Everything that transmits your pedal force to your rear wheel is made of metal. Chain takes the beating most: over 200 rollers in your chain fight against elongation, friction, crossing between cogs and chainrings, and worse of all, dust and sand. Of course, nut just that: Cross chaining. Hits. Water.
In the past, when we were happily riding our 3×6 groupsets, things were simpler. Cross chaining was taboo, chains were big and bulky, there was no internet to make comparisons or baseless assumptions, and everything was slow. Unless you ride a high-end road bike, you didn’t pedal fast. In fact, you couldn’t; bikes were heavy, tires were not good enough to stick anything other than tarmac.
Now we have up to 11 cogs at the rear, with the same thickness as 6-speed freehubs. (Well; standard 7-speed freehubs are just half a centimeter narrower than modern 11-speed cassettes). So the chains have to be narrower.
Here is a misunderstanding: some people say, old chains wear longer. NO! Even when I was a kid,I managed to break a chain. I did not break a chain afterward. Newer, quality chains do have better metallurgy (alloy and hardened rollers and pins) and better production tolerances; what makes them vulnerable though, is the plates. Old 6 speed bike chains have 7.8mm wide outer plates. 11 speed is 5.5mm, on average (depends on brand). Given that the inner width is almost the same, newer chains compensate it with thinner plates. This comes to a ridiculous point wherein 12-13 speed chains, these plates are paper thin!
Making plates thinner has 2 disadvantages: The first one is obvious; there is less material. Second, they have to be somewhat flexible, or say, not brittle, because newer chains bend even more thanks to 1x drivetrains. That means, you cannot harden these links as much as you want, which is makes them prone to wear; yet still stronger than very old chains due to improved metallurgy and production techniques.
Theoretically, if you can run a modern bike chain on an old 6 speed rear hub, it would probably last 2x-3x longer. Newer chains mostly wear out due to cross chaining. Rollers don’t distribute stress when the chain is not straight, so they wear out on the inner edges more.
The chain is also very efficient. They have up to 98% efficiency; so if you apply 100 watts of power to crank, 98 watts will be transferred to rear cogs, minus chainset losses. If you were Fred Flintstone pedalling your car (assuming it has some form of modern car transmission!), you would lost %15 instead of %2.
Efficiency drops down significantly if you use smaller chainrings, cogs. 1x drivetrains lose more power due to added friction losses, as the chain is under lateral stress almost all the time.
A bad and poorly maintained chain could last only 1000 km, while I’ve seen claims over 100.000 with proper waxing, which I don’t believe. Maybe in lab conditions, but not in real life! On average, you can expect 3.000 to 5.000 km with a mediocre level of care, on a road or randonneur bike. Replacing your chain when in doubt is cheaper then ruining your drivetrain.
So, what effect chain life besides cleaning your chains and lubing? You may be surprised to hear this, but clutch or overly tight derailleurs don’t do any justice to you, and the chain.
To sum up, dirty bike chain will terribly suffer in the longevity department. 1x drivetrains put out a lot of strain on bike chains, as they have to dramatically flex due to cross chaining. If you’re a heavyweight grinder like me, you’ll be putting on too much stress on a chain, compared to a lightweight roadie riding with super high cadence. You need to lube your chain; though waxing is absolutely better. And, even butter is better than no lube at all!
What’s inside a bike chain?
This is what your chain is made of. In the past, we have bushings, but now, rollers (tiny ring on the front) run on coupled plates. See the protrusions? Rollers are sandwiched between these and held together by the pin (top left).
Since the looks do not inspire confidence, these chains are rock solid. The link in the chain is taken from a pretty new one, but corroded a bit, due to neglect.
Tools for chain
You need to have some tools for chain maintenance, or replacement. Basically, you will need 3:
- Chain breaker: Used for “cutting” longer, new chains to fit your bike. A must-have tool not to spend a fortune. Buy one with long handles, so you’ll have enough leverage. Also, make sure the pushing pin is small enough to fit your chains’ roller pins. You also need a chain breaker if you religiously follow Shimano’s instructions: Previously, Shimano was selling some special pins to connect chains, saying using a master link will disturb the space-time continuum. These things were stupidly expensive as you might guess, and required replacement every time you remove the chain if you care to remove it after so much labor.
- Link pliers: You’ll need those to remove “missing links”. You can remove missing links in 100 ways, which all of them are wrong, dirty, time-consuming and either damage you, or the components.
- Chain Wear indicator (chain wear tool): If you are using your lube more than the wear indicator, or chain wear tool, you are doing it wrong. Get a decent one, if you can find one. Most of them are pretty useless. An ideal one should be made out of brass, stored in exact same temperature, and calibrated in a lab. I’m joking. Or maybe not. Maybe just don’t buy it, use old school methods instead. Like, getting it off the bike, and measure with a ruler, or compare with a new chain.
Also, get big-enough steel, or aluminum container like an old pan. These are handy for washing dirty chains. You’ll always need this if you’re doing your own maintenance. Metal ones are easier to clean up and do not melt with nasty stuff you’ll probably use (a lot).
It’s nice to have 3 sets of missing links. I carry a spare on my bike, and one at the tool drawer; obviously one on-chain. Get good ones. These are the “weakest links” on your chain because at least the ones I saw, are thinner.
I never use “exotic” plastic cases with brushes to clean my chains. They look miraculous in some hands, but they don’t work well for me. It’s not hard to remove the chain altogether, and wipe with a dry cloth.
Which chain to buy?
I did not test any chain with a valid and scientific method, so my observations are purely anecdotal here. I’m in no position or capacity to advise you to buy a specific chain. Do not ever trust
anecdotal evidence. It’s just perception. I do not care much about chains, as long as they come from a good brand, and fit my drivetrain. I do not care about one being 18 grams lighter than the other, or having 0.00032% less friction, either.
I don’t buy exotic stuff. The most expensive thing I bought was an Ultegra chain, to see if there is a difference. It looks fancier, lighter, but did not make me a Tour de France winner. For me, the sweet spot is Shimano Deore or Sram 1051 on 10s drivetrains.
I prefer Shimano or Sram over other brands because they also produce cassettes and chainrings. Not because I am a fanboy; I shop for chains when they are in discount and that’s what I get. And obviously, especially Shimano, is very easy to get your hands on. They’re everywhere, unlike KMC, YBN, even Sram – this is the situation in my country; your mileage may differ.
Things are a bit harder when you go over 10 speed. For example, for 8 speed, all components either from Sram, Shimano, or whatever are the same. 9 speed is forgiving, too.
But for 11 or 12, even 10, you get directional chains. 11 beyond, chains are not compatible. So, if you have 12 speed Sram, you’ll have to buy an SRAM chain. Or, a compatible, aftermarket chain like YBN, KMC, Wipperman, etc.
You may see some 11-speed aftermarket chains that are claimed to be compatible with all brands. Well, they are – but it will not shift as nice as the original chain. In my book, this should be considered as “incompatible” after you spend a few thousands to a brand new 11 speed drivetrain.
Even with 12-speed chains, internal width is always the same, so exchange them, if you HAVE TO. They won’t run well, at least, you wouldn’t want your 2000$ drivetrain to shift like a Tourney. It’s the same for Sram. They changed teeth profiles again. It all started with Hyperglide, Shimano reshaped tooth profiles to have bevels, for better shifting. Now, they have Hyperglide+ and Sram have X-Sync. Shimano uses some weird, chamfered internal plate design that works best with Hyperglide+ sprockets. And yes, it’s different from SRAM X-Sync and X-Sync 2. In fact, you cannot use ANY 11 speed Sram chains on high-end, brand new X-Sync 2, which is designed for 11/12 Eagle drivetrains for MTB. Frustrated? Yeah, me too!
I don’t and probably won’t have an 11 or 12-speed drive train before I get very old. To wrap up, you need to be extra careful with 11s drivetrains and up, when choosing a chain. Better, use Shimano chains for Shimano drivetrains, and Sram chains for Sram drivetrains. When 8 or 9 speed were still available and considered middle-end, you can mix and match Sram, Shimano or even some boutique stuff, and get best of all worlds. It’s becoming impossible these days. They want you to pick sides. I’d expect 21st century to be more open, cooperative and united, yet we live in an age where both people and every establishment are overly opiniated, indoctrinated and polarised.
Can I run X speed chain with Y speed drivetrain?
Compatibility is not a word bike parts manufacturers like. Things are getting less compatible each day. Up to 9 speed, it is sort of “compatible” – You can use an 8-speed chain with a 7-speed drivetrain if you can find it these days. A 10-speed chain works with a 9-speed drivetrain or vice versa. But a 9-speed chain works with a 10-speed drivetrain a tad better; because 9 speed cranksets have wider gaps on front chainrings, meaning chain will drop and suck into chainrings if not hyper-precisely adjusted, which is impossible. You can run 9-speed compatible cranksets with a 10 speed chain and drivetrain by shaving off on the sides of inner ring mounts very precisely; probably should be done by an experienced machine shop.
Chains are cheap to buy, so I would use an incompatible chain if I absolutely have to. I wouldn’t buy a 9-speed chain for my 10-speed drivetrain, because I know it ONLY somewhat works and 1$ cheaper.
How can I change my chain?
Replacing a chain is super easy if you have the correct length chain for your drivetrain, which is almost impossible!
First, you need to figure out which chain to buy, and how to size correctly. It may be a rather complex procedure for modern bikes, but the charts and data there will absolutely help you do it flawlessly!
How should I clean my chain?
There are lots of products and methods to clean a bike chain. My preferred method is to use a dry, clean rag after a dusty ride. If it’s muddy, I remove the chain, completely clean it, wax it if I can, and put it back. Here is how I clean my chains.
Fanatical chain care
I see people fanatically lubing their bike chains. I don’t think it’s a good idea. I’ll leave this discussion to the “Lubes” topic.
Don’t overdo it. If I lube my chain (instead of waxing), I only reapply it when I feel the need. That’s over 300 km in dry weather, not less.
Get a good brand, dependable “Chain Wear tool”. When I say chain wear tool, I’m referencing to a non-existant one – so, get a good tool means, when there is none, do not buy it! Yeah, use ruler instead, or keep a spare, brand new chain for reference. There are so many methods to determine is your chain rocks or sucks.
I make some bike-specific tools myself; but not precision ones. Regularly measure your chain. If it is elongated, change it. Chain is the cheapest link in your drivetrain. An elongated chain will churn out chainrings first; then the cassette cogs.
Clean your chain regularly, with a lint-free , preferably dry rug.
Waxing your bike chains is obviously superior to any lube if done properly. It’s cheaper, your chain and all drivetrain will be spotlessly clean, have less resistance, and be more eco-friendly.
If you’re too lazy to wax your chain but brave enough to ride in the rain, you’ll have to get 2 bottles of lube, for wet and dry conditions. Dry lubes mostly contain a thin carrier base and highly carcinogenic particles called PTFE, also used in cookware. Surprised? It’s called Teflon. Unfortunately, PTFE is a very efficient material to minimize wear. Still, do not use it. It won’t kill you if you don’t inhale it, but I don’t like the idea of promoting the production of super-toxic substances, albeit indirectly. I was a great fan of Molykote products in automotive/marine applications, but I doubt the formula has changed to include PTFE. Their magic formula was Molybdenum Disulfide. MoS2 is scary for some people. When I was using Molykote’s bearing grease, some mechanics thought bearings are busted because they have metallic particles in the grease. Molybdenum Disulfide is nonmagnetic. It’s almost as effective as PTFE in raw form; but in commercial products like Molykote, the resultant mix generally includes Boron Nitrate and some other metal particles like Titanium. Some off-the-shelf products like Silca Super Secret Chain Lube (not kidding!) include Molybdenum Disulfide. It is wax-based, liquid-in-a-bottle chain lube. Instead PTFE based products, at least you can get wax-based products using any other “powder” like MoS2.
Wet lubes have higher viscosity carriers, and still, use “additives” like PTFE. They are messy in dry weather, because all kinds of dirt, even tiny insects, will stick to your chain. My advice: get two chains, lube one with wet lube, another one with dry lube. Use a dry-lubed chain in dry weather only, and a wet-lubed one in wet weather. That way, you won’t have to clean sticky, gunky wet lubed chain to switch to dry lube.
I hate the idea of aerosol-ing every liquid available. There are cans that only include air! That’s crazy. You’re buying something, made of tin, shipped thousands of kilometers to you, because it includes air, available everywhere, and luckily, it is still free (for now?).
Chain lubes in aerosol form is a very bad idea in every sense. For starters, you mostly pay for compressed air, along with some nasty gases. For example, in a ~400ml paint can, you barely get 100ml of paint. I saw a guy who painted his car with 70 cans, and he can probably buy a compressor and a cheap airgun at the same price. Got the idea? You get less lube.
When you spray the lube, you throw most of it to atmosphere, not the chain. It also gets into your tires, and probably to your brake rotors and pads as well, obviously not good for reducing stopping distance.
We want chain lube to penetrate into rollers. In order to achieve this, you have to spray very liberally, and slowly to make sure it does not drip, but gets into rollers. This never happens. What you are doing is, spraying a dust collector to roller and plate surfaces, where it shouldn’t be at the first place.
Motorbike owners use aerosols, because they cannot spin the crankarm backward to move the chain. Lubing a motorbike chain is no joke. You may easily lost a few fingers if the engine is running but your brain doesn’t. That’s why there is almost no choice other than aerosols, at least for normal people driving their motorbikes.
I’m also concerned about flying PTFE particles going out the can. Aerosols are messy.
..or belt drives are better?
Currently, there is no derailleur system for belt drives; but obviously, 14-speed Rohloff rear hubs are available, if you have that kind of money and a compatible frame.
Belt drives look like a novel idea: they are virtually silent and need no lubes. (In fact, any oil kills them)
Toothed belt drives are things that make the engine run on your car. In the past, most engines used chains to drive camshafts. The belt, or the chain, links the crankshaft and camshaft(s) in an engine. Later, they dismissed chains in favor of belts, because chains have a bad habit of getting longer in time, which results in a rough run on cars. Also, it’s noisy, and in most cases, more expensive. Since then, most engines use belts, not chains.
So, is it the best idea?
They need special frames, pulleys that replace chainrings are bulky and heavy, they do not tolerate heat, oils, and guess what? sand and dust, too!
Yet, I think it’s best for long tours, not randonneuring, and would definitely buy such a bike with 14 speed Rohloff hub, if I had a few thousand dollars to spare(!).
Not to mention they don’t like heat, UV rays, extreme cold, salty water, or any chemicals. They are only practical for Dutch-style city bikes, where the belt is not exposed, and you don’t need a huge range of gearing that is sensibly spaced. It’s also good for touring to some degree.
A strange story: Automotive industry replaced chains for belts, which ran dry, as belts does not need oil, right? Well, Peugeot thought otherwise: they partnered with Continental, which makes some nice tires for bikes, because they concluded it lowers friction by %30. That %30 translates to less then 1 hp. Then, belts started to crumble because it cannot withstand oil. Before reaching 100.000 kms, engine oil galleries clogged and you can imagine the rest of the story. Continental changed rubber (or whatever it is) compound, and Peugeot started to use very special engine oil, which costs up to 100% compared to similar oils. Morale of the story? Belts are strong and dependable, but fails catastrophically if you don’t know how to threat them.
Do not overpay for degreasers. Every degreaser, except dish soap, includes nasty chemicals. I do not use aerosols. Please don’t.
If my chain is super messy, I first give it a wash with dish soap. If it’s good for your nasty and oily food, it’s good for chains, too. That removes most of the gunk. Then I leave the chain under the hot sun. If there is no sun, or the sun is not hot for some strange reason, I use my trusty heat gun. My choice of nasty chemical that cleans everything is acetone. Talking about industrial-grade obviously; not the ones to remove nail polish (I assume!).
Some people use petrol/diesel, then a degreaser. That’s a valid way, too. In fact, I use whatever is available. I use acetone because my OCD is to keep my acetone stock full at all times. You can use paint thinner instead of acetone. (Not the oily stuff used in enamel paints – it’s mostly kerosene – I’m talking about laquer thinners).
Do not think petrol is enough for pre-waxing cleaning; judging it is not oily stuff like diesel. Well, it is. Detergents in petrol are carried by light oils. Still, petrol needs less “degreasing” compared to diesel; but I still prefer diesel when cleaning super aggressive gunk: it does not evaporate as crazy as petrol, thus much safer, and also I can filter and reuse it.
Hey, gasoline melt my chain!
Manufacturers likes writing disclaimers for everything. They try to make sure if anything fails for any reason, then its not their fault, because they warned you. Sometimes they are over vigilant for things they cannot predict.
Short answer is, petrol, diesel, kerosene is not bad for your chain.
And finally, that unicorn blood comes with a brand new bike chain!
A long-going debate is as to whether lube a brand new chain or leave the sticky thing that comes with the chain. Some people say it’s the best lube ever, and nothing can beat it.
Here is what I think: it’s not a lube! It’s a protective coating. Without it, a brand new chain will rust in a matter of days, if not hours. Is it that good? NO! It’s terrible, sticky stuff.
Even if it’s a superior lube, its most probably expired already when you bought your precious chain. Sometimes I get brand new parts that are over 10 years old! (New-old stock). No oil or lube will be fit for service for that long. The rationale behind the claim is that no lube will penetrate between plates/rollers/pins: all parts are lubed in the factory before they are put together. That’s not the case. At least, for chains, I know. Once the chain is completely assembled, it’s passed through an oil tank, and that’s it. It’s not even soaked, or whatever that unicorn blood is, pressure-fed into moving parts. Just hype.
For very old chains that still have bushings, yes, penetration is a big issue. Not sure, but these chains are lubed before being put together in the factory; and that I think, this is where / when the legend comes from!
So, it is better to wash and lube/wax a new chain vigorously before you use it. With using strong degreasers! You don’t want a sticky, expired gluish thing with a dubious chemical composition running in your chain. That sticky stuff is really strong. On one occasion, I have to wash an SRAM chain vigorously, 4 times, to get rid of it altogether, just on the surface. I thought paint thinner, which is strong enough to make an old chain shine in a single dip, will immediately wash away that weird stuff, but didn’t work.
I have checked Sram and Shimano manuals, and both brands do not say anything about the first installation, regarding the lubing procedure. This is very annoying and not a good business practice.
Better, as I say always, wax your chains.