Always turn your bike upside down to remove and fit wheels. You’ll save no time at all by trying to get a wheel in or out with the bike the right way up. Unless otherwise stated, all descriptions for removal/refitting are made with the assumption that the bike is upside down. If you need to do this when you’re out on trail or in the parking lot, remember to save your shifter windows and brake levers from scratches by putting your gloves (you do wear gloves?) under them when you flip your bike.
The method for traditional 10mm bolt-on axle wheels is pretty obvious; (if applicable) unhook the brake cable from the calipers before flipping the bike, undo the axle nuts and remove the wheel. Refitting is the opposite of removal; just make sure to tighten both nuts down at a little at a time as this wheel help to ensure that the axle sits true in the dropouts.
Most modern (as in the last 5-7 years) MTB’s will be using a quick release (QR) mechanism for holding the wheels in the frame/fork. Removal of the QR skewer is simple; just open the lever on the end of the skewer, take hold of the nut at the other end and turn the lever anti-clockwise to unscrew it a little. You should now be able to lift the wheel from the dropouts. If not, just unscrew the lever until you can. Bear in mind that on the front wheel the dropouts may be pointing forward slightly.
Refitting is basically just a straight reverse of removal, although you may find that you need to open the fork legs out a little before the axle will drop in. It’s possible to support the wheel by resting the axle ends on your first-fingers, using your other fingers to open the fork legs and pushing the axle down onto the dropouts using your thumbs. If the axle doesn’t drop straight in, try holding the fork legs as in the middle picture below and pushing the axle into the dropouts. I know it sounds a little convoluted, but it’s simple once you’ve done it a couple of times. Hopefully the picture below will clarify my description!!
To tighten a QR skewer, the lever must be closed tightly against the dropout. The easiest way that I found was to hold the nut end against its dropout and spin the lever end clockwise with my finger until it contacts the drop out. I then position the lever so that when it is closed it will point either straight up or towards the rear of the bike, depending which style of lever it has (right-hand picture above). (Having a QR lever pointing forward increases the potential for it to be prised open by branches of brush as you fly down the trail.) With the final position for the lever decided upon, put it in the open position and tighten the nut on the other end until both ends of the skewer are pulled against the dropouts, then close the lever. You want to be having to apply enough pressure to the lever with the palm of your hand so that it leaves a mark. Anything less than this and you may find the QR working its way loose.
For the rear wheel, you have the matter of getting the axle/cassette past the derailleur/chain. Change gears so that the chain is on the smallest ring and smallest rear sprocket, then, standing at the rear of the bike, take hold of the derailleur as shown in the middle picture below and pull gently back on the body until the upper (if the bike was the right way up) jockey wheel is far enough away from the dropouts and will no longer impede the removal of the axle.
To refit the rear, again pull the derailleur back and out of the way and land the smallest rear sprocket on the chain (right-hand picture). This can be a little tricky as at the same time you may also be trying to make sure that the brake rotor is sliding in between the pads. Gradually loosen your grip on the derailleur as you lower the wheel into the frame. Because of the tension of the chain (although this depends slightly on the design of your frame) you should be able to place the ends of the axle on the frame just into front of the dropouts and then slide it back into place.
Another type of axle available on front wheels is the 20mm bolt-thru. There a few variations, including some QR versions, so I can only give an indication of how to work with them. Please check with the user’s manual that came with your fork/bike for precise instructions and torque specs. If you don’t have a manual, you should be able to download one from the fork manufacturer’s website. The fork in the pictures below is an ‘06 Marzocchi 888.
As with the other axle systems, it’s considerably easier to remove and install the wheel when the bike flipped upside down. However, before you do so, the pinch bolts should be loosened to free the axle. If you have two in each side, loosen each bolt a quarter turn at a time. This prevents uneven pressure on the fork-end. To remove the 20mm bolt, you’ll need (in this case) two 6mm Allen keys. I have my axle set-up so that the axle ‘bolt’ is on the right-hand (drive) side of the bike, for no other reason than it’s easy to remember which side I need to loosen. So, using one key to hold the axle assembly in place, use the other to release the bolt (first picture below). I find that loosening the bolt can be done in increments to make it assist in removing the axle. Loosen the bolt a couple of turns, remove the Allen key and push the axle assembly towards the other end (second picture). Repeat until the bolt is removed and you should have enough axle sticking out of the other end to be able to grab it easily and slide it from the fork/hub (third picture). Remember to keep a hold of the top of the wheel while you pull the axle out.
When refitting the axle, first push it into the fork leg and then lower the hub into line with it. Carefully push it through the fork and into the hub until it reaches the fork leg at the other side. Whilst holding the fork and hub in the correct position with one hand, gently push the axle through with the other (first picture below). Do NOT try to push the axle through without making sure that the aperture in the fork leg lines up with the axle/hub. With the axle in place, screw the bolt back and tighten it up. You’ll need both Allen keys again to stop the axle from spinning while you tighten the bolt.
When the axle is bolted up, the pinch bolts can be tightened. If you have a pair of bolts in each leg, alternate between each bolt as you tighten. This will ensure that both bolts compress equally on the axle and also prevent the fork leg itself being damaged by uneven torque. The required 6Nm of torque is relatively low, so, to prevent over-tightening and threading the bolt or cracking the fork leg, use the short end of the Allen key to limit the torque you can put into the tool (second picture above).
Hydraulic disc brake users should remember to insert a piece of thick card between the caliper pads whenever the wheel is removed. This will save you having to prise your pistons apart should you (or somebody else) accidentally press the brake lever while there is no rotor between the pads. Another crafty idea is to use a tennis ball, holed (x2) and stuffed on each bar-end, to stop the lever being pulled in the first place. For those of you who use plastic or alloy end-caps, you can position the ball off the end of the bar to stop those scuff marks that appear on walls wherever you leave your bike.
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