Bike Chains, Part 6

Table of Contents

Endless Post

This is Part 6 of a series of 9 posts organized as a single work,
collectively “endless”. There are 8 parts, individually published as
posts on this blog, and a table of contents of the series in the 9th post. The series is organized into sections, numbered for reference, in the series table of contents and in the toc for each post. In March and April 2024 I reorganized and revised the long article extensively. This post has been most recently updated April 23, 2024.

17. Drive Systems

Modern Chain

In 2022, most modern bikes on the market in Canada and the USA, other than e-bikes, children’s bikes and a few single gear specialty bikes, have drive chains compatible with derailleurs and rear wheel cog cassettes with 11 or 12 cogs. These were once cutting edge innovations – now standard features.

Roller chains are being used on cargo bikes and e-bikes. Some chain manufacturers claim that e-bikes with the motor situated at the bottom bracket or chainwheel (as opposed to the drive wheel hub) put higher stresses on chains than chains for non-electric bikes can withstand. Some bike manufacturers use regular bike chains and rear derailleurs on cargo bikes and e-bikes. Some use purpose-designed chains, which may be bushed or wider than chains for road bikes, gravel bikes, mountain bikes and hybrids. Older bikes requiring chains compatible with derailleur shifting with less cogs are in use.

The flexible roller chain powering the bicycle, by powering gearwheels on the drive wheel shifted with a derailleur on the drive wheel and usually a front derailleur on the chainwheel, is an established technology in wide use. The chain drive will be around, and manufacturers will be making chains for years to come.

The thin, light, bushingless, steel roller chain has a short life expectancy. To make chains thin, chains have short pins. To make chains light, link plates are thin; many chains have hollow pins. Adam Kerin of Zero Friction Cycling (“ZFC”) suggested to CyclingTips in 2019 that 11 & 12 speed chains are more durable than 8-9-10 speed chains due to technological innovation:

It’s commonly said that the wider chains of past drivetrains were more durable. Sure, older 8-, 9- and even 10-speed systems do offer wider cog widths which provide increased surface area with the chain, but does that actually mean the chains are more durable?

It’s a question I posed to Kerin after the previous testing was done, and he got the Zero Friction Cycling torture machine up and running again to find out. In this, he tested the top Shimano chains from each respective speed, and the results may surprise you.

It seems that with each gear added, durability has improved. And at least for Shimano chains, 10-speed saw a significant jump in durability from 9- and 8-speed, and Shimano’s latest 12-speed XTR mountain bike chain rules the roost as Shimano’s most durable offering.

The reasoning for this is less clear, but certain materials have improved, manufacturing processes have become refined, and new low-friction coatings have been added. Similarly, the chain designs themselves have changed, and where 8- and even 9-speed chains would see the inner links turn solely on the connecting pins, newer chains typically see these forces shared across the pins and specifically stamped plates, too.

Dave Rome, CyclingTips, 2019, Finding the Best Bicycle Chain

Consumers have been “educated” by their experience with the actions and words of the bike industries to realize that some bike components have limited “service lives“, and to accept that the mean time before failure of a modern bike chain is only a few hundred hours of riding.

Other Drive Systems

The Sturmey-Archer 3-speed AW internal gear hub system was used on Raleigh bicycles for many years. There are articles and resources at Bicycle Technical Information (“BTI” – the Sheldon Brown site), such as “Servicing Sturmey-Archer 3-Speed Hubs“, and other manuals and support resources. There is a BTI article on Internal-Gear Hubs. Shimano had a 3 speed hub in the Nexus line, discussed in a 2017 article at BTI, “Shimano 3-speed Hubs“. Shimano manufactured and supported the Nexus and Alfine internally geared hubs, discussed at BTI – Shimano Nexus/Alfine. Several of these hubs have a friction or coaster brake. Some were available with a fitting for a disc rotor or plain (for rim brakes). Most are available with a sprocket for a chain. The more recent/modern Alfine models have also been available fitted to work with a belt drive. There is technical information at BTI on the Shimano Alfine 11-speed hub. These hubs gained support but had problems. Shimano was not the only manufacturer to launch internal-gear hubs.

According to the BTI glossary, the shaft drive and the belt drive have some history. The shaft drive appeared at the beginning of the 20th century, disappeared, and has been revived in 21st century prototypes: Ceramic Speed is raising funds for its Driven technology – a 99.2% efficient shiftable drive shaft. Belt drives reappeared late in the 20th century e.g. the Gates Carbon Belt Drive.

Buyers may be able to get alternative drive systems some day. Some alternative drives are on the market now, somewhere. An alternative drive system may be an option for a home mechanic, or a shop option.

Some modern thin chains on the market are durable. ZFC tested “top” Shimano 8-9-10 speed chains, and a top Shimano XTR 12 speed chain. In the CyclingTips NerdAlert podcast episode March 16, 2022 “Finding the best chain lube for your needs” Adam Kerin mentioned the features of those chains, including the use of chrome in the manufacturing.

18. Durable Chains

Introduction

Not all chains by the same manufacturers are equally durable – it depends on plate, pin and roller, material, machining, metal treatment, coating, lubrication and conditions.

Chains by different manufacturers also vary. The technological gains in the chains noted are unevenly distributed in the industry. Bike manufacturers and bike shops do not regard chain replacement as their responsibility, and do not have inventories of chains as spare parts for specific bikes. Replacement of few worn links is generally not feasible. In modern commercial and economic thinking, chains are consumables. A bike shop can sell a new chain to replace a worn chain.

In an interview with Global Cycling Network tech journalist/presenter Alex Paton “They Don’t want your chain to last this long” in March 2024, Adam Kerin diffentiated some SRAM chains as better value than other SRAM chains on the basis of SRAM’s “hard chrome” treatment of chain components (which seems to be the use of chromium alloy steel plating on some chain surfaces).

Durable chains, compatible with modern drive trains and cassettes cost more. Those chains are not available from all manufacturers, or to all purchasers and riders in the markets of the world. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Buyers and riders have lighter, thinner bushingless chains that are more vulnerable to wear. Light and thin can be cheap or expensive. Durable is more expensive. Modern chains have associated costs.

There were reports of counterfeit chains on the market during the pandemic. The elusive idea/hope buying a cheap high reputation branded chain on the internet has suffered more. Which other chains are durable?

Data, Records

A rider should know when a chain was installed or lubed last, and the distances the bike has travelled. A cycling computer has trip odometer. Keeping trip records in the device or an app requires tinkering with the device and the settings – and turning the device on. The rider may store trip data in an app that stores it in the cloud, or in spreadsheet or chart or table, or in a notebook.

Tested Chains

ZFC initially planned tests of lubricants and tests of chains but has done more lubricant tests than chain tests The initial 2018 document laying out the chain “longevity” (durability) testing is still online. The ZFC data chain durability is not as detailed as the material on lubricant testing. ZFC found that some chains were more durable than others in tests run with White Lightning Epic Ride dry-drip lube.

ZFC posted bar graphs of the durability test results in a “News” item in 2022. Some of the results are explained in CyclingTips Finding the Best Bicycle Chain article, which adds to the ZFC results:

  • Some chains were retested;
  • The ZFC “cost to run” results are graphed in $US.

ZFC also publishes a pdf version of a “consolidated” Chain-Efficiency-and-wear-life” results bar graph.

ZFC is attempting to measure some of the real world effects of chain construction, lubricants, and operating conditions in tests that represents the real world. Josh Poertner of Silca Velo has provided an explanatory gloss on Adam Kerin’s lubricant testing work in a couple of Silca Velo channel YouTube videos:

In 12 speed chains, ZFC thought SRAM Eagle XX1 and X01 could run about 5,000 Km, and the Shimano XTR 9100 to about 4,000 Km., with the dry drip lube, based on pure elongation results. The ZFC lubricant tests indicate that a high quality chain will last longer with paraffin lubrication. ZFC suggested, in an extrapolation calculation in the lubricant testing spreadsheets, that a few specific modern Shimano chains, immersion waxed, can be run for 25,000 Km.

Will what those manufacturers of these expensive 12 speed chains have done be replicated in production lines other chains by any manufacturer?

The best 11 speed chains in the elongation tests, among those tested by ZFC, at over 3,000 Km., were SRAM XX1, Campagnolo Record, and YBN SLA. ZFC found, in its cost to run 10,000 KM. calculations, several chains at about $500 (Australian), or about $200 (US), making assumptions about chain replacement and other drive train component replacements. The cost to run numbers in US dollars are in in a bar graph in the CyclingTips article. Several chains show at $150-$200 US per 10,000 Km. Online or retail stores list economy and mid price bike chains under the SRAM and Shimano brands from $30 to $50.

Adam Kerin was cited by CyclingTips in”Finding the Best Bicycle Chain” as regarding the Campagnolo Record and YBN SLA as “excellent choices”. YBN chains can be ordered from MSpeedwax in the USA and other regional dealers elsewhere, including ZFC in Australia. MSpeedwax lists the SLA chains at about $70 US.

YBN is a brand of YABAN Chain Industrial Co., Ltd., a manufacturer of steel products based in Taiwan founded in 1989. SLA is used to describe chains made with “Special Lubricating Aid”, a coating described as “NI-PTFE blend”. The Yaban site, in late 2023, discusses the SLA-110 chain.

An SLA-110 chain has YBN’s SL+ feature, a laser cutaway section on the inner and outer plate. YBN claimed 8,000 Km life on its SLA-110 11 speed chains, which it describes:

the SLA110 comes standard with laser cutouts and hollow pins to reduce weight; DHA chromium hardening to increase service life (up to 8000 kilometers); and Ni-PTFE treatment to reduce friction and drivetrain noise. Add in chamfered plates for precise shifting

Ti-Nitride treatment for durability / …  / Flat-step riveting for pin strength exceeding 350kgf / Salt spray test: 500 hours / Arc guide block design for chain stability / Thin plate construction for shift accuracy / Size: 1/2″ X 11/128″ / Pin length: 5.5mm / Total number of links: 116 / For road and off road use

YBN manufactured, at one time, SLA-1110 chains. Molten Speed Wax, the US dealer for YBN had a stock of SLA-1110 chains. It had some with the Black Ti Nitride coating in 2022 and still has some in other colours in late 2023. MSW’s description:

Blue collar workhorse chain for training or racing

  • Compatible with all 11sp drivetrains
  • Ni-PTFE treatment for reduced friction and noise
  • DHA chromium hardened pins and rollers for increased longevity
  • Solid chain plates for maximum strength and stiffness
  • High-quality nickel plating for durability and rust prevention

Dave Rome in the Waxing Endless FAQ at CycingTips online but paywalled in 2023, noted that Adam Kerin suggested an immersion waxed YBN SLA chain can be run for 15,000 Km., waxed with Molten Speed Wax (proprietary paraffin blend), if the wax is refreshed at intervals of about 300 Km. The article did/does not distinguish between SLA-110 and SLA-1110 chains.

Adam Kerin stated under the heading “How Long will waxing last?” on the Waxing Instructions page:

Rewaxing by recommended 300 Km. mark, the average for a top quality chain like YBN to get to recommended wear replacement mark of .5% is 5,000 Km.

….

Erring on the earlier side. i.e. re-waxing in the 200 the 250 mark [range] brings a big jump in chain and drive train life span again. From 100 Km. post re-wax there is literally zero wear … From 100 to 200 Km., the friction and wear increase is minute.

….

Adam Kerin, however, did not distinguish between YBN chains, or between the YBN 11 speed SLA chains – SLA 110 and SLA 1100.

Decision & Results

In February 2022 I ordered a YBN SLA chain with Black Ti-Nitride coating from Molten Speed Wax, and a few pounds of MSW. The production and delivery of Molten Speed Wax in early 2022 was delayed by supply chain and logistic issues. They shipped me a pre-waxed chain, but no wax. I got the chain just after I had replaced a broken rear derailleur hanger, and had the bike serviced (replace the cable to the rear derailleur tuning the setting of the rear derailleur). It was in bubble wrap and a sealed plastic bag. It lacked cutaway sections on the inner and outer plates. It was an SLA-1110.

I did not careful clean the lube/dirt gunk out of the cassette or scrub the chain wheels. I put the new chain on the bike. I ran that chain (the black one) for 557 km, which is far longer than advised.

I ordered and installed a second waxed chain. I received an SLA-110. I stopped running the second chain it at 472 km. At that point I installed a new SRAM chain (I called it SRAM ’22 in my notes) lubricated with Silca Synergetic.

When I got some Molten Speed Wax in May 2022 I waxed the two YBN SLA chains. I began to run those SLA chains. I did made efforts to deep clean them with solvent a few times.

My first YBN SLA 1100 chain lasted about 5,000 Km before it reached replaceable wear in September 2023. My second YBN SLA-110 chain at just over 5,700 Km, as of March, 2024, has not reached replaceable wear.

My decisions to to run those YBN chains as long as I did, and some bad cleaning practices contributed to chain wear.


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