I had a lucky escape from a long walk on Saturday: 50km from home or 20km via a train, my freehub suddenly wouldn't engage - the pedals span as freely forwards as backwards.

I tried dropping the back end onto the ground to try to shake things loose, spinning the pedals hard both ways, etc. and had just given up and started scooting towards the station when the hub started clicking, so I checked and it worked - most of the way home. If I kept the pressure on it stayed engaged but struggled to re-engage; luckily when it gave up again I'd reached rolling terrain so I could walk up and roll quickly down.

When I opened the freehub body, it had more mud than grease in it, and the balls look corroded though I won't be sure until after some more aggressive cleaning. I haven't gone axle-deep in water on that wheel, and don't use a pressure washer but do use a hosepipe. The seals were undamaged, and it's a Deore XT, just over a year old.

Is there anything that can be done at the roadside to keep going with a slipping freehub? I have quite a lot of tools, oil, and grease, and I can take the cassette off for access, but removing the freehub body from the hub takes a 10mm hex key (which I don't carry) and opening it takes a custom tool like a giant screwdriver, plus lots of leverage. Would it have been worth trying to get some oil inside by lifting the seals? Is there a creative workaround? I tried a friend's suggestion of cable-tying the big sprocket to the spokes and treating it as a very fragile variable-gear fixie, but the first gentle pedal stroke snapped all 3 cable ties at the edges of the sprocket.

  • 3
    Would lowering the saddle at the very minimum and being a toddler on his push-bike help?
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Apr 12, 2021 at 10:34
  • 1
    @EarlGrey I did try that, in fact that was how I set off before it started working again for a bit. With my large saddlebag fitted I could only lower it about 30mm which wasn't enough. I could maybe have got another 30mm with a lot of fiddling, but still pretty straight-legged. The timing was right for that idea: I'm familiar with the concept having taught my daughter (7) to ride last week by taking her cranks off for a few days and dropping the saddle - when I put it all back together, she just needed supporting for the first start and she was off.
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 12, 2021 at 10:52
  • 1
    I've just checked strava - even with the saddle high enough to tiptoe, I could get 10-12km/h on the flat (alongside a lake) but at 2% incline walking was easier and no slower
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 12, 2021 at 10:57
  • 1
    @MaplePanda so was I, especially as Deore XT is supposed to be MTB kit which should be reasonably mud-proof. I'd recently serviced the hub bearings and the drive side ones weren't muddy (though far from clean, a bit dirtier than the non-drive side). The seals didn't look dislodged and I'm a bit puzzled as to how it got in there.
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 12, 2021 at 15:16
  • 1
    Roadside a shifter cable might be strong enough to tie the spokes to the cassette, then use cable tie to single speed the bike. Desperate sometimes require desperate measures. (not an answer as I have no idea if it would work)
    – mattnz
    Commented Apr 12, 2021 at 20:56

7 Answers 7


Assuming you have a fairly standard on-bike set of tools, I would have tried the cable ties first as well.

Sometimes you can get the pawls to engage again by dropping the bike, and the shock drops one into place. If not, try rotating the wheel 90 degrees because some designs only have two pawls.

If the freehub engages, then carefully ride while maintaining a smooth circular pedal stroke. Do not coast at all and do not backpedal. Pulling up at a stop sign or red light can cause the pedal pressure to drop and the hub may disengage.

If the pawl will not engage, you have other options but they're getting invasive. The goal is to bind up the cassette against the wheel's hub in such a way it turns at the same time.

  1. Do you have any cord or rope? I have a short 2 metre length of braided cord, useful for securing loads to my bike or my backpack. Could wind this between the spokes and the biggest cog and tighten down, to wedge the hub against the cassette. Would have to be tightly packed in to provide enough resistance to your pedal power, and may need cutting or burning out once home.
  2. I also carry a couple of velcro cable ties around 200mm long and 15mm wide. They make great ziptie replacements and are reusable. You might have been able to secure the cassette to the drive-side spokes with some of them.
  3. Last resort - sacrifice a spoke or two to get some stout wire. Ideally you'd have spare spokes taped to your chainstay, but stealing a live spoke from your wheel might provide enough wire to secure the cassette to the remaining spokes.
    You could also use your front derailleur inner cable, and use the limit screws to fix the mech in the preferred location. Not ideal if you have 1x or hills to climb.
    You might use some clothing like a sock to wedge between your cassette and freehub, though this will probably ruin the item for future use.

Also look around for some road debris - there may be something around that can be used. Rurally there may be fencing wire offcuts or similar, or perhaps your bike lock has some way of binding up the cassette and hub. A cable lock could be a substitute for string. If you're near any shops/garages/homes then consider knocking on the door and asking for some assistance.

A split ring off your keys might seem useful but they tend to be weak.

If you're riding with someone else you can get a tow. This uses a spare inner tube as a tow strap, where the front rider acts as a tractor and ties the inner tube to their seat post. The towed (you) holds the towrope in one hand which allows a quick release should anything go wrong. Never tie two bikes together for towing You might have to cut the tube so its one long pipe to get the length required. Or use a belt, rain jacket, or other surplus clothing. Towing means gentle riding with no surging or out of the saddle efforts. Towing up a hill is really hard work so you will owe your tractor a meal.

Finally there are options like scootering along on the bike, catching a bus/train if there's a convenient route, calling a taxi/uber/someone with a car, hitching, walking, or making the Phonecall-of-Shame to your nearest and dearest for a lift.

If you are walking, consider that 5~6 km/h on the flat would be fair time, and walking in road cleats will slow you down. Scootering should be 8-10 km/h. If you're 50 km from home, that's going to be 10 hours walking minimum, plus rest stops and food would make it more likely 15 hours.

My longest walk was a flat tubular tyre, and I walked 15 km, the equivalent of 30 minutes ride. It took over 3 hours though that did include a pie-stop. There was no repairing that failure on the roadside, and it was pitch black night by the time I got home.

  • 2
    That overlaps much of my thinking and what I heard on the day, and I'll go through in more detail later. The call of shame would have been for a taxi to the station, and it was only about 3 hours walk, so when the dropping/banging didn't help that was the plan - I know I can walk 30km and use recessed SPDs so cleats aren't an issue. You're spot on about stopping. When forced to (car driver being stupid around horses) I lost it again, and in fact that was how it finally went after a couple of hours, but at stops for junctions I kept the pressure on and it stayed engaged
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 5:43
  • 1
    @MaplePanda I ride with a lot of 1x MTBers who don't use droppers, but 1x road is also a thing
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 7:54
  • 1
    This is indeed a 2-pawl design. I suspect what freed it up the first time was rolling over some poor tarmac, and (after the car/horses stop) dropped the back end in roughly 45° steps until it got going. Even that didn't work later; it sounded like a freehub but didn't catch. I should have had my feeble mini lock but didn't (I'm not used to stepping away from the bike on a long ride these days); that might have jammed in. I considered a spoke as I have spares, but wasn't sure about being able to bend it. That was probably my best option.
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 7:59
  • 1
    Your speed estimates roughly match my Strava, for sitting on the bike and scooting; if anything I was a bit quicker for a short go on the flat. I've never got on with the right-foot-on-left-pedal approach. We did try a tow briefly, but didn't get a tube out. That would have been a good idea. The rider who tried to tow me is very strong, but light and was riding fixed.
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 8:05
  • 1
    I thought I didn't have cord, but now realise I do - my first aid (etc) kit is in a drawstring bag. I suspect that the edges of the cog would have made short work of it, though I could have looped it round many times to spread the load. That would have been better than trying to bend a spoke inside the wheel. Maybe when I top up my cable ties I'll put some steel wire in as well. That would have come in handy for repairing a mudguard clip once before
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 8:07

Use strong cable ties or wire/cable to tie the biggest sprocket to the rear wheel spokes. This will eliminate the freewheel, so be very careful when slowing down or going downhill.

If cable ties are too weak, shifting or brake cables should work nicely. If you don’t have any spares you could even scavenge the front derailleur shift cable.

However, I think this problem is best treated with preventive maintenance and should announce itself quite early. If the sound of your freewheel changes or you notice it engaging slowly or failing to engage occasionally you should open it and lube it.

  • In hindsight I had a few 10s of km warning, at which point I was 100km from home (it was a 200km ride). I thought at the time a couple of up-shifts coming out of descents had been slow, but now think it was the freehub not biting. A test ride the previous day had been fine, though very short. I wondered about using shifter cables, because I do carry a spare; they tend to give me 50-100 km of warning ("that's funny, I adjusted it recently.") before they fail. I wasn't sure how I'd fasten it as they don't exactly knot well.
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 12, 2021 at 12:21
  • I don't think plastic cable ties are likely to do the trick. I used a 6.3mm and two 4.8mm ties, all I could line up at once with the spokes. Admittedly the 6.3mm was a releasable one with a weak point, but they snapped on the first gentle pedal stroke. Metal cable ties or hose clips might work I suppose
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 12, 2021 at 12:23
  • I had friend use this exact method with plastic cable ties (maybe a dozen), and it held up pretty well for a while. BUT you need to be careful doing this because I'm not sure spokes are designed for the kinds of lateral loads the cable ties put on them
    – Bamboo
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 2:42
  • @Phill I only had 3 decent sized ones. I know what you mean about the spokes, but it would have to be for gentle riding for many reasons, one time walking up the hills would be sensible
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 19:42

The answer to this question depends on the hub design.

Other than Shimano and close copies of the Shimano design, many rear hubs use some variation of a drive ring based design. These are characterized by an oversize axle, a main bearing that's somewhere under the drive side hub flange as opposed to the end of the freehub body, and a freehub with pawls that drive the drive ring. Most of the time these hubs make it very easy to get to the pawl area with just allen wrenches. If you have a pawl or spring failure on this kind of hub, removing the broken parts completely and limping it home may be an option. Or, one could conceivably jam something in there to make it an improvised fixed gear. It's seldom done, but many of the more premium makers of hubs in this mold do have replacement drive rings and tools to get them out available to dealers, so you could probably do this in a way where you can just replace the mangled drive ring, freehub body, and pawls/springs later.

There's also a few hub designs where the pawl interface is located similarly to Shimano but is still accessible. The Mavic design that's been on Ksyriums, Crossrides, Aksiums, Cosmos, etc for a few decades now is like this. You could probably make it act like a fixed gear by filling the cavity of the freehub body with sand or dirt, and that would be an easy roadside repair because the endcaps are either slip on or take 2 5mm wrenches depending on the iteration. (There are drive plate based Mavic hubs running around now I understand, and I haven't had my hands on those yet, but I bet you could fill them with sand too.)

The Shimano design probably makes it the hardest to do anything like this, and making the spokes rotate with the big cog like you suggest is probably the best you're going to do.

Notably, there are genres of racing where this problem is solved by carrying a means to convert the bike to fixed gear in case your freehub body fails, typically by way of extreme cold. See for example the various fatbikes with 135 spacing on the fork, which was done in part for tire clearance and also so that you can have a fixed gear hub there and switch it onto the back if needed.

Also note another approach to this problem, and one that's been done a lot on Shimano hubs in particular, is using a more deliberately chosen lubricant for the freehub. Paul Morningstar went the furthest in this direction by offering both the Freehub Buddy and different lubricant blends for Shimano freehubs and guidelines for how to choose them. This is another approach to dealing with extreme cold type freehub issues.

  • Pity I've got Shimano then. I've ordered a spare body but would look into a different design for my next wheel build knowing others are easier to service. In this case it had somehow filled with muck that had got past the seals; scraping that out and regreasing would have helped a lot (I carry a 5ml pot of grease in my long-distance kit). I suspect it had dried out recently as I'd barely ridden the bike for a week and that in dry conditions. The muck had probably been sloppy enough until then but when I opened the hub it was like modelling clay
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 12, 2021 at 19:47

There is a set of solutions that are more meant for prolonged off-road touring/bikepacking tours without any access to the civilization. They require a bit of preparation at home for such classes of failures.

  1. Convert the rear wheel to fixie mode by bolting a cog instead of the braking disc. This is done by flipping the rear wheel in the dropouts, unbolting the braking disc and bolting on a cog on its place instead.

Cog with 6 bolt IS mount

Prerequisites for such a conversion include having a rear hub with the IS 6 bolt interface, and the spare cog on hand.

  1. Have a second rear wheel used as front wheel. This is a quite exotic thing. It requires having a special fork with the same hub OLD as the rear hub uses. Older Surly Pugsley forks were designed to accept a 135 mm QR rear hub. If the freehub fails, the wheels are swapped. A previously front wheel becomes the new rear one (possibly with a single speed cog or even fixed, to reduce complexity):

Pugsley 135 mm offset fork

  • I do actually have a 6-bolt disc brake on that wheel, but vertical dropouts so couldn't tension the chain except by using the rear derailleur as a tensioner, and I'd be wary of trusting that for my only back brake. Interesting though, even if mainly for building an expedition bike
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 7:53
  • 1
    Interesting idea about attaching a single cog to the rotor mount. I have a rear wheel with a disk hub and rim brakes for Reasons, so this would be trivial. Definitely creative!
    – Criggie
    Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 2:47

I can't remember exactly what my problem was, but I once remember getting a big industrial paperclip (was at work when it happened) wrapping it around a spoke and then hooking it around one of the holes in the largest sprocket, which let me limp home, making sure not to change up into the largest few sprockets. From what I remember it was okay when up to speed but accelerating was a bit fraught, and I didn't have any real hills to climb.

Would that have worked in your case? Possibly even a bent spare spoke might have served the same purpose, just needed something strong that wasn't going to bend or snap.

Edit - sorry didn't see you had tried this with cable ties, although I would have expected them to snap, the paperclip was pretty strong once it was in the correct position. I don't remember having to deal with the 'fixieness' of it, so probably was just very careful when decelerating.

  • The same suggestion included something like "now if we could find some fence wire" but despite the new-looking fences there was none lying around. I wonder if spokes would be too long/strong/stiff to bend nicely enough - they'd be quite a risk if they snagged. With quite a lot of flat on this ride, a gentle cruising gear would have been very useful, even if I had to walk up all but the gentlest hills. I reckon having ridden fixed but rarely is probably the ideal preparation - not a new sensation, but instinctively braking with the brakes
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 12, 2021 at 9:52
  • Yeah thinking back I'm wondering how well it actually worked - it could have been something I tried but eventually ended up getting the train, it was about twenty years ago. It works in theory but then so did your cable ties. :)
    – Wilskt
    Commented Apr 12, 2021 at 10:12
  • Maybe just enough to get you to the station - which is what I should have done but I was feeling lucky when I got some propulsion.
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 12, 2021 at 10:53

Take off some spokes

Most bike wheels have more spokes than are strictly necessary, so you can take off a few. Ideally you'd take off them symmetrically, but for a short trip it is not that critical.

Bend the removed spokes around the largest cog. Depending on hub design, you can either tie the other end around the remaining spokes, or leave it inside the flange hole. The latter is not as strong but avoids damaging the remaining spokes.

After you get home, replace the spokes with new ones and adjust to similar tension as other ones, and check that the wheel runs true. There should be no need to adjust the spokes that you haven't touched.

  • 1
    I actually have spares on the frame, so wouldn't need to steal one. If I did need to take one I'd preserve the drive side, perhaps even stealing from the front (I've got 36 spokes on both wheels). Stealing from the drive side requires getting the cassette off, but I've got a mini-tool for that. I like the idea of leaving the end anchored in the hub flange, wrapped round to take the strain off the head. You might be able to do that without taking the cassette off. I did feel like bending a spoke inside the wheel would be very awkward, but maybe I'll try with an old spoke at home.
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 10:25

Dental floss! Keep feeding it in til it gets tighter and tighter and finally binds...

  • 4
    Welcome to Stack Exchange - are you suggesting to carry dental floss in your on-bike toolkit for this kind of event? Also, exactly where are you feeding it? A photo might help, or add some more words with edit to show what you mean.
    – Criggie
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 0:03
  • 2
    The pawls need to spring outwards, and the OP’s problem was that they weren’t doing this. I don’t understand how dental floss fed into the freehub would help the pawls spring out. More explanation about how this fix is supposed to work would really help.
    – Weiwen Ng
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 12:20

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.