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  Latest update: 5/16/2022

The Drive Train



Interested in an in-depth site about chains and chain construction? Harris Cyclery is a site that has all you'll ever want to know.


The play ("stretch") in a worn chain is the result of the normal friction between the metal components (where the pins insert into the face plate) aggravated by abrasion from road grit. A heavier rider, as well as a lot of hills, increases the rate of the mechanical wear. Riding in muddy or wet road conditions increases the grit effect, so spending a few minutes on your chain after a particularly wet ride will pay dividends.

Another way to remind yourself it is time to clean the chain is the "pinch" test. Pinch the chain between your index finger and thumb - between the top and bottom of the chain. No mark? Time for a bit of lube. Fingers black with gunk? Clean the chain. What you want to see is just the slightest bit of a mark. Another clue is the rear cassette. If you're consistently running a dirty chain your cassette will be black with old lube and grime.

Riders often go overboard when applying chain lube. The only purpose of lubing the outside of the chain is to prevent rusting. It'll get plenty without you intentionally putting it there. The focus should be on the rollers and rivets where links connect. It's these moving parts that need the friction reduction from chain lubrication.

Proper application is key to smooth shifting and a long chain life. So how should you proceed? If you don't have a bike stand lean your bike up against a post or garage door jamb in such a way that you can spin the pedals backwards freely. Hold a rag around the chain with your left hand and pedal backwards with your right. As you do this, hold the rag in several positions. Start by pinching the sides (the plates) of the chain for several revolutions then move 90 degrees and pinch the top and bottom for several more. Repeat until you have removed as much grime is gone as possible.

Now that you have a dry, clean chain, get down to chain level and begin with the lower run between the derailleur idler pulley and the crank chain ring in front. If your chain has a master link, you might position it next to the idler pulley so you'll be certain when the whole chain is done.

At this point you can use one of two approaches to apply new lubricant. Apply the lubricant on each side of the chain where the plates come together, not on the rollers. It's the pivoting between the two plates that needs the lubrication not the contact of rollers with the teeth on rings and cogs.

  1. Working toward the rear derailleur, apply one drop of lube to each side plate - roller junction. Repeat for the other side. Then move the chain so that a new section can be lubed. Hold a rag under the links you're working on to avoid dripping lube on the floor and your rim. If you're doing it right, and squeezing out just one drop per roller, the rag won't get saturated.

  2. Or take the bottle of product in your left hand and hold it just slightly above the top of the chain that's exposed on the bottom loop. Try holding the bottle in your first few fingers while resting the others on the swing arm itself for stability better accuracy. Now, while rotating the cranks backwards, apply two thin lines of lubricant. A couple of revolutions per side should be all that's needed.

After applying the lube, continue to rotate that chain backwards for a few more seconds to help distribute the lubricant into the chain's components. Then comes the important part: wipe it down! Use the same technique described above and keep wiping until your rag is coming up clean. The lubricants should displace old lube and grime as they work their way into the chain. So what you're wiping off isn't so much extra lube as old lube and junk. When in doubt, wipe some more.

And don't forget to remove the build up of dirt and wax on the jockey wheels before you are done.

How often should you lube?

A rule of thumb, every 250 miles riding dry, road conditions. For most regular riders that is about a week.

And for wax and dry lubes (rather than oil based), after a ride is preferable so the solvent has a chance to dry before you head out again.

Types of lubricants

Wet lubes, dry lubes, waxing, etc. There is no shortage of products available, with many strong proponents for each. More important than a certain category is to buy a product specifically designed as a chain lubricant, and then applying it regularly.

A couple of comments on lubricants? First from Jim Langley on the website.

"The biggest advantage to wax lubes is that grit doesn't stick to them. Your drive-train remains free of the little sandpaper-like bits that accelerate wear on the chain, cassette cogs and chain-rings. So, although I haven't seen any test results, it's possible that your drive-train components will last a bit longer when the chain is properly serviced with a wax lube. Another advantage is that you won't get your hands greasy repairing rear flats." Jim also points out that paraffin waxes have been around (and popular) for many years, indicating that they perform at least as well as oil based products.

He was asked " Although everything looks incredibly clean despite miles and miles of riding, am I sacrificing anything by not using a traditional "wet" lube?" His answer: "As long as you keep a good coating on the chain, it protects well and feels the same as a lube that stays wet to the touch. Cyclists who have problems with wax either ride in the rain, which washes away the lube, or they don't apply it frequently enough, which results in dry, squeaking links."

But the fans of oil based lubes have their proponents and arguments as well. This is the type of in depth scientific approach that I always like to see. In my book data trumps personal anecdotes. I just ordered my Silca NFS chain lube.

Chain Stretch

Chain stretch is just another way to say chain wear. Lubricate and clean your chain, and you can slow the wear.

You can measure chain wear with a ruler. Placed to 0 at the center of any pin and with a new chain the 12 inch mark should center on another pin. When the 12 inch mark is 1/16 inch (1 mm) past the second pin, the chain needs to be replaced. It is a crude measure which means an increases chance the chain might have worn the freewheel enough that you are in for additional parts costs.

Today there are a number of chain wear indicators on the market. They pay for themselves as you will get more miles out of a chain before it is time to replace, and by replacing in time, you avoid harming other drive chain parts to the degree they need to be changed too.


I found this video a quick primer on chain replacement. Especially the simple trick of using a chain de-tensioner (made my own out of an old coat hanger) to help remove the changeable link.

And this a nice short summary of common mistakes in chain maintenance.

What's new in drive chain technology?

This development was driven by the advent of ebikes and the increased power they can deliver to chains and chain rings. This in turn led to more rapid wear and the need for maintenance. A benefit for non ebike riders is a lighter system which should need less maintenance over time. I'm not sure that an increase in efficiency will make it a "must have".

Downside? Cost remains to be published. Changing a chain every 3000 miles is just 5 minutes of work for those of us who do our own bike maintenance and is a proven technology. But I suspect it will become the standard on higher end ebikes.

A Tip For The Road.

Carry a quick-connect chain link in your seat bag to fix your own chain or to rescue a fellow rider. They make chain repair fast and easy. You still will need a chain tool to remove the broken link, but then can simply insert the special link and be on the road again. It will shorten the chain a bit, and may limit a few gear choices, but you won't have to impose on a friend... or wait for an Uber.



Q. When should chain-rings be replaced? It's easy enough to figure out when chains are worn. And when a new chain skips on cogs in back, we know it's time to replace them. But chain-rings seem to work well even when the tooth profile looks like waves about to crash on the beach.-- DK

A. The smaller the chain-ring, the more quickly it wears because each tooth contacts the chain more often. So, granny rings on triple crank-sets wear fastest, and a 39-tooth ring on a double wears faster than a 52 or 53.This turns out to be convenient because you can judge chain-ring wear by comparing the shape of the teeth on the ring in question with the teeth on the largest chain-ring.

The chain probably won't skip like on a worn cassette cog, though it could on a triple's badly worn granny ring. So you might be tempted to continue using a worn ring, but consider the accelerated wear to the chain when it's being turned by thinner and misshapen teeth. Most riders feel an improvement after a worn ring is replaced. Pedaling is smoother and perhaps quieter. Mechanics recommend new rings when they spot hooked teeth because they know the bike will run better.p How do you know? The fail-safe way is with a Park Tool Chain Wear Indicator.

Bottom Brackets

Drive Train Compatibilities

Like most regular cyclists, I have a few old bikes in my garage along with a box of parts to handle short term fixes. Compatibility is always a challenge. This article may help.


A nice overview of front derailleurs..


Q. I have a Davidson titanium bike with S&M couplers and 9 speed DuraAce componentry. I am looking for a chain with a removable link that I can replace easily when I travel. What would you suggest that would work with my DuraAce set up? RR

A. Luckily a 9-speed Dura Ace gives far more chain options than the 10-speed. Take a look at the SRAM (formerly Sachs) chains. I run the top-end PC-89 model one on my road bike (9-speed Ultegra/Dura Ace) and I absolutely love it. The connection is handled by a "Power Link" that can be connected and removed without tools. I think this would be perfect for your needs. And you can even purchase extra links to keep around in case you lose one. The PC-89 goes for $44.99. See more info here.

Q. This isn't exactly a performance question. It's a technical question. But how often should the chain on a 9 - spd road bike be changed? An area bike shop said every 1000 km - I find that obsessive. Your opinions?- RW

A. It depends on the quality of the chain and how well you maintain it. Anywhere from 1000 to 3/4000 miles. The easiest and most effective approach to maximize miles is a Park chain measurement tool for about $25 that will tell you exactly when to change it. In the long run that is the best deal. The risk in guessing is that you do not change the chain, it stretches and wears the rear cassette. When you change the chain, it then skips. The only solution is a new cassette as well (more than the price of the chain measurement tool).

All questions and suggestions are appreciated and will be answered.

Cycling Performance Tips
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