Factors That Affect the Life of Your Bike Chain
Most cyclists know their bike chain is a critical component for creating forward propulsion. The whole drivetrain, which includes your chainrings, cogs and derailleurs, must be functioning smoothly to ensure a fast and efficient ride.
Of all those components, though, your chain needs the most consistent attention to ensure the whole system functions well. Not only that, but routine maintenance and care can ensure your chain and the entire drivetrain last longer.
Just how long can you expect that chain to last? Longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie has been through a few of them over the years, and he’s got everything you need to know to understand — and extend — the life of your bike chain.
How Bike Chains Have Evolved
Chains weren’t always an essential cycling component — and riding without one didn’t mean you were just spinning your pedals. In the mid-nineteenth century, the earliest bikes, such as the penny-farthing and other models with large front wheels, had no chain for transferring power. All pedaling was done in a direct-drive format, with one-to-one power transfer from pedal to wheel.
The invention of modern cycling drivetrains changed that, introducing a more efficient mode of power transfer into bike design. Bikes moved away from the asymmetrical wheel pairs, making mounting and riding much safer for cyclists. As chainrings and cogs were added over time, cyclists began to have more fine-tuning options to enable pedaling across different types of terrain.
Yet, the expansion of chainring sets and rear cassettes also introduced more wear and tear to bike chains, causing chain life to vary based on bike model, riding style and more. Caring for the chain became as critical to cycling as having a chain was when it was first introduced.
Factors That Shorten or Lengthen Chain Life
With proper maintenance, today’s bicycle chains can last between 2,000 and 3,000 miles — sometimes even longer. However, due to some riding styles or poor cleaning and maintenance routines, they can wear out in as little as 500 miles.
Here’s a look at the factors that can affect the life of your bike chain.
Number of Cogs
The number of cogs — or the gears in your rear cassette — can have a dramatic effect on chain life. The more cogs you add, the more tension it introduces to the chain, resulting in shorter chain life. Darryl notes that some manufacturers report a 50% reduction in chain life simply due to expanding from an 11-speed to a 12-speed rear cassette, for instance.
It’s also important to note that not all chains fit all bikes and cassettes. If you put the wrong chain on your drivetrain, it could cause faster wear and tear — if it functions at all.
Weather and Riding Conditions
Your typical riding conditions can significantly shorten or prolong your chain life, especially if you don’t adjust your maintenance routine accordingly. Rainy weather introduces moisture and road grime, which build up on your chain, stripping it of lubricant and causing buildup on the rollers. This reduces chain performance and can create more wear on your cogs and corrosion of all components over time. The more you ride like this without cleaning and re-lubricating your chain, the faster your chain and cogs will wear down.
Riding style also plays a major role here. Coach Darryl notes that someone who usually rides on level ground at low speeds may get many more miles out of a chain than someone who is regularly climbing and applying more pressure to their pedals.
It’s also important to be aware of your shifting habits when cycling. If you’re not careful about how you shift, you could significantly reduce the life of your chain through cross-chaining.
Cross-chaining refers to a situation when your chain is set in extreme opposite gears in the front and the back — either all the way left in front and right in back or vice versa. Some cyclists call it “big-big” and “little-little” for short, referring to the fact that you’ve shifted into both small or both large gears in the front and back.
What’s the problem with cross-chaining? Darryl explains:
“When the chain is straight, the pressure is evenly distributed from side to side along the chain,” he says. “When it’s cross-chained, it’s stretching the chain from side to side because the pressure is not straightforward and uniform across the chain.”
This extra tension is hard on your chain, and it will eventually snap under pressure. To preserve your chain, you should always avoid cross-chaining.
Cleaning and Maintenance
As we’ve alluded to, cleaning and maintenance are crucial for extending the life of your bike chain. Even when you don’t regularly ride in rainy conditions, your chain needs regular cleaning and re-lubricating to ensure it rolls smoothly and doesn’t wear down your cogs. Once your cogs begin to wear down, your chain will slip more, and you’ll eventually have to replace the entire cassette and chainrings rather than just the chain.
Preserve Your Chain Life
You can’t get by without a good bike chain, but neither should you have to replace this critical component all the time. With a little attention to detail and regular maintenance, your chain can last you 3,000 miles or more. If you ride 100 miles a week and have to change your chain more than twice a year, consider making some changes to your routine to get more out of your chains.