Family Biking: What we learned from our first breakdown

(Photo: Mr. Johnson)

Family Biking isn’t always a smooth ride. It’s not like those carefully curated Instagram feeds. In real life, it can be bumpier, messier, and full of tears. We had one of those days recently.

After two mechanical problems and an unexpected shower, they were done. And I was too. 

I wanted to jump back into biking now that I’m not pregnant, but I might have had delusions of grandeur about my athleticism. I chose our most ambitious bike ride so far, mostly on roads with painted bike lanes, but a bit heavier traffic than we are used to. It was a longer distance and it had a hill. The hill surprised me, and because I drive this route often I never even noticed it had one. But pedaling four children I discovered there is indeed a hill!

As we tackled this hill on the bike, I was huffing and puffing. Then suddenly I wasn’t going anywhere. My bike chain fell off! I had to get off, walk the bike, and pull over into a cul-de-sac. This is embarrassing, because I know nothing about bike maintenance (it’s on my to-learn list this year), and now I am confronted with a dangling chain, and my five children staring at me to see what I’m going to do about it. Like any damsel in distress, I called my husband. 

Hubby: “Well, you have to put the chain back on.” 

Me: “Okay, I guessed that, but it’s stuck.”

Hubby: “Well, you have to get it un-stuck.”

Hubby wasn’t racing to my rescue. He seemed to think this was a problem I could fix.

So much for my knight in shining armor! I took it as a vote of confidence in my complete non-mechanical abilities. Hubby wasn’t racing to my rescue. He seemed to think this was a problem I could fix. Mumbling that chivalry is clearly dead, I began stomping, wriggling and tugging, until I get the stuck part of the chain free and put back on the gear. This left me feeling as proud as any five year old princess who just tied her shoes for the first time: I fixed it! I did a little test ride around the cul-de-sac, and we are good to go. But I had a hunch we’d outrun our luck, so I turned us around and head for home. 

As we were riding back, my eight-year-old boy, on his own bike, called for me to wait up and that he needs a rest. Considering how slow I ride, I found this a bit odd, but am happy to pull off onto a neighborhood street to take a break. When I did, I noticed my son’s back tire was totally flat. Now what are we going to do? I had a replacement tube for my tires, but not for his. I didn’t see a way to tow his bike. I could have left it behind with an obliging neighbor to pick up later, and added him as a passenger on my rear bike rack, but that would have been more weight to what I was already struggling to pull. Mulling it over, I checked on my kids in the trailer and find my daughter near tears, complaining of a stomach ache. She was motion-sick! I hadn’t considered that she could get “car sick” from riding in a bike trailer! That did it. At the end of our wits, I called hubby again, this time to ask if he’d come rescue our son and his flat-tired bike, along with our nauseous bike-sick daughter.

At that very moment, to crown our broken-down ride in the fullness of defeat, and in spite of a clear weather report, it started to rain. And my four year old needed to use the bathroom.

Bikesick.

Grrrrrrrrrreat.

A short while later, my husband pulled up in the van, and loaded the flat-tired bicycle into the trunk then collected the kids, who have all decided to take the sure ride home with dad. After two mechanical problems and an unexpected shower, they were done. And I was too. 

I finished the ride home, with just baby still in the cargo box. After feeling victorious for fixing my chain, feelings of defeat set in for having to call my husband. It sure hadn’t been the happy bike ride I had been hoping for. And it definitely underlined some glaring weaknesses that I had been planning to remedy… but hadn’t gotten to yet: Pack a tire pump and spare tire tubes – for all bikes and the trailer in our convoy – and maybe even a small bike repair kit; and learn how to change bike tires and do basic bicycle maintenance. 

As for that second point, I was excited to learn WashCo Bikes has free beginner maintenance classes every month. I can even take my son, as they welcome participants ages 8 and up (I love that!). However, I think I am going to send my boy with his Dad, so that I can attend the Women-Only class…because I am terrified of maintenance, and definitely need an extra-supportive woman-encouraging environment.

Keep your eyes peeled for bike maintenance classes in your neck of the woods (PBOT has a list here), because you can’t always get to a shop and it just might help you avoid a major breakdown.

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Peter
Peter
22 days ago

I’ve been there! Early in my days of trying to get the whole family biking, had a trip where it just felt like everything was going wrong. Worst part was my littlest kid forgot we were riding at one point, I guess, and fell off the tag along when we were stopped. My bigger kids tire had a slow leak, and much like you, I didn’t have a tube for it, so we stopped a good handful of times for me to pump it up again.

Thanks for posting these, I always love them.

Marshall Habermann-Guthrie

I heartily recommend Park Tool GP-2 Pre-Glued Super Patch Puncture Repair Kits. Especially when rolling with that many tire sizes, best to have a super easy to use patch kit. I keep my patches, tire irons, a basic multitool, and some gloves in a small bag and it’s enough to get me out of 90% of my jams.

Middle of the Road Guy
Middle of the Road Guy
22 days ago

Those are the best. I keep them in every kit, along with the Soma steel core level.

Matt
Matt
22 days ago

Speaking as a full-time mechanic, the most troublesome part of this story is your chain falling off in the first place. That shouldn’t happen.

Mike Quigley
Mike Quigley
22 days ago
Reply to  Matt

Rear derailleur needs lubing?

Matt
Matt
21 days ago
Reply to  Mike Quigley

That could do it, but that’s one of the less likely culprits.

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
21 days ago
Reply to  Matt

Oh, my kids seem to knock off their bike chains at least occasionally…I wasn’t thinking it was unusual, so I appreciate the feedback. Also, I was shifting to the easiest gear as I struggled uphill… would changing gears too fast cause such a thing? (And I am going to get myself to maintenance class!)

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
21 days ago

It depends on the make and model of your kid’s bikes, but on department store bikes that one might get from Walmart or Target it’s not at all unusual for the chain to fall off once in a while on a one-speed coaster-brake bike – and it’s equally easy to put it back on. There are however ways to adjust the rear wheel and oil the chain so it doesn’t fall off as often.

Matt
Matt
21 days ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

On a coaster brake bike–or any other bike that likewise tensions the chain by moving the rear wheel in a horizontal dropout–it should be absolutely impossible to drop the chain. If your chain is dropping on a bike such as this, you need to re-tension your chain.

Matt
Matt
21 days ago

Sounds like the limit screw on your derailleur isn’t set correctly, or (if this was happening at the rear derailleur, not the front), possibly your derailleur hanger is bent. Either issue is pretty easy to diagnose if you know what to look for.

Fred
Fred
22 days ago

Flats are such a bother when they happen, which is why I’m sold on the Schwalbe Marathon Plus “puncture-less” (not really but almost) tire. I have them on all of my bikes and they have saved me countless times. The other day a nail went right through the non-belted part of the tire! I pulled it out and continued riding.

For your kids’ bikes it’ll be an inconvenience and extra expense to upgrade all of the tires to Schwalbes, but if you’re going to ride in Portland’s unswept, glass- and nail-strewn bike lanes, you’ll need this level of protection.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
21 days ago
Reply to  Fred

I too love the Schwalbe plus series tires (particularly the 365 series), but they are very expensive even if you order them directly from Germany. If you are going to the expense of upgrading the tires, I’d suggest you also upgrade the tubes and make sure the rim strip is cloth-type to help prevent inside flats. I do find that a rust-resistant self-lubing chain is an even better investment, especially a good e-chain on a regular non-ebike, plus make sure all the cables are stainless steel.

James Jennings
James Jennings
20 days ago
Reply to  Fred

Schwalbes are on every bike the family has. We’ve experienced the nail completely through a tire and as I prepared for it to deflate after pulling it out but it was fine.Highly recommended .

X
X
20 days ago
Reply to  Fred

I had to switch to Schwalbes for my 20″ front tire because Continental doesn’t have a 20 (or no LBS in my world stocks it if they do). Schwalbes work. Budget conscious people I have known, or perhaps people who just hate to throw stuff away, put plastic protective strips inside their tires. These require careful accurate installation, lots of talc*, and regular tire pressure checks to keep the Tuffy® from eating a hole in your tube. However if you do the work you’ll get practice on repairs, perhaps with kids, and the result is a level of flat protection very similar to the Schwalbes.

A pair of nail scissors is useful to round off the factory corners on the strips.

*don’t breath it. We’ve all got masks now…

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
19 days ago

Thanks for all the tips, suggestions, and mechanical advice. I read all of it, and I learn so much from this community. I appreciate the help. I’m afraid I’m going to be a slow learner, and I am embarrassed about that, but I’ll keep you posted on my mechanical adventures. I guess it’s like riding a bike uphill these days. I’m not fast, but I keep trying.

SCOTT DIAMOND
SCOTT DIAMOND
19 days ago

Well at least you got a good story about your experience. Thanks for sharing. Will make me feel less bad next time I’m stranded with bicycle issue.