Bicycle chain life and chain checkers

Chains: Using an 11 speed chain on a 9 speed system

Chains for derailleur systems never last more than about 2500 km for me, from 7 speed to 9 speed (a single speed with a Sturmey archer 3 speed hub did last far longer), the KMC X9.73 I used in winter 2019-2020 only lasted about 1200 km from the salt... In 2020 I tried an 11 speed chain, the cheapest from KMC, the X11, and such chains from the factory have a shorter chain length than standard chains up to 10 speed. This time the chain lasted ca. 3500 km... Note that I ride in all weather, and I oil (or wax/drylube) but don't clean the chain. The muck on the chain of oil + dirt actually protects it and cleaning is just a waste of time. After the X11 was worn I switched to a KMC X9.93 and I noticed the advantage of using 11 speed chains is also one of slightly better switching of gears. After putting on the X9.93 I immediately had to adjust the derailleur. With 11 speed chains I didn't have that problem, likely caused by these chains being a little narrower and yet gear changes were just as good...

Chain durability:

With 7,8,9 speed chains I never got to beyond about 2500km of use with these chains (even using a bike only in dry weather), but since I read about 11 speed chains being made slightly shorter to begin with, I was curious to see if it would work on my 3x9 speed bike. Here are my experiences so far with measurements on my Cannondale touring bike, of 9 and 11 speed chains. I take a chain as being worn when it reaches 0.75% according to the Rohloff chain checker which is the normal wear amount for 9 speed chains. The dates are those at which each chain was worn out, and replaced with the next one. I indicate the lubrication used (over the packing grease which I don't remove):

1. early 2020: KMC 9-73 [ Hanseline chain wax ]: This 9 speed chain only lasted ca. 1250 km, partly because of salt on the roads. That really kills chains! New chain installed: KMC X11.
2. 2021-1-25: KMC X11 [ Hanseline chain wax ]: This 11 speed chain lasted ca. 3736 km! New chain installed: KMC X9.93.
3. 2021-5-15: KMC X9.93 [ Hanseline chain wax ]: This 9 speed chain lasted ca. 1536 km. New chain installed: KMC X9.93.
4. 2022-1-6: KMC X9.93 [ Hanseline chain wax ]: This 9 speed chain lasted ca. 2594 km. New chain installed: KMC X11 [ this was my last 9 speed chain, after this I intend to use only 11 speed chains which work well on my 9 speed system and which last a lot longer ]
5. 2023-4-8: KMC X11 [ Hanseline chain wax + the last ca. 300km Hanseline MTB graphite oil ]: This chain lasted 3089 km. New chain installed: SRAM PC1110. Since applying graphite oil the chain wear increased quickly. Perhaps this was just normal as chain wear is quick at the end.
6. 2023-4-8: I installed a new SRAM PC1110 chain... [ Hanseline chain wax ]

Chains that I will use next after the PC1110 wears out:
- First I will use a YBN 11 speed chain, remove first the packing grease, then use Hanseline Chain wax.
- After that the X11 with Hanseline MTB graphite oil to see how long it will last compared to the above X11 chains that I 'oiled' only with Hanseline's wax/drylube.
In the past I have used many SRAM, Wipperman and KMC chains, YBN is new to me.

Chain wear factors: your pedal power, cleaning, oil vs. wax/dry lube

Some people claim chains last 10000km, which it doesn't with normal use in all weather and using oil. There is some australian guy on youtube with a wax recipe (no oil) for example who claims very long life for chains with that stuff and cleaning the chain just about each ride, and perhaps that works but to me it is not worth the hassle even if riding like roadies may do with training rides possibly riding 200km on a day. Even with sometimes doing long rides of 100km+ I'm just not going to clean my chain every 200 km, as I would need to keep track of each 200km and I'd be doing it 25-35 times a year! That would be crazy. Also, using no oil/grease means it doesn't work for wet conditions where you don't clean your chain after each ride such as when using a bike for commuting (perhaps it could work with a stainless steel chain?).

Factors in chain wear are:

Pedal power

The faster you ride the more the chain wears. This also means riding in hilly terrain on low gears. On many city bikes with a gear hub using wide single speed chains people never need to replace the chains, when it is enclosed in a chain enclosure that is typical for city bikes in the Netherlands. This is not just because of the chain being enclosed, but also because most people do not ride fast. I noticed rapid chain wear in Germany during long trip in dry weather over 11 days. I started the trip with a lightly used chain (about 500km), and in total it lasted not much beyond 1000km so I replaced it during the trip...

Cleaning or not?

I used to clean chains and cassettes, but I stopped doing that, it is a waste of time. For about 10+ years I just grease and/or wax, whatever I feel like, and I never clean the chain (the dirt layer even acts as a protection layer; I later saw a video on youtube of someone taking measurements of not cleaning the chain and that it lasted longer [ I think this is Simon Chetwynd, see this video: Rolhof speedhub 14, Tanus solid tyres and Exposure Strada lights long term review ], this confirms what I thought namely that the dirt actually acts as a protection layer. I only occasionally remove gunk from the jockey wheels. I use chains that are not expensive and the effort and use of materials (chemicals) to clean them would be worth far more than getting a new chain every ca. 2000km and later bring the old one to recycling.

Wax/drylube vs. oil

In the past I used mainly normal chain oil. This gave a layer of oil and some dirt that sort of protected the chain after a while. The chains I used since keeping accurate track of chain wear in the above list have been 'oiled' using Hanseline chain wax, which is a mix of wax + dry lube. I use this over the original packing grease of the chain, I don't degrease it first. I'm not sure whether this really improves on chain durability, it doesn't look so from the durability so far. With rain it doesn't work well, and in other situations I don't get the feeling it improves much if anything. I think it was far worse than oil in winter, as shown with chain 1, which gave a result similar to not using enough oil and so little protection against rust from water and salt on the roads.

The next KMC X11 chain I will lubricate exclusively with oil as the previous ones have all been used with the Hanseline chain wax so that should give a good insight into whether oil is likely to be worse in normal use conditions (not cleaning your chain every day).

Chain checkers

kettingmeters: Rohloff, Cyclus, Wippermann

If you ride your bicycle a lot, then you need a chain checker to know when to replace the chain as if you use it too long it does damage to the cogs and chain ring which last much longer, from being stretched too much. I used the Rohloff 'Caliber 2' for many years to prevent this. But at some point I decided to try out a few others after I had some issues with measuring a chain recently where I saw the variation of wear indication with the Caliber2 on various places on the chain (see below).

After the discussion of 3 chain checkers I will present my analysis of chain wear measurement. The chain used in the test is a KMC Z 8 speed chain.

1. Rohloff: Caliber 2

Suitable for 1-10 speed chains.

Rohloff's Caliber 2 is made from stainless steel, matted (thanks!, the other manufacturers should also do this, shiny surfaces are a big annoyance in any measuring device from stainless steel...), measures over 8 links, weighs ca. 29 g, thickness ca. 1.80mm.

The Rohloff Caliber 2 has 2 sides, for measuring 0.075mm chain elongation (per link), and 0.10mm. Each link is about 19.90/20.00mm + 0.30mm (roller play that you measure too little of) - 7.70 mm (roller) long so 12.5/12.6 mm. This means 0.075mm is about 0.60% and 0.10mm is about 0.80%. 0.10mm can be used, according to Rohloff, with steel cogs, 0.075mm with aluminium cogs. Chainrings are usually aluminium and quite expensive compared to cassettes which usually have steel cogs, and expensive compared to chains, so if one doesn't use the top chains, then replacing the chain at 0.075mm seems sensible in most cases and this is about the amount that chain checkers check for if they only check for 1 number. Park tool says to replace the chain at 0.5%/0.75% so similar.

I took the Caliber 2 on a long bike trip with me to change the chain when needed, and I was a bit worried that if it got bent, I'd not be able to bend it back by hand... But there's probably no need to worry about it getting bent. It has 2 sides, just put it on the chain, let it sink and if it lies flat on the chain then the chain needs to be replaced. This is easy, but recently I tested a bit more thoroughly and with the latest chain which showed variance in wear, I wasn't convinced that the Caliber 2 is doing what it should do. I think it should be a bit longer, as in some positions on the chain it rested on it, the next position not, the next position resting on the chain again, which means a few chain links (and/or rollers) had worn a lot more than some others. Should this be a reason to replace the chain already? So would a few elongated links give a lot of extra wear on cogs? Or should an average be taken of more links?

kettingmeter: Rohloff Caliber, position 1 kettingmeter: Rohloff Caliber, position 2 kettingmeter: Rohloff Caliber, position 3 kettingmeter: Rohloff Caliber, position 4 kettingmeter: Rohloff Caliber, position 5

2. Wipperman

Suitable for 1-10 speed chains.

Wipperman's chain checker (no name/number) is made from stainless steel, weighs ca. 29g, thickness of the steel is ca. 1.50mm, it folds out and measures 20 links! In use it works the same as the Caliber 2, except that you must let it fold out at maximum, then back so that it fits on the most links possible (20), then let it fall down and if it touches the chain in the middle, the chain needs to be replaced. Note that this is for systems where the chain needs to be replaced at 0.75, so 1-10 speed systems, same as the one side of the Rohloff Caliber 2. For 11 speed you need a different chain checker. It showed, on the same chain as above which showed variations in wear with the Caliber 2, that the chain does not need to be replaced yet.

I am confident that I can bend this thing back should it ever get bent, and it's cheaper so I would prefer to take this with me on a bike trip rather than Rohloff's Caliber 2.

kettingmeter: Wippermann

3. Cyclus tools

Suitable any speed chains, for 11 speed replace the chain probably at approximately 2 lines below 'go'. I can't give an exact number as I didn't compare this checker yet with a chain checker specifically for 11 speed that indicates 0.5 wear, as recommended for 11 speed.

Cyclus' chain checker (no name, article number 720114) is made from stainless steel, weighs ca. 58 g (not really important, I think it's more for use at home rather than on a long bike tour), with a tickness of the stainless steel ca. 1.50 mm, and measures over 11 links. This works nicely, with indicator of amount of wear. As with the Wipperman chain checker, this does not show the large variations in wear as with the Rohloff. For the chain being checked, the wear indicator varies from almost to the middle, to slightly beyond that, so no need to replace the chain yet. 2021-2-21: Though it is at the point of needing replacement in case of aluminium chain rings. The middle here is about the replacement point of 0.75 of the Rohloff Caliber 2... [ and the end is 1.00 point of the Caliber 2, i.e. for use with steel chain rings ]

kettingmeter: Cyclus

4. KMC chain checker (new for 2022)

Suitable for 1-11 speed chains.

This lies on top of the chain and you look at where the indicator is at the top of the chain link. That is the wear level. It measures 0.2, 0.4, 0.6, 0.8 which is fine to estimate wear for 7-10 speed systems/chains and 11 speed systems/chains. In the latter case you want to replace the chain at 0.5 instead of 0.75 for up to 10 speed.

It is chrome plated steel, would have been better from stainless steel.

I like how it works... It also acts as a chain hook for when you replace your chain.

Chain checkers for up to 11 speed

I haven't tried them but have a look at these which are suitable for 11 speed and more:

The Unior tools don't seem to be made from stainless steel...

For the park tool chain checkers, have a look here: Park tool: When to replace a worn chain.

Further chain wear measured with the first 3 chain checkers

2016-2-25: I now checked the chain, which according to the Rohloff Caliber 2 is worn to 0.1mm in some places, not yet in other places, the Wipperman checker says the chain is just acceptable, the Cyclus checker says the same, it's getting a bit more towards 'replace' but, not yet.

2016-2-29: The Wipperman checker says the chain should be replaced, the Cyclus checker has still 2-3 lines to go... So the Cyclus checker's 'replace' is equivalent to Rohloff's 0.1mm. I will replace the chain before it goes that far.

Summary of my analysis on chain wear, and how to measure

I was curious so I decided to analyse the situation, of how chain wear measurement differs from the real wear. Also, I read some criticism about chain checkers that they measure the wear of the links, but also the rollers, and for this issue measuring over more links is definitely better.

I measured the KMC chain, along with some new links that I had left of this chain, and a new SRAM 830 chain. I will soon replace the KMC with the 830 and then see how (with how much variance) that will wear. I measured links, rollers, and total stretch with a digital caliper, and calculated how much each type of wear is in this KMC chain.

There are 2 types of links, A with narrow sideplates, and a roller rolling around a tube. Type B has wider sideplates going around links A, and has pins. There is wear from movement and stretching. The sideplates are stretched (but really this is negligible), the pins wear, the tubes wear inside and outside, the rollers wear esp. on the inside and these factors of the rollers/pins wearing is really what causes chain wear. That the loose rollers wear is not important for the chain stretching, but in most chain checkers this wear is also included in the measurement. On the other hand this wear is important in how well the chain fits on chain rings and sprockets, and how well power transfer is then possible and properly transferred from one tooth the the next one. Perhaps they actually take this wear into account in the measurement by assuming the wear of rollers being a certain amount? (relative to the stretching of the links and the elongating of the chain from the wear of pins/tubes)

Shimano's TL-CN42 looks to take the issue of roller/tube wear properly into account by pressing the 1 side into the roller and measuring the same side at the other end (the other chain checkers measure the 2 different sides). But does it matter? I have done the calculations and measurements of new and old chains, and from that it is clear that with the Wipperman chain checker it is not an issue. With the Caliber 2 quite a bit more. A chain that is still just acceptable with the Wipperman and with the Cyclus chain checkers, is, according to the Rohloff Caliber 2, already worn to 0.1mm elongation per link in some places, and not yet in other places. What the Caliber 2 measurements showed, is that there can be a quite a large variation in wear in some rollers, so much so that actually, Shimano's chain checker looks to be solving a problem that in reality is something that gets snowed under in the variation of roller wear, and thus likely the only thing that matters is to take the average of a reasonable number of links, then decide whether the chain is worn or not. The issue of variance of wear in a chain will wear cogs out a bit more, but how much is hard to say. I'm guessing that the truth is in the middle, and in this respect I feel that the Wipperman checker and Cyclus checker do a better job than the Rohloff Caliber 2 (and anyway, doing an analysis of variance would be needed with the Caliber 2, so you need to measure on the chain in multiple places, then decide whether or not the chain should be replaced. This is not really feasible). During future long tours I will take the Wipperman with me, the Cyclus is for at home...

Picture(s) and full analysis and measurements to be added

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