Sure, you can buy a new carbon bike or lose 10 pounds of belly fat, but the easiest way to gain watts on a bike? Care for the most underrated, overlooked, essential piece of gear on it.
Your frame and wheels might get all the attention on the weekly group ride, but the true hero of your bike is the chain. Here’s all you need to know to keep it running smoothly, plus five reasons you should keep it in top shape.
1. It’ll Make You Faster
If you’re getting edged at the town-limits sign on your weekly group ride or coming up just short at the finish of your local crit, don’t reach for the EPO. There’s a cheaper, more ethical solution.
A clean, properly lubed chain will save about 10 watts over a poorly maintained chain, according to Jason Smith of Friction Facts, a Colorado-based research firm. For the average rider, that accounts for about 4 percent of lost power. If you’re only racing to the midride coffee stop, think of it this way: You’ll finish the ride fresher, having exerted less energy, if you lube the chain.
2. You’ll Save Money
A clean chain won’t just prevent you from wasting energy. It’ll also save you from wasting money. Dirty chains can damage drivetrain components as the dirt and grime slowly wear away cogs and chainrings.
“Would you rather pay $30 for a new chain now or $400 for a new drivetrain later?” asks Eric Fostvedt, mechanic for the professional Axeon Cycling Team.
3. It’s Easy
Every mechanic and rider has his or her favorite way to clean a chain. Park Tool master mechanic Calvin Jones uses, of course, Park Tool’s Chain Gang filled with degreaser.
If you don’t want to buy a special piece of equipment, try using a thick-bristled paintbrush to coat the chain and cogs with degreaser. Richard Belson, a mechanics instructor at the United Bicycle Institute, suggests dousing the chain in a self-cleaning lube, such as White Lightning Clean Ride. Just be sure to wipe off all the excess lubricant with a rag afterward. Too much lube can be a bad thing, especially when it’s picking up road grime.
4. You Don’t Have to Do It (That) Often
Most experts agree you should replace your chain after 2,000 to 3,000 miles of riding. The easiest way to see if you need a replacement: Use a chain checker, such as this one from Park Tool.
Barring that, break out your tape measure. On a new chain, you should be able to measure exactly 12 inches between two chain pins. If the distance measures as little as an eighth of an inch more than that, replace the chain. You’ll be amazed at how much smoother your pedal stroke will get.
5. You Can Get Creative with Lube
Pro tip: Some of the most effective bike-chain lubricants aren’t actually bike-chain lubricants. Plain old food-grade paraffin canning wax is a great way to keep your chain rolling fast and smooth, but it requires taking the chain off your bike and dipping it into the melted wax. The effect lasts quite a while, but few riders want to deal with the hassle.
Another excellent but unorthodox product is olive oil, says Smith. On the downside, it’ll last only about 50 miles or so. If you’re riding a century, be sure to save some of your salad dressing from the lunch stop for the ride home.
If a road rider wants a fast, simple liquid lube for clean conditions, Smith recommends Squirt, Rock ’n’ Roll Gold, or Silca NFS Pro. For mountain biking and cyclocross riding in wet or muddy conditions, try a thicker lube, such as Finish Line Wet, White Lightning Wet, or Phil Wood Tenacious Oil. Smith suggests keeping three to four different types of lube in your tool kit so you’ll be ready for nearly every weather and road condition you encounter.