Afraid to take off your rear wheel to fit the bike in a trunk or fix a flat tire, because you think you'll mess up the chain or shifting? Or because you don't want to get all greasy?
We have good news. Anyone can remove a rear wheel and it won't affect shifting or the chain. And if you work carefully, you won't have to touch that greasy drivetrain either.
Here's how it's done on any bicycle with derailleurs, from road bikes (shown), to mountain bikes and any 2-wheelers in between. (We're happy to demonstrate in person, too, so please let us know if you'd like a quick lesson.)
WHEEL REMOVAL 1, 2, 3!
1. Shift onto the small cog and small chainring.
Shifting the chain down onto the smallest cog on the rear wheel and the smallest chainring on the crankset, creates slack in the chain, which makes wheel removal much easier. It also makes wheel installation easier because it gives you an accurate way to line up the wheel (on the smallest cog) so that it slips right into the bicycle frame the right way.
If you're riding and feel the rear tire becoming soft slowly from a puncture, you may have time to make the shifts to the smallest cog and ring as you're slowing to a stop.
If you're not riding, or have already stopped, operate the right shift lever, lift the bike by the seat and pedal by hand and the chain will move down the cogs in the back. Depending on the type of shift lever, you may need to move the lever a couple of times to move the chain onto the smallest cog.
Now, do the same with the left shift lever and pedal by hand and get the chain onto the smallest chainring in front, too.
2. Open the brake
Note: If you're fixing a flat tire, you needn't worry about this step because when the air is all out of the tire it will fit through the brake easily. Also, if your bike has disc brakes, you too can skip this step because you don't need to touch disc brakes to remove wheels.
On most bikes with rim brakes, when you try to remove the wheel, the tire bumps into the brake pads. This is because the brake needs to be adjusted close to the rim, while the fully inflated tire is significantly wider than the rim.
To prevent the tire bumping into the brake pads, you can open sidepull brakes by fully rotating the little lever on the brake upwards (photo a). This little lever is called the brake quick release for the way it lets you quickly release (open) the brake pads. For linear-pulls (also called "direct-pulls," and "V-brakes") lift the end of the "noodle" out of its holder (photo b).
Some sidepulls are opened by pressing a button on the lever. Look for this if there's no lever on the brake.
Open cantilever brakes (these feature a cable that runs over the top of the tire) by lifting the cable end on one side out of its holder.
Workarounds: If you can't find a way to open a brake, you can also let air out of the tire until you can pinch it enough to squeeze it through the brake pads. Another trick - though it requires tools and time - is to remove one brake pad which will often provide sufficient clearance. If not, you can remove both pads. Just be sure to remount them carefully so that they contact the rim squarely and don't touch any part of the tire.
3. Pull the derailleur back and remove the wheel
Now you're ready to remove the wheel. Most bicycle wheels have quick releases holding them in the frame (the red parts in the photo). To open the quick release and loosen the wheel, simply pull and fully open the lever, which is usually on the opposite side of the chain. Don't twist the lever. Just pull it out/away from the frame.
When the quick release is open, the wheel is ready to come out. To remove it, lift the bike by the seat so that gravity will help you. On some bikes the wheel will drop right out at this point (don't let it roll down the road and escape!). Or, if it doesn't fall out on its own, give it a slight blow with your hand and that might knock it right out.
Don't force anything though. If the wheel doesn't come out right away, it's because the derailleur and chain are blocking it. To get them out of the way, keep holding the rear end of your bike off the ground by lifting the bike by the seat. Reach down with your free hand and pull back the derailleur with your hand to get it, and the chain, out of the way.
Now, the wheel should fall out or drop out if you shake the bike. If the chain gets in the way still, just grip the wheel and shake it so that it's free of the chain and fully off the bike (that way you never touch the chain and stay clean). Good job!
Note: To clearly show the desired derailleur position, we locked it in place. You must pull it back by hand when removing wheels because it won't stay in place on its own.
Bonus: How to put the rear wheel back on
As you guessed, it's the same as removal only in the reverse order! You just place the wheel back in the frame being careful to get the chain on the right cog, close the quick release to lock the wheel in, and close the brake so your brakes are working again.
If your wheel won't go in easily, check these things:
Did you get the chain on the cog right? Remember that you shifted the chain onto the smallest rear cog before you removed the wheel. So, you must put the wheel back on by first lining that smallest cog up just right so that the chain is on it. Also, pay attention to how the chain rests on the cog. The chain is a closed loop. The cog should be inside the loop (see the photo in Step 3).
Note: If the wheel has been off the bicycle for some time, it's possible that someone might operate the shift levers. This can move the derailleur so that when you line up the wheel with the smallest cog the wheel won't go into the frame. Instead it bumps into the frame. To remedy this and get the wheel in, simply operate the shift lever as if you're shifting onto the smallest cog. This will move the rear derailleur back where it needs to be so that the wheel will go into the frame.
Did the chain come off the derailleur pulley? Another glitch that can prevent the wheel going right into the frame is if the chain happens to come off the top pulley on the derailleur (photo). This is hard to see but it has a similar effect to someone shifting the derailleur into the wrong position and it makes the wheel run into the frame and not want to go in. To fix it, just push the chain back onto the pulley and make sure it stays there as you install the wheel. Tip: Use a stick to push it on or wrap your finger in a rag and you'll stay grease-free.
Is your quick release still open? Sometimes when the wheel is separate from the bike, the quick release lever gets bumped and flipped over and closed. When this happens the wheel won't fit in the frame anymore because the quick release is closed and in the way. Open it and the wheel will fit.
Now that you know how it's done, you may want to practice removing and installing your rear wheel a few times to become expert at it so that when you have to do it, it's a breeze. And, so you can dazzle your friends by helping them remove/install their wheels! Have fun.