How to Find the Master Link on Your Bike Chain

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The master link or master rivet is what you’ll need to locate to make removing your bicycle chain a lot easier. There are easy ways to locate this master link, and it all starts with a few simple tips so that you know what to look for.

What is the master link on a bike chain?

The master link—sometimes also called a quick link—is actually a set that consists of two outer plates, with each plate looking like the outer plate of a chain.

A master link from a bike chain in two pieces

Quick-release links allow you to either connect or disconnect a chain even if you don’t have a chain tool. This is the biggest advantage of a master or quick-release link. It also acts as a set of the chain’s outer plates and therefore joins two sets of the chain’s inner links.

A quick link may or may not be reusable, so once you disconnect a chain to replace it, you may end up throwing out the old master link.

There are two types of master links. One is a straight chainline-compatible link, which is found mostly in single-speed and hub-geared bikes. The other is an external derailleur-compatible link.

The type of master link on your bike determines how you should remove it before replacing your bike chain.

What is the master link on a bike chain for?

The master or quick-release link serves one purpose: It allows you to easily connect or disconnect your bike chain. There are specialized tools that make it even easier to disconnect a master link, but as you can see in this video, it can be done with even the most basic tools:

Not all bikes have these links. They are most likely to be found on BMX bikes, single speed bikes or three-speed town bikes with internal gears. The more sprockets a bicycle has on its rear cassette, the narrower the chain must be and therefore the less room there is for this extra-wide master link. If you’re unsure, just measure the width of the gap between your link plates. If it’s at least 1/8 inch, then your chain should have a master link.

How to to find the master link on a bike chain

It’s easier than you think to find your master link. First, go ahead and put the bike in a bike workstand. If you don’t have a workstand, simply turn the bike upside down so that it’s resting on the saddle and handlebars. Once it’s in that position and steady, stand on the drivetrain side so that you can look right at the area where the chain is. Then, turn the pedals of the bike slowly, but watch the chain links as they pass by.

If you look close enough, you’ll notice that one of those links is a bit wider than all the others. The extra-wide link is the master chain link. It shouldn’t be difficult to find because it’s simply a wider link than the rest of them, but you’ll want to be sure it’s the right one before you move onto the next step.

How to remove a bike chain using the master link

Removing a bike chain is much easier when your bike has a master rivet. The first thing you’ll want to do is take a good look at the rivet itself. It should have either a spring clip on the side of the link that looks like a long horseshoe, or some special pins that are easy to release. If it has the horseshoe-shaped clip, just use a pair of needle-nose pliers and pull off the piece that looks like a horseshoe. Then, pull off the side plate of the link and gently pull the chain apart.

A bike chain master link laid out in three pieces
A master link with the horseshoe clip looks like this when it’s pulled apart. (© Chris Yarzab | Creative Commons)

When you have a link that has the special pins in it, just bend the chain where the master rivet is located, and manipulate it like you’re trying to shape that link into a U. Once you do this, the side plate will loosen up and afterward, you can pull off the plate and take the chain apart.

Either of these methods might sound a little complicated, especially if you’ve never worked with them before, but once you start doing the work, you’ll see that the instructions make sense. It should be a very simple and fast task to complete.

How to shorten a bike chain with a master link

There are several ways to shorten a bike chain, but it’s a little easier if there’s a master link to work with.

When you remove the master link, make sure you keep it in a safe place. Keep the loose connection in place with a clamp so that you know where to work, then reach for the pin.

Next, go ahead and remove the pin, but keep in mind that you may have to place a nail over the hook and hit the pin gently with some pliers. This is because sometimes the pin is difficult to remove, but you’ll still want to be gentle if you use pliers. Keep doing this until the pin is completely out. Afterward, you can take a flat head screwdriver and reconnect the master rivet. When the rivet clicks into place, you’ll know you did the job correctly.

How to remove a bike chain that has no master link

No master link on the chain of your bike? No problem! All you’ll need is a special tool called a chain breaker tool and you’re all set to go. The first thing you’ll have to do is slip the chain off of the front gears so that the chain doesn’t snap when you release the tension. Take the chain tool and place it over any link, and make sure the rod of the tool lines up with a pin on the rivet link. Next, turn the tool’s lever to push the rod forward until you see the pin pop out. Once this happens, it means your chain is open and you’re ready to clean or replace it as you normally would.

None of these steps is overly complicated, and you don’t need a special tool—nothing more than basic pliers or a screwdriver. Overall, it’s very simple to find the master link because it’s a completely different size than the rest of the links. If you spend some time getting to know your bike and the chains that make it go, it should become apparent which one is the master rivet and which ones are the regular ones.

The thing is, it’s important for you to learn these skills because as a cyclist, you never know when you’ll need to clean, replace or shorten your bike chain.

Also remember that these rules apply to both regular bicycles and motorcycles, so learning how to do these things can be very useful.