I spun the wheel to see what state it was in. Sure enough, it was wobbly, and sticking on the brake blocks, but using the little lever to release the brakes was enough to make it spin freely again. After that, I headed for home.

This wasn't the first time that a spoke had gone. Back wheel spokes had snapped on two occasions - two weeks earlier, and a few months before that. It had got to the stage where every time I went out, I wondered if I was going to finish my ride with all my spokes in tact.

Broken spokes: why do spokes break?

Why do spokes break in the first place? According to a discussion thread on ridemonkey, you may have a machine-built wheel that came with the bike, and just isn't very good. Also, the spoke tension may be wrong (spokes too loose). Finally, if you have to ride with one broken spoke (to get home), you put extra stress on the remaining spokes, which may weaken them.

My spoke problem probably came from a combination of the first and third of those factors. Anyway, if a first broken spoke could just be bad luck, a second is the last chance saloon. This was the third, so it was time for action.

Broken spokes: if one spoke has broken, is it more likely that another will break?

Yes! See above. If you've ridden a long way with a broken spoke, you may have weakened others. Also, bikemagic.com says that the back wheel spokes on the drive side are often under the most strain, and when one of those has gone due to fatigue, others are likely to follow.

Broken spokes: what to do on the roadside

If the spoke broke at the nipple, unthread it from the hub, provided the rear cassette isn't in the way. Otherwise, twist it around a neighbouring spoke, or use tape or a cable tie to attach it to a neighbour.

Broken spoke taped to another spoke:

Broken spoke taped to another spoke

If the spoke broke near the hub, undo the spoke nipple if you can (using the spoke wrench integrated in your multi-tool) and pull the spoke out. Or snip the spoke off near the nipple, if you have a suitable tool. If not, twist the spoke around a neighbour, or tape it or use a cable tie.

Broken spokes: replacing a broken spoke

Bike wheel in front of garage

Back at home, in your garage or shed, you can replace the spoke. You may have some spares; some people even carry spare spokes on rides, especially if they are touring long distances. 

If not, you need to buy a spoke. The first thing to check is the length of your spoke. You may have a helpful label on the wheel that tells you the length you need. Otherwise, you'll have to measure a spoke.

Spoke length label

You can buy a new spoke at your local bike shop or online. You need a screwdriver (to hold the nipple in place, and screw it onto the spoke) and a spoke wrench - also called a spoke key - (to twist the spoke nipple and thus tighten the spoke to the correct tension). Wiggle have spoke wrenches in their workshop tools range, such as this LifeLine spoke wrench. A spoke wrench, or spoke key:

Spoke wrench (spoke key)

Removing the broken spoke

(Where the broken spoke is back wheel, drive side, you may have to remove the rear cassette). If the spoke broke at the elbow, you can unscrew the spoke from the nipple, and leave the nipple in the rim. If the spoke broke at the nipple end, there'll be a bit of spoke stuck in it, so you'll have to take off the tyre and inner tube, lift the rim tape up and out of the way with a screwdriver, and take the nipple out.

Lifting the rim tape

Fitting the new spoke

Thread the new spoke through the eyelet in the hub. Check the pattern of the other spokes to see whether the head should be on the inside or outside of the hub, and if and how the new spoke should cross under and over the other spokes. Screw it into a spoke nipple in the rim.

(It can be difficult to get a new nipple into the rim. To do this easily, push a spare spoke through the hole in the rim, screw the nipple onto it, pull the nipple into place, then unscrew the spoke. You can even use the spoke you're about to fit, as long as you then unscrew it from the nipple, and thread it through the hub, before screwing it into the nipple again. This trick is mentioned and shown in the video below).

Use the spoke wrench to tighten the new spoke to the same tension as the others, plucking/squeezing them to see how tight they are. If the wheel is wobbly, you need to true the wheel.

This Bike Radar video, How to Replace a Spoke, shows what to do in an easy-to-follow way:

Alternatively, ask your local bike shop to replace the spoke - it should be the cost of the spoke plus about half an hour labour.

Broken spokes: time for a new wheel?

In my case, after three broken spokes, I decided it was time for a new pair of wheels.

Broken spokes: more questions and answers

Can I buy an emergency replacement spoke to carry on rides?

Yes, there's a product called Fiber Fix Emergency Replacement Spoke, also known as a Kevlar Spoke. It is a roadside fix, replacing any length of spoke. If you break a rear driveside spoke, you can use the Fiber Fix spoke without having to remove the rear cassette.

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