Chain quick links: A guide to easy connection
Chain quick links, connecting links, missing links, master links – whatever you call them, they’re fast becoming the common way to join a chain.
As one of the smallest components of a bike, quick links all but remove the risk of wrongdoing and open up possibilities of removing a chain for thorough cleaning, pedantic travel or nerdy lubrication. For years KMC, YBN, SRAM and Wippermann have used such links, while Shimano and Campagnolo held out and stuck with special replacement pins. However, even Shimano is now changing its tune and its latest 11 and 12 speed chains are available with master links.
CyclingTips tech writer Dave Rome reveals how to use quick links, which are best, whether you can re-use them and what tools are worth owning.
How a quick link works
A chain is made up of a series of interlinking and alternating wide and narrow plates. Each plate is held together with a pin, or rivet, and the inner links of the chain articulate around this connecting point. A quick link works by replacing one “outer” chain link with a pair of slotted interlocking outer plates that feature permanently set pins. The force applied to a chain pulls these two opposing links into a closed position. Squeezing the links together (with enough force) will see the link come undone, which is why it’s also commonly called a quick release chain link.
Unlike joining a chain with a chain pin and a chain breaker, master links offers a solution that’s more resistant to human error. Similarly, quick links open up the possibilities of cleaning (or lubricating) the chain off the bike, whereas breaking a chain by driving out a pin creates a weak spot, and so chains installed with a pin are best left on until worn (or alternatively, install a master link!).
How to install a quick link
Installing a quick link is relatively easy, but there are a few things to pay attention to. The video above details the basics, with directions provided below, too.
1. Ensure your chain is the right length and that both ends of the chain are open inner links, (using a chain breaker) as needed.
2. Insert the links through the chain’s open ends so they oppose each other.
3. Sit the pins of each link into the larger slots of the opposing link. Ensure both sides of the link are engaged with each other (failing to do this will mean the link is unsafe to ride).
4. You can now pull the link into its closed position. If using an 8 or 9-speed link, you can now simply pull the link shut with your hands, although you may need to squeeze the link together at the same time.
5. Newer 10, 11 or 12-speed links have progressively become tighter and I’ve found the use of tools greatly eases the installation process. Squeezing the link together between your fingers often eases the process and this is only possible when using the proper tools. Look for tools that apply outward pressure with leverage – KMC and Shimano offer such tools, but few others do. Simply insert these pliers into the rollers of the link and squeeze and the link clicks into place.
6. While I prefer to use tools, connecting a tough link can be done without tools. With the link semi-connected, pedal the chain to be centered above the chainstay. Hold the rear wheel (by the tyre) with one hand, and apply firm pressure onto the pedal in a clockwise direction with the other. This force will help spread the chain and close the link. A pop or click should be heard if you’re successful. Inspect the chain to ensure the pins are fully seated.
7. If step six is unsuccessful, then rest the bike on the ground. Ensure chain link is centered above the chainstay, firmly apply rear brake and stand on drive side pedal. Push down until the link seats.
Note: Wippermann has a unique re-usable “Connex” link that does not require any force to close. See our video above or Wippermann’s instructions for correct use.
How to remove a quick link
Removing a quick link is simply a matter of reversing the process of installing it, however, newer 10 and especially 11/12 speed links are locked into position and require significant force for removal. Most newer quick links are designed as a one-use item, and so re-opening them will weaken the locking function. I cover this in more detail later.
If dealing with an older 8 or 9 speed link, then squeeze the two plates of the link together and slides them toward each other. Grit inside the chain can make this process tricky and so a little wiggling may be needed.
For 10, 11 or 12-speed links, you’ll need to use tools to open the link. If you plan on replacing the chain and don’t have the tools to undo the link, you can use a chain breaker on any chain pin other than the master link to remove the chain.
When using the appropriate tool, simply insert the tool into the nearest rollers and squeeze the handles. This will pull the link together and undo the quick link.
If you don’t have this tool, then there are two hacks. First is to use a combination grip or needle nose plier, place the jaws of the tool on opposing diagonal edges of the quick link and squeeze. This method will likely damage the quick link and so replacement is strongly recommended. The second option is to use a thick cord or string, wrapping it in your hands and pulling it in opposing diagonal directions. This is a good hack for some chain links, however, it’s not suitable for extremely tight links such as Shimano’s SM-CN900, where you’ll likely cut your hands due to the force required.
Note: Again, Wippermann links are re-usable and do not require tools to use install or remove.
Mixing and matching quick links
Mixing and matching quick links is no new feat, and riders have done so successfully from the days of eight-speed drivetrains. Much of the demand for mixing comes from Shimano and Campagnolo’s commitment to replacement pins as a joining method.
As it turns out, while chain brands certainly wouldn’t recommend any mixing and matching and I do believe it’s safest to stick with the correct brand link, it’s typically no problem to do so.
Those with older eight or nine-speed chains should find success with using KMC, SRAM or Wippermann links on just about any chain of the same speed.
Ten-speed users can also openly mix and match between 10-speed chain manufacturers and 10-speed quick links. However, do beware that Campagnolo 10-speed chains are narrower and require specific links, something offered by both KMC and Wippermann.
For 11-speed I tested all the popular links on the market and found there to be total cross-compatibility, including with Campagnolo chains. However, what’s somewhat unusual is that the outside widths of connecting links do vary.
Wippermann is marginally wider than the rest. My (brief) testing of the Wippermann links showed they worked as well as the other links, and I got similar successful reports from other riders and mechanics. However, do be aware that they’re the only link that doesn’t “lock” into position, and so a freak dropped chain, chain suck or similar may see the link dislodge. And while I previously experienced some weird ticking noises with Wippermann links on 10-speed chains, I couldn’t find such issues with 11-speed.
Professional mechanic Win Allen, owner of Wins Wheels, uses quick links on a daily basis. “In the shop we use the KMC links for Campy and Shimano, SRAM we only use SRAM links,” he said. “Now that Shimano is supplying 11 and 12-speed chains with quick links we only use Shimano links on those chains. The rest are still getting the KMC links. I’ve never found the need to mix and match since we always have the right brand links in stock and my preference is to keep brands together.”
It’s still too early to tell about absolute cross-compatibility for newer 12-speed links, however, Adam Kerin of Zero Friction Cycling suggests he has customers using SRAM Eagle 12-speed links (a mountain bike product) with Campagnolo 12-speed chains without issue. According to Kerin, “SRAM Eagle chains are 5.26mm wide, Campagnolo 12-speed are 5.15mm, seems the 0.11mm difference is fine.”
Reusing quick links and which ones to buy
I used to recycle my 9-speed links from chain to chain without issue. When wear would appear on the pins of the master link, I’d replace them, but would otherwise remove the chain freely from the bike until that point.
However, when SRAM introduced its 10-speed quick link, it had clear instructions not to reuse them. They were a one-shot item. Opening the link would burr the locking tab off the link and in the best case it would become less secure, worst case, it could cause a stress point. I’d tempt fate and reuse them anyway on my own bikes, and always without issue, but I’d never do that to a customer’s bike. After all, a broken chain can be a very dangerous thing.
Newer 11 and 12-speed links are much the same as those 10-speed links, and most are designed to be closed once. Shimano, SRAM and KMC (one variant) sit in the “non-reusable” corner and recommend replacement if removed. However, there are endless reports of people who have successfully reused these links without issue, myself included. If you’re willing to chance it, then pay close attention to the force required to install the link. As Win Allen suggests, “I have reused the Shimano link with much success, but only if it still has a tight fit when re-installing it. If there is any question it gets replaced.”
Vincent Gee, a former WorldTour mechanic, and now head mechanic with American team Aevolo, is another who loves the tight snap of Shimano’s new link. “[While] non-scientific, I do like the heavy snap/engagement of the Shimano Quick link over the SRAM version. With SRAM I can simply hold the wheel and apply pressure to the crank with my hand to close it while the bike is in my work stand. With the Shimano version, I can do the above method sometimes. And sometimes I have to set the bike on the ground and step on the pedal to close it.”
For those looking to regularly reuse a quick link, perhaps for detailed chain cleaning or submersion waxing, then I’d suggest either replacing your quick link every second to third use to play it safe. I’ve found that the closing force is noticeably reduced by the fourth or fifth use on Shimano, SRAM or KMC links. Alternatively, choose a reusable quick link.
A little-known fact is that KMC offers both reusable and non-reusable quick links for 10 and 11-speed chains. The packaging will detail which is which, or otherwise, a close look at the link itself will tell you what you’re dealing with. Annoyingly, most sellers of these links don’t specify what they’re selling. Do beware that similar replacement rules apply to the reusable KMC links, and once they stop requiring force to close, you should replace them. KMC suggests they are only good for 2-3 uses. Additionally, while KMC suggests its non-reusable links work with Campagnolo chains, they unusually suggest otherwise for the reusable model – I reached out to KMC for an explanation on this but haven’t heard back.
A great-value option is YBN. These links are extremely similar to the KMC Missing link and are claimed to be good for up to five uses. Compulsive chain and chain lube tester Adam Kerin of Zero Friction Cycling says he typically reuses his YBN links 5-10 times, and without issue to date.
An alternative to these KMC and YBN links are the Wippermann Connex links. These unique links are easily reusable many times over without the need for tools at all, instead relying on a special extended shape that can only open with the corresponding outer chain plates articulated out of the way.
Of the links I’ve used, I’ve found very little difference in quality or reason to choose one over another. My preference is to play it safe and stick with the chain manufacturer’s specified link and replace it as soon as the closing or opening force reduces.
If you plan on taking the chain on and off the bike semi-regularly, then I’d recommend either the YBN or KMC reusable links. The Wippermann Connex is another strong option; they’re easy to use and seemingly work just fine, but I don’t love that they’re a hair wider, longer in length and an odd shape.
The best Quick link chain pliers
While Wippermann Connex and just about all 8 and 9-speed links can be removed by hand, the rest require an element (or a lot!) of force. A dedicated tool is worth owning if you plan on re-using a link.
Just about every tool brand offers a master link plier and they all do much the same role and in the same way. They simply hook into the rollers of the chain and work to squeeze the master link open.
Some models feature outside grooves to help pull the rollers apart and close a link, however, pulling plier handles away from each other is awkward and lacks mechanical advantage. Such a “closing” feature is almost pointless with tight links. However, there are exceptions.
Shimano’s TL-CN10 tool is by far and away the best available, simply because it works to open and close links with a leverage advantage. This a huge asset when dealing with tight links, and no other tool I tested has this feature (note: It seems this tool is sourced from Super-B, who also offer such a tool, albeit with simpler handles. And X-Tools also now offer a version of this). KMC comes close, in that it’s the only other tool to offer a squeezing action in closing a link, however, it’s a separate tool to the link opening version and so you’ll need to buy two tools to do what the Shimano achieves in one.
After Shimano, there’s not much to separate the rest, and many are clearly from the same factory. Made in Europe, Unior’s tool is the highest quality, but can’t be used to close links. The thick handles of BBB and Park Tool, meanwhile, offer the comfiest usage. X-Tools (old version) was the cheapest tested and does the job, but the handles can also get stuck on each other, so be warned.
Given how similar these tools are, I’d suggest deciding on whether you want the tool to help close the link or if you’d rather do that task sans tools. If it’s the latter, pretty much every quick link tool on the market will work for home use and I’d just suggest picking your favourite brand, colour or the best-priced option.
If you’re interested in something to take with you on a ride or stash in a small travel kit, then both Wolf Tooth Components and Clever Standard offer suitable products. Clever Standard’s product (also sold by KMC and a few other brands) is two tyre levers that inter-link to make a functional master link plier. Do beware that the reinforced plastic won’t stand up to regular use in a workshop, but it’ll suffice for occasional use. As previously reviewed, the USA-made Wolf Tooth Pack Pliers are in a different league, and include storage space for spare links, a valve core tool and a tyre lever into an impressively small package. The Wolf Tooth pack pliers aren’t comfortable (or easy) to use on super tight links, but they’ll do the task in a pinch and durability isn’t a concern.
Linking it all together
As it turns out, it’s hard to go wrong with quick link or tool selection. There are nuisances, but there’s little to fear with these tiny components. To play it safe, the general advice and official company line is to stick with the chain and connecting method that your drivetrain manufacturer recommends. However, if you choose to heed this advice, it seems your options are plentiful.