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The Ultimate 2019 Guide for Choosing a Bike Multi-Tool

August 15, 2019

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The Ultimate 2019 Guide for Choosing a Bike Multi-Tool

In this complete manual, we’ll walk you what a bike multi-tool is, how it works, which features it offers, and how to find the best model for you and your bike.

Whether you ride daily or only a few times per year, a multiple function tool—or multi-tool, for short—is a must-have for any cyclist.

There are as many multi-tools as bike models, though. And each one features a different combination of materials, functions, sizes, and weights, and at various price points, which makes finding the “best” option a highly personal decision.

Still, there is a handful of essential tips you can keep in mind when shopping for a new multi-tool that can help you gain the most value for your money, which is what we’ll cover in this article.

Specifically, we’ll talk about what multi-tools are, the typical kinds available, features they include, and how to choose the right option for you. Then, as examples of what’s commonly available, we’ll list a handful of top-rated products in each category.

Let’s begin with the basics.

What is a Bike Multi-Tool?

A multi-tool is precisely what it sounds like: a combination of cycling-specific tools inside a compact, easy-to-carry package. Each small device attaches to a hinge that allows it to pivot away from the others and into a position that makes it easier for you to use.

While traditional multi-tools have been around since at least Roman times, the modern bike multi-tool—aptly named the Cool Tool—didn’t exist until 1990. It featured an adjustable wrench, large double-ended socket, double-ended hex driver, 5mm and 6mm wrenches, and a spoke wrench, all of which was housed inside a nylon sheath with a Velcro closure.

Cycling multi-tools have advanced rapidly in the three decades (since that time), however, although you’ll still find a couple of these tools built into modern designs.

Compared to traditional multi-tools like the Leatherman above (left), models like the Crankbrothers M19 (right) feature cycling-specific tools to help get you back on your bike as quickly as possible, wherever you are.

Which Common Features are Found in Cycling Multi-Tools?

Regardless of the brand or design you choose (more soon), you’ll commonly encounter these features in a cycling-specific multi-tool:

Screwdrivers

Most cycling multi-tools will feature a Phillips screwdriver, flat-head tip, or both.

Modern flat-head screwdrivers—those with wedge-shaped tips that fit into notches on the tops of screws—date all the way back to the mid-1700s, making them one of the most common, universal tools in the world.

Flat-head screwdrivers range significantly in size, from very small (such as ones found in an eyeglass repair kit) to very large (those used for automotive or industrial applications).

Despite their ubiquity, you won’t find a lot of flat-head screws on modern bikes, although common locations include the rear derailleur pulley screws and seatpost collar.

Comparatively, Phillips head screwdrivers—those with pointed ‘X’ shapes at their ends—weren’t invented until the 1930s. Their design allows them to self-center inside the screw’s head, further reducing the likelihood of slippage or stripping.

Philips head screws only come in five sizes (#0, the smallest, through #4, the largest), and are typically located on older rear derailleur pulleys, as well as front derailleur cages.

The most common sizes, however, are #1 and #2, one (or both) of which you’ll almost always find in a cycling multi-tool.

Hex Keys

Hex keys are a staple among cycling multi-tools, which are available in a variety of sizes.]

Hex keys—also commonly referred to as Allen wrenches, since William G. Allen invented them in 1910—feature a hexagonal (six-sided) design that fits screws with hexagonal indents in their heads.

On bikes, hex screws are usually made from stainless steel, although other materials are available on higher-end models, like titanium. They’re found in a variety of locations, including water bottle cage mounts, headsets, derailleur pulleys, pedals, seatpost clamps, and disc brake calipers, to name just a few.

The benefits? With six driving points, hex screws are typically easier to use than screwdriver heads, can withstand more torque, and are less prone to slipping and stripping.

On the other hand, hex screws come in specific sizes, which is why bike multi-tools feature at least a few of the most common (4, 5, and 6mm).

Torx Driver

With their star-shaped heads, Torx screws can accommodate higher torque, while simultaneously reducing the likelihood of stripping.

Torx screws were developed in the 1960s and feature a six-sided, star-shaped design that allows for even higher torque than hexes, while further decreasing the likelihood of slippage. As a result, they’re also commonly referred to as “star screws.”

Because Torx screws were traditionally used to secure a bike’s brake calipers to the frame, they also feature a lower profile than hex screws.

Torx drivers come in 20 different sizes ranging between T1 and T100. The most common sizes found on bikes, and consequently in cycling-specific multi-tools, are T10, T25, and T30.

Chain Splitter

A bike chain tool, also frequently referred to as a “splitter” or a “breaker,” features a long, slender metal piece, called a punch, that threads into the tool’s body.

As it’s screwed in, it increases pressure on the chain’s pin, which eventually slides out with enough force. This allows you to replace the link or remove the chain from your bike altogether.

Although they perform the same essential functions, manufacturers feature a wide variety of chain breaker designs in their multi-tools.

Then, as long as you don’t remove the pin too far, you can use the same tool to reinsert the pin back into your chains and return to your ride.

Most cycling-specific multi-tools with chain splitters feature a hinge attached to the punch, with the body threaded to the top.

Some bike multi-tools feature spoke wrenches, which allow you to fine-tune nipple tension on your wheels.]

Spoke Wrench

Here, a part called a “nipple” threads onto the end of each spoke, which then attaches to your bike’s rim and pulls it toward the hub.

Using one of four different sizes of spoke wrenches (#0, #1, #2, #3), you can increase or decrease each nipple’s tension so that it’s balanced between the left and right sides. This ensures that your wheels are “true,” and they don’t wobble up-and-down or side-to-side.

Tire Lever

Some models come with separate tire levers, while others feature one (or more) built directly into the multi-tool.

Tire levers—which insert underneath a tire’s bead and help pry it away from your rim, when you need to change an inner tube—typically don’t come built into multi-tool themselves.

Related: Pedro’s Tire Levers Review

However, you’ll commonly encounter tire levers and multi-tools packaged together, so I feel they’re essential to include here.

Blade

A select few cycling-specific multi-tool models also feature blades, whether straight or serrated (above), which could come in handy in many different scenarios.]

Blades, whether straight or serrated, are another infrequent feature found in cycling multi-tools, but they’re common enough to include here.

After all, there aren’t many places you can use a blade on your bike. However, it could potentially come in handy in thousands of different scenarios, both on and off your bike.

Next, we’ll take a look at some real-world examples of how each of these is arranged inside different multi-tool designs.

What Are the Different Types of Cycling Multi-Tools?

Because there are tons of cycling multi-tool designs available, addressing every one would take the length of a book—not to mention, bore your socks off.

Instead, to help simplify matters, I’ve broken them down into four different categories.

Notes: Unless indicated, I did not perform hands-on testing with any of the models listed here. They’re also listed in no particular order, other than their ranking at the top of Amazon customer reviews at the time of writing, and categories are fluid (there’s lots of overlap between features).

Finally, as an Amazon Associate, TreadBikely earns from qualifying purchases, which help support our mission. Learn more here.

Minimalist Bike Multi-Tools

  • Pros: Lightest and most compact designs, easiest to carry
  • Cons: Minimal tool selection, can be uncomfortable in the hand

Cycling multi-tools in this bike class are often united by the fact they only include the bare essentials you might need in the event of a repair. As a result, they’re usually among the lightest and most compact options available.

However, online customers frequently report their minimalist multi-tools are awkward or uncomfortable to hold onto, so they might not be ideal for much more than emergency use.

Park Tool I-Beam IB-1

Park Tool’s IB-1 multi-tool offers a scant six functions, including 3, 4, 5, 6 and 8mm hex wrenches and a straight blade screwdriver. Consequently, it measures just 2.87″ x 1.2″ x 0.64″ and weighs 91 grams.

Amazon reviewers frequently state that the IB-1 is compact, well made, and useful when it’s needed. The only complaint relates to its weight.

Topeak The Mini 9

At 92g, Topeak’s The Mini multi-tool weighs just a gram more than Park’s IB-1, although the manufacturer specifies that it’s made from a combination of hardened steel tools and an extruded aluminum body.

The Mini also adds a T25 Torx wrench, a #2 Phillips screwdriver, and a 2mm hex, and includes a neoprene bag. All of which is housed in a 2.6” x 1.2” x 0.8” package.

In most instances, Amazon reviewers appreciate its small, lightweight design, high-quality materials, and the fact that it delivers everything in a small space.

Some reviewers didn’t appreciate The Mini 9’s size, though, stating it made the multi-tool difficult to use.

Cycling Multi-Tools with Blades/Knives

  • Pros: Like flat-head screwdrivers, blades are infinitely useful
  • Cons: Increased size and weight, removes space for cycling-specific tools

This category is self-explanatory: bike-specific multi-tools that contain at least one blade, which is typically serrated. In some instances, you’ll encounter more traditional straight blade knives.

Either way, while a blade will increase your multi-tool’s size and weight, there’s no doubt that one can be useful for a million different things and in just as many scenarios, cycling or otherwise.

Topeak Alien III

The Topeak Alien III boasts a whopping 31 self-tightening tools, including a stainless steel serrated knife/saw, bottle opener, #2 Phillips and flat-head screwdrivers, a chain tool, T25 Torx wrench, spoke wrench, and anodized tire levers.

The multi-tool is constructed from chrome vanadium steel, measures 3.1” x 1.8” x 1.8”, and weighs 272 grams.

Most Amazon reviewers seem to appreciate the breadth of tools it offers, along with its well-built construction. The few complaints relate to its high price, and (perhaps obviously) its hefty weight.

Lezyne Stainless 20

The Lezyne Stainless 20 (2.12” x 3.42” x 1.02”) features meaningfully fewer tools than the Alien III, but at 150 grams, it also comes with a much lower weight.

Related: Lezyne Sport Drive HP Review

These include seven Allen keys (2, 2.5, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8mm), three spoke wrenches, Philips and flat head screwdrivers, a T25 Torx bit, a tire lever, bottle opener, and a stainless steel chain breaker with forged aluminum side plates.

Bike Multi-Tool Models with Chain Breakers

  • Pros: Great to have if you ride longer distances
  • Cons: Increases price and weight

If you occasionally ride around the block, a chain breaker might not be necessary. But if you’re on a longer ride and sever a link, this tool can be a lifesaver.

However, like blades, a chain breaker can increase a multi-tool’s weight, as well as its cost. Depending on the model you choose (more soon), a chain breaker could also make your multi-tool cumbersome or otherwise difficult to use.

Vibrelli V19

True to its name, the Vibrelli V19 multi-tool features 19 functions, including seven hex wrenches (2, 2.5, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8), four spoke wrenches (M7, M9, 3.3mm, 3.45mm), two open wrenches (8mm,10mm), #1 and #2 Phillips screwdrivers, a flat-head screwdriver, and a T25 Torx wrench.

And of course a chain breaker, all of which are housed inside non-slip sidebar grips. In addition to the tool, you’ll also find a glueless puncture kit and a carrying case.

In most instances, cyclists like its real-world functionality, the number of tools it offers, and its slim design, while a select few don’t seem to appreciate its awkward usability.

Crankbrothers M19

Made from 6061-T6 precipitation-hardened aluminum alloy, the Crankbrothers M19 measures 5.9” x 3.9” x 1.2” and weighs 165 grams.

In addition to a high tensile steel chain tool, it also comes with hex wrenches (2, 2.5, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8mm), open wrenches (8mm and 10mm), #1 and #2 Phillips and #2 flat-head screwdrivers, four spoke wrenches (#0, 1, 2, 3), and two Torx wrenches (T10, T25).

A favorite among Amazon reviewers (and of mine as well), most appreciate its superb quality and finish, relatively light weight, and the number of tools it offers. Some report that it comes with a higher price than many competitors, along with less-than-stellar usability.

Related: Crankbrothers’ M19 multi-tool review

Cycling Multi-Tools With Unique Designs

  • Pros: Distinct looks and feels that can spice up your rides
  • Cons: May lose some functionality in favor of design

If you’re looking for something a little different, this class of bike multi-tools could be just what you need, which feature just about every imaginable design outside those listed above. These include sticks, cards, triangles, and star shapes, to name just a few.

While their uniqueness might make them more appealing, their specific designs could limit their real-world functionality in some applications.

WOTOW 16-in-1 Mechanic Repair Tool Kit

The WOTOW features a total of 16 tools, including six Allen keys (2, 2.5, 3, 4, 5, and 6mm), slotted and Phillips screwdrivers, a spanner, and a spoke wrench. It also uniquely includes 8/9/10/mm socket hex wrenches and an extension rod, all packed inside a 3.9” x 1.2” x 2” package that weighs a hefty 272 grams.

Everything’s rounded out with an extra 4mm Allen wrench to tighten the multi-tool’s hinges, as well as three nylon tire levers.

Most Amazon reviewers report that the WOTOW 16-in-1 contains the majority of the tools you’ll need, whether you’re on the side of the road or trail, or making minor repairs at home. They also cited its solid construction, durable materials, compactness, and overall value.

On the other hand, relatively few reviewers stated it provides insufficient leverage (one of the most common complaints among bike multi-tool customers in general), along with several who referenced less-than-stellar materials and construction quality.

Pro Bike Tool Mini Ratchet Tool Set

The Pro Mini Ratchet Set features a stainless steel handle with reversible drive, weighs 198 grams, and comes with 10 bits: hexes (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8mm) Torx wrenches(T25, T30), #1 Phillips screwdriver, and #4 flat-head. All of this is housed inside a hard case.

Among more than 180 Amazon customer reviews, most compliments reference its compact design, its complete bit selection, and the additional torque provided by the handle. A couple don’t like its overall functionality, however.

How Can You Choose Your Best Cycling Multi-Tool?

Similar to the types of bike multi-tools, there are four simple aspects you should consider when making a purchase.

#1: Focus on You

When it comes to bicycle multi-tools, there’s no “standard” combination of price, weight, and functionality that’s sure to work for every cyclist.

Instead, choosing the right model is all about maximizing its utility and functionality in your life, while minimizing its burden (whether related to the weight it adds, the amount of money you have to pay, the tools you had to go without, and so forth).

Here’s the bottom line: Choosing a multi-tool is all about your unique combination of needs and preferences. What works for you won’t necessarily work for someone else.

#2: Higher Price/More Features Doesn’t Make the Best Match

It can be tempting to automatically splurge on the most expensive multi-tool model available, and the one with the highest number of features. But, if you won’t regularly utilize all of the features, you might just be flushing money down the drain.

For example, I prefer Crankbrothers’ M10 model over their more feature-laden M19, simply because of the greater reach and overall ease of use it provides. So, at least for my needs, additional features don’t necessarily translate into a better user experience.

Similarly, I’ve never needed a chain breaker (knock on wood) and find that they add unnecessary bulk and get in the way of other features, so I typically prefer multi-tools without them. However, if I bikepacked frequently in the deep wilderness, I’d almost certainly opt to have one.

With these ideas in mind, based on my experience, any cycling multi-tool worth considering should at least have two to four hex wrenches, a T25 Torx, and flat-head and Phillips screwdrivers.

Outside of this, it’s all going to come down to personal preference, since there’s an endless combination of tools available, including chain breakers, spoke wrenches, CO2 inflators, disc pad spreaders, and storage cases. Some even come with bottle openers, rotor straighteners, and valve core removers, as well as spare chainring bolts.

Just keep in mind that with more tools crammed into a limited space, they’re often increasingly shorter, which can negatively impact their ease of use when working on your bike (especially with full finger gloves on).

Related: How to Choose the Right Pair of Bike Gloves

#3: Construction & Finish Materials

Usually—but not always—there’s a direct relationship between a multi-tool’s price and the materials it’s constructed from. Options with plastic bodies tend to come with the lowest prices, with those made from more durable combinations of aluminum, steel, and titanium often fall on the spendier side.

In my experience, paying more for stronger materials can deliver a multi-tool that rides with you for years, and continues providing reliable service when you need. In other words, it’s usually worth spending an extra few dollars for higher quality materials, if you can spare.

Just remember that stronger materials are also heavier, if light weight is an essential factor.

#4: Other Considerations

Speaking of which, carrying cases can further increase your riding load, from both weight and bulk perspectives.

Furthermore, taking a few extra seconds to remove your tool from its case each time you work on your bike might seem minimal, but it can really add up over time. Not to mention it’s one more thing you’ll have to keep track of, and it doesn’t necessarily add much protection.

On the other hand, a case’s extra bulk and weight might be worthwhile if you commonly ride in inclement weather, or otherwise want to provide your multi-tool with added protection.

Some multi-tools also mount directly to your frame, which can free you from having to carry an extra bag. Again, though, unmounting and re-mounting each time you need to use the tool can become cumbersome.

Last, but certainly not least, make sure that you check out TreadBikely and other cycling websites for customer feedback about any multi-tools you’re considering. These firsthand insights can go a long way toward setting realistic expectations before handing over your hard-earned money.

The Final Word About Buying a Bike Multi-Tool

To reiterate, the right multi-tool for you will involve a combination of factors, including the number of features you need based on your specific bike. What’s the smallest you can reasonably expect to work when you’re in a pinch? At what point will it become overkill?

Additional concerns include weight and quality preferences, along with hand comfort, most of which you can’t test beforehand. This is why factoring online customer feedback into your decision, as well as purchasing from reputable retailers, is so valuable.

And remember that your local bike shop can act as a great information resource, as well as give you the ability to put your hands on different models before buying.

Pro tip: Just make sure that you don’t take their time and then buy online just to save a couple of bucks!

>> Keep rolling: Bike Pump Buyer’s Guide

Derek has more than two decades of experience as a cyclist. He currently travels full-time with his family via RV, enjoying the country's best biking destinations. A secular Buddhist, Derek frequently explores the intersection of cycling, mindfulness, and compassion in his writing. #rolloutblissout
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