I don’t like to think about my bike chain. It’s just too unsettling. While the rest of my bike is made of big, solid pieces (except my spokes, which I also don’t like to think about), the chain — the part of the bike that is responsible for transferring all the power from my (massive and well-defined) quads to the dirt — is made of plenty-six thousand teeny tiny pieces. You’ve got the figure-8 pieces, the cylinders that go between, and a teeny tiny pin — thinner in diameter than a human hair — that holds each link together.
When you consider the near-infinite number of moving parts in a given bike chain (plenty-six thousand, as I’ve already made clear), it’s not surprising that this is the part of the bike that requires the most maintenance and is the second-most-likely part of your bike to fail. What’s surprising, really, is that the bike chain works at all. Ever.
Oh, and since I know you’re going to ask: the part of the bike that is most likely to fail is the tire. Which is not much of a surprise when you consider that a bike tire is a piece of soft, easily punctured rubber containing pressurized air that constantly rolls over sharp rocks, broken glass, porcupine quills, and razor blades.
Seriously, it’s amazing we ever get out of the driveway on these things.
Anyway, back to chains.
Chains are Evil
By and large, I am able to successfully avoid thinking about the physics of the bike chain. I just pedal, and the bike goes forward. End of story.
I think the chain resents this taken-for-granted status. So, from time to time, the chain will break.
Here’s the thing about the way chains break, though: they never do it at a good time. They never break while you’re coasting downhill, or riding along, seated, on the flats.
Chains always break while you are climbing — most likely in a tricky, technical move or in a bunch sprint – cranking as hard as you possibly can. And you are standing. With your face over the front wheel, chest over the stem, and crotch over the top tube.
That is when the chain decides it’s had enough.
With an almost inaudible “ping,” one of the pins lets go. At which point all of the following happen simultaneously:
- Your chest gets core-sampled by your bike stem
- You get crotch-filleted by your top tube
- One of your knees crashes into stem or handlebar
- One of your calves gets gored by your pedals
- Your face gets a tire burn
- Your chain gets sucked into your drivetrain
Oh, and if you happen to be lucky enough to stay on your bike when this happens, it will be because the bike has sensed you are on a 40% incline or are in the middle of a ledge move, and now have no way to go forward. At which point, gravity is more than happy to show that it’s not such a “weak force” after all.
Chains are Psychic
Do you want to know the very best way to ensure your chain will never break? No, it’s not to clean and lube your chain at regular intervals. No, it’s not to replace the chain before it stretches beyond a certain point.
The best way to ensure your chain won’t break is to carry a chain tool and an extra link or two when you ride.
I have never, in my whole riding career, ever had a chain break when I was carrying the stuff I needed to repair a chain. I have, however, had chains break seven times (that I can remember) when I wasn’t carrying a tool.
The only possible cause? Chains are psychic, in addition to evil.
For those of you getting ready to comment with stories about how you’ve had chains break while you were carrying a tool, I have the following to say: they do this to maintain plausible deniability. Have you never watched X-Files? Sheesh.
Chains are a Psychological Mess
Answer this set of questions, if you please:
- Which part of your bike requires the most frequent maintenance (cleaning, lubing)?
- Which part of your bike is most likely to damage another part of the bike (e.g., score your chainstay)?
- What is the part of your bike is never regarded as beautiful or elegant?
The answer to all three questions is, of course, the chain. And it knows it. I think the chain has an inferiority complex (it’s ugly and gets dirty), compounded with a superiority complex (it knows it’s the part that makes the bike go), compounded with good old-fashioned insecurity (it’s always demanding more attention, and complains loudly and incessantly if you don’t give it that attention).
And they leave a gross-looking mark on your calves.