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Removing a rear wheel

Afraid to remove your rear wheel to fit the bike in a trunk or fix a flat? Think you’ll mess up the chain or shifting? Relax. Anyone can remove and install a rear wheel and it won’t affect shifting or the chain. Here’s how:


Shift onto the small cog and small ring
1. Shift onto the small cogThis creates slack in the chain, which makes wheel removal much easier. If you’re riding, shift as you slow to a stop so that the chain is on the smallest rear cog and the smallest chainring in front. If you’re not riding, shift the levers (one at a time), lift the bike by the seat and pedal by hand to shift the chain.

Note: Some bicycles may have a nifty feature called a chain rest, a small peg a few inches up the seatstay or a peg or platform near the bottom cog. You can place the chain on this so that there is some tension in it even when the wheel is removed. This keeps the chain from dragging in the dirt when you rest your bike on its left side as you fix a flat. Just be sure to carefully place the chain on the cog again when you replace the chain.

If you forget this step, it’s possible to bend or break the chain rest if you try to ride your bicycle while the chain is still on it.

Like the idea of a chain rest but don’t have one on your bike? Check out Columbine’s Quikchainger.

Open the brake
2. Open the brake On most bikes when you try to remove the wheel, the tire bumps into the brake pads.To prevent this, open sidepull brakes (road bikes) by fully rotating the little lever on the brake upwards (photo a). For linear-pulls (common on mountain bikes and also called V-brakes or direct-pull brakes), lift the end of the noodle out of its holder (photo b).

Some sidepulls are opened by pressing a button on the lever. Look for this if there’s no lever on the brake. Open cantilever brakes (these feature a cable that runs over the top of the tire) by lifting the cable end on one side out of its holder. If you have disc brakes, you can skip this step!

Remove the wheel
3. Remove the wheelLastly: with one finger placed on a non-greasy part of the rear derailleur (avoid the chain and the pulleys), pull back on it to get it, and the chain, out of the way.

This will keep the wheel from hanging up on anything and getting stuck when you open the quick release and remove the wheel. This is the secret to easy wheel removal. Good job!

Note: To clearly show the desired derailleur position in the photo to the right, I locked it in place and didn’t show my hand. You must pull it back by hand when removing wheels because it won’t stay in place on its own.

Click to see another photo that shows how I hold this type of derailleur to pull it back (without getting my fingers greasy) to make wheel removal easy (the photo will open in a new browser window).

Install the wheel
This process is essentially removing the wheel in reverse! Be sure to rest the chain on the right cog on the cassette (photo: Step 3). It has to go on the cog that it was on when you took the wheel off. This should be the smallest cog, but sometimes you might forget to shift down there first before you remove the wheel — and if that’s the case, you’ll want to shift the shift lever several times BEFORE trying to put the wheel back on to make sure the derailleur is in the right place.

Then, assuming you're right handed, you can usually stand next to the bike so that you’re on the left side at the back of the bike. Hold the bike off the ground by the seat, while you hold the rear wheel with your right hand. Move slightly so you can look down at the rear wheel and frame. You should be able to sort of manipulate the wheel so that the small cog goes into the loop in the chain (between the upper and lower runs). Wiggle the wheel so that it fits into the dropouts on the frame. You might have to reach down and tap the quick release sideways to free one end, which may have gotten stuck, or to make some clearance. Or, the quick release might have closed and you’ll need to open it.

Also, be sure the brake quick release is open (photo: Step 2), because the wheel won’t fit easily, if at all, if it’s not. With a little practice, you should be able to get the wheel in without ever touching the chain.

For bolt-on wheels (held on with nuts; no quick release). If you’re dealing with axle nuts instead of a quick release, you need to manipulate the washers so that they’re outside the dropouts, not inside. It’s also important when tightening the wheel to only snug the right nut, then snug the left. Then go back and add a little more tension on the right nut, then the left (or the left and then the right), etc. until the wheel is tight. That’s the safe way to tighten a wheel with axle nuts because it prevent changing the bearing adjustment, which can happen if you just tighten one nut all the way without equally snugging the other.

FINAL STEP: Make sure the wheel is centered in the frame and fastened tightly. The final and most important step is to make certain that the wheel is securely engaged in the frame (not just partially inserted because it can come loose when riding causing a crash), and that the wheel is centered in the frame both at the brake (top) and at the chainstays (bottom). The brake may drag if the wheel is out up top and the tire could rub if it’s misaligned at the bottom. So double-check and get it right.


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