Saturday 29 October 2011

Winterproof Your Bike 1: The Chain

Chain components
(image credit: © Marcus Roeder)
Winter, for all its many pleasures, is hard on bikes - that's why so many cyclists who can't afford to relocate to somewhere warmer put their machines away and don't get them out again until spring; when they dust off the cobwebs, emerge pale and blinking into the weak sunlight and discover they've put on a few kilos and are getting beaten by anyone who kept slogging away through the colder months.

One of the main causes of winter mechanical problems is that your bike will spend more time than usual getting wet. Rain water is bad enough, but it's water flicked up onto the frame from the tyres that really causes problems because it carries a nasty selection of bits of grit, dirt and all sorts of other particles that, when mixed with a little grease and oil, makes a highly effective grinding paste that can wear down your expensive components in next to no time. That's why, if you plan on riding through the colder season, it's a good idea to winter-proof your bike - and best of all, this can be done for free. Well, almost free - considerably cheaper than replacing a drive chain, at any rate. This first installment deals with the heart of the drive chain - the chain itself.

You will need: a chain tool, lubricant, paraffin, two containers as described, patience if you've not worked with a chain before.


The chain is probably the one part of the bike that takes the greatest hammering during the winter. Unless you happen to ride a vintage or utility bike fitted with a fully-enclosed chain complete with oil bath, it's going to get soaked in filthy water every time you ride and in the worst cases lubrication won't last even a single journey. What this means is the chain will need to be cleaned much more often than during the summer. What's that? You clean and relubricate your chain after every ride, just like it tells you to in the "Angel's Guide to Bicycle Maintenance?" Good for you - you must be the only person in the world.

The problem with chain cleaning is A: it's really boring and B: repeatedly removing and reinstalling the chain is a pain.

In the case of the former, there's not that much that can be done; but it's worth remembering that whilst snapping a chain and smashing your teeth/delicate parts on the steerer stem is less boring, most people consider it undesirable and prefer to take steps aimed at preventing it from happening - one of the most effective being to keep the chain clean and thus is a healthier state.

Park Tools clip-on chain cleaner with citrus-based cleaning
fluid and brush.
One way to make the task less of a burden is to use a clip-on chain cleaner, a sort of plastic box that opens up so that it can be filled with solvent or a citrus-based degreaser, then enclosed about the chain and clipped to the chain stay. The cranks are then rotated backwards, driving the chain through a series of stiff brushes and wheels designed to brush off all the old lubrication and dirt. In my experience, chain cleaners of this type don't work particularly well or only for very lightly dirty chains. There is as of yet no alternative to removing the chain and giving it a good clean by hand.

However, as mentioned above, modern chains aren't designed to make repeated removal and reinstallation an easy matter - the reason for this apparent step back being that they're designed to allow gear shifts to be made while pedaling hard (older types required the rider to slacken off a bit or risk snapping the chain), an advantage achieved by a much tighter fit between the chain plates and the chain pins. Whereas it was a matter of selecting a random pin and driving it out with a chain tool with older chains, modern designs require a specific pin to be located and removed in order for the chain to be split - other pins can be removed, but will weaken the join and should not be done unless there is no alternative and, ideally, the chain will be replaced with a new one.

SRAM Powerlinks and (not to scale) a Shimano master pin
If you have a SRAM chain/gear system or an eight or lower speed Shimano system, there's an easy answer: the SRAM Powerlink. Resembling half of a normal chain link, this device has a figure-of-eight shaped hole at either end rather than the conventional circular hole, allowing the chain to be removed simply and without a chain tool as many times as may be necessary. SRAM chains are supplied with them, but some bike shops sell them separately (for some reason, it can be difficult to find them sold in this way - presumably because a lot of shops would far rather you bought a more-expensive complete chain than a Powerlink. If you can't find  them, try Chain Reaction who sell them for a reasonable £3.99)). Unfortunately, the Powerlink doesn't work very well with Shimano nine or ten speed systems, failing to engage correctly with the teeth of the cassette and chainrings and creating a "jump" in transmission. Some riders seem to be able to live with this - personally, I find it maddeningly irritating and impossible to tolerate. There is a solution for those with nine speed SRAM systems in the nine speed Powerlink, a very similar but narrower device, and for those with SRAM ten speed set-ups there's the Powerlock, a device with the notable difference that it can be used once only and must be replaced each time the chain is reinstalled - thus bringing us back to square one and begging the question "what's the point?" Neither of these work with Shimano chains or gears, again causing the jumping effect outlined above. There is another version named the Connex master link, manufactured by Wipperman and which requires no tools at all to use - we haven't tried them, but suspect that they'll create the same problems as the Powerlink.

Chain tool. There are several different designs
Personally, I prefer to ignore all that and just deal with matters in the time-honoured way with my trusty chain tool (a device I carry with me at all times, even when not on my bike, and which has allowed me to play the hero on many occasions by rescuing cyclists who would otherwise have been carrying their bike home) and the replacement pin as used in Shimano and Campagnolo nine and ten speed chains. This replacement pin, looking like a double-length standard pin, is narrower at one end than the other. The narrow end is placed through the chain - thus solving the lack-of-a-third-hand problem that evolution failed to foresee - and the thicker end is then driven into place with the chain tool leaving the protruding narrow section to be snapped off with pliers. These can also be hard to obtain from bike shops, but Chain Reaction do a pack of three for £4.99).
It's quite common to hear people say they find splitting a chain fiddly and difficult but, like most things, it comes with practice and, once you have "the knack," is remarkably easy to get right every time. Describing how to do it would require a fairly lengthy bit of text, so instead here's an instructional video courtesy of The Veloweb...

See? Nothing to it, is there? Practice with an old chain if you're worried about ruining the one you're using on your bike.

Right, so you've got the chain off. Now let's give it a proper, deep clean. What you need is some sort of a container with a tight-fitting lid (an empty soft drink bottle works, but it can be tricky to get the chain back out again - just cut the bottle open if you need to), a shallow container such as a deep tray, some paraffin (or kerosene, if you happen to speak American English) and a stiff brush, either a proper chain-cleaning brush or a toothbrush. Place the chain into the container, then add sufficient paraffin to cover it before giving it a good shake for at least a minute so that the paraffin penetrates all the rollers and begins to loosen the gunk. Remove it from the container and place it into the shallow container with some fresh paraffin, then give it a good scrub with the brush making sure you cover the full length and leave no part unbrushed. Once done, put it back into the original container (or a new one if you did have to cut it open) and repeat the shaking to remove tiny particles freed up by the brush. Having removed it once again, wipe the paraffin off with a clean rag and then hang the chain for about an hour to dry thoroughly.


Now the chain needs to be lubricated. Some people prefer to carry out the process with the chain in place on the bike but many - including us - prefer to have the chain off the bike so as to prevent lubricant fouling the brake pads/disc rotors and tyres/ getting into places where it's not required and will just attract dirt build-up, such as between the cogs of the gear cassette. It's up to you, but the hot wax method described below can very obviously only be carried out with the chain detached from the bike.

Solid and aerosol chain waxes
In a dry winter, a dry lubricant or chain wax that will help prevent dirt sticking to the chain is the obvious choice and there are a wide variety available. Some are sold as a solid wax which can be melted in a saucepan on a stove before the chain is immersed, removed and allowed to dry (using tongs, obviously), others come in an aerosol can with a solvent carrier chemical and can be sprayed onto the chain, the carrier then evaporating and leaving the wax behind. We find that the hit wax method is far superior, since the chain can be stirred around in the molten wax to ensure it gets inside the rollers where it's most needed. Once done, allow to dry and use a clean rag to remove excess wax from the exterior of the chain plates.

10/10 for Finish Line's
excellent wet lube
Unfortunately, chain waxes are not as good at keeping moisture out of the chain as wet lubricants which, being oil-based, will repel water. Again, there are many different types available - make sure you use only a dedicated lubricant sold by a proper bike shop as lubricants intended for motor vehicle use are heavier and sticky, light penetrating oils such as WD-40 only last a few kilometres and common household oils such as 3-in-1 are vegetable-based and corrosive. It is our opinion that you can do a lot worse than Finish Line's Cross-Country Wet Lubricant which, having been formulated with winter cross-country mountain bike races in mind, seems to last better than anything else in wet conditions. Once again, it may prove easier to lubricate the chain when it's not attached to the bike. Lie it flat on a clean surface and work around the length, applying the lubricant only to the rollers and pins - it serves no purpose on the plates and will attract dirt. Allow it time to soak in, then wipe the exterior to remove excess.

Finally, reinstall the chain using whichever process in the video is applicable to the type of chain you have.


It's commonly said that a chain should be replaced annually. However, this applies only in the case of riders who cover whatever the person who first suggested it considered to be an average number of kilometres per year. In the real world, we all ride to greater or lesser degrees and so, while a recreational rider may find that a chain lasts two or more years, a keen cyclist who covers thousands of kilometres per annum will find that their chain wears out and needs to be replaced far more frequently.

A good yardstick is to assume that, for the majority of us who perhaps don't clean and lubricate our chains quite as much as we should, replacement every 3000km is satisfactory in the case of road bikes (cyclo cross and mountain bikes - those mountain bikes that are used off-road, anyway - will need a new chain much more frequently). This will rise to 5000km for those who either have nothing better to do or find a perverse enjoyment in keeping their chain perfectly maintained and even as high as 6000km or more for fixie riders, since single-gear bikes place far less stress on the chain than derailleur-equipped bikes (hub gear bikes also enjoy extended chain life). In the case of a single-speed bike fitted with a fully-enclosed chain and maintained chainguard oil bath, the chain may last considerably longer - it's not uncommon to see vintage bikes fitted with their original chain.

That assumption holds true in summer only and is massively reduced during winter, when a chain that receives average maintenance might last as little as 1000km or less - a week, for some cyclists (fortunately, the majority of riders who cover that sort of distance in a week during winter are likely to be sponsored professionals and thus will not have to pay for their own replacement chains). The best option, therefore, is to replace the chain twice per year with the winter chain being used for a shorter period due to the greater wear it will need to withstand: put your winter chain on at the start of November, replace it with the new summer chain at the start of April and, to keep it running really well, take it off, turn it round and flip it over halfway through each period. It's worth knowing that while a single chain usually costs from around £15 upwards (depending on retailer and model), bike shops both online and on the highstreet often sell three chains for a discounted total.

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