EDITORIAL | REVIEW
The Coolest Tool
My Cool Tool
I received my Cool Tool as a gift in ‘95 or ‘96. It was the perfect multi-tool for the time and such an important part of my tao of teenaged mountain biking that all these years later my mom still remembers it. These days a multi-tool is just something I use on the trail, but back then if I didn't fix it with my Cool Tool, it meant my bike was heading into the shop.
This beauty did everything in a tidy package, from tightening my always loose square-taper cranks to adjusting my STX-RC cantilever brakes, to straightening my derailleur hanger. Until it didn’t. Enter the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink Topeak Alien - a soggy 'meh' of a tool that sold thousands and thousands of units - and the disc brake era.
I've tried countless multi-tools. Some of them I even really, really, appreciate, like the Wolf Tooth EnCase or my SKS Toolbox Race. Nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever entered my psyche like the Cool Tool but that could be a case of tool-creep. Over the years I've purchased a number of very nice shop tools that I use for working on bikes at home. Cool Tool wouldn't have had a shot against my Knipex pliers either.
There's also the fact that we aging bike nerds can get a bit cynical. Blackburn has new multi-tools, eh? Big whoopie-ding. Multi-tools; there are lots of cheap options that work fine, a few expensive options that offer some unique storage or function advantage, and a sea of whatever. Nothing new.
Then Pete used the word 'sleeper' to describe Blackburn's new program and honestly, that was enough to pique my interest. And yeah, they look pretty damn good. And then I played with them and I agree that the Wayside, with its detachable full-size hex keys, is a grinder - to remove the ball-ends - away from being most riders' perfect trailside toolbox.
Putting the Wayside to the side, the tool that caught my eye right away was the new Switch. It's essentially a very nicely made sliding T-handle & L-handle with huge potential to deliver shop-level leverage and feel out of a compact multi-tool. It's not perfect, but the potential is extraordinary. I've been using my version of it around my house and out on the trail, and the experience has been delightful.
The T10 & T25 Disclaimer
I'm not pandering when I say that I think the vast majority of NSMB.com readers don't need to be beaten over the head with this, but I also know that there are exceptions, so here's a general 'don't try this at home.' If you round out a bolt head using the improper tool, and then mess up your component trying to drill it out, and then ravage your frame or fork trying fix the first two screw-ups, then that's on you. I don't want to hear about it.
In my case, the only components on either of my bikes that use a 4mm hex key are my brake levers, which I run fairly loose - so they can move in a crash - and occasionally I need to tighten them up a touch on a ride. For this application, the Torx T25 that I carry is a perfect trailside substitute for a 4mm hex. I'm not saying I use a T25 in my shop as a replacement for a 4mm, I'm not suggesting I torque up stem bolts with one, I'm absolutely not advocating using a T25 for any application other than for tightening or loosening hardware with a Torx T25 interface. I'm just saying, for my setup a T25 replaces my 4mm hex. Likewise, the 2.5mm hex bolt on my RaceFace crank preloader and Chris King hub preloader almost never require adjustment on the trail. But, in a pinch, a Torx T10 does the job, for me and it means I don't need to carry a 2.5mm hex key.
The good news is, if you're looking at this setup and thinking it would be lovely but for the lack of a <<insert tool>>, the Blackburn Switch will interface with any 1/4" bit. If you need to carry a security bit to service your phone trailside, or a tiny screwdriver to tighten your glasses, then chances are you can track those options down in 1/4".
Blackburn & Ball Ends
Ugh, ball ends. Someone at Blackburn obviously loves them. I had a joke about how this tool should come with a bag of 2.5mm, 3mm, and 4mm hex bolts for when riders round out all their hardware but the naked truth swallowed, digested, and defecated out any humour I could scavenge.
People are going to roach* the ever-loving shit out of their bikes using these ball ends on bolts that are torqued up. They're going to strip lock-on grip screws, stem face-plate bolts, dropper post cable clamping bolts, and so on. If it uses a 2.5mm, 3mm, or 4mm hex interface, it's on borrowed time. And unlike the aforementioned Wayside, the naturally higher-leverage Switch only has ball ends as an option for these hex sizes.
Don't agree? Love those ball ends? Never had an issue using them in the past? Great. I've never had an issue using a T10 as a 2.5mm and a T25 as a 4mm. Air high fives for us! Feeling a little more wishy-washy about the ball ends? Remember, whatever your mechanic charges to remove six stripped bolts from your $280 ENVE M6 V2 stem is totally fair.
*roach = bad | Roach = good
Cool Switch Tool
Disclaimers and ranting about ball-ends aside, here's the tool I've been using for the past while. I've tightened Presta valves, a loose spoke, single-speed dropouts, and various other bolts on the trail. At home, just to say I did, I've used the decent leverage to remove a RaceFace crankset (8mm hex) and I've also tried out the chain tool a couple of times. It's a great setup.
I can use the hollow 8mm hex to generate extra lever on my T25 hex key as needed and my Switch is really quick to use as it's always pre-assembled. It's also one of the few tools I'm happy to use without taking my gloves off which I suspect will be a major advantage this winter. I tend to have 99% of my yearly mechanicals in the pouring rain. Half of those are at night.
I tend to have 99% of my yearly mechanicals in the pouring rain. Half of those are at night.
In a micro-version of how my Cool Tool was assembled around an adjustable wrench, all of Blackburn's new tools are built around their chain tool. It's also a spoke key, Presta valve tool, and disc-pad spreader. As both a valve tool and spoke key, it is not only better-than-nothing but actually excellent. Most spoke tools included in multi-tools are all but useless but one could build a wheel with this Blackburn piece and not lose a second compared to a standard Park Tool key. It's a passive addition to many of their tools but it truly shines with my Switch, where a rider is visually encouraged to remove it and use it separately from the rest of the tool.
I think Blackburn could improve the Switch by ditching the ball ends and also scrapping the T30 Torx. In place of the T30 and flat-head screwdriver, Blackburn could eliminate a whole bit to look after. I think my perfect version would include the T10/T25 Torx L-handle key and a 3mm/4mm Hex L-handle key attached via plastic clips with the rest of the tool as I'm running it. I'm certainly more than happy as is, though.
More than those potential improvements, I think Blackburn has the roots for an ultimate trailside tool in 2020 comparable to Cool Tool twenty-five years ago. Everything I need, nothing I don't, always ready to go with no faffing about. Probably don't want to throw it in your stash bibs, but in a hip pack, frame bag, or backpack, I'm golden.
Ditch the Cordura bit holder (everything here stays on securely) and the superfluous bits and it's probably realistic to call the Switch a 25 USD tool. Even at 30 USD, it presents a great value to me. It doesn't have the stash-ability of One Up's EDC, Trek's BITS, or Wolf Tooth's EnCase but it's way closer to the price of a basic multi-tool compared to any of those setups.
In use, my six-year-old appreciates the extra leverage even more than I do and that's an extra feature for anyone trying to trailside-tech their bike without a lot of hand strength. The non-ball-bits interface very nicely with bolts and the whole tool clicks together with a resounding quality.
Want to make one like mine? These T10/T25 SRAvidM Torx keys are easy to come by and it's just a plastic cable clean-up clip holding them together. Those bits are easy enough to come by so I'm going to say you can pick this package up for 30 USD at your preferred local shop. Since the Switch uses a 1/4" bit interface the customizing options are endless.
If you have a cooler, more relevant, out-there toolset I'd like to see it!