Chain maintenance is a matter of fanatical concern to purists but it’s ignored by nearly everyone else. Chains aren’t seen as being as interesting or sexy as derailleurs, so the usual advice is to apply a few blobs of lube and wait until it wears out.
But your chain is the precision instrument that hefts you around. It contains more parts than the rest of your bike put together and such complexity demands respect. With a little understanding you’ll be able to break, fit and maintain your chain with ease, lengthening its life and avoiding ride disasters. Read on to find out how.
Links and pins
Quick links, Easy links, Powerlinks: whatever your chosen brand calls them, all are an easy way to break and join a chain. Shimano and Campagnolo chains use special joining pins, but the majority of other chains use some kind of quick link. Most are tool-free, enabling you to break the chain with your bare hands.
Remember, it's important to fit the correct link for the corresponding chain. Don't mix different quick links – eight and nine-speed links won't work on a ten-speed chain.
It always pays to have a spare quick link or joining pin handy, so take one with you if you're going on a long ride or are touring.
Fixing stiff links
Stiff links are caused by the outer plates pushing against the roller. Fortunately, most chain tools have secondary ramps that are used for fixing stiff links.
To get the chain flowing smoothly again, place the stiff link on the secondary ramp of your chain tool and run the tool up tight against the rivet of the stiff link. Now turn the handle an eighth to a quarter of a full rotation clockwise, pressing on the chain rivet to spread the link plates. Remove chain tool and feel for a tight link.
Repeat this process as necessary, pushing the rivet from the other side of the chain each time you adjust it. When the link moves freely, inspect the chain rivet. It must be centred in the chain plates with an equal amount protruding from either side to run smoothly through the derailleur.
Replacing an old chain
When replacing a chain it’s often easiest to measure the new chain against the old one and cut the new chain to length. For chains that use special joining rivets or links you’ll need to completely drive the rivet out of the link plate to cut the chain properly.
If you don't have an old chain to measure against, wrap the new chain around the largest (outer) chainring and largest sprocket, bypassing the rear derailleur. Pull the chain tightly together and add one complete link (one link of outer plate and one length of inner plate) to it. Remove the wheel and thread the chain through the derailleur before joining it together again.
If you’re trimming a chain to length and it doesn't use special joining rivets or links, leave a section of the rivet in place when you remove the link. The rest of the rivet should protrude from the inner side of the link plate. This will help to align the rivet and hold the link in place when it comes to rejoining the chain.
When you’re ready to rejoin the chain, drive the rivet back in, taking care to centre it exactly between both outer plates. If it appears to be more on one side of outer plate than other, push the rivet until it’s evenly spaced.
Shimano chains use specialist rivets, which require you to insert the guide section of the rivet (the pointed end) into the link and use a chain tool to push it through the first and just past the second resistance. The rivets have ridges that sit on either side of the link and if the chain has been joined correctly the link will move freely. When it’s in the correct position the guide section of the rivet will protrude from the link. Use the open end of the chain tool to snap this excess off.
The best way to prolong the life of a chain is to clean and lube it regularly. Clean the chain in situ using a chain cleaner, then lube each roller individually, keeping the lube away from the outside of the chain.
Try to avoid the temptation to run the chain backwards and apply lube in a hurry – it’s wasteful and can overload the links. When you've finished, wipe off any excess lube with a cloth. Relube the chain after wet rides to avoid it rusting and seizing up.
It's a common misconception that chains stretch as they are used. In fact, the lengthening effect is caused by the rollers as they become worn. As the chain wears it deforms the sprocket teeth, which in turn leads to misshifting. You can buy special tools to detect for a worn chain such as the Rohloff Caliber. Alternatively, you can measure 12 complete links. If the chain is 308mm or longer, your chain is worn out and should be replaced along with the cassette.
Chain tools and wear checkers
There are a huge variety of chain tools available. For the home toolbox a big tool makes easy work of breaking and joining a chain. The Park CT-3 is a firm favourite, but the smaller CT-5 packs a big punch for its size and is small enough to lug around. You can detect for a worn chain using a ruler as we’ve mentioned above, but chain wear tools are a convenient way to make regular checks. Wippermann make one that’s quick and easy to use. You engage the tool between the correct number of rollers and if the pivoted tool lies flat, your chain needs replacing.