Q: Hi Jim,
I saw your website and like it. I was trying to learn how to install a quick-release skewer on the front wheel of my bicycle so I can take the wheel on and off without needing tools. I bought just the quick-release skewer at the bike shop because I thought that’s what I needed.
When I got home, I unscrewed the nuts on my wheel and removed it from the bike frame, but I couldn’t figure out how to attach the quick release. I thought it took the place of the big bolt running through the wheel that the nuts were screwed onto. But, I can’t see any way to attach the skewer to it. And, I can’t get the bolt out of the wheel. Can you please explain what I need to do?
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To explain how to switch to a quick-release axle, let’s start with some bicycle part definitions. You have a bolt-on wheel. A wheel that is held onto your bicycle with nuts. That threaded part that the nuts you removed were screwed onto is called the axle. The part of the wheel the axle passes through is called the hub. Your axle type is called a bolt-on or solid axle because it’s basically a threaded steel rod.
What you want to do is turn your wheel into a quick-release wheel. In order to do this, you need to remove that solid, bolt-on axle and the parts on it, and replace them with a quick-release compatible axle and parts (called a quick-release axle set).
This new quick-release axle set will have a hollow axle (it will have a hole right down the middle). It will also have a shorter axle that does not protrude past the frame on either side. The quick-release axle set gets installed in the wheel. When that’s done, the quick-release skewer gets installed into the hollow QR axle and then your wheel will be a quick-release wheel. Here’s an animated explanation of how to operate a quick release skewer in case they’re new to you.
In order to change the axles in your front wheel, you need to get the right quick-release axle set for the hub on your wheel. Since hubs vary a lot, the best way to do this is to visit a bicycle shop with your wheel and tell them what you want to do. They can look at your wheel and the axle set it has and check their selection of quick-release compatible axle sets to find the one that will fit your wheel. You should probably call first to make sure they have axle sets in stock and don’t need to order one for you.
To switch the axle sets, you need cone wrenches to remove the parts on your current axle so that you can take it out of the hub. Then you can install the new quick release-compatible axle set. Cone wrenches aren’t expensive, but it may be cheaper/easier to have the shop change the axle versus the cost of the tools, parts and labor. Once the QR axle set is in there, your wheel will be a QR wheel.
The photo shows the differences between the axles sets. Note that the quick release includes the lever (on the left), the skewer (the rod that passes through the hollow axle), 2 springs (that keep the quick release ends away from the axle so they’re not in the way when you put your wheel on), and the quick-release cap, the part on the far right that closes on the right side of the fork to lock the wheel on when you close the quick-release lever.
You can also see an example of cone wrenches. Shown are my vintage Campagnolo cone wrenches, among my favorite tools. The ones you get will look different but have the same thin jaws. They’re thin enough to fit in between the outside nut on the axle and the cone. You hold the cone with the cone wrench that fits, and turn the outside nut counterclockwise to loosen it. Then you can take both off the axle and pull the axle out of the hub.
The cone wrench has to fit the cone and they come in different sizes, so if you want to buy the wrench, you need to either buy several sizes and hope you get the right one, or measure the flats on your cone on your axle and order the wrench that’s the right size. You'll probably need a 13, 14 or 15mm cone wrench. Some shops sell cone wrenches too and they could tell you which one to buy if you brought your wheel in for them to look at.
Check The Hub Bearings Too
When you remove the bolt-on axle, look inside the hub at the bearings. There should be nice, shiny steel ball bearings inside with a film of grease on them that’s clear or white. If instead you see black grime or red rust, you’ll want to purchase new bearings and replace your old ones with them. Be sure to clean the inside of the hub thoroughly and put new, clean bicycle grease in before installing the new ball bearings and axle set.
Adjusting The Hub Bearings
Use your cone wrench(es) to fine-tune the bearing adjustment. The new axle set should feel super smooth when you turn it with your fingers, and there should only be the tiniest trace of play when you pull up and down on the axle. Also, be sure to lock the adjustment by tightening the locknut against the cone. Check both sides, too. When you adjustment is right, the slight play in the axle will go away when you clamp the wheel in your bicycle.
Here are few issues you may run into when switching axles, and workarounds for dealing with them.
The new cones are larger in diameter than the old ones and they don’t fit through the dustcaps on the hubs.
If you have a grinder or a drill press, it’s easy to machine the cones to a smaller diameter to fit through the dust caps. To do it on the grinder, leave the cone loose on the axle. Then hold the axle and rest a finger on the cone as you touch the cone to the grinder. This lets the cone move along the axle while you apply just enough pressure to remove enough material off the cone, letting the cone turn beneath your finger, which acts as a brake to control how long each part of the cones gets ground by the grinder.
On the drill press, you can put the axle in the drill-press chuck and turn on the drill press and simply hold sandpaper or a file against the cone to machine it to a smaller diameter.
The quick-release axle set went into the wheel fine, but now the wheel doesn’t fit into the bicycle because the fork is too narrow.
You need to spread the fork blades to be wide enough apart to accept the new, wider axle spacing. This is a little scary, but the forks that you’ll experience this with are usually made of relatively soft steel. If you stand in front of the bicycle and grip one fork leg in each hand and pull outward evenly and simultaneously with both hands, there’s an excellent chance you’ll be able to add the 2 or 3mm you need on each side for the new axle to fit. If you get it right, the wheel will slip right in and be centered when you tighten the quick release. If you get it wrong, you’ll need to move one side of the fork a little until the wheel fits and is centered.
The quick-release axle set went into the wheel fine, and the wheel fits in the bicycle fine, but when you close the quick release it doesn’t clamp down on the frame - the wheel remains loose - it won’t tighten.
This issue is caused by basic stamped-steel dropouts (the parts at the end of the fork that the quick release clamps against), that are thinner than the higher-quality dropouts quick releases were designed around. The problem is that the quick-release axle is too long for these narrow dropouts. So, when you try to close it and tighten the wheel, the QR bumps into the end of the axle instead of clamping on the fork dropouts. The fix is filing material off the ends of the axle until they no longer interfere with the quick release.
There you go! Now, enjoy the convenience and fun of having a quick-release front wheel!