Gear

Technical Q&A – Everything you ever wanted to know about dirty chains*

Dear readers,I have gotten so much mail on the chain wear and replacement issue, thatI decided to clarify my perspective on the cost/benefit equation and postthe best samples of the mail I have recently received opposing as wellas supporting my position. I just completed writing a new book that I turned in to VeloPress lastThursday, two hours before flying off for my annual appointment to competein (or suffer through) the American Birkebeiner, the great 51km cross-countryski race in Wisconsin. The book, which is sort of my "Top 50" list of things you can do tobe faster, more efficient, more

*but forgot to ask

By Lennard Zinn

Dear readers,
I have gotten so much mail on the chain wear and replacement issue, thatI decided to clarify my perspective on the cost/benefit equation and postthe best samples of the mail I have recently received opposing as wellas supporting my position.

I just completed writing a new book that I turned in to VeloPress lastThursday, two hours before flying off for my annual appointment to competein (or suffer through) the American Birkebeiner, the great 51km cross-countryski race in Wisconsin.

The book, which is sort of my “Top 50” list of things you can do tobe faster, more efficient, more comfortable, and to have more fun on yourbike, will be out in the fall. It will look something like this preliminarycover. In the book, I have a chapter on getting the most out of your chain,so I have recently had to ponder my perspective on the subject.

Replacing your chain frequently is one way to ensure proper drivetrainfunction. While professional racing teams certainly do this, you do notget crates of free chains each year like they do. The cost of the narrowerand more precise chains keeps going up, so the financial incentive to getmore chain life may be substantial.

How you determine if your chain is shot turns out to be extremely subjective.My perspective is that you should replace any part on your bike as soonas it gets out of spec. I recommend buying and using a chain-wear indicator;I find the Rohloff go/no-go indicator to be quick and easy to use, andPark’s CC-2 Chain Checker also will do the trick. Or, measure against afoot-long ruler. As we have discussed here in the past, I recommend replacingthe chain if the edge of the link rivet head at one end of the ruler is12-1/16 inch or more from the identical rivet head edge 24 segments away.

My opinion about chain replacement is based on disastrous races longago, in which my chain and cogs did not mesh because one was worn morethan the other. Whenever I pedaled forcefully, the chain skipped, ruiningmy race and endangering me to boot.

As a racer, I had several bikes, a number of pairs of wheels, and yetmore freewheels and cogs. I interchanged all of them. I discovered thehard way that, in a single race of an hour or two, I could ruin brand-newcogs by using a worn chain. This was terribly disheartening, because, notonly was a new freewheel (remember those?) very expensive for a poor bikeracer like me, but so were the race entry and transportation costs thatthe skipping chain had ruined. And that does not mention all of the trainingand hopes for a good placing that had been dashed. I also learned fromRon Kiefel crashing on his head when his chain skipped while sprintingfor a prime in the North Boulder Park criterium in 1981.

Even if I had a worn chain and had made sure that I was only using cogsthat had worn in with it and would not skip, disasters could happen. Ihad four flat tires in a single stage of the Tour of Ireland in 1981, andif I had been using an old chain that had skipped on the cogs of the fourspare wheels I used for all of that hard, out-of-the-saddle chasing, Iwould have been even more pissed than I was already!

Even though I had little money at the time, the costs of using a wornchain were way too high for me to be willing to pay, and, from then on,I have made sure that as soon as I have any indication that my chain isworn, I replace it. Now, I have 10 different bikes and at least 20 cogsets, and I switch wheels around between them constantly. It messes everythingup if I have one bike with a worn chain going around and wrecking a bunchof cog set. I can get many years of use out of a cog set if I only usein-spec chains.

Things were admittedly different in the early 1980s, when I could geta Sedis Sport chain for four bucks or so. Now, a 10-speed chain can costas much as twenty times as much. But if you have more than one cog set,I see no way around it. A chain is still cheaper than a good cog set, especially one made out of titanium!

Flipping out
Wayne Stetina, Shimano’s R&D manager, says, “If you remove thechain when it is only halfway worn out and flip it over,” he says, “youwill double your chain life.” In other words, your chain will now be turnedinside out. The other side of the rollers will now contact the gears, andthe derailleurs will now be laterally bending the chain the opposite direction.Stetina says that Shimano engineers discovered this phenomenon quite byaccident.

Today’s narrow chains do not allow you to push out any old rivet youwant to accomplish this flip. Try it, and you could find yourself flaton your face! When you stomp down, the chain link plate could peel offof the end of the rivet. On Shimano, you need to use a new “subpin.”

SRAM and Wippermann chains have a master link, which allows you to performthis flip very easily. Campagnolo chains come with only one link pin, andit is supposed to be inserted through a “virgin” hole in the open linkat the end of the chain, so you cannot perform this reversal.
Lennard


True grit
Dear Lennard,
I train through the winters here on the roads of New Jersey, whichare a good grimy mix of New England winter and mid-Atlantic drizzle. Thisinvolves riding through endless miles of grit. It doesn’t matter how muchI clean my bike, at the end of every day it’s a total mess.

With all the melting snow, there are no dry days in the winter here.Even when I spend an inordinate amount of time meticulously cleaning mychain (as opposed to riding), I’m hard pressed to get a whole month outof a chain before it wears to the point that my cog-set would be incompatiblewith a new chain. I find that most of my friends who replace their chainaccording to conventional wisdom are inside on the trainer when I’m outcommuting to work. Instead, I just leave the same old chain on, wipe itfrom time to time with a rag, and add oil when it squeaks (frequently).

My chain stretches further than my trusty bike shop mechanic has EVERseen, but, because it’s continually running along the same cog-set, itlasts for an entire year, at which point it begins to shift off the bigring when it’s cross-chained and I pedal hard – out of the corners in acrit for instance.

So, instead of buying twelve new chains per year ~ $400, I buy a singlechain and cog-set once per year ~ $125. (this of course doesn’t includewhat I could recoup buy selling the slightly used cog-set on ebay ๐Ÿ™‚

For reasons that don’t fit in a paragraph, I don’t think this significantlycompromises the strength of the chain. Quite often I’ve seen a mechanictell someone with an over stretched chain that they must replace the chainand cog-set. While I may be one of the few to employ this method intentionally,I know I’m not the only one who ends up doing it. Why isn’t this toutedas one option for chain maintenance?
Rob

Just keep it clean
Dear Lennard,
I thought you and other readers of chain wear might like to know thatI have gotten 7000 miles out of my Dura-Ace 9 speed chain and cassettebefore the chain started skipping. And I put this old chain on my mountainbike and I am still using it for XC mountain biking. But I have replacedthe chain and cassette on the road bike. Bottom line is clean and lubeyour drivetrain every 300-500 miles and your drivetrain will take careof you. This is my recommendation for road bikes.
Darrin

Penny wise; Pound foolish
Dear Lennard,
I’m rather amazed at all the hype that is going on in the tech forumabout the chain wear subject; you know its a plain and simple fact thatif the chain is stretched beyond its usable lifespan then its time to changeit.

I do agree that with religious maintenance to the chain its possibleto get some more miles out of it, but then its going to be changed anywaywhen its gets stretched, so just toss it when the time comes and considerit a fact of wear and tear.

However there are going to be those in the cycling crowd that wouldcomplain at the cost of replacing a chain around every 1500 to 2000 miles,and complain even more so when they have to spend a bigger set ofmoney to replace the cogset and chain because the whole thing is worn beyondrecognition all in an attempt to extend the chains life on the cogs whenit is worn.
Allan


Technical writer Lennard Zinn is a frame builder (www.zinncycles.com), a former U.S. national team rider and author of several books on bikes and bike maintenance including the pair of successful maintenance guides “ Zinn & the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance” and “Zinn & the Art of Road Bike Maintenance.”Zinn’s regular column is devoted to addressing readers’ technical questions about bikes, their care and feeding and how we as riders can use them as comfortably and efficiently as possible. Readers can send brief technical questions directly to Zinn. Zinnโ€™s column appears here each Tuesday.