Basic Bike Chain Care

Ann M.

Well-Known Member
Your bike's chain is an impressive component; mostly taken for granted yet a critical part whose care is often ignored. With up to 116 links and 8 parts per link, a bike chain has more moving parts than any other component on a bike. For power transmission, a chain drive is very efficient, although some riders prefer a Gates Carbon Belt drive paired with an internally geared hub and a few bikes use a shaft drive system.

Old style chains had 2 bushings per link that held the inner plates together with the roller pins running through the middle of the bushings. That meant both the inside and outside of the bushing would wear. Today's chains are bushingless, instead having a slight beveled shoulder pressed from the inside of each side that the pins run through. The beveling helps create smoother running when the chain isn't perfectly aligned with the teeth of a sprocket. Bonuses to this design are a chain with better sideways flexibility than chains with bushings and improved flow of lubricant which slows wear and extends chain life.

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As a chain wears or "stretches" part of the link pins are worn away as the links flex and straighten during shifting from one sprocket to another and not by the cyclist pedaling. It's important to check this wear and replace the chain if it becomes too great. Ignore this and you will have to do a more expensive repair, replacing worn sprockets and chainrings along with the chain. Many bike mechanics recommend chain replacement every 2,000 - 3,000 miles; however, with proper care you can get up to 8,000 miles but you'll notice that the chain doesn't shift quite as well or as fast as a new chain would due to the gradual wear.

So how do you measure chain wear? Invest in a chain checker tool: Park Tools, Pedros and other companies make inexpensive chain wear tools that are pretty much a "go/no go" way to determine if it's time to replace the chain. However, there are 2 simple techniques that will provide a good estimate of your chain's condition. With your bike in a stand or level on the ground, shift into the smallest cog in the rear and the largest chainring in the front then gently lift the chain up from the chainring and look at the gap in between. You shouldn't see very much light there when the chain is still in good condition.

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Another simple method to check chain wear uses a ruler or tape measure. Pick a rivet/pin and line up the zero point of the ruler below the middle of the pin and count off another 23 pins. Your last pin should be exactly at the 12 inch mark of your ruler. Over by more than 1/16th inch; it's time to replace the chain, over by 1/8th inch or more you will also need to replace the sprockets and possibly the chainrings. Just replacing the chain when the "stretch" is 1/8th inch or greater you run the risk of the chain skipping and it will wear faster. If you need to replace the chain, remember that the new chain needs to be designed to match the number of sprockets you have in the rear cluster. Chains are also available in different metals and coatings that are more rust resistant to water exposure & corrosive materials like road salts.


TIP: When replacing a chain use the old one as a template for the proper length of the new chain. Line them up on a flat surface, one under the other to help determine how many links you need to remove from the new chain.

Neglect of your bike chain is the primary cause of chain wear. A dirty chain grinds small shreds of metal from the sprockets and chain along with road grit into the lube speeding up the wear on the chain pins and sprockets. Your cycling style also impacts chain wear. Riding in a high gear at a slow cadence places more stress on the chain than does spinning at a higher cadence in a little easier gear. Cross-chaining or riding with the smallest cog in the front and smallest sprocket in the back or the opposite, largest cog in the front with the largest sprocket in the back places the most angular stress on a chain and speeds wear.

Regular cleaning and lubrication are simple maintenance that will extend the life of your bike chain. How often depends upon how much riding you do and the conditions. Riding in wet weather or on dusty roads & trails will require more frequent attention to the chain (as well as other components.) A simple wipe down of the chain with a clean cloth followed by fresh lube will go a long way to keeping your chain performing well. For a better cleaning use one of the snap on chain cleaning tools and a citrus based solvent that's less toxic to dispose of followed by your favorite bike lube. Be sure to wipe off excess lube to keep it from getting on brake components or the rims. BTW, heavier density motorcycle chain lubes don't penetrate a bike chain very well and lightweight oil like 3 in 1 is vegetable based and tends to gum up easily. WD-40 is more of a solvent than lubricant and evaporates quickly leaving behind little lube. The company WD-40 does manufacture a chain specific lube, so be sure to get the correct product.

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For the serious drive chain cleaning, take your bike to a local shop for a pro sonic chain cleaning or at home, remove the chain from the bike with a chain tool or by opening the master link, if it has one. A slender pair of needle nose pliers will help you pop the master link open; just be sure to have a cloth or paper below so you don't risk losing any of the pieces.

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TIP: Take a length of old brake cable, wrap it around the master link from the bottom, cross the cable across itself and tug with your fingers quickly popping open the link. Nice bonus with this technique, no risk of painful pinches from a slipped set of pliers!

After that put the chain inside a wide mouth plastic bottle with a citrus solvent or bike chain cleaning product and shake for a bit. Use the hooked end of a spoke to fish it out and rinse, dry and lube your new clean chain. The bottle with the solvent can be closed for a safer means of disposal. Remember to clean the sprockets and chainrings, too before remounting your chain.

TIP: Aerosol bike lubes are convenient but not optimal for lubing a chain. A drip lube with a fine tip makes it easier to control where the lube goes. Place the lube tip over the middle of the chain where the pins are and rotate the pedals backward as you apply lube. Wipe off any excess.

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A clean, smooth running chain with a properly adjusted derailleur will make your next ride feel amazing. Well worth the small investment in time.