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Along for the Ride - Don't neglect bicycle chain

Sometimes life just stinks when I'm neglected so much!

Most of the time, I'm coated with thick black greasy gunk and my links are full of road dirt, gravel and grit. I get really depressed because even though the bicycle depends on my well-being, I'm the most neglected part.

A good share of the time my owners forget to lubricate me. When this happens I squeak pitifully and destroy the chain wheels and cogs. When I get wet, I rust. This condition really wears me down; I get loose and worn, shortening my life.

Over time I stretch and my links develop excessive play. This causes sloppy shifting, worn gears and increases the chance of my breaking.

When new, I'm bright, shiny, strong and powerful. I'm the one who transfers the power from the pedals to the drive-wheel and propels the bicycle down miles of roads and trails. I just don't understand why people don't maintain my shiny look.

Maybe if people understood me better, I would get more respect. Let me tell you a little bit about my job and how to take care of me.

An early bicycle did not have me. Pedals were attached directly to the drive-wheel, so that the top speed was limited by the diameter of the wheel. That's why early bicycles had such large front wheels.

Then bicycle manufacturers began using chains, which allowed a mechanical advantage between the drive and drive sprockets to determine the maximum speed. This reduced the size of the driving wheel, increased safety and allowed for the development of variable gearing.

An old-style bicycle chain had 10 parts per link. Today's 57-link chain, used on multi-speed bikes, has 570 parts - 114 outer plates, 114 inner plates, 114 rollers, 114 rivets and 114 bushings.

The major revolution in chain design was the introduction of the bushingless chain. The first of this type was the Sedisport. The "Sedis" bushingless design is cheaper to make, promotes better lubricant flow inside the rollers, and has more lateral flexibility for multi-geared bicycles.

A number of factors affect durability of a chain - riding style, gear choice, whether the bicycle is ridden in wet weather, the type of soil in the local terrain, the kind of lubricant, lubrication techniques, and the sizes and condition of the bicycle's sprockets.

The cardinal rule for long chain life is never lubricate a dirty chain, as this moves abrasive particles into the rollers. Chains should be cleaned before lubrication.

My favorite way to clean chains is with an on-the-bike cleaning apparatus, a plastic box that clips over the chain. The box contains brushes and rollers that flex the chain as it runs through a solvent bath. I recommend environmentally friendly citrus base solvents or "Simple Green Max" for chain cleaning.

There are numerous lubricants, both wet and dry, on the market.

Some are wax-based, some have Teflon and others contain premium oil ingredients. Consult your bike mechanic to learn which is recommended for the type of riding that you do.

I apply my favorite oil with a toothbrush by holding the toothbrush bristles over the rollers while running the pedals backwards. It takes only 15 or 20 seconds to lubricate a chain this way. Most people have a tendency to over-oil their chain, so apply the oil lightly.

Chains do wear out, typically after a few thousand miles. As they wear, they elongate slightly. Cyclists call this "chain stretch." The major cause of chain "stretch" is wearing away of the metal where the rivet rotates inside of the bushing while the chain links flex and straighten as the chain goes onto and off the sprockets.

The standard way to measure chain wear is with a ruler, without removing the chain from the bicycle. Measure a 1-foot length, placing an inch mark of the ruler exactly in the middle of one rivet, then looking at the corresponding rivet 12 complete links away.

On a new chain, this rivet will also line up exactly with an inch mark. With a worn chain, the rivet will be past the inch mark.

If the rivet is 1/16-inch past the mark, you should replace the chain. If the rivet is 1/8- inch past the mark, consider replacing the sprocket.

If you replace a chain at the 1/8-inch point, without replacing the sprockets, it may run OK and not skip, but the worn sprockets will cause the new chain to wear much faster. If the rivet is past the 1/8-inch mark, a new chain will almost certainly skip on the worn sprockets, especially the smaller ones.

Now that you are better acquainted with your chain and its needs, maybe you will treat it better. Clean it often and keep it lubed. It can make your pedaling much easier.

If you look closely at your chain when it is bright and clean, you might even picture it smiling.