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Back on the Chain Gang

How to perform a lube job on your links.

By Dan Oko

Whether you prefer biking on smooth asphalt or lethal singletrack, the truth is that your chain is likely the most neglected part of your bike. And chain trouble will not just cut your ride short, it also can damage other parts of your bike — potentially costing hundreds of dollars — and even land unfortunate riders in the hospital if their chain sticks or breaks at an inopportune moment. “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve saved from crashing,” says Brad Brown, assistant service manager with Austin’s popular Bicycle Sport Shop.

Brown recommends getting your bike looked over by a trained mechanic twice a year, noting that most bike shops, including his, provide free maintenance classes. He also offers a few crucial tips on keeping your pedal-powered vehicle running smoothly.

The most frequent problems, Brown says, can be linked to common cleaning mistakes. Most people tend to either forget to clean their chain altogether, he says, or if they do clean it, they habitually use too much lubricant. The former tendency leads to rust and lets gunk and grit build up, weakening your links; the latter, thanks to the viscosity of most grease, likewise makes for a dirty chain, and can lead to dreaded “chain-suck,” when the chain seizes between your front chain-rings and bicycle frame. Fortunately, proper care is easy. “It all saves money,” says Brown, “and it all just takes a few minutes.”

  1. The first step to checking your chain is to run your bare fingers along its length. If it feels slick, that’s good, but you do not want the chain to feel “wet,” or overly greasy. Rub your fingers together to feel how much dirt is trapped in the lube, a sign of whether you’ve been paying enough attention. Next, find a clean rag, wipe your hands clean — then grab the chain loosely with the cloth and rotate the pedals to mop up any excess lubricant. Alternately, if the chain sticks or catches on the cloth, add more lubricant. Let it soak in, and re-wipe. Remember, just a little dab’ll do ya’.
  2. Repeat this process every two or three rides — and every time you ride in the rain — checking for stiff links. A good test for rigid spots is to back-pedal slowly and watch for jumps as the chain passes through the rear derailleur. For an on-the-run fix, grasp the chain on both sides of the stiff spot and apply firm side-to-side pressure to free it up. A professional workshop approach, recommended by Brown, is to use a chain tool to gently press on the pin at the point of stiffness. Be careful not to sever the chain or push the pin out of place.
  3. Test for “chain stretch,” which is not caused by the chain actually lengthening but rather by worn-out rollers. When a clean-and-lubed chain still sounds and feels rough, mechanics test to see how much metal has been lost from around the pins. Brown recommends laying your hands on a chain-checker tool; the best, he says, is a $25 Rohloff Caliber 2. The only cure for a stretched chain is a new one. As a rule of thumb, Brown says, most bicycle chains should be replaced at least every 1,250 miles.

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