Can You Ride a Bike With a Broken Spoke?

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Picture this: You’re riding on a country road, miles away from the nearest bike shop, when you hear a crack or notice that your rear wheel feels wobbly. You get off your bike and notice that you have a broken spoke.

Can you ride your bike with a broken spoke?

It’s perfectly safe to continue riding a bike with one or two broken spokes. Some cyclists have even completed weeks of commuting or miles-long rides with a broken spoke. However, you should fix the problem as soon as you can with some rim tape, and get loose spokes looked at as soon as possible. Any more than one or two broken spokes and it’s unsafe.

Bike mechanic fixing a broken spoke

How To Tell If You Have a Broken Spoke

There are a few ways that to check if you have broken bike spokes.

Sight

When you inspect your front or rear wheel, you may notice broken or loose spokes. Regularly inspecting your bike for damage is crucial to staying safe as you cycle. However, as you’re cycling, it’s hard to see what is going on with your wheels.

Sound

Sometimes you can hear something break in your wheel. This is a sign that your spoke has come loose.

Feel

The tell-tale sign that you have a broken spoke is that your ride suddenly becomes wobbly. Spokes are important for distributing the weight of the bike (and the rider) evenly, providing a smooth ride. A broken spoke will affect this distribution. If you notice that you are off balance, that might be a sign to inspect your wheels for a broken spoke.

Why Do Bicycle Spokes Break?

Understanding why bike spokes break or come loose can help you prevent damage on the road.

Wear and Tear

The most common cause of broken spokes is regular wear and tear. Spokes are stronger than they look, but they are still fairly thin bike parts. As you ride, spokes flex to absorb your weight and over time, the bending and friction between spokes and the rim could cause them to break.

Regular maintenance in your garage or nearby bike shops can strengthen your spokes and help you catch any loose ones before they break. You should also clean and maintain your rim often, as grime accumulated on the rim affects the tension of the wheel, which in turn causes spokes to snap.

Rim Damage

If your bike spokes are breaking often, then that could be a sign that something else is wrong with your bike. If your rim is damaged or bent out of shape, then that throws off the balance of the wheel and puts more strain on the individual spokes to maintain the right levels of tension.

Accidents

One of the most common reasons for spokes breaking is hitting something rough on the road. If you go over a deep pothole or gnarly bump, that could knock out one of your spokes.

Cracked Hub Flange

The hub flange is where the spokes connect to the center of your wheel. If it cracks, your spoke could pop loose there rather than at the rim.

Hub flange where a crack can lead to a broken spoke
The hub flange where your spokes attach can sometimes crack and let your spoke pop loose.

What Happens if You Ride with a Broken Spoke?

Broken spokes are not signs that you are going to tip over your handlebars. If you have just one broken spoke, it’s perfectly safe to keep riding. However, that one broken part could damage other parts of your bike if you do not take care of it in time.

Every spoke in the wheel is crucial to maintaining the right tension and balance in your bike. When one spoke breaks, that puts extra pressure on the others and could cause other spokes to break as well. Too many broken spokes could tear a hole in your tire or cause greater wheel damage. The imbalance in the spokes could throw the wheel out of alignment, which will also affect the brake pads.

Three or more broken spokes could also lead to injury, depending on their placement. A few broken spokes in the rear wheel are not as big a deal as they just cause your bike to skid more. However, if your front wheel is thrown off balance, then you could tip over the handlebars and hurt yourself.

What to Do If Your Bicycle Spoke Breaks

If you’re out on the road, here’s what to do when a spoke breaks.

One or Two Spokes

If you only have one or two broken spokes, then you can fix them on the go.

The first step is to stop the spoke from damaging other spokes or the wheel. If you have rim tape with you, or a piece of duct tape, you can tie the spoke to its neighbor to prevent it from ripping loose and damaging the wheel. If you cannot tape or tie down the spoke, then it’s better to remove the spoke completely and unscrew it from the spoke nibble. A broken spoke is functionally useless, and this way you will prevent it from damaging other parts of the wheel.

Some cyclists carry replacement spokes with them for emergency repairs. Repairing a spoke is fairly easy if you have some experience, but if you are uncertain then it’s better to wait for a bike repair professional. If you try to fix it yourself, you could make it worse.

Carrying spokes around is unwieldy as they don’t fit easily into a backpack, so take a spare only if you are going on a longer trip or you’ve had trouble in the past. You can tape it to the seat tube as you ride.

You can also get emergency spoke repair kits that use kevlar cords instead of metal spokes and are more portable.

Before continuing on your journey, make sure that your emergency repair is working properly. Turn the wheel a few times to check if it is catching on the brake pads or other parts. When riding with a broken spoke, try to avoid bumpy surfaces.

Three or More Spokes

If a few spokes come loose, then it’s best to get off your bike and get picked up or walk the rest of the way. Three or more broken ones are dangerous and could cause you to fall off. While you can try to repair some of the spokes while out on the road, that many bent spokes could be a sign that there’s something more serious wrong with your bike wheel. It’s best to get it checked out by a professional before you injure yourself.

How to Tell If It’s Safe to Ride

If you’re not sure whether your bike is safe to ride even with a broken spoke, you can tell by testing it out for a short distance. If the ride feels almost the same as it did when the wheel was intact, then you’re probably good to go.

However, pay close attention to the way that your wheel rotates with a broken spoke. If it is bent out of alignment at all, then it is safest to get off your bike and find another way home. A wobbly wheel could rub against your brake pads and affect your ability to stop safely.

Repairing a Broken Spoke

As soon as you can, replace the broken spoke. Even if you did the emergency repair yourself, bike shops can check if there is any damage to the wheel and realign it. Repairing a spoke is affordable and will usually cost $10 to $20 along with labor. Neglecting it could lead to more expensive repairs.

Bike mechanic does a repair so the rider won't have to ride with a broken spoke
Fixing a broken spoke is a relatively low-cost repair.

If you have a specialty bike or there is extensive damage to your wheels, then the spoke repair will likely be more expensive.

If you’re not able to go to the bike shop immediately, you might be able to get away with riding a bike with a broken spoke for a few more days. If the wheel is in alignment and you don’t feel off balance when you ride, you’re safe to ride.

Are Certain Bikes Safer to Ride with a Broken Spoke Than Others?

Depending on your bike, it may be more dangerous to attempt to finish a ride with a broken spoke. It all depends on the number of spokes your wheels have. Bikes that have more spokes are safer because the other spokes are better able to redistribute the tension even if one is broken. However, if your bike has fewer spokes, then there is a higher risk that the others will start breaking as well because the tension is too much.

A mountain bike is generally safer to ride with a missing spoke than a road bike because mountain bike wheels have more spokes. (Learn more about the differences between mountain bikes and road bikes.) However, if you have a 16-spoke bike, then it’s best to return home without trying to ride it.

Riding a bike with loose wheel spokes is hardly ideal, but as long as only one or two spokes are broken and the wheel is not out of alignment, you can safely finish your ride. However, if multiple spokes break or you notice that the wheel is rubbing against the brake pads, get off the bike immediately.

Even if the damage is minimal, take the bike to your local bike shop for a repair as soon as possible to prevent further damage to the wheel or brakes.

Image at top: © Seth Werkheiser | Creative Commons