What The ‘thuck’?

posted by: Emma

Blame the variable road conditions, our abuse of bicycles over the past 13,000 kilometres, or just bad luck but we’ve spent a lot of time repairing bicycles in Russia. The latest problem however, is a bit of a show stopper. Descending from our first pass in Russia, I notice a pulsing in my rear brakes and ease off them a little. Within a day, its an almost audible ‘thuck, thuck, thuck’. I’ve barely used my brakes in Russia, with all of our riding before the Altay region being in the lowlands and assume the wheel is a little out of alignment.

A few days later, we pull into a lay-by to attempt to true the wheel with our never used spoke key. Turning spokes either way seems to end up with the same result – the wheel still contacts the brake pads. As its already early afternoon, we give up and cycle onto the next town of Aktash, hoping no lasting damage will be done before we’ve had a chance to absorb some PDFs of bicycle mechanic manuals and the easier to understand Bike Touring Survival Guide from Travelling Two.

Altay mountain landscape

Non-mechanics guide to fixing a ‘thuck’

The next morning, we sit in the shade of a shed outside the back of our hotel as the day slowly warms up around us with the bicycle turned upside down in front of us. Counter clockwise turns tighten. The spokes pull the wheel to one side or the other.

After identifying the sticking point of the brakes, I push the spoke key in quarter turns to alleviate the problem.  At first glance the fix seems easy, methodical and progress is swift. I take the bicycle for a test ride and come back shaking my head. The ‘thuck, thuck, thuck’ is still there when the brakes are squeezed.

I twist the spokes some more. One spoke doesn’t turn smoothly like the rest, and the soft metal of the spoke nipple wears away. According to our new understanding this is the one we need to further tighten. I call for a time out and go for breakfast, but Justin opts to stay outside and try to get the spoke moving.

When I return, Justin has taken the tyre, inner tube and rim tape off the wheel to see if the uncooperative spoke can be turned from inside the rim. The answer to that is ‘nope’.

We’ve carried replacement spokes and a cassette removal tool from London, but never had need to use them. We decide to use pliers to snap the spoke, then following the instructions from our cassette removal tool take the cassette off. A new nipple is slotted into the rim and its only then that I notice the crack running through the spoke hole and something we read earlier now makes sense:

  • “You may sense a rim going bad before you see the problem. Small cracks and microscopic bulges cause wheels to shimmy. Wobbles will be especially noticeable when you apply the brake. Instead of a smooth stop, you’ll feel a thud or a pulsing each time the brake pad passes over the damaged part of the rim.”

The Bike Touring Survival Guide by the Travelling Two

Compounding our immediate issues, we manage to break the thread on the lock ring leaving the rear cassette cogs unable to be sufficiently tightened. We adjust the new spoke as best as we can and loosen the brakes so the wheel doesn’t rub.

Replacing rims

In theory we could replace the rim with anything available locally, but we’re unwilling to risk travelling with weak wheels in sparsely populated Mongolia, plus the last bicycle shop we saw was several weeks riding ago.

Emma cycling towards Chibit

Its only 100 kilometres or so to the Mongolian border, so we decide to order a new wheel to meet us there, rather than wait in Russia where we’ve heard stories of courier packages taking months to arrive. Finding a postal address is always tricky when you’re on the road, but a quick phone call to the Blue Wolf Tourist Office and Ger Camp in Olgii sorts this out. We’re relieved to find the owner is so readily willing to help.

We ring SJS Cycles, the shop we brought our Thorn bicycles through, and find out that shipping to Mongolia is about as expensive as it gets and will take around nine working days. Further delaying this the UK courier company requires a postal code to complete the delivery address. Western Mongolia doesn’t really have a post code system but the staff at SJS manage to figure a way around this after a couple of days. This means we have two weeks to wait. We briefly consider swapping bicycles for horses before thinking ‘What the thuck… we’ve got two weeks off!’

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