Not only will a loose bike chain cause a lot of frustration, but it can also pose a serious threat. For those who ride fast, hard or long, being able to repair a loose chain is a skill that's sure to come in handy. For parents or even casual riders, knowing how to tighten a bike chain is crucial to making sure every ride is as safe as possible.
Luckily, most riders can quickly tighten and repair their chains at home to avoid potentially costly and frequent trips to the shop while ensuring a safer ride for them and their family. So, if your chain is hanging low, don't fret! Follow these step-by-step instructions on how to tighten a bike chain and get back on the road ASAP!
Causes of a Loose Chain
Before we learn how to tighten a bike chain, we need to determine why your chain fell off in the first place. Since mechanics vary from bike to bike, there are a few culprits that might be to blame.
On a fixed-gear bike that you don't use a gear shifter on, it's likely that your loose chain is caused by the nuts holding the rear axle. The wheel can slide forward when the nuts are loose and shorten the distance between your pedals and the wheel, resulting in a loose chain.
If your bike has a gearing system, your loose chain might be because of an unadjusted derailleur. A derailleur is a mechanism that moves the chain out and up allowing it to shift cogs. The two screws that limit how far your derailleur moves from left-to-right need to be in alignment.
The most exposed and fragile part of your bike is the rear derailleur which might become bent inward toward your spokes if struck. Inspect your derailleur from the rear and make sure it's two pulleys line up perfectly underneath each other with no sideways slant.
Some newer bikes come with longer chains that aren't necessary. If your chain is too long, it will slack with your gear-shifts.
Age of the Chain
Chains can “stretch” over time and may need to be replaced every 750 to 1000 miles. As the pins that connect the links wear down, it can make your chain length “grow” and become looser. A stretched chain can eventually wear down your bike's cassette and chainrings, so it's smart to replace if you notice significant damage.
Pushing your gears past their limits can lead to a loose chain. Pedaling at full speed while shifting your front derailleur is often a cause for chain damage. It's always best to read your operator manual to get the most out of your bicycle.
Now that we've learned what may be causing your loose chain, it time to learn how to tighten a bike chain.
How to Tighten a Bike Chain: What You'll Need
You need not have a mechanics license or a garage stocked full of tools to tighten a loose bike chain, but there are some basics (and a few recommended items) to help you get the job done fast and effectively.
To make it easier when reading instructions, the first thing you'll need is a working knowledge of the parts of your bike. Here are a few key definitions to get familiar with:
Learning how to tighten a bike chain won't do any good if you don't have the right tools. After you've familiarized yourself with some parts of your bicycle, here are a few tools you'll need to tighten a loose bike chain:
A bike stand won't always be necessary, but if you're an avid rider or need to repair your bike often, you may want to invest in one. A bike stand will stabilize your bike off the ground at a comfortable working height to make it easier to inspect and repair damages, especially in hard-to-reach areas.
To loosen and tighten bolts on your wheels axis.
The bolt size varies between bikes, so you need to make sure your socket is the right size to fit your bolts.
Socket Wrench Adapter
To help reach through pegs and twist bolts, you'll need a socket wrench adapter.
Lubricant is a finishing touch after tightening a loose bike chain, but it's also important for maintenance and care. If you live near sand or somewhere wet, pay attention to your chain to prevent it from getting rusty or losing its lubricant. Lubrication will protect your bike from wear due to friction and prevents the corrosion of moving parts.
Too much isn't always a good thing, so it's proper to wipe away excess lubricant that can attract harmful particles and dirt. Use wet lube if you mostly ride in wet terrains, as it sticks more strongly to the drivetrain and is less likely to rinse off in the rain. Dirt and grease will stick to it easier, so wipe down excess lube. Dry lube is best for more dry environments and attracts less dirt and grease, but it will rinse off more easily in the rain.
To wipe down excess oils, grease, and wax, you'll need at least one garage rag for cleaning and drying.
Degreaser made for bikes helps clean up gunk from your bike chain.
Dirty Clothes, Smock or Coveralls
Tightening a loose bike chain can be a dirty job, so it's best to wait until you're in a garage or driveway and in clothes you don't care about before attending to it. Walking your bike home or taking a bus may be a hassle, but waiting to have the proper tools and space will be worth it for you and your outfit.
How to Tighten a Bike Chain in 6 Easy Steps
After you've learned the basics and assembled your tools, it's time to put those new skills to the test and tighten your loose bike chain!
If you have a bike stand, use it to prop your bike up. If not, flip your bike over, keeping it steadily balanced on the handlebars and seat.
Loosen the bolts on the wheels by turning them counter-clockwise. It's unnecessary to remove them completely—just enough so that the wheel can be easily dragged back.
Once the wheel is loose, hold its outside center and slide it toward the back of the bike. Pull the wheel back as far as you think it needs to tighten the chain.
Put your finger on the middle of the chainstay and drag it up and down to check the chain tension.
Put the wheel back in place and tighten the nuts with your socket wrench. Tighten one side first and then the other, rotating between sides until they're equally tight. Keep the wheel straight during this process.
After tightening all the locknuts and axles, finish the job by spraying your chain with lubricant. Keeping a clean chain is crucial to its longevity, so clear away mud, dirt, and oils with diluted dishwashing soap and a wire brush. You can also use the degreaser to wash away sticky or thick debris that doesn't wipe away with soap and water.
Hit the Road!
Now that you've followed our easy steps and know how to tighten a bike chain, you can flip your bicycle over and inspect your work. Check to ensure everything is secure and that the tension of your chain feels tight before going for a test spin. Remember that maintenance and knowledge are two of the most important factors in bike safety. Keep an eye on your chain to prevent further damage and always make sure it's well-oiled and clean. A routine inspection before every ride can help you catch issues before they become more serious problems.
If you have a newer bike and the chain frequently falls off despite multiple attempts at fixing it or checking the chain length, it may be best to bring your bike back to where you purchased it to have them evaluate the problem or replace your bike or its parts.
Whether you're an experienced cyclist, newcomer, or just looking out for your children, understanding how to tighten a bike chain is important for anyone who uses a bicycle. Once you've mastered the art of fixing a chain, hit the road with assurance and confidence, and ride with pride!