Making and using emergency spokes

We all know hangnails and crooked politicians are inevitable. Experienced tourists feel the same about flat tires and broken spokes. We’ve covered puncture repair several times. But when a spoke snaps, it requires much more labor. Unless, that is, you carry some emergency spokes–prepared ahead of time–that are so simple to install you don’t even have to remove the wheel. Here’s how.

TOOLS AND SUPPLIES

  • diagonal cutter
  • spoke wrench
  • 6 spokes and nipples
  • tire lever
  • pocket knife
  • electrical or duct tape
  • zip ties
  1. BUY 3 spokes (or as many as you think you’ll need) that are 6 mm longer than those in your rear wheel and 3 more that are 6 mm longer than those in front. If you can’t find spokes that match the gauge (diameter) and threading of your present ones, be sure to get nipples to fit the replacements. Using diagonal cutters, snip the spoke heads closely so the base retains a slight L shape.
  2. NOW bend the spoke to look like the one in the photo. To do this, grip it with the diagonal cutters about 5 mm from the original bend. The jaws will nick the spoke but won’t do any real damage if you don’t press too hard. Push the spoke back with your hand, creating another 90-degree bend. If you have a spare hub, you can form the spoke perfectly by inserting the spoke tip in a hole and bending the shaft against the flange. Either way, the spoke’s length (from the top of the threads to the first bend) should equal that of the spokes in your wheel.
  3. STORE the spokes inside panniers, a trunk pack, the handlebar, seatpost, or zip tied alongside a rack stay. Store nipples separately or they might vibrate off.
  4. WHEN a spoke breaks, remove the end still attached to the nipple. An easy way is to bend it slightly so you can spin it counterclockwise like a hand crank while holding the nipple with a spoke wrench. If the broken nub is still in the hub flange, poke it out with a spoke. If it’s longer, bend it as necessary and work it out. This can be difficult on the cog side, but you can do it. Or if you have diagonal cutters, snip the spoke and push out the end.
  5. INSERT the end of the emergency spoke into the vacant hub hole, trying to match the pattern (heads out or in). If you can’t, put it in any way it will fit. Weave it through the other spokes, following the pattern in the wheel. Most wheels have “cross 3 interlaced” spoking, which means each spoke crosses 3 others–under the first 2 and over the third, or vice versa. If you have nipples for your emergency spokes, proceed to step 6. Otherwise, connect the spoke to the nipple by turning the nipple clockwise with a spoke wrench. Then jump to step 7.
  6. TO INSTALL a new nipple, deflate the tire. Rotate the wheel until the old nipple is at the top. Pinch or roll the tire, using tire levers if necessary, until you can see the rim strip. If it’s rubber, move it to the side. Push out the old nipple and pop in the new one. If you have a tape rim strip, cut it between 2 nipples, peel it back, change the nipple, and roll the tape back into place. If it won’t stick, cover the section with a small piece of tape.
  7. TO GET the new spoke up to tension quickly, pluck and listen to the spokes that go to the same hub flange. Gradually tighten the emergency spoke until it makes the same tone. Then spin the wheel with one thumb resting on the brake pad near the rim, helping you to see and feel the trueness. Loosening spokes going to the left hub flange and tightening those going to the right will move the rim to the right, and vice versa. Proceed by 1/2 turns until the wheel spins true again.
  8. FINISH by “stress relieving” the wheel. Squeeze parallel pairs of spokes to settle any that have wound up during truing. This will also help seat the emergency spoke in the hub and rim. After squeezing, spin the wheel and retrue if necessary. Emergency spokes are surprisingly durable, but it’s a good idea to replace them with conventional spokes when you have a chance.

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