Unchained: SRAM vs. Shimano vs. Wippermann
Has anyone wandered into their local bike shop and seen a chain that is so neglected and rusty it can stand up in the corner of the shop? It's sad but true that most of us can answer yes to this question. There are people out there who abuse their chains and never give them the proper love. Perhaps even some of us are guilty of chain neglect. The fact is, many people who ride bikes pay little attention to their chains. It seems strange that we often overlook such a crucial component of our drive system. Surely it is time we all give some well deserved attention to the unsung hero of our bicycle drive train. We'd like to showcase three chains this week: the Shimano CN-7701 XTR, the SRAM PC-991, and the Wippermann ConneX 9X1 Stainless Steel.
Firstly, let it be known that chain quality can vary greatly as manufacturers strive to hit certain price points or develop chains for different bicycle applications, but all three chains tested here are top notch offerings from these manufacturers. You get what you pay for and when it comes to chains, the top shelf stuff always shifts better and lasts longer. The high quality of the materials used in the manufacture help maximize the life span of the chains before they inevitably wear out. These chains not only have to withstand the tensional force that we apply to the pedals, but they have to endure side loading as we shift from one sprocket to another. They have over 450 moving parts that are totally exposed to the elements. It is the unfortunate truth that the modern bicycle chain drive system is so frighteningly important yet totally vulnerable to our neglect and carelessness.
Most new chains come packaged with grease from the factory. The Shimano XTR chain comes with an especially sticky type of grease. I hate this stuff. Granted, I know that it is there for a purpose, but it's so damn sticky and it attracts dirt like a super- magnet. To be honest, a Shimano chain will feel it's silkiest on it's first ride out the door, but that's where the love gets lost for the Shimano super-duper sumo grease. After your first 30 miles on the trail it looks like you've dragged the chain in the dirt. The SRAM PC-991 chain comes packed in grease that is a little lighter, but still tends to collect plenty of dirt and trail grit. The Wippermann Connex wasn't greasy at all from the package. Perhaps, because of it's stainless steel construction it doesn't need the rust preventative of the packing grease. In the case of the Wippermann, I lubed it before the first test ride. The Shimano and SRAM were test rode first with only the factory grease.
The factory grease that these chains come with is there for a reason. As said before, these chains feel very smooth and silky when brand new. The heavy grease permeates the inside of all the pivots in the chain parts. This makes the chains quiet and smooth. However, when they collect dirt and grit on the outside, it is time for a cleaning. Simply applying chain lube to a dirty chain could potentially carry this external grit into the roller pivots and wear the rollers from the inside out. So after a couple of rides it was time to thoroughly clean each chain before lubing. The Shimano chain was by far the most difficult to clean. Like I said before, their grease is not my favorite. It possesses some kind of evil power over all but the most vicious solvents. I did what I had to do to get the chains clean, then rinsed them thoroughly to attempt to flush any grit from the inner and outer surfaces. All three chains were subjected to a variety of ride types and were lubricated with Dumonde Tech Lite Bicycle Chain Lube.
All three chains share the same ½" pitch and 6.5mm width. They are all designed for use with a 9-speed shifting system. The first chain to go on the old blue test mule was the Shimano CN-7701 XTR. After sizing the chain it is necessary to use a special pin to attach the two ends of the chain. It is a simple enough procedure to use the chain tool to drive the Shimano pin through the plates, but it sometimes results in a tight link that has to be dealt with. Once I got on the bike with the Shimano chain, shifting performance was excellent. I would expect no less since the rest of the drive train components on the Flux are Shimano. Upshifts and downshifts were both great and it ran quietly. It seemed to me that it was the quietest of the three chains. I noticed that the pins were more flush with the outside plates on the XTR chain and that might have been a factor in it's near silent operation.
The SRAM PC-991 comes with their handy “PowerLink" connector. Installing the SRAM chain is simply a matter of sizing the chain, then snapping the gold PowerLink connector together by hand. It can be undone just as easily in case you might need to service the chain on the trail or at home for cleaning. I found the gold color to be handy as a reference when lubing the chain. Call me obsessive, but I prefer to lube one pivot at a time. In that way I make sure to put a drop of lube on every pivot once and only once. The Sram PC-991 shifts nearly as well as the Shimano XTR chain in my opinion. However it seemed to make a little more noise and adjustment of the derailleur was more crucial. Again, I wondered about the pins in the side plates. I observed that the pins in the SRAM chain protrude only slightly, but perhaps enough to make a difference. The PC-991 is nickel plated. To me that is a nice bonus as it will be more corrosion resistant than the XTR chain.
The last chain I tried was the Wippermann ConneX 9X1. It also had a handy connecting link. Both the links provided with the SRAM and Wippermann chains will last the life of the chain. These are indispensable in my opinion. It is too easy to remove the chain not to keep it clean and in good shape. Think about this; add up the cost of the chain, cassette, and chainrings for your bike. These are expensive components and I'm sure you'd like for them to last as long as possible. A clean chain will help. The Wippermann is a beautiful chain. It is made of stainless steel, so it won't rust. It actually seems to stay cleaner than the other two. It looks different than either the Shimano or the SRAM. The Wippermann side plates are less hourglass shaped (like the Shimano and SRAM) and are more oval in shape. My first impression was that it would not shift as well as the other two. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it shifted very well indeed.
After extended periods of testing with all three chains I've determined that all three are excellent choices with positive attributes that differentiate them from the others. The Shimano CN-7701 XTR chain provided the best shifting performance. This was especially evident when shifting under a load with the chain crossed from the big ring to the big side of the cassette. Please remember that my test bike was equipped with Shimano derailleurs and cassette. I've always believed that it is a very safe bet to “keep it in the family" when purchasing components for your bike. That said, I've always been a fan of SRAM chains since the days we called them Sachs/Sedis. I have never broken one. To me that is a very important fact. The SRAM PC-991 chain I tested here did not disappoint. It was rock solid and provided fantastic performance. It lagged behind the XTR chain in shifting performance only in the most extreme crossed over shifts. The Wippermann was the surprise of the group for me. I had never used one before and found that it exceeded my expectations. It shifted as well as the SRAM and also came with the handy ConneX link.
At $31.99 the Shimano XTR chain is the bargain of the bunch. You'll get awesome shifting performance, but you have to deal with a special pin every time you want to pull the chain off of your bike. For $41.99, the SRAM PC-991 chain gives you an upgrade to nickel plating for improved corrosion resistance. It is also notable for ease of service due to the PowerLink. However, overall shifting performance was not quite to the XTR standard. The Wippermann ConneX was the most expensive chain in the test at $74.99. However, you get great performance and the no rust characteristic of stainless steel. It is also easy to service because of the ConneX link. The folks at Wippermann say that the stainless alloy they use also provides greater strength than other chains on the market. At the end of the test, the Wippermann still resides on the Old Blue Flux, not because it was the last chain tested but because it shifts great, won't rust, and is easily serviceable.