Setting the Rear Wheel
Or, How to boil an egg
by Will Meister


No-one submitted a nuts-and-bolts Howto this issue. I suspect that Matt Chester's magisterial two-parter on offroad FG setup may have something to do with it. Follow that, as they say.

I shall give it a try.

A few years back, Delia Smith (for US readers: the Brit Martha Stewart, kinda) devoted a chunk of primetime to teaching viewers how to boil an egg. There was some unfavourable comment, to which she responded with a simple statement.

'Well,' she said, 'loads of people actually don't know.'

In the Spirit of Delia, I will pass on my recipe for setting the rear wheel on a fix. If your previous bikes had vertical dropouts, this apparently simple operation may seem fiendishly difficult. I evolved the following method when I was the last boy in Hampshire riding hub gears, and have since found that it works well for fixed gears too.

No diagrams. Let's not make a meal of this.

Turn the bike upside down. A nice soft lawn is best. If you're lucky, the bike will balance neatly on bars and saddle.

If you have dropouts, get the chain meshed in the sprocket, and put the rear wheel into the dropouts. You may find it easiest to handle the wheel by the axle ends. If so, fine, but keep your fingers off the sprocket. When the wheel is turning, no matter how slowly, it is horribly easy to get a digit or two caught in the chain.

If you have track ends, get the wheel in first, then get the chain over the sprocket. (At least, I think that's the idea. I've never owned a bike with track ends.)

Here comes the interesting bit.

If you've tried setting the wheel before, chances are that the chain frustrated you. Your chain is heavy, and it will do its best to pull the wheel out of alignment while you're working on it.

Rather than fighting the chain pull, use it.

Find some way to brace your non-tool hand -- heel on the BB, elbow on the front wheel, something like that. Push the rear wheel gently backwards. Feel it, don't force it. The chain pull will make the wheel turn away from the drive side. The chain itself will remain slightly loose. At this point, tighten the nut or allen bolt on the non-drive side. Snug, not a deathlock. Don't give it your full effort yet.

Now, bracing your non-tool hand against the non-drive stay or crank, push the front portion of the wheelrim back over the centreline of the bike. Keep an eye on the axle. The wheel will pivot about the non-drive side dropout, bringing the chain up to tension as it does so. The wheelrim will likely deform a little, so you will need to push past the centreline. Don't overdo it -- you will see when the axle is dead square in the dropouts. At this point, tighten the nut or bolt on the drive side.

How's the chain tension? About half or 3/4 of an inch of vertical play? Great, now you just need to get those nuts/bolts fully tightened and you're done. All very slick.

Of course, if you're like me, you'll still get it wrong some of the time. The usual error is to have the non-driveside nut or bolt too far back in the dropout, so that you can't get the axle squared up. No problem (grr!) -- just tighten up the drive side, loosen the non-drive side and work the rim again.

Next, toast and butter.

BTW, engineers, I know the difference between an axle and a spindle, but not all the readership does. Hence...

Will 'Spanner' Meister pinched a brand new inner tube under the bead and blew it to kingdom come just two days ago.

v1.0 written May 2005

Now read a real wrench.

You work on your bike at your own risk. isn't liable for anything nasty you may do to yourself as a result of reading this article. And we don't want to see the pictures, either.

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