Feb 21

Tutorial Tuesday: Chain & Cassette

The other week, I mentioned that I registered for my first dirt/gravel bike race, Barry-Roubaix. This meant that I would have to get my mountain bike cleaned up and race ready.  I got my mountain bike, a 2004 Trek 4300, as a 21st birthday present from my dad.  Since, then it has become my main commuter bike and I haven’t really done much maintenance on it.  In fact, everything about the bike is original.

The plan of attack on getting the bike race ready was to replace the rear cassette, chain, worn handle bar grips, and tires. Actually, the initial plan of attack was to remove some stuff from the bike.  I pulled off the trunk rack, broken wired Cateye computer, cracked reflectors, and kickstand.  If I’m going to be a newbie at this thing, I can do my best to not look like one.  I haven’t quite figured out what tires to use for Barry-Roubaix, but I ordered the rest of the parts I needed. I had a request when I first mentioned the race to take some pictures of the process.  I decided that I would do my best to document the process because, with the right tools, I think this is something that anyone can handle. So without further ado, here is how to swap out your rear cassette and chain.

I’m cheap so I don’t have a fancy bike stand for doing my cleaning/repairs.  Instead, I threw together one out of some 2×4’s a couple years ago.  I padded it with some packing foam to protect the bike.  It bolts to the front of my work bench so I can easily remove it when I am not doing bike work.


Last year, I invested in a full set of bike tools.  I think this set was about $75 online which is a fraction of the cost of a set of Park Tools.  Before getting this tool kit, I was using a hodgepodge of tools that I had laying around that weren’t quite the right tools for the job.  Having the correct tools makes all the difference in the world.


For this project, I only needed the following items from the toolkit: a wrench, chain whip, cassette lockring tool, and chain tool.  The chain tool is actually a Park Tool that I bought separately.  While the original tool kit came with one, it wasn’t very good quality and broke on me.  Thankfully, I haven’t had any problems with anything else from the tool kit.  As for the chain whip, in a pinch you could make your own out of a spare section of old chain.  The wrench I used came with the toolkit and slips right over the lockring tool.  However, any sort of adjustable wrench would do the trick here.


2/21 8:00PM UPDATE: I should have mentioned this, but I am working with a Shimano style chain that uses pins for connecting the links.  If you have a SRAM chain with a Powerlink or another type of chain with a Master Link, the method for removing and replacing the chain may be different.

I started by removing the chain.  If you are only replacing your cassette, do NOT do this step, just remove the rear wheel.  There are lots of theories and recommendations on when and how often to replace your cassette and chain.  Some people suggest always changing both the chain and cassette at the same time.  Others replace the chain every 1000 miles and replace the cassette less frequently.  For my bike maintenance, I generally replace the chain every 2000 miles or so and then change the cassette every other time I swap out the chain.  I use this tool to measure chain wear.


To use the chain tool, line up the tool such that the chain fits in the outer cradle.  Once lined up, start to turn the chain tool until the pin makes contact with the chain.  At this point, you will want to make sure the pin of the chain tool is lined up with the rivet of the chain.  If it is, contain to turn the chain tool until the rivet is fully removed from the chain.  Now, turn the chain tool the opposite direction to remove it from the chain.  Keep in mind that the chain is under the tension of the rear derailleur so the chain will snap apart once the chain tool is removed.  I usually try and hold the chain together as best I can with one hand as I remove the chain tool with the other to prevent this from happening.

(via ParkTool.com)

Now that the chain is off, set it aside.  You can then remove the rear wheel and we can work on replacing the cassette.


You’ll want a good, flat work surface to work on.


Remove the skewer from the wheel.  Make sure to keep the springs on the skewer and replace the end cap so that nothing gets lost.


The next step is to remove the cassette.  For this step, we will use the lockring tool, chain whip, and wrench.  Insert the lock ring tool into the center of the cassette; the notches of the tool should fit into the notches of the lockring.  Wrap the chain whip around one of the larger cogs.  Then, place your wrench around the lockring tool.  Turn the wrench while holding back on the chain whip to loosen the lockring.


Once you loosen the lockring, you can hand loosen it the rest of the way until it comes off.  With the lockring off, you can lift off the cassette.  Depending on your cassette, you will generally have a couple of cogs that are separate from the rest of the cassette.  The cassette I am working with is an 8 speed (8 cogs) and there were two separate cogs.  The third smaller ring below is the lock ring that was removed. 


Once the chain ring is removed, you will have the free hub exposed.  Notice the groves on the free hub body? These help make the the installation of a your new cassette a breeze because there is only one way to install it.  The grooves are such that you can not install it the wrong way.


When you unpackag your new cassette, hopefully you have better luck than I did.  Despite buying a CS-HG50-8, I was given the manual/instructions for a FH-2200.  Oh well! That is what this tutorial is for any way right?


With the new cassette in hand, slip it on over the free hub body. Like I mentioned before, the cassette can only go on one way, so no fear of doing it wrong.  Once the main portion of the cassette is in place, you will have to slip on the remaining individual cogs.  The only thing to keep in mind is that you want to put on the cogs in the correct order.  The smallest (least amount of teeth) cog should be the last one you put on.  If the sizes of two cogs look really close in size, you can usually find the number of teeth engraved on each of the cogs.


Once the cogs are all in place, it is time to replace the lockring. You should get a new lockring with your you new cassette.  Start by lining it up and hand tightening it as much as possible.


After hand tightening the lockring, slip the lockring tool back on the cassette. Using your wrench, tighten it down.  You don’t need the chain whip this time because you are turning in the opposite direction than before.  You will want to stand the tire up on end to get enough leverage behind the wrench and you’ll hear the lockring ratcheting as it tightens up.


That wasn’t so hard was it? Before putting the wheel back on the bike, it is a good idea to inspect and clean the rear derailleur.  It is much easier to do this with the wheel off so you might as well take the time.

(This picture didn’t turn out so well. Whoops)

My favorite cleaners are Simple Green and Awesome Cleaner.  Both do a great job at cutting through the grease and are eco-friendly.


During my inspection, I noticed that one of the jockey wheels was a bit gummed up and not turning smoothly.  The jockey wheel removes easily with an Allen wrench.  With it removed, I cleaned each part and lubed it all up.  Once reinstalled, it spun much better.


At this point, you can reinstall the rear wheel.


Now it is time to work with the chain.  With a Shimano chain, you will get the chain along with a separate connecting pin – don’t lose this (not speaking from experience of course – haha)


If you lay your old chain alongside your new chain, you’ll notice that the new chain is longer than you need and will need to be shortened before it is installed.  If you are simply swapping out your chain or if you are replacing your cassette with an identical replacement, you can find your chain length by counting the number of links on your old chain.  However, if you are changing cassette size or for some reason you don’t have your old chain, you will have to measure the correct length.  In my case, I was actually changing cassette sizes – from and 11-32 to a 12-28.  Because of this, my original chain would have been too long.  To find the correct size for the new chain, I used the guide at Park Tool for determining the length.  This involved wrapping the new chain around the largest rear cog and largest chainring in the front.


To show how worn out the old chain was, take a look at the next two pictures.  I hung the chains side by side at the same height.  Ideally, the chains should line up, but as you can see, the older chain (on the right), is extremely worn out and is “stretched”.

IMG_1436 IMG_1435

With your new chain in hand, and knowledge of what the correct length needs to be, it is time to shorten the chain to the correct length.  To do this, you will use the chain tool again.  I forgot to take a picture of this step, but the only thing you want to keep in mind is that you want to end up with two opposite ends on the chain.  So, look at the opposite end you are shortening and envision what the chain will look like once shortened. Those two ends should fit together.  If it looks off, you may need to recount the number of links.  Just remember, it is much easier to make the chain shorter than it is to make longer.

With the chain at the correct length, it is time to install it on the bike.  I used a scrap piece of wire to relieve some of the tension on the rear derailleur.  This made the installation much easier than in the past.  Now, it is as simple as weaving the chain around the rear cassette, derailleur and chain ring.


With the chain in place, hold the two ends together and insert the connecting pin.  The Shimano style connecting pin is designed so that it slips into the hole of the chain freely, but then is driven the rest of the way through with the chain tool.  Once driven through, the excess is snapped off.


Using the chain tool, line up the tool with the chain links.  Turn the chain tool until the pin of the tool lines up with connecting pin.  Once properly lined up, drive the connecting pin into the chain.  Go slowly here to make sure that you drive the pin in fully without going to far.


With the pin properly in place, the excess will remain.  Grab onto the excess with a pair of pliers (whoops, forgot to include pliers as a required tool).  Add a little pressure and it should break off cleanly.


Time to test out the new chain and cassette to make sure everything works as intended.

The final task of the day was to install new handle bar grips.  As you can see, the original ones were in pretty bad shape. To remove them, I slit them open with a utility knife and pulled them off.


For the new grips, I went with a set of ODI Rogue lock on grips.  Each grip comes with a set of clamps and end cap.  The nice thing about this system is that when the grips wear out, you can save some money by just replacing the grips and reusing the clamps.


Each grip snapped together.  It did take a little bit of force to get everything together, but I guess that means I don’t have to worry about it falling apart.


With the grips assembled, the slipped onto the handlebars and tightened down using the included bolts and an Allen wrench.

And that’s it! That wasn’t too bad was it? All in all, the entire job took less than an hour.  It probably would have been closer to 30 minutes if I wasn’t taking pictures along the way.  My LBS is a 15 minute drive each way so right there I have broken even with my time and saved money on the parts and labor. Winning all around.

If you are looking for some other good references for bicycle repair, I recommend following:

Do you do any of your own bike maintenance? Any plans on giving it a whirl this season?

Permanent link to this article: http://www.ironmanbythirty.com/2012/02/21/tutorial-tuesday-chain-cassette


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  1. Matt Oravec

    WOWZERS! That was super in depth 🙂 I will be book marking this one. I may be playing w/ a rear cassette in my near future haha.
    Matt Oravec recently posted..Metric Century and Weekend Recap

    1. Ironman By Thirty (Kevin)

      The best part is that you can always practice on H’s bike and when you can’t get her bike put back together you can take yours into the LBS 😉 haha!

      Seriously though, it is an easy job and you could get it done in no time. You have started keeping track oh how many miles you are putting on your bike to know when to replace things right??? right???

  2. BDD

    Nice, this was well put together
    BDD recently posted..Happy Valentines Day – Who Do YOU Love?

  3. Matthew Smith

    You just made bike maintenance interesting! Nice writeup, Kevin! Those pictures were really good, and I know how hard it is to get DIY pictures to turn out. You’re going to be flying out there on your race with your bike all tuned up. SWEET! I loved your bike stand. You should take some more pics of it and give us a writeup on how it works and/or what you would do to improve it. Nice post!
    Matthew Smith recently posted..My Valentine

  4. Heather O

    Great post! Question for you… If one were to get a set of race wheels (that’s a big if)…would it be better to swap out the same cassette every time you race or would it be better to buy an additional cassette to install on the rear wheel?
    Heather O recently posted..Rev3 Photo Shoot?!?!

    1. Ironman By Thirty (Kevin)

      Wow. Great question! Honestly, I don’t know. Cassettes are relatively cheap (~$50 or so online) so cost wise it would be fairly cheap to have one remain on the wheelset. However, there is some school of thought that the chain and cassette wear proportional to one another (which I tend to believe). So, if you were to throw on a wheelset with a newer cassette, it would mess with the wear rates of both your chain and your cassette. Swapping out the cassette is so easy that I would tend towards just doing that especially since my roadie is a 9 speed cassette and my P2 is a 10 speed. Plus, removing the cassette makes it even easier to clean.

      This is actually a question/decision I am going to have to figure out sooner rather than later… stay tuned 😉

  5. Christina

    The Pednet group in Columbia, MO was offering a series of bike maintenance classes that I really wanted to take, but I was going to be out of town and on mom duty for like half of them. I don’t do any of my own maintenance right now (but don’t log the miles that heavily yet either). The books might be a good starting point for me. So far, I only own my old mountain bike (bought in late 90’s), but I hope to buy a road bike in the next couple of months for use this season.
    Christina recently posted..Miscellaneous Monday

    1. Ironman By Thirty (Kevin)

      Good luck shopping for a road bike!

  6. Brent

    This is a great instructional post. I’ll have to circle back here if I want to do a little bike repair before the summer. Maybe I’ll let you know if I do and how it goes.

  7. Jon

    Awesome post!

    I like the comparison of a new chain to an old, stretched chain. Really shows that yes, these chains DO stretch!

    I wish I knew how to replace and adjust deraileur cables. That seems to be the #1 reason why I visit my LBS.

    Of course, I could just upgrade to Di2 and be done with it…
    Jon recently posted..Found my routine! Finally!

    1. Ironman By Thirty (Kevin)

      I thought about upgrading the mountain bike to Di2. But doing that would have increased the value of the bike by about 20x. haha

      There is a local pro in my weekly spin classes who just got a new TT bike with Di2. It is a Pinarello with a custom stealth paint job. It is completely bad ass.

      I can muddle my way through adjusting he derailleurs but not enough try and teach someone how to do it yet. I haven’t actually replaced the cables yet though. The mountain bike probably could use a new set of cables but it wasn’t something I wanted to tackle before a race. Maybe if I get hooked on dirt racing…

  8. Jeff Irvin

    Great work here Kevin!

    LOVE the idea of the 2×4’s on the work bench – FREAKING BRILLIANT! I am going to do that tonight on my workbench!!

    All us geeks love the Simple Green!
    Jeff Irvin recently posted..It is time to go Underground …

  9. Mark in Ottawa

    That’s awesome! Thanks so much for posting. It looks a lot easier than I had thought it would be to remove the rear cassette.

    Quick question – did you have to drive the chain pin because you didn’t have a power link on this chain? My LBS said that if you have a power link, then you never drive a pin because they’re not meant to be removed…

    Anyhow, thanks for the great tutorial – this stuff is invaluable!

    Mark (in Ottawa, Canada)

    1. Ironman By Thirty (Kevin)

      Great point! I added a quick update with a note about power link/master link chains. I honestly don’t have any experience with them yet and have always used a pin/rivet style Shimano chain. I’ll have to look into them though because it might make changing/cleaning the chain even easier.

  10. DR

    this is totally awesome
    Im much less intimidated now and feel I should give it a shot on my old mtn bike

    you couldnt keep the kickstand?!

    adding the 2×4 trick in my garage workbench


  11. Jason @ Cook Train Eat Race

    Where is the English version of this tutorial.

    I should seriously take a class on this stuff and take better care of El Diablo.
    Jason @ Cook Train Eat Race recently posted..Breakfast Recipes

  12. Colleen

    All this post says to me is “blah blah blah… be glad you have a husband Colleen.” 🙂

  13. Mandy

    THIS IS SO AWESOME!!!!! I so needed this! So the closest bikeshop to me is 1h30 min away (next to the pool) and I have been DYING for a class of some sort. I use the YouTube a lot to figure out bike stuff, but the thing is, this is way better than anything I have looked for.

    I love Sheldon Brown and the Bike Tutor! But I am so numb with this stuff I have to read it and read it and read it again…..LOVE the pictures and the way you did this.

    Oh. Look out. I am baaack! 😉
    Mandy recently posted..Reloaded: Hey! I Am Running Here!

  14. Jamie

    Love this post. Just what I needed.

    I’m good about cleaning my chain/derailers, but am always intimidated by the whole process of removing the cassette and chain, so I skip all that mess. So I don’t even have the tools to do it.

    I’ve got a bike shop gift card that I couldn’t figure out how to use. I think a whip and chain tool/lock ring are in my future.
    Jamie recently posted..Starting of the season right

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