Monday, August 14, 2006

Workin' on the chain, gang.

For years, whenever I had problems with my chain, whether it started
slipping or became corroded, I would take it to a bike shop only to be told that I should change the freewheel as well. They said that both the chain and freewheel would wear out and if I just changed the chain then it wouldn't work right on the now worn freewheel.

I didn't fully believe that. Back when I was going to school, I owned a Schwinn Sierra that I would commute with from Forest Hills to Oakland every day. Seven miles each way. 3,000 miles a year. I would overhaul the bike each spring, repacking the bearings, changing cables as necessary and changing the chain. In the 13 years I rode that bike, I don't recall changing the freewheel more than once or twice. Putting on a new chain would slip for a day or two but then settle in and provide thousands of miles of solid performance.

So, once I got a new bike I started running into more problems. If the chain got rusty or started to slip I would take it to the shop and have the techs again say to change both the chain and the freewheel. I would change the chain only and it would work fine for one change. After that, changing the chain wouldn't be good enough, the chain would slip and I'd be going back to get the freewheel changed. I was going through 3 or 4 chains a year and a two freewheels.

So I asked, "How often should I change the chain?"

"300 miles."

What? An inexpensive chain costs $8. A freewheel will cost $30. That's as much as a full tank of gas and I'll get 300 miles out of that. You mean to tell me that I have to regularly spend as much on hardware for my bike as I do getting gas for my car? Madness.

Well, the last time I had my bike repaired, it was at Iron City Bikes in Oakland. The tech there explained chain wear to me, unlike the other guys at the more high-end shops who just told me I needed to change both chain and freewheel. The chain wears, of course, and that will wear the freewheel but not at the same rate. If you go too long without changing the chain, the freewheel will wear more to the point where the worn freewheel will wear the chain faster than normal. If you change the chain properly, the freewheel won't show significant wear and won't need to be changed with the chain.

"OK. So, again, how often should I change the chain?"

He didn't know. Too many variables, I suppose. But he had a chain tool that would measure how much wear was on the chain. When it reached a certain point, that was when to change the chain.

Now, one would think, what with the chain being the part of the bike that requires the most maintenance and needs replacing most often, that the bike catalogs would have the appropriate chain tool on their front page. But you'd be wrong. I regularly receive Performance Bicycle and Nashbar catalogs in the mail and neither one had either the simple Park Tool CC-3 Chain Wear Indicator or the more elaborate Park Tool CC-2 Chain Checker. One could find the wear indicator in tool sets but never individually. Nor could I find any on the shelves at any of the upscale bike shops in the area.It's like there is a grand conspiracy to keep these simple and most likely to be used tools away from your average consumer. This forces them to go to bike shops and over-pay for maintenance and fund the shop owner's $5000 composite frame bikes.

It's been 18 weeks since I had the chain replaced and a new freewheel installed with about 1200 miles in the meantime. My new chain tool ordered online indicates that my chain wear was at just about the 1% wear mark; the point recommended for the changing of the chain. It's so simple. Walk in, buy a new chain and I'm good to go for another 1,200 miles.

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