Ultimate Guide to Adjusting Your Bicycle Chain: Tensioning and Shortening Techniques

Ultimate Guide to Adjusting Your Bicycle Chain: Tensioning and Shortening Techniques

A bicycle chain, as a moving part, is a crucial element for propelling your bike forward as you pedal. If it’s not functioning properly, you might need to tension and shorten the chain.

When Should You Tension a Bicycle Chain?

Various reasons can lead to a sagging or overly tight bicycle chain. You’ll notice this issue if the chain frequently slips off the sprockets, pedaling becomes laborious, or the bike’s gear shifting isn’t smooth. The cause usually lies in the chain’s tension, which may be insufficient, causing it to sag visibly. Conversely, an overly tight chain requires more effort to pedal.

For bikes with derailleur gears, the derailleur maintains the correct chain tension. However, bikes with hub gears require regular inspection of the chain links. Chain tension weakens due to constant strain on the links, causing wear and elongation.

You can resolve this issue by tensioning the chain yourself. The following section explains how to do this and what tools you’ll need.

Bicycle Chain

Guide to Tensioning the Chain on a Bicycle

If your bike chain isn’t running smoothly, don’t rush to replace it. First, check its tension. If it just needs tensioning, you can do it quickly with the right tools. You’ll need an open-end wrench, a torque wrench, and a pad to protect the grips and bike seat.

We’ll now guide you through the repair process step by step.

Step 1: Preparing the Bike

We recommend turning the bike upside down for easy access to the chain. Remember to use a pad to protect the front grips and rear seat.

Step 2: Loosening the Rear Wheel Mounting Bolts

To tension the chain, shift the rear wheel in the dropout. First, use the open-end wrench to loosen the bolts on both sides of the rear axle. Loosen them just enough to allow the rear wheel to move.

Step 3: Adjusting Chain Tension

You can gauge the correct chain length by lifting it about 1.5 to 2 centimeters up and down without exerting force. If this isn’t the case, pull the rear wheel back until the right chain length is achieved. The process is quicker if you move the rear wheel straight back while turning the wheel, ensuring optimal chain tension even if the sprockets aren’t perfectly round.

Step 4: Tightening the Rear Wheel Bolts

Use the torque wrench to tighten the rear wheel bolts. It’s more precise than the open-end wrench for remounting the nuts according to the manufacturer’s specifications.

Retrofitting a Chain Tensioner on a Hub Gear Bike

In a derailleur gear system, a spring in the derailleur keeps the chain tension high and compensates for variations in chain length. This is particularly useful when shifting between sprockets. Those not keen on regularly tensioning the chain on a hub gear bike can have a chain tensioner installed by a professional.

If a bike chain with a chain tensioner still sags slightly, the tensioner might be defective or dirty. Cleaning the tensioner and chain may help. If not, the spring in the derailleur might be broken, requiring a tensioner replacement.

Also read:

How to Shorten a Bicycle Chain

Sometimes, merely tensioning the chain isn’t enough. If it’s too long, you’ll need to shorten it. This is a simple task with the right tools. New standard-sized bike chains are often longer than necessary. To determine the correct chain length for your bike, use one of the following methods.

  • Count the links in the old chain and shorten the new chain to the same number. Avoid measuring the chain length, as it can stretch over time.
  • If the old chain is already discarded, use the second method. Lay the new chain over the largest chainring and largest sprocket without routing it through the derailleur. Pull the chain taut. The optimal length is when the ends overlap by about two links or three rivets.

This method works for many bikes like city bikes, trekking bikes, or hardtails. It’s not suitable for bikes with rear suspension. The final section explains how to shorten a bike chain step by step and the best tools for the job.

Guide to Shortening a Bicycle Chain

We’ll now outline the steps to shorten a bike chain. You’ll need tools and some supplies.

  • Chain breaker
  • Pliers for closing chain links
  • Chain lock and rivets
  • Wire
  • Oil
  • Bike stand for mounting

First, open the bike chain using pliers to unlock the chain lock, which replaces the outer plates and pins of a normal link. Hook the pliers’ jaws on either side of the lock and squeeze gently. If the chain isn’t too tight, this will be easier.

If your chain doesn’t have a lock, use a chain breaker. Place the relaxed chain in the furthest carrier from the handle. Turn the handle until you feel resistance, indicating the pin is contacting the rivet. Continue rotating carefully until the rivet is pushed out. Discard the pin and separate the chain by pulling with your fingers.

Next, remove excess links with the chain breaker. Position it on the desired link and turn the pin in until the rivet begins to move outward. Repeat until the desired number of links is removed.

Rejoining the Shortened Chain

After shortening, reconnect the chain. If it has a chain lock, simply close the lock. Without a lock, align the chain ends and insert a new rivet using your fingers. Reset the chain breaker handle and place the chain ends on the carrier. Turn the pin until the rivet is firmly in place, indicated by a slight drop in resistance when positioned correctly. Move the chain up and down to check its placement.

Finally, check the mobility of the newly joined links. If they’re stiff, loosen them by twisting in all directions with your fingers. Oil can also help loosen a stiff link.

Always work carefully and calmly when shortening or tensioning your bike chain, especially with sensitive parts like rivets and links. For an old chain, pay attention to its condition. We recommend replacing the chain if there’s noticeable wear.

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