Never Underestimate the Power of a Good Zip-tie

A peculiar mechanical on a mountain bike trail in a foreign country puts Matt in a precarious position.

On my third day mountain biking near Oaxaca, Mexico at the Ixtepeji Bike Park, I had a window of time for a solo ride. The group I was with was carving out new trails with local trail builders. I had finished up some work and learned of a route I could ride to meet them in another area of the mountain. It would combine a road climb with a screaming singletrack descent to the build area.

We shuttled to the top of this descent the day before and I was confident enough that I could figure out the route myself and enjoy some solo climbing and descending in a new-to-me land.

I chugged along up the smooth clay service road and gained about 1,500ft of elevation before finding the drop-in. After an hour of climbing, I’d likely finish the descent in 20-minutes: Los Raices to Cabeza de Vaca, and voilà, I’d land at the dig site.

I carved around the first corner of Los Raices grabbing speed, remembering the first feature—a kicker with a good lip. Front tire up, the back followed, and I landed smoothly, but in unison with a loud ka-chink!

Usually you know you’ve messed up by mis-landing on a rock or off the trail, but that wasn’t the case. Still it was an odd sound, so I grabbed my brakes to slow down and examine my bike, but only my front brake actually grabbed the rotor and my right lever went directly to my handlebars. When I stopped, I looked down at my rear caliper to see that my retaining pin had come unthreaded and my brake pads had ejected from the caliper like a fighter pilot.

This was bad for two reasons: One, I’d just spent an hour grinding and sweating to get to this trail and it looked like I’d have to get back on the service road and waste all of my descent riding down with only a front brake. Two, the chances were slim that I’d find another set of pads to work with my boutique brakes, meaning that I’d lose another three days of riding and fly home later in the week soaked in defeat.

There was about 30 feet between the kicker and where I stopped the bike. I turned around and walked toward the jump and within one minute I found one pad. Score!

To make things more complicated, the brake pad backings were forest green and they could easily blend in with the little clovers and leaves sandwiching the singletrack. I walked one side, back and forth, and saw nothing. I walked the other side, back and forth, and saw nothing.

I went back to my bike, looked at my brakes again, and the sun in the sky. I walked down the middle of the trail again toward the kicker, scanning side to side, and miraculously the other pad and the V-shaped retaining clip rested next to each other on a layer of arid loam and pine needles.

I clawed them into my palm. Now, how to fix them to the caliper? If my pads had just ejected on the kicker, my retaining pin likely fell out beforehand. Finding a needle in a haystack had never been more analogous.

I pride myself on being prepared and having a few doohickeys in my pack to fix things in a pinch, but I’d swapped packs before this trip and didn’t bring any zip-ties, tape, or extra parts. Just the must-haves: pump, tube, multi-tool.

But I did have a few zip-ties along my downtube for the externally routed cables on my bike. Like a picky mechanic, they were all clipped flush to the zip-tie head and they were short, but it was possible I could undo one and use it to secure my pads.

All the bits of my multi-tool were too blunt to squeeze in the zip-tie. Nothing else in my pack was tiny, stiff, and metallic, but the metal retaining clip for my brake pads looked promising.

I have so much junk and extra tools and lightweight accessories that I usually have in my pack at home, I thought, and of course they never get used, because I rarely have mechanicals, but bless Murphy’s Law when I happen to be in another country without access to any of my normal gear and limited access to anything else.

I pinched the clip between my forefinger and thumb and jimmied the zip-tie wrapped around two cables surrounding my water bottle fixture. After a minute or two, the zip tie popped open! It was flexy and supple still, and thankfully the mini zip-ties were slim enough to pop in the 3mm opening for the brake pad retaining pin.

The pads slid into the caliper and the zip-tie slipped through the eyelet of the pads. Ziiiiippp. I tugged the zip-tie and it felt solid. It wasn’t going to get better than that.

I did a bounce check, stuffed everything back into my pack and re-engaged my rear brake. It felt as good as new.

As I regained my speed, my senses re-engaged with my bike: sight, sound, touch—feeling for anything that might be off. I planned out a re-organization of my on-bike tool kit and thought about all the little things I was going to put in there to make the next mechanical a seamless fix.

And then, as I rounded the next curve, another kicker emerged on the right side of the trail. Should I send it? Why not. I was feeling lucky.