By Jim Langley
It may not look like much, but the chain is among the most important components on your road bicycle. Forget to lube it and pedaling is significantly hampered. Break it, and unless you’re prepared to fix it, your featherweight wonder is almost useless. Choose a quality chain and take care of it, and depending on how and where you ride, you could get a couple of thousand blissful miles out of it. To help, here are my favorite chain tips.
1. On choosing a chain. There was a time when it didn’t matter what brand or model of chain you used on your road bike, but it’s not so simple anymore. Many manufacturers now engineer their chains with dedicated designs to work best on their proprietary drivetrains.
My recommendation for top shifting performance is to use the chain that’s designed to go with your drivetrain, which is usually made by the company that made the rest of the parts, Campagnolo, Shimano, SRAM and so on. Only if that chain gives you trouble, would I try a replacement, and only one that’s compatible.
Tip: Sooner or later you’ll hit a bump while shifting, or make a careless shift and the chain will fall off the front chainring. In most cases on most road bikes, there’s no need to stop and put the chain back on by hand. Instead, just pedal gently and operate the front derailleur to shift the chain back onto the chainring. If you’re climbing when you drop the chain, you can usually reverse direction before you’ve lost momentum and shift the chain on as you descend.
2. Lube and clean in one step. To keep your chain running smoothly and shifting like a champ, keep it clean and lubed. The easiest and fastest way is to apply a drop of your favorite chain lube to every link, wipe the chain thoroughly with a rag to clean it (the lube acts as a cleaning agent), and then add another drop to every link. Wipe off any excess lube and let the bike sit overnight before riding so the lube can dry.
Tip: Due to the special pins required to assemble many modern chains, most chain manufacturers recommend not removing the chain, but cleaning and lubing it while it’s on your bicycle. Another reason they give for this method is that soaking a chain in degreaser (the common reason people remove them to clean them), can completely strip the chain of lube and make it impossible to get enough lube inside the chain again, effectively ruining it.
3. Checking chain wear. There are tools for measuring chain wear, but to me it’s easier to measure the chain with a ruler or tape measure – and you probably already have one. On a new chain you will be able to measure exactly 12 inches from chain pin to chain pin across a span of 24 links. With a worn-out chain, that measurement becomes 12 1/8 inches. If you want to maximize cassette cog and chainring wear, a good time to replace the chain is when it measures 12 1/16 inches. If you wait until 12 1/8, you may need to replace your cassette with the chain.
FYI: People say the chain has stretched; however, what’s really going on is that the chain parts are wearing and developing play, which is why it doesn’t work so well when it’s worn out.
Tip: Speaking of chain stretch, here’s a fascinating blog post on the phenomena from Tom Petrie at Cantitoe Road, the good folks who sell Wipperman chains: http://www.cantitoeroad.com/news/100/66/Chains-Stretch.php
4. Sizing a chain. When you replace a worn chain, you need to size it to the right length because chains come a few links too long. The easiest way to do this is to count the number of links in your old chain and make the new one match. But, if you don’t have your old chain, or you are changing your gearing, that won’t work. To get the chain length right, make sure it’s long enough to shift onto the largest chainring/largest cassette cog combination. Or, if you enjoy calculations, use Park Tool’s chain-length equation: http://www.parktool.com/blog/repair-help/chain-length-sizing
Tip: Be sure to carefully read the directions when installing a new chain, because some have special assembly instructions, require specific tools or are unidirectional.
5. Carry a repair link. My favorite all-time chain tip is to carry a quick-connect chain link in your seat bag to fix your own chain in a hurry if it breaks or to rescue another roadie. They’re available from different makers, like Wipperman, KMC and SRAM, and they make chain repair fast and easy. Note that you still usually need a chain tool to remove the broken link when fixing the chain. But then you can simply insert the special link and be on the road again. If you save a fellow roadie with one, you’ll be a hero.
Tip: The telltale sign of a chain problem is a funny feeling that occurs once each revolution of the pedals and no matter what cassette cog you’re on. If you feel a clunk or pop like this, don’t ignore it, because breaking a chain can cause a crash. Stop and carefully inspect every link on both sides of the chain. Look for a broken sideplate or a pin that’s protruding and fix anything that’s wrong with your chain tool so your chain doesn’t break (it’s okay to remove a bad link, but you’ll want to replace it, or the chain, when you get home).
(Jim Langley has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for 38 years. At RBR he’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop and moderator of the technical forums on the Premium Site . Check his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net , his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter.)