Background Default activation of the spindle assembly checkpoint provides severe constraints on the underlying biochemical activation rates: on one hand, the cell cannot divide before all chromosomes are aligned, but on the other hand, when they are ready, the separation is quite fast, lasting a few minutes. Our purpose is to use these opposed constraints to estimate the associated chemical rates. Results To analyze the above constraints, we develop a markovian model to describe the dynamics of Cdc20 molecules. We compute the probability for no APC/C activation before time t, the distribution of Cdc20 at equilibrium and the mean time to complete APC/C activation after all chromosomes are attached. Conclusions By studying Cdc20 inhibition and the activation time, we obtain a range for the main chemical reaction rates regulating the spindle assembly checkpoint and transition to anaphase.