Title image.jpg

Let's Talk About Multi-Tools

Words Pete Roggeman
Photos Pete Roggeman
Date Sep 18, 2020
Reading time
Presented By
Blackburn Logo.jpg

2-Minute Expert is a new feature on NSMB that distills technology and other concepts into short, easily digestible chunks.

Being prepared on a ride is not a you are or you aren't proposition. It is a spectrum, and we all fall somewhere along it on every ride. After the bike itself, and a helmet, a multi-tool is the next item you need. Predictably, there are lots of brands that make them, and many options - from svelte to bulky - to choose from. The basic purpose of the multi-tool has not changed in decades: it must be small enough to carry along with you on a ride and light enough that you don't mind doing so, but still capable of making trailside adjustments or repairs - meaning that a multi-tool can be too small if it doesn't provide enough leverage to make one of its tools work for you or, even worse, if the tool you need isn't there when you need it.

Thinking back on my first ever multi-tool is nice in a nostalgic way, but I don't miss that thing one bit. It was a resin-sided unit with a double-sided layout that contained the usual suspects: Allen keys in sizes from 2 - 6mm, and that was about it (it may have included flat and Phillips screwdriver heads). It was cheap and it worked, but I was new to the sport, so I didn't yet know how many things I wasn't carrying. A few of those lessons were learned the hard way but sometimes I was lucky enough to be riding with a buddy who had me covered. It also didn't feel nice in the hand and its flexible frame meant it twisted when I had to apply torque to a larger bolt.

Multi-tools have improved a lot since then, and they've also evolved to reflect the needs of modern mountain bikers. Chain breakers and spoke wrenches used to be separate items, and are now often integrated into a multi-tool's design, and the advent of quick links further complicates that formula. Disc brakes necessitated T-25 bits to tighten a loose rotor screw, and tubeless tires mean valve core tighteners (or a small set of pliers) are a handy thing to have on a ride.

So then, how to decide what multi-tool you need? I spent a little time chatting with Dan Powell and Mark Matson - two of the three-person team responsible for Blackburn Design - to talk about some of the thought that goes into their multi-tool designs.

Jim Blackburn founded the brand in 1975, and its roots lie in touring - an ancient precursor to bike packing, from long before Instagram came along. Blackburn always had a reputation for value and quality - two attributes they still hang their hat on - but in recent years a focus on careful design has carried that reputation forward along with a distinct aesthetic that is both attractive and utilitarian.

Dan and Mark are intent on ensuring their tools cover a rider's needs, but they also are very careful to design their tools based on the way a rider uses them. For example, the 2, 2.5, and 4mm Allen keys on the Tradesman multi-tool are L-shaped, because those are sizes commonly used to adjust things like brake lever throw (for low and mid range brakes without tool-free adjust), and the bent shape makes it a lot easier to get the tool onto the bolt from an awkward angle, like you often find with the 4mm bolts used for saddle rails on 2-bolt posts.

Mark mentioned that he used to hate multi-tools so he carried separate Allen keys because he felt they worked better (in the last year I've heard from several people who feel the same way). When he had his chance to design a multi-tool, he drew on that preference and the Wayside multi-tool was born, complete with 2, 2.5, 3, 4, and 5mm L-shaped Allen keys that detach from the tool completely and have ball ends giving them even better for adjustments in awkward spaces. If you require more leverage for the 5, it fits into the hollowed out end of the included 8mm Allen key. Small, clever details abound in these tools.

Both the Tradesman and the Wayside come with chain breakers that include disc pad spreader tools, spoke wrenches, and valve core tools. That's a lot of extra utility without making them too bulky or heavy. Like the Wayside, the Tradesman will break chains of any type up to 12 speeds, but it also comes with a Quick Link tool (simply detach and use the 4mm to push links together or apart) and a spot to stick your spare Quick Links. The Wayside doesn't have the Quick Link tool, however it does come with a serrated blade - again, something you may not realize you need until you start to carry it and then it feels essential.

Maybe you prefer to carry something without as many tools all-in-one, but want more leverage and the ability to use in a L or T configuration. In that case, have a look at the Switch, which could be pressed into use at home or on the road as well as when riding. It also comes with a secret feature that I won't reveal*.

*hint: It's a Hit with riders who want to Blaze through repairs, although there's always a risk of having someone Bogart your Switch.

Different configurations for different needs and preferences. No matter what multi-tool you choose to carry, make sure to have a good think about what you need and consider things like design, weight, and cost.

You can find the Blackburn Wayside for $35 online and the Tradesman feels like a steal at $30.

Check out the rest of Blackburn Designs' products on Competitive Cyclist.


Pete Roggeman

Age: 43

Height: 6'1 // 185 cms

Weight: 195 lbs // 88 kg

Inseam: 32" // 81 cm

Bar width: 780 - 800mm // Reach: 475 - 500mm // Dropper: 170 - 190mm

Flats or clipless: both, but mostly flats right now

Trail(s) of choice: Dreamweaver, Boundary, Lower Digger, Ladies Only, 5th Horseman

Related Stories

Trending on NSMB


+2 Dan Pete Roggeman
Sean Chee  - Sept. 18, 2020, 9:02 a.m.

I still have my Blackburn  multitool from the mid 90's. It no longer stays clicked together but until recently when I picked up an aldi tool kit, was the only tool I've ever used to break chains. 

It's good to know they're still going. I really only ride on my farm so just carry a spare tube, but I might pick one of these up for future travels.


+2 Pete Roggeman Sean Chee
Dan  - Sept. 18, 2020, 12:44 p.m.

I lost one half of that click-together tool years ago but i refuse to bin the remaining half. Useful design on that one. Had that locking mechanism that sorta made up for how short the allens were.


+1 Pete Roggeman
Sean Chee  - Sept. 18, 2020, 9:58 p.m.

Damn. That must be disappointing. I use duct tape to keep them together but live in fear of them breaking up.

It's a dead heat with my original dx clipless pedals as my best cycling purchase of all time. 

Though I rarely ride clipless these days, the dx (are they 636?) still perform flawlessly. I find their platforms much more comfortable than the modern dx spd pedal.

I have two pairs. One is polished silver from use and the other still has a lot of red on it. Both have only needed bearing service once in the last 25 years. I've only gone through about 5 sets of cleats in that time too.


+4 Cr4w Dan Pete Roggeman Andrew Major
khai  - Sept. 18, 2020, 10:13 a.m.

I can't read any multi tool review/press release without thinking fondly about my CoolTool...  Not that it would be much use today, but DAMN - what a thing to have at the time!


+1 Pete Roggeman
mrbrett  - Sept. 18, 2020, 11:24 a.m.

I have and still use a cool tool on my commuter bike. It has a nutted rear wheel. Still works just fine, all these years later.


+1 Pete Roggeman
Allen Lloyd  - Sept. 18, 2020, 10:36 a.m.

If my kids see this they will get so excited about taking those nice Allen's and putting them god knows where.  I have almost resorted to chaining all my tools to the right place on the wall.


+4 AJ Barlas Pete Roggeman Endur-Bro Andrew Major
Sean Chee  - Sept. 18, 2020, 10:46 a.m.

The trick is to buy a cheap set of tools for them to play with and keep your good ones stashed away. I have done just this since my mother has moved in with me and decided my tools are under utilised. I've caught her using my exxy wera allen keys to unclog the kitchen sink, and my equally expensive ratchet as a hammer.


+2 Sean Chee Timer
Pete Roggeman  - Sept. 18, 2020, 2:02 p.m.



+1 Pete Roggeman
Sean Chee  - Sept. 18, 2020, 10:02 p.m.

I nearly killed her when I caught her using my custom forged kitchen knife to scrape the labels off jars for the jam she made last week. I bought her a set of knives the next day. 😁


Pete Roggeman  - Sept. 19, 2020, 5:27 p.m.

Dude stop telling horror stories in here!


+4 Pete Roggeman bushtrucker Sean Chee Andrew Major
AndrewR  - Sept. 18, 2020, 12:11 p.m.

The biggest weakness of these multi-tools is the 30-35mm length required to tighten the rear/ lower calliper bolt for modern disc brakes (usually 5mm hex or T25). Hence the strength of separate L hex keys (but too bad they didn't include a T25 L key) in this set.  In addition to a lack of reach for each tool one has the large cluster of the multi-tool as a head/ handle that often gets in the way of usable function.

As someone who always has an EDC tool on my bike I have started riding with the basic Pedros folding hex/ torx set so I have a simple way of having the reach needed on some of the modern components on bikes (the Reverb AXS tilt angle T25 for example)


+1 bushtrucker
Pete Roggeman  - Sept. 18, 2020, 2:04 p.m.

Roger that. Although the other day I did use the Tradesman's T25 to tweak the tilt on my Reverb AXS, so that one works.


+1 Pete Roggeman
bushtrucker  - Sept. 18, 2020, 4:15 p.m.

Totally agree with this. Have a Wayside and while a great multi-tool it's missing the removable T25.


Sean Chee  - Sept. 18, 2020, 10:33 p.m.

The only tools i carry are an allen key and torx key. On one bike they're stuck under the seat with velcro. The other they're attached to the seat rails with reusable cable ties. 

The caveat being I ride primarily on my farm and if I have a problem I am usually only a short walk from my house or a workshop. Alternatively I'm able to call someone to come and collect me to bring me back. TBH I rarely have a mechanical issue.


+1 Sean Chee
Andy Eunson  - Sept. 18, 2020, 12:20 p.m.

You know what would nifty. A tool with chain tools and one hex key and a package of bolts to replace all the different sized hex fasteners on your bike. All torx 25 or 4mm or something like that.


+2 Andy Eunson Timer
Pete Roggeman  - Sept. 18, 2020, 2:07 p.m.

It's a nice thought but if you go through all the bolts on your bike (any bike), you'll quickly notice that there is no chance of a one-size-fits-all* solution. For sure there could be fewer bolt sizes, but you'd be giving up aesthetics in some cases, weight in others, possibly durability, too.

*or 2 or even 3 sizes.


+1 Andy Eunson
Sean Chee  - Sept. 18, 2020, 10:23 p.m.

This is actually a really good idea. Next time my bike is in a state of disassembly I will make sure I measure the fasteners.

I just hopped on mcmaster carr and searched by drive size (4mm hex). Their stocked sizes include m5 , m6 and m8 in all sorts of materials, thread pitch, head shapes, and strengths.

Your local industrial fastener supply store is likely to have an even larger range. 

Anything unique is probably able to be made up by a local machine shop for the cost of a few beers. I already have 4-10mm hex broaches for my lathe as I make up my own screws to be fastened with an allen key of different size to the standard key that thread size uses.


+1 Pete Roggeman
Endur-Bro  - Sept. 18, 2020, 3:33 p.m.

Some nice looking bike tools coming out now. 

I’m after that Leyzne chain Plier next. 

Just got a Wera Bike 1 this week.


+1 Velocipedestrian Pete Roggeman Kevin26
mrbrett  - Sept. 18, 2020, 4:16 p.m.

Can someone link me to the bonus feature on the Switch? I have one but wasn't aware of such technology.


Pete Roggeman  - Sept. 19, 2020, 5:29 p.m.

I don't know what link to use but let's just say it's approved by Cheech & Chong.


-1 Tadpoledancer
Kelownakona  - Sept. 20, 2020, 2:24 a.m.

Multi tools for me are a get-you-home thing unless on an epic or multi day ride.

Tilt angle / hard to reach stuff , do it at home with proper tools in the shed. 

Chain breaker and links and whatever you choose to get your tyre back up and running are the key.

If you keep your bike well maintained and regularly do a bolt check , you hard ever need an Allen key on the trail.


Brad Sedola  - Sept. 21, 2020, 4:54 p.m.

The one tool I find missing on every multi-tool, and yes I know it's a function of the stem I use, is a T20. I seem to be crashing a bit more often lately, and it's pretty easy to tweak your stem out of whack. I end up carrying a T20 bit and the smallest adjustable wrench I own. Fiddly as hell, but gets the job done.


Please log in to leave a comment.