How to Fix a Bike Chain and Other Common Issues
Once you get the hang of fixing your own flat tires, you’re ready to move on to mastering chain skills. Taking good care of your chain will keep you quick on the bike, and it will save you time and money in the long run. A properly cared for chain should work efficiently and almost silently, and a well-maintained chain will keep your other components in good shape too. If your chain is making noise, or if it’s been a few months since your bike has been serviced, your chain could probably use some love.
Here’s a brief overview of how to deal with common chain issues, including how to fix a broken bicycle chain:
Chain Lube and Cleanliness
Believe it or not, improper chain lubing is one of the most common chain issues—and it’s easy to fix! Clean, rust-free chains operate smoothly, silently and efficiently. A well-kept chain will protect components like the cassette and crank chain rings.
To properly lube your chain, grab a bottle of chain lube from your local bike shop. (This is better than WD-40). Drip the lube onto the center of the chain as you slowly spin the pedal backward. Spin through the whole chain one to two times. Now spin the pedal quickly backward a few times (without lube). Let the chain sit for five minutes. This helps the lube soak into the pins and rollers of the chain. Lastly, take a clean, dry, lint-free rag and pinch the chain with the rag as you spin the chain backward again. This removes excess lube that would otherwise attract dirt and road grime which decrease the life of your drivetrain!
To deep clean a chain, remove it from the bike and clean it with soap and water until there is no grease, dirt, or road grime left on the chain. Take this opportunity to also clean the crank and cassette, then re-install your chain. Alternatively, for a faster clean, soak a rag in degreaser or other solvent and vigorously wipe the chain while on the bike until the majority of the grime is gone. Once all the solvent has dried, re-lube the chain and go ride!
To reinstall the chain, drape it over the front chainring and snake it through the jockey wheels . (Be careful to follow the direction of travel through the rear derailleur.) Bring the two ends together, and use your quick link to reattach. Keep in mind that some chains are directional and require the chain to be placed in a certain orientation. This is mostly important for Shimano chains; make sure the engraved branding on the chain faces away from the bike!
Backroads Pro Tip
If you don’t have time to remove the chain, you can always just clean the chain with a little degreaser on a rag. Keep in mind this only gets off about half the grease, though.
It’s easy to overly lube chains, which will cause a buildup of wax or oil, dirt, and other road grime in your drivetrain. Remember, a clean drivetrain is a happy drivetrain! If you hear a squeaking while you ride, your chain probably needs some lubrication. Properly lubing your chain should take care of that squeak.
Backroads Pro Tip
Secret squeak remedy: Have you lubed your chain but still hear a squeak? It could be coming from one of your jockey wheels. Lay the bike on its side, drip a few drops of lube into both jockey wheels, spin the chain, and let the bike sit on its side for five minutes.
Dropping a Chain
Every now and again, your chain might fall off the chainrings. This is often due to a shifting fluke. To get it back on, push on the rear derailleur jockey wheel, and bring the front of the chain up and onto one of the chain rings. Lift the rear wheel, and pedal the bike forward. The chain should now be ready to go.
Chain Slips on the Gears
All parts on a bike can wear out, even your cassette and chain. Most chains are engineered to last about 1500 miles. Changing a chain is like changing the oil in a car. It keeps things running smoothly and protects more expensive parts. A sign that you have let your chain wear too far is if it slips on the gears
If your chain is slipping on the gears, it might feel as if you’re not getting any traction when pedaling. When this happens, the chain is hopping teeth on the cassette. This is different from the chain not shifting properly into a gear. With chain slips, the chain will stay in the same gear; it will just skip teeth on the cassette. If you want to check the chain wear yourself, you can purchase a relatively inexpensive tool that measures this, or your local bike shop will be happy to measure and replace the chain if needed. If you’ve been riding with a stretched chain for some time, your cassette and crank might also be damaged, and you should take your bike in to get a professional opinion. Remember, riding with a new chain on a damaged cassette or crank can cause problems.
Backroads Pro Tip
With chain slips, it’s important to remember to tell the bike shop how many speeds your bike has. (You can count the gears on the cassette.) This helps ensure you get the right chain.
If your chain breaks while you’re riding, you’ll need to know how to fix a broken bike chain before you can get anywhere. You’ll need a chain breaking tool to accomplish this fix.
First remove any broken links in the chain. Push one pin until the chain comes apart, being sure to leave the pin in one side of the chain. Remove the broken section and re-connect the chain by carefully lining up the new chain link with the pin, and push the pin back in with your chain tool. Test that link for stiffness. It should move freely. If the link is stiff, dial the pin out enough to let the link move freely. For a somewhat simpler fix carry a spare quick link, push the pin near the damaged link all the way out so that two inner links are exposed. Place the quick link in position and put tension in the chain to snap it into place. Remember that this is only a temporary fix and the chain should probably be replaced afterwards.