Bike Chains 6 – Durable Chain

Table of Contents

Bikes

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 appeared or reappeared late in the 20th century with the Gates Carbon Belt Drive.

Alternative drive systems may arrive. Buyers may be able to get them on some new bikes some day, or buy them 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. I am not going to discuss alternative gearing or drive trains further.

Other Options?

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. Basic bikes are more expensive.

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 chain drive will be around, and manufacturers will be making chains for years to come. 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.

Thin and Light Chains

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 in an interview with CyclingTips, noted in a 2019 article 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

There are qualifications in this quote. Only a few modern thin chains on the market at this time are durable. ZFC tested “top” Shimano 8-9-10 speed chains, and a top Shimano XTR 12 speed chain. The chains in this sample were durable. In the CyclingTips NerdAlert podcast episode March 16, 2022 “Finding the best chain lube for your needs” Adam Kerin mentioned some of the distinctinve and innovative features of those chains, including the use of chrome in the manufacturing. Not all chains by the same manufacturers are equally durable – it depends on 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.

There are durable chains, compatible with modern drive trains and cassettes, but they cost more. The gains 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. Progress in bicycle chains has diverged. 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?

Replacement & Improvement Chains

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.

More Durable Chains

ZFC found that some chains were more durable than others in tests run with the low viscosity, low reputation, White Lightning Epic Ride dry-drip lube. ZFC posted bar graphs of the durability test; no spreadsheets; no narrative chain reports. 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.

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., based on pure elongation results. These chains are expensive and not easily available. It is doubtful that whatever those manufacturers have done will be replicated in production lines for 11 speed (or lower) 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 n US dollars arw in in a bar graph in the CyclingTips article. Several chains show at $150-$200 US per 10,000 Km.

Adam Kerin was cited by CyclingTips in”Finding the Best Bicycle Chain” as regardng 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 list the SLA chains at about $70 US. Other online or retail stores list economy and mid price bike chains under the SRAM and Shimano brands from $30 to $50. YBN claims 8,000 Km life on its SLA 11 speed chains. YBN describes SLA chains:

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

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. Elsewhere (noted by Dave Rome in the Waxing Endless FAQ at CycingTips), Adam Kerin suggesed 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., Adam Kerin stated his views on waxing YBN chains 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.

….

Decision

In February 2022 I ordered a YBN SLA chain from the US dealer, Molten Speed Wax. They shipped me a pre-waxed chain. It arrived as I was replacing the rear derailleur hanger and a frayed cable, and having the rear derailleur serviced. I put the new chain on the bike. I am happy with a waxed chain.

Waxing by immersing the chain in melted wax lubricant involves

  • a different way of cleaning – according to waxing advocates, less cleaning and less handling a black, oily, gritty chain;
  • a different approach to lubrication with different supplies, and a schedule.


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