How to Patch a Tube, Part I

01.5.2012 | 5:15 am

Comedian Mastermind: The Best of, 2005 - 2007As you are no doubt aware, bikes are cool. Through some weird magic some like to call “physics,” bikes can make you go faster than you otherwise could go, while expending less energy than you otherwise would expend. Meanwhile, you’re having fun while exercising, which is even more magical than the whole further-faster-easier mindbender.

And bikes look great, too. Especially my bikes.

The thing is, though, bikes are not perfect. I mean, consider the number of moving parts. No, on second thought, don’t consider the number of moving parts, because the number is far to great. Especially when you consider the number of moving parts in a bike chain alone. We’re talking about ten moving parts per inch.

The mind boggles.

There are cables and derailleurs and spokes. And hubs. And pedals. And handlebars. and shifters and brakes.

Oh my.

But really, you shouldn’t worry about any of those things. Why? Because if any of those things break in the middle of the ride, nobody really expects you to be able to fix them and then continue on your way. (Except maybe the chain, and even that’s a kinda-sorta thing).

But if you get a flat tire during your ride, the folks you are riding with are going to expect you to repair the flat and continue on.

Luckily for you, I am an expert not only at riding bicycles, but at repairing them as well. So today, I shall teach you how to patch a bike tire.

Step 0: Get the Futile Attempt Out of the Way First

Of course, before you try to patch a tube, you should try to pump it back up. Just to see if that leak is a one-time thing. Because hey, why wouldn’t it be? Maybe the tube was just playing a little prank there for a few moments, and now it’s going to reliably hold air.

It could happen.

Step 0.5: Look Around Hopefully

Once you have verified that the flat you’ve got is in fact not one of those rare-but-awesome self-healing ones, you’re all set to begin the work of repairing your tube.

Unless, of course, you can get someone else to do it for you.

Now, most people won’t automatically volunteer to fix a flat for you; as it turns out, most people are every bit as incompetent as you. However, if you fumble around long enough and badly enough, there’s an excellent chance someone you’re riding with will get so exasperated that they will finally offer to fix your flat for you.

In order to make this happen, the first thing you should do is ask to borrow a wrench (unless you have a bike that requires a wrench to remove the wheel, in which case ask for a handsaw). Be as unspecific about which kind of wrench as possible. When asked why you would want a wrench, say, “So I can remove the saddle, so it won’t get dirty when I turn the bike upside down.”

Then say, “I think I’m going to need a chain breaker, too.”

Finally, shrug your shoulders and confess, “Honestly, guys, I’ve never done this before. In fact, I’m a little bit shocked to learn that these tires are full of air. I always imagined they were solid rubber or something.”

I would put your chances at someone pushing you aside and getting to work at approximately 84%. Which is pretty good odds, really.

Step 1: Remove the Wheel

OK, suppose the “get someone else to do it” gambit didn’t work, either because you’re a poor actor, or you’re riding alone. For whatever reason, you’re going to have to patch the tube yourself.

There is nothing quite so disheartening when one is riding a bicycle as the discovery of a flat tire. Actually, that’s not entirely correct. It’s even more disheartening to discover one’s femur poking out throught one’s skin.

But a flat tire is still pretty darn bad.

So, after coasting to a stop — it’s very important to not try to change the tire until you have come to a complete stop — you need to remove the tire from the wheel.

Which means you first must remove the wheel from the bike. And don’t go thinking you can skip this step, because you’ll look foolish if you do. Trust me, I know.

If it’s the front tire that’s gone flat, you’re in luck. Well, not really in luck, because if you were really in luck you wouldn’t have gotten a flat in the first place. But you’re at least not in as bad of luck as if you had gotten a flat tire in the back. A flat in the back adds a whole extra layer of suck frosting to the cake of suck that you’re already going to have to eat.

So anyway, if it’s a front flat, you just pull down the quick release lever, and pop the wheel off.

But if it’s a rear flat, well, you may first want to shift all the way to the smallest ring on your cassette — this will make things easier when (and, let’s face it, if) you eventually get the repaired wheel back on the bike. Then drop the chain off the front chainring, to give you a little extra play with the chain.

Now loosen the quick release (if you’re using bolts instead of quick releases, well, you’re on your own), pull back the rear derailleur, and pull the rear wheel out of the labyrinthine mess that is your bike chain path.

Now take a good look at the path of the chain and take a moment to consider the fact that you aren’t really exactly sure where in that tangle of metal you’re supposed to put the wheel back when (if) you get the flat fixed.

Oh well, nothing you can do about it now. May as well get to removing the tire.

Step 2: Remove the Tire

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the easiest part of the process: removing the tire and tube. Here, just insert a tire lever between the rim and the tire, then force it under the bead of the tire. Kind of like you would with a coat hanger between a car door sill and window when you lock your keys in the car. For really old cars I mean.

Once you’ve got the lever under the tire bead, pry it up and over the rim. Then run the lever around the circumference of the rim, easily bringing the bead of the tire off the rim.

Now grasp the tube — because it suits our purposes to pretend that everyone still uses tires with tubes, even though that’s a really terrible idea — and pull it off the wheel.

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it? And the good news is that actually getting that tire bead back onto the rim is only 10,000,000,000.9 times more difficult.

And you will learn how to do that (and much much more!) in Part II of How to Patch a Tube.


  1. Comment by Cookster | 01.5.2012 | 6:07 am

    But i have got my wheel off and my hands greesy and now you are telling me I have to wait till tomorrow (please say tomorrow and not next week) to finish it and then ride to work?

    And why is it that we don’t all have a live in bike mechanicas again?

  2. Comment by Chris | 01.5.2012 | 7:32 am

    No mention of if it’s ok to swear at the rear tire as I try to get it away fromt the chain and past the brakes.

  3. Comment by dave | 01.5.2012 | 7:51 am

    How lucky of me to read this posting. After riding for 6 years I got my first flat last week. I was prepared with the right tools, patches and an extra tube. I had read about it and had even watched a youtube video a long time ago. Trust me, I only vaguely remembered any of the information. I was riding alone so there was no kind soul to jump in and help. I struggled but after 20 minutes (only 18 of which consisted of frustration) I had replaced the tube which had separated from the valve stem. I cannot wait to read part 2.

  4. Comment by KM | 01.5.2012 | 8:14 am

    Auuuugggghhhh!!! You forgot some crucial details!! Such as releasing the brakes especially if your bike still sports V-brakes, cantilevers or side-pull brakes. Also you didn’t warn them about the exponentially increasing frustration and ensuing cursing that accompanies getting a road tire bead off the rim vs. a MTB tire. That’s always a winner!

  5. Comment by David | 01.5.2012 | 8:14 am

    The very next step should be “If replacing the tube, rather than patching, immediately take the “bad” tube and tie it in a knot”.

    This will help prevent you from putting the “bad” tube back on, thinking it’s the good one, pumping it up, having it immediatly go flat and then experiencing that sinking-gut feeling that you are 50 miles from home and have TWO bad tubes.

    (…not that I have ever done this. I’ve only heard about it).

  6. Comment by Dave04 | 01.5.2012 | 8:39 am

    “Once you’ve got the lever under the tire bead, pry it up and over the rim. Then run the lever around the circumference of the rim, easily bringing the bead of the tire off the rim.”

    Somehow, for me, this is never easy….

  7. Comment by roan | 01.5.2012 | 8:40 am

    Yeah ! what ’bout dem durn breaks hold’n on to the tyre ? Da been rub’n the rim fer sooo looong da now try’n to take bite of duh tyre ! Ya sure ya fix’n a flat? Why fer ya tell me to give da freak’n dirty chain a little extra play ? da nerve.
    Shank’s mares work fer me on long walk home. It dragg’n d’bike wit da rope dat slow me down.

  8. Comment by Saso | 01.5.2012 | 8:57 am

    I anticipate a commercial for tubeless tires coming up in Part 2.

  9. Comment by roan | 01.5.2012 | 9:06 am

    Step 0: very important, if’n you have a full barn of horses hanging around, some of which haven’t seen the light of day in say, a year. They tend to get deflated egos but once you pay a little attention most have that rare-but-awesome self-healing moment.

  10. Comment by Jenn | 01.5.2012 | 9:18 am


    Bonus points.

  11. Comment by Christina | 01.5.2012 | 9:26 am

    Have you tried using your impressive rack to get people to change the tire for you? Does that only work for girls?

  12. Comment by The FORMER 560 Pound, Cyclist | 01.5.2012 | 9:31 am

    Oh, I thought when you got a flat, you purchased a new wheel, no?


  13. Comment by Lonster | 01.5.2012 | 9:42 am

    I always raise my hand and wait for the team follow vehicle. The bike mechanic rushes out, changes the wheel, and pushes you on the way. Oh wait – that is just a dream.

  14. Comment by rmullen | 01.5.2012 | 10:02 am

    I am starting to understand why you revere that mechanic of yours so highly. No doubt he’s an incredible mechanic, but I am guessing you scored pretty low on the “mechanically inclined” part of those aptitude tests we all took in grade school.

  15. Comment by Jacob | 01.5.2012 | 10:07 am

    My tires normally explode when they go flat. They go from fully inflated to making the sound of a .22 rifle discharging in a second and then I have 1-2 inch slit in the actual tire and a giant hole in the tube.

    I even had one do this when it wasn’t being ridden and was only in the back of the truck riding back home.

  16. Comment by davidh-marin, ca | 01.5.2012 | 10:08 am

    Touche @Christina!!! Apparently you didn’t see Fatty’s ‘rack’ in his endless pool post.


  17. Comment by wade | 01.5.2012 | 10:28 am

    Don’t forget the part about forgetting to run your finger around the tire to find the offending piece of radial tire wire or glass that caused the flat (road). This crucial forgetting allows you to practice, practice, practice, since you’ll be doing it all over again in a minute. And blowing your only CO2 cartridge. Now THAT’S a way to get someone else to do it for you and get ridiculed in the process!

    Please elaborate in part II on the use of duct-tape as temporary rim-strips.

  18. Comment by kolwink | 01.5.2012 | 11:20 am

    Unrelated: Fatty, I had a job interview yesterday. One of the panelists looked a lot like you. It was disconcerting, because I felt like I knew him, and kept grinning at him in a friendly although perhaps disconcerting fashion. Got the job though.

  19. Comment by Robin | 01.5.2012 | 11:27 am

    I find it’s oh so much easier to just arrange to have my flats in front of the LBS…

  20. Comment by centurion | 01.5.2012 | 11:45 am

    The front wheel just falls off huh? Maybe if your bike is really old. Or you did some delicate work with a very indelicate grinder. F’n lawyers.

  21. Comment by Jeff Bike | 01.5.2012 | 12:00 pm

    I’m such a sucker. I never understood why I have to fix so many of my friends tires. They never have tools or patches or tubes! Now I know why!
    @Christina yes I fall for the Rack trick every time.

  22. Comment by Tucson Dave | 01.5.2012 | 12:49 pm

    You forgot the part where you turn your bike upside down and permanently scratch/destroy your bar tape, computer & seat. I still can’t find clean,easy way to change a rear tube.
    BTW Fatty, I bought your book from Kindle. Great reading so far.
    Dave T.

  23. Comment by Rumpled/Jim | 01.5.2012 | 1:02 pm

    Someone’s gonna borrow this phrase, and it just might be me.
    “a whole extra layer of suck frosting to the cake of suck”

  24. Comment by Elisabethvi | 01.5.2012 | 1:52 pm

    While I am perfectly capable of changing a flat, I’ve been known to play the helpless female card. It works every time. I’ve even had a neighbor stop by and offer to help while I was changing a flat in my garage. Life is rough as a female! (big grin!)

  25. Comment by MattC | 01.5.2012 | 2:02 pm

    And this is where even I in my lowly state of fitness would finally pass you Fatty. Tubeless MTB tirs (w/ sealant of course) are IMO the greatest invention for the bike since the handlebars. Flats? Not a ONE in three sets of tires (that’s over 5 years now). Pulled MANY a thorn out in that time, just seals right up. Lose the tubes I’m telling ya! My “flat tube suck cake” tastes JUST LIKE white choc. macadamias!

  26. Comment by gregc | 01.5.2012 | 2:56 pm

    “whole extra layer of suck frosting to the cake of suck that you’re already going to have to eat”. Really? I will have to think about this one for a while.

    Had two flats on my ride last night- must be karma with your writing this post. The only thing worse than a flat tire at night is a flat tire in the rain.

  27. Comment by Wash | 01.5.2012 | 3:50 pm

    you forgot to open the brake :)

  28. Comment by Nic Grillo | 01.5.2012 | 5:03 pm

    Suck frosting… I think you find that on the same aisle as awesome sauce.

  29. Comment by Dean | 01.5.2012 | 5:05 pm

    One other note to mention: Not all tires are equal with regard to fit. Some tires fit the rim tighter than others and are therefore harder to get on and off…

  30. Comment by barefoot | 01.5.2012 | 6:02 pm

    If you want a supersized serving of suck-cake with extra frosting, try dealing with a rear flat on a bike with hub gears. And a rear drum brake. And a chain case. And fenders.
    Also, try doing it while keeping a small child sufficiently entertained so as to not run out on the road, because this cake of suck is the wheel of a berkfee… bakefro… beerke… cargo bike. And cargo bikes don’t sit upside down well, even if the box isn’t half filled up with groceries.

    That’s when you resolve to fit 10kg/wheel of slime tubes. Thornproof. Self-healing. As close to rolling on solid rubber as you can get in these modern times. Seriously, it’s not like you’re going to notice another few kilos of rotating mass on a bike that weighs as much as a small car anyway.

    Once you have your slime tubes fitted, it’s quite magical. You really do get the magical “step 0″ just-kidding flats. You just have to swear at it a bit then pump it up, and you’re good to go.

  31. Comment by Leedo | 01.5.2012 | 6:16 pm

    This is what happens when you try to do a tire removal before stopping-

    Full ride report:

    This was a blow-out from not seating the bead correctly on the rim. It blew out while I was doing 30+ down a big hill. Luckily I was able to stop without losing it.

    See the green slime? Self healing doesn’t help when you have a side-blowout.

  32. Comment by Gabi | 01.5.2012 | 8:01 pm

    Easiest way to fix a flat: be female and ride with a male.

  33. Comment by davidh-marinca | 01.5.2012 | 8:15 pm

    @GreggC Yes I think Fatty has sent out a Cosmic Thunderbolt to all of us riding here in California in the 60 degree weather with blue skies and full sun(ahhhh!!!) Now if he writes a post on broken frames I’m going to stop reading. I can’t afford a broken frame.

    My ride this afternoon was a pinch flat on the trail I normally ride, and whose rocky sections are not that rocky, and whose drops are not that severe. Needless to say my ‘moobs’ did not garner me any assistance, and like ‘Dean’ says above my tire fits my rim really well.(arghhh!)

    @MattC Are we going to see that recipe for Macademia Nut Cookies before Livestrong Davis? I’m willing to bake up a few dozen(s) to complement the PIE!

  34. Comment by davidh-marinca | 01.5.2012 | 8:24 pm

    I encourage Fatty’s to check out LeeDo’s link above.

    While the slimy wheel is icky enough, the real treat is the picture of sunny blue skies in Washington, in May for ‘Bike to Work Day’. That and the GREAT picture of kids enjoying a velodrome! How cool to have a Velodrome in your neighborhood.

  35. Comment by Ken G | 01.5.2012 | 11:12 pm

    Ok, but what if… You’re just riding along, the bead unseats, tube is exposed in a pretzely sort of way, still holding air mind you. Do you stuff it back in, trusting it’ll still hold air? OR stick a knife in it just to teach it a lesson?

  36. Comment by Ken G | 01.5.2012 | 11:13 pm

    Let’s try that pic again…IMG_0530.jpg

  37. Comment by davidh-marin, ca | 01.6.2012 | 12:09 am

    Uh Oh, Fatty, you’ve inspired others to become awesome!! Well Done.


    Check out Gabi’s link and learn about her ride across the US in 2012. We need to hook her up with Jalene and Precious so we can follow along….and send money.

    Way to go Gabi!!!! You’re a true Fatty! (HAH)

  38. Comment by The Angel Sister Grew Her Own Set Of Horns | 01.6.2012 | 2:28 am

    Somewhere between Steps 0.5 and 1 should be planning how to get the best revenge on those people who routinely manage to get you do it for them. (Keep in mind this is only for the very worst of repeat offenders) My younger brother was the perfect example of just such a person, both with bikes and with everything else. My parents bought him for his 13th or 14th birthday to ride to and from school. Instead, he kept trying to show off for his friends (who were seriously skilled with a mountain bike or BMX bike for a bunch of lazy teens). When one of these stunts resulted in not one but two flats at once, he weaseled (read: blackmailed) his way into not only fixing it for him but taking a look for the source of the several strange sounds coming from the bike, supposedly for him to fix it himself. I said I would take a look if he would bring me a mocha from his daily Starbucks stop on the way home and if he also agreed to do any cleanup afterwards, “although I doubt there will be any.” (I already knew the sounds were because of his not knowing how to clean, maintain or repair said bike) I said I would do it “only because I enjoy working on bikes that much, had a bad day and need to unwind.” I already had a plan forming.

    Step 1: Maximize the inconvenience of the person who should be doing the job themselves (once again: for repeat offenders only!) I do so by setting up in the middle of the kitchen floor just as my brother is due through the door with his usual ravenous hunger for mid-afternoon snacks. Accompanying him and his hunger are his equally hungry friends on that particular day. I proceeded to lean the bike against the fridge and pantry doors for stability and he of course proceeds to complain about his lack of snack access. Did I mention he “forgot” my drink? The way his friends began to snicker I can tell it was no accident.

    Step 2: Add embarrassment to the mix. Make it clear his friends see he has no idea what he’s doing when it comes to bikes. In my case, he saved me the trouble when I started to disengage his brakes before even touching the wheel by asking what the hell I am doing messing with the brakes if the problem is a flat. His friends try not to snicker as they realize he’s clueless. When he began to complain again, I smiled sweetly and “obliged” by moving the bike to the kitchen counter.

    Step 3: Add MORE embarrassment to the mix. When I dumped my brothers bike on the counter, without me in the way to block their view of the bike they could then see that it was not my bike like they assumed, but in fact is his bike. How they confused my light, sleek, clean, pretty road bike (of the same color) with his dirty, gunky, beat up, heavy mountain bike is beyond me but it was clear after that when one helpfully chimed in “You’re making your sister do your tubes for you? Lame!” There was no suppressing their laughter at that point, and they proceed to chew into him for it. I repeat my sweet, loving, sisterly smile look and add in “well, I just love working on bikes so much that he lets me work on his when I’ve had a bad day and mine is already done. Besides, he’s my baby brother and I just love the little guy so much I would do it for him anyway!” For good measure I add in a one armed hug around his waist even though the “little guy” is only two years younger but more than a foot taller than me. I had to struggle at it but manage to look as sincerely loving as a teenager is able to and proceed to finish what I offered to do, plus de-grease, de-gunk, clean, do all maintenance he has not done because he has no clue how, adjust a few things for him to fit him better, and an overall tuneup to everything else and finally re-grease it at the very end.

    Step 4: Enjoy payback sundae drowning in awesome sauce: Did I “forget” to warn him that re-greasing is messy work and does not come out of anything easily and especially not the porous, white counter top in the kitchen? Oops! While his friends played video games without him, I sat back next to a shiny, gleaming, smooth riding bike and watched him scrub the porous, white tile counter while I sipped away the remaining half of his giant Frappicino. After all, a deal is a deal and he knew that if he backed out in front of his friends he would never hear the end of it from them. That was the last time he ever tried to force me into doing his work for him.

  39. Comment by Brad | 01.11.2012 | 4:19 pm

    QOTD: “A flat in the back adds a whole extra layer of suck frosting to the cake of suck that you’re already going to have to eat.”


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