CHAIN REACTION: CHECK, CARE, REPLACEMENT
Michael Stenning links things up ....
Chains are arguably the bike’s most highly stressed component. Neglect has the very real potential to damage you and cannibalise expensive drivetrain components, so it pays to check, clean and replace them at regular intervals.
Though chains appear to stretch, this sloppiness is caused by bushes, links and pins wearing out. As the miles rack up, without regular chain care and replacement, more expensive components including rings, cassettes start assuming their profiles - hence why a new chain will kick up on old sprockets. A slower process with a 1x10 or 1x11 perhaps, but 30 speed triples can succumb to cocktails of oil and grit grind alarmingly quickly.
Weekly cat-licks (especially through winter), measuring wear and light lubrication are the best route to long and happy component life.
I’m as lazy as the next rider; but know a little discipline means I need only replace a cassette every third, possibly fourth chain, which is much cheaper than chain and cassette every time. Can’t be arsed, too tight? Prepare to fork out a whole lot more on rings, jockey wheels - derailleurs too if you’re really slack.
The simplest test requires trying to pull the chain away from the front ring – two or three links worth of light is fine, more suggests retirement. Alternatively, remove the chain, place it on a flat surface and try to mould it into a circle; fresh examples will just about form a graceful curve; if it will curl round and kiss the other end - discard. Again, anything this tired dictates a new cassette and scrutinise rings closely for hooked or missing teeth.
Tools £5 - £60
Used properly these will save you a packet, optimising component life so replenishments can be ordered in a planned and coordinated fashion.
Simple analogue designs such as this nickel plated BBB work by measuring the distance between two points.
If the prongs seep in, allowing the tool to lie horizontal; then it’s replacement time. These will measure at 0.75, which is fine for 8, 9 and 10 but highly strung 11 speeds are spent come 0.50, demanding more precise, sliding gauges. If you have several bikes of different vintages/grades then these are arguably a better bet.
Digital versions such as this Feedback Sports (KMC) are arguably the most precise of all and my tool of choice.
They’re well-made and battery life is pretty frugal but, on the downside, horizontal displays are more user-friendly and, there’s the small matter of £50….
We’ve covered this subject back in issue and there’s a bewildering array of choice depending on conditions and rider preference. Some can cost as much as a replacement mid-range chain, others less than a pub-pulled pint.
Factory lube - yep the stuff your brand spanking new chain comes dressed in is one of the best kept secrets. This stuff really lasts - I typically get a month’s worth 500 (400 in winter, conditions allowing). Once spent, I’ll run chains through the solvent bath and add something more specific.
I prefer a middleweight formula for most of my fleet, although my fixed gear winter/trainer and other single speeds are often fed something stockier through the wetter months, since their simplicity means the witches’ brew of lube, grit and salty residue have less impact.
Self-cleaning emulsion types generally require a few hours’ curing time but embedded debris simply flake away before they can turn malicious. A good choice for forgetful types or if giving links/side plates weekly cat licks feels too much like faff.
Choosing a Replacement
This will depend on a variety of factors. First and foremost, check compatibility with your existing component group - 9/10/11spd chain with corresponding groupset is hopefully a no-brainer. Eight speed chains will play nicely with 6 and 7 speeds - if you’ve still got something that old.
Most standard derailleur chains are around 114/116 links long - ample for a racier solo but widely spaced ratios on Tandems/Trikes and some E-bikes merit something longer. Obviously, you can buy an identical replacement, although many OEM chains are well worth upgrading.
Super svelte models with titanium nitride coatings and similar exotica might be just the ticket for sunny days’ playthings or racing thoroughbreds on strict calorie controlled diets. The needs of tourers, winter bikes and workhorses are different again. Arguably in this instance, the salt monster will consume even the best kept examples, so why not run something less sexy and replace it more frequently?
I really like this Stainless X1 (below left) paired to a CNC machined, straight cut track sprocket with hardened titanium oxide coating for my fixed gear winter/trainer. This comes at a price and some riders will regard basic bevelled sprocket and chains better bets.
Others prefer galvanised “rust-less” versions. Even with care, 3/32 derailleur chain lifespans are as little as 700 miles during winter. Something sturdy but pretty such as this KMC X9 (above right) and Tiagra block feature hardwearing but pretty nickel plating and command £27, which strikes a good mid-range note and aren’t too wallet wrenching to replace.
Most brands use some form of “magic” tool free connecting link, which are super convenient, although only use that designed for your system.
SRAM’s “power-links” are colour coded. Curiously both 8 and 10speed are black but clearly labelled. Crucially 8 and 9sped versions can be split and reused whereas the 10speed mustn’t.
KMC magic link is designed compatible with pretty much everyone’s but if going the Campagnolo route, you’ll need that specific version. Unlike Sram, these can also be broken repeatedly without failing.
Fitting a replacement (tools)
Having dropped by your friendly local bike shop or added to cart, like for like replacements are pretty much plug 'n’ play.
Split the old chain and place it on a flat surface. Lay the new one beside and cut to suit Standalone Rivoli types are best but those on better quality multi-tools are also surprisingly nice to use.
While you’re there, give the cassette a quick blast of degreasant - takes about thirty seconds and gives a much better idea of its condition.
Feed its successor through the mech(s), ensuring it loops around the jockey wheels but crucially beneath the metal tab and on the smallest sprockets. Things are more or less right when the rear derailleur is just picking up the tension - quick spot of model paint is useful for pinpointing the section that needs pruning with your chain tool. Remember NOT to drive pins completely out when chopping down to size…
Once everything’s securely joined coupled, check shifts are smooth and glitch free-even on the taboo combos - big to big, small to small. Work/tune up stands start from around £15 and are perfect for this sort of fine tuning.
Sagging chains are a sure fire way of causing paint, or more serious structural damage. Stretched mechs mean that even though all the gears may still engage, it’s asking for something to jam under load.
Stiff links are relatively uncommon these days but easily released by gently manipulating those affected with a 2/3mm Allen key.
If you’ve gone for slightly different ratios, often the rear mech adjuster screws will need a quick nudge. However, new chains will kick up on tired sprockets slipping, say, on the smallest (11 or 12 tooth) sprocket indicating the cassette is well past its prime.
PUBLISHED JANUARY 2016
Rivoli types are best but those on better quality multi-tools are also surprisingly nice to use.