You are here
No votes yet
by Robert Hurst
Rousseau said: Men are born free but everywhere are in chains. A profound observation which foretold the bicycle craze. Then Aretha came along and said: Chain-chain-chain, chain of fools. Which sums it all up quite a bit better in my opinion.
The invention of the chain drive in the 1880s (almost exactly halfway between Rousseau and Aretha) enabled bicyclists to escape the purgatory of the highwheeler era, during which their pedals were shackled directly to those comically large front wheels. Along with Dunlop's pneumatic tire, Starley's addition of a chain and gears to the bicycle was certainly one of the most important waypoints in the entire history of personal transportation. The chain drive was a revolution in personal freedom and human dignity.
Not long after the miraculous chain drive took over, however, inventors were thinking of ways to put it out of business. Chains were hardly perfect, after all. They were greasy and needed frequent lubrication, and occasionally tried to take your finger off, realities that diminished the marketing glow of the new form of transportation.
Before the turn of the century some bike manufacturers were making bikes with drive shafts instead of chains. "Chainless" bikes got pretty popular. Major Taylor raced aboard one late in his career, fulfilling his sponsorship obligations. He would have preferred to use the more reliable--less dangerous--chain drive, however. The shaft drives were somewhat precarious in sprints, prone to catastrophic disconnects when the frames that enclosed them flexed under power. Needless to say, the chain emerged victorious over the shaft.
Fast-forward one-hundred-plus years, and some entrepreneurs are still trying to kill the chain.
Just the other day a friend stopped by the house on her belt-drive commuter bike. She has nothing but raves about its performance. Because she likes having different gears, and belt drives don't work with derailleurs, her bike was equipped with a very snazzy internal-geared hub -- a piece of equipment that, by itself, costs more than most complete bikes. The belt drive's incompatibility with derailleurs could be a major inconvenience. There are other big problems with the whole belt drive idea. While a chain can be taken apart -- and quite easily these days with the proliferation of "master links" -- you'll have to take the frame apart to install or remove a belt. That means that belt-drives require their own special frames.
On the positive side, the belt drive requires virtually no maintenance whatsoever. No cleaning, no lubrication. If we can ignore its rather serious disadvantages the belt is quieter, smoother and more elegant than the chain. And way cleaner. The thing will never put a black streak on your person. What about durability? Those who are using belt drives now will let us know how long they last -- they have yet to find out.
Like the shaft drives of yesteryear, belt drives are particularly attractive to a certain class of rider: the neat freaks. For some reason, bicycling attracts neat freaks like oily chains attract dirt. If you're a cycling neat freak, you're undoubtedly chained to the concept of a sparkly clean drivetrain. And that can be a problem, because chains, they don't stay sparkly clean all by themselves.
What's the best way to clean a chain, if any? The question has inspired endless arguments among cycling enthusiasts. To clean a chain most thoroughly, you'll have to remove it from the bike and dunk it in degreaser. Some people use a 2-liter soda bottle, stick the chain in there and shake it up. Some might use a tank or bucket and a toothbrush. The chain can be cleaned fairly well on the bike with a toothbrush and a bit of degreaser. There are also "chain cleaners" available: plastic boxes that clip onto the chain, filled with various brushes. You fill the box with degreaser, run the chain through and presto.
I'll just note at this point that the guy with the cleanest chain and bicycle I have ever seen was a crystal meth addict. Just throwing that out there.
What would you get in return for all that chain-cleaning, other than a very clean, shiny, pretty chain? Is it important at all? Well, your bike would indeed run a little bit smoother. The effect is real -- enough to show up in precision testing, reducing the friction of the drivetrain and making it a bit easier to propel the bike. Would you be able feel the difference while riding? Probably not. But if you're a racer looking to squeeze every bit of performance out of the machine, those few extra watts might be important. (Little things like chain cleanliness and lubrication can make a difference in long races or time trials, although not nearly as much as, say, tire choice, or developing a more aerodynamic position. If you're a racer, make sure you've got the big things covered before twiddling around trying to gain a few watts in the drivetrain.)
It seems reasonable to suggest that cleaning the chain will help it last longer, too, but opinions are divided on that. Some say that cleaning the chain so enthusiastically has the effect of washing off the factory lube that manufacturers place on new chains -- removing a base layer of superior lubricant which is difficult to replace, and therefore accelerating chain wear. If any of that original lube remains on the chain, you may want to keep it there. It's a fairly mysterious subject.
Personally, I lean the other direction when it comes to chains. I race about as often as Haley's Comet comes around, I don't do crystal meth, and I'm certainly no neat freak. The last time I really cleaned a chain was in the early- to mid-eighties, a few hundred thousand miles ago. Remember it well. It involved a bucket of gasoline. It worked. Clean chain, I tell you. Clean, toxic, and explosive.
In the intervening decades I've had ample chance to test a completely different approach to chain cleaning: the Do Almost Nothing method. Won't take very long to tell you how it works. First of all, lube the chain frequently, dripping Tri-Flow or some other decent lubricant on each link. Proceed in a methodical fashion, dripping lube onto each of the chain's rollers, on the side that contacts the cogs, then wipe off the excess with a paper towel or rag. Not to get too deep into it, but, due to the design of chains these days, lubing in this way could very well have a "self-cleaning" effect, flushing grit out of the chain's innards. Then, take a few moments to remove any obvious gunk built up on the derailleur pulleys or between cogs. Park makes a special tool for removing gunk from between cogs but any ol' podger will do the trick.
Rarely do I give my chain much more attention than that, believe it or not. No dunking. No scrubbing. No chain cleaners or proprietary detergents. Nor do I pay anybody else to dunk, scrub or apply cleaning agents. And yes, my chains can get dirty, although not quite as bad as you might imagine. I don't seem to have any problems making chains last a long time. (Like any other red-blooded American, I try to replace my chains before they "stretch" too much and start ruining the cogset.) As long as I keep them properly lubed, my chains will function quite nicely, thank you very much.
Maybe if I rode in the rain a lot I would have different ideas about chain cleaning. As a non-competitive rider in a semi-arid region, I happily reject the chain-cleaning hamster wheel. I'd much rather spend that time on the bike (or doing almost anything else, for that matter).
If you can stand it, embrace and enjoy the freedom of Doing Almost Nothing to clean your chain.
Robert Hurst is the author of several FalconGuides, including Best Bike Rides Denver and Boulder, The Bicycle Commuter's Handbook, and the forthcoming The Art of Cycling. This is the second in a series of musings on bike chains.