I’ve been professionally working on bikes and writing about my journey for over 5 years now. I’ve had my hands on countless bikes, from the most straightforward single-speed types to the complex multi-geared varieties.
Together we get to step through the process of tightening a bike chain. This is a common issue that cyclists encounter, but with a bit of patience, some basic tools, and this step-by-step guide, you’ll soon have your bike chain adjusted like a pro.
Understanding Your Bike Chain
Before we dive into the step-by-step guide, let’s understand why a properly tightened chain is vital. The bike chain is what transfers the power from your pedals to the rear wheel, propelling your bike forward. If the chain is loose, your bike’s performance will suffer, leading to a suboptimal riding experience.
On the other hand, a chain that’s too tight can cause excessive wear and tear on your bike’s components, leading to more significant problems down the line. Achieving the right balance of chain tension is key to a smooth and efficient ride.
MTB Tools I Love and Recommend
I own each of these tools and only recommend things I own and use.
- Bike Hand Bike Repair Stand. Nice mountain bikes don’t have a kick stand so keeping your MTB safe but conveniently stored is essential. I keep my bike on my stand whenever I’m not riding it. This makes it easy to lube the chain, inflate the tires and adjust the derailleur. Highly recommended – Bike Hand Bike Repair Stand (👈 Link to Amazon to see what thousands of others have said)
- A basic MTB toolbox for replacing a chain, adjusting brakes and dialing in the fit. Bike Hand has a 37-piece box that has most of the specialty bike tools to keep your MTB properly maintained. The Bike Hand brand is value packed for the avid rider. Check out the competitive prices with this link to Amazon 👉 Bike Hand 37 pcs Bike Repair Tool Kit
- Get a good air pressure gauge, if you get just a tiny bit serious about MTBing you’re going to start playing with tire pressure. A couple psi can make your tires sticking or not. Get a good gauge, I highly recommend the Topeak Smartgauge D2, it’s accurate, flexible and easy to use. An Amazon best seller, here’s a link 👉 Topeak Smartgauge D2
- Carry a multitool with you on every ride. I’m serious, most of the time you can MacGyver something to get back to the trailhead if you have a multitool. I’ve got the Crank Brothers M19, it’s worn, rubbed and abused – but it still works. Thousands sold on Amazon – check it out with this link 👉 Crank Brothers M19
Tools You Will Need
Before we begin, here’s a list of tools you’ll need to properly tighten your bike chain:
- A bike stand (optional but handy)
- Chain checker tool
- Allen key set
- Socket wrench set and open end wrenches. (usually a 9/16″, 14mm or 15mm)
- Bike chain lube
- Hand gloves to keep your hands clean
- A rug or cloth for cleanup
If you’re working with a single-speed bike, the process is relatively straightforward. The rear wheel of most single-speed bikes can be moved forward or backward to adjust the chain tension.
If you’re working with a bike that has a derailleur, you may need to remove a link from the chain to tighten it. In this case, you’ll need an additional tool called a chain tool or chain breaker.
Let’s get started!
Assess the Chain’s Condition:
I always recommend checking the chain for “stretch”, I know this doesn’t help you when you want to ride and your chain is loose. Chains wear out, in fact they’re designed to wear out before you mess up other parts of the bike’s drivetrain.
The process is simple using a chain checker tool. Basically, if the tool drops into the links the chain is worn out. Often the tool has two sides with .5 on one side (saying it’s halfway worn out) and .75 on the other letting you know it’s time to replace the chain.
Next, we need to assess how loose your bike chain is. If it’s hanging significantly low from the sprocket or if it’s frequently popping off while riding, these are clear signs that your chain needs tightening. To avoid getting your hands dirty, I recommend wearing gloves for this process.
Pro Bike Tip: If your bike has hydraulic disc brakes, avoid keeping it upside down for a long time. The fluids in the system can flow back into the reservoir which can temporarily reduce stopping power. Shimano Source
1. Setting Up Your Bike:
Next, we’ll set up your bike for the repair. Ideally, you should use a bike stand, which keeps the bike stable and at a comfortable working height. If you don’t have access to a bike stand, you can place your bike upside down on a flat, smooth surface. Be sure to protect your bike’s saddle and handlebars from getting scratched.
2. Loosening the Rear Wheel:
Once your bike is set up, it’s time to loosen the rear wheel. Using your socket wrench, turn the bolt and nut on the rear wheel counterclockwise to loosen it. Be careful not to loosen it too much, as the wheel might drop out of the bike frame.
Learn about what to do if your chain is skipping 👉 How to Fix an MTB Chain that Skips
3. Adjusting the Chain Tension:
Now, it’s time to adjust the chain tension. Carefully pull the rear wheel backward to increase the chain tension. Make sure the wheel remains centered between the bike frame’s stays. A misaligned wheel can lead to other problems, so this is crucial.
4. Checking the Chain Tension:
We want to achieve the perfect chain tension – not too tight, not too loose. According to my favorite brand, Cannondale, a correctly tensioned bike chain should only have a half-inch of vertical movement when pushed up or down at the midpoint between the rear sprocket or derailleur and your pedal cog. Anything more than that means your chain is still too loose.
DIY MTB Pro Tip: read aout how long bike chains last in this article 👉 How Long Do MTB Chains Last?
5. Tightening the Rear Wheel:
Once you’re satisfied with the chain tension, it’s time to tighten the rear wheel back into place. Holding the rear wheel in its adjusted position, use your socket wrench to turn the nut and bolt clockwise. Make sure the wheel is secure but avoid over-tightening, which can strip the threads.
If Chain Tension Still Isn’t Adequate: Remove a Link
- Locate the Master Link: Find the master link on the chain. This link allows you to disconnect the entire chain without a tool. If your chain does not have one, you’ll need a chain tool.
- Disconnect the Link: Use chain pliers or your fingers to disconnect the master link. If no master link, use the chain tool to push the pin from the roller to disconnect the chain.
- Remove a Link: Use the chain tool to push out the pin of the link you want to remove. The link will come out once the chain is removed from the tool.
- Reconnect the Chain: Insert the master link’s pins into their corresponding holes. Depending on the type of master link, you might need to secure them with a spring clip or by pulling the chain’s ends.
After tightening the wheel, give the pedals a few turns to see how the chain moves. If it’s riding smoothly over the sprockets and the tension seems right, you’ve done a good job. If it’s still too loose or too tight, you might need to repeat the adjustment process until you get it just right.
Cleaning and Lubricating the Chain
Now that your chain is correctly tightened, it’s a good opportunity to clean and lubricate it. Cleaning the chain can help extend its life, and lubricating it reduces friction and wear. Use a cloth to wipe off any grime from the chain, then apply a small amount of bike chain lube and wipe off the excess.
Finally, take your bike for a short ride to see how it feels with the newly adjusted chain. If you’re happy with the performance, then you’re all set!
Tips For Extending a Bike Chain
- Buy a good chain. It isn’t a fun thing to spend money on, but it is worth it in the long-run.
- Use less pressure pedaling when you shift gears. The less stress on the chain will extend its life. Down-shifting to an easier gear during a steep climb puts extra stress on the chain and should be avoided if possible.
- Clean your chain after a dirty ride.
- Lube your chain
One More Crank on the Pedals (or Chain?)
That’s the nuts and bolts of adjusting your bike chain tension. It’s a skill that, once mastered, will serve you well in maintaining the optimum performance of your bike. So, keep learning, keep pedaling, and above all, keep enjoying the ride.
- Shimano. Hydraulic Disc Brake/Dual Control Manual. https://si.shimano.com/en/pdfs/dm/UABR001/DM-UABR001-06-ENG.pdf. Accessed January 19, 2023.
- Cannondale. Chain Tension Adjustment For Eccentric Bottom Bracket. https://www.cannondale.com/-/media/files/manual-uploads/manuals/2003_eccentric_bb_chain_adjustment_owners_manual_supplement_en.pdf. Accessed January 19, 2023.
- Sheldon Brown. “Master Link.” Sheldon Brown’s Bicycle Glossary (blog). https://www.sheldonbrown.com/gloss_m.html#masterlink. Accessed February 9, 2023.