Add bicycle chains to underappreciated design marvels of bicycles. A chain has 400 some-odd parts, many of which are under stress every moment you’re pedaling. If a single one of those 400 has a problem, a roller seizes or a link sticks or separates, you’re in a lot of trouble.
Still, most of us treat chains with indifference. Install. Clean and lube periodically. Replace. Despite the fact that it transfers all our energy from the cranks to drive the bike, we give it less thought than we give just about any other part. Maybe it’s because we haven’t seen a dramatic weight savings there over the years, or because there isn’t a chain made of carbon fiber.
But there is one made of stainless steel, at least the inner plates are.. This doesn’t make the chain stronger, but it should make it more durable in terms of wear resistance. Besides, the plates aren’t the only issue in breaking strength. The design and the pins play a big part. We wanted to see if this was the case, and decided to put a Wippermann 10S1 stainless steel chain through a summer with us.
In the past, we’ve run Campy, Shimano, and SRAM chains on our 10 speed cassettes without much thought, other than which chain was the first one we came to when we decided to replace the old chain. The chains were of different widths, 6.2mm for Campy, 6.1 for Shimano, and 5.9 for SRAM. These numbers are important and not at the same time; the width of the rollers is the same throughout, just the thickness of the outer plates varied. Staying with native parts wasn’t an issue, as we have cassettes from American Classic and the others, and chain rings from a few more companies on top of that.
Making things simpler in the chain debate are that everyone has seemed to agree on a single size. In 2008, Campy decided to go with the 5.9mm width for their 10-speed chain. They call it “Ultra-Narrow.” Wippermann says 5.9 works with Shimano, too, and that is the size this Wippermann measures — they used to produce two different widths, but are now only doing this one. Narrower chains should be a bit more flexible laterally, though we don’t know if 0.3mm is something that can be noticed. Even if it were, it is possible that manufacturing tolerances play a bigger part; tighter tolerances might make a chain stiffer.
Wippermann has been the one chain brand we’ve wanted to try but haven’t gotten around to. The two things that have beckonedus are their stainless steel inner plates and the ConneX master link. We’ve been reluctant to switch, mostly because we couldn’t imagine much of a performance difference between chains, thinking if you can get the same performance from a cheaper part, why bother with the expensive one? Besides, we’ve stopped taking our chains off for cleaning. Wash, run the chain through a Park chain wash machine, dry, apply lube.
But we do have a bias that undermines our economics-only mindset. We don’t like black chains. Always reminds us of our days pedaling a Schwinn Varsity.
So, loving a shiny silver chain, we took off the old Shimano Ultegra chain, weighed the chains, sized the Wippermann 10S1 stainless, wiped it down with a rag, and installed the ConneX link. The tale of the scale is the Ultegra weighed in at 250g, the Wippermann at 273g. That puts the Wippermann 3g over the advertised weight of 270g. While the link pins are hollow on the 10S1, it isn’t super-light.
There are people who worry about master links breaking. We’ve never seen this occur, nor has anyone reported such a breakage to us. In terms of the chain, breakage seems to be at the juncture of a link pin and side plate. We’ve been on mountain bike rides where a Shimano chain breaks, and, being without an extra Shimano link pin, the rider shortens the chain, and hopes that the Shimano link pin won’t break again. It broke again in both cases, but this was with older chains. More recently, we saw this done with a Shimano 10-speed road chain, and it worked, at least for a week.
Shifting always feels better with a fresh chain. We’re not sure if it is better, or if it merely feels better. Fresh chains don’t have grit rubbing between the plates and around the pins, so they’re quieter. Because there is no wear at the link pins, chains should be at their lateral stiffest when new, and become more laterally flexible with use. We would think the stiffness makes shifting faster; that is, because it has less flex, the chain will get derailed from one cog to the next quicker, but some think the reverse. To us, a chain the flexes more will take longer to shift because the links need to flex more before the end of the flex has been reached.
The shifting was fresh when we first rode with the Wippermann. It has stayed pretty fresh, though we haven’t pulled off the Wippermann and installed a fresh chain to compare it to a new chain in the intervening time. We also decided we’d see how long we could go without lubing the chain. After almost three months of riding in all sorts of conditions and bi-weekly washings, we only lubed the chain the other day. It had yet to squeak. Probably 2700 miles or so on the chain and it still looked pretty good.
Better, actually, because we finally lubed the chain, which we did by removing the chain, wiping it down, lubing it off the bike, wiping, drying, wiping again, and re-installing. We wiped off the dirt on the outside and some of the grit on the inside came off with the lube dripping through. The ConneX link is the easiest to use master link we’ve tried. A squeeze of the fingers opened the link, and just setting the link up properly and letting go with the rear derailleur engaged was almost enough pressure to snap the link into place.
A check with our chain wear indicator, a go/no go job, shows the chain still has some life left. At this point, we think it’s wearing slower. This could be a result of Wippermann’s fastidiousness. They claim that their chains last longer because of the attention they put into the details. These include using boron-hardened steel rather than chrome-plated steel for link pins. And the pins are polished to make them smoother. Wippermann also adds that the roller diameter is more uniform with their chains, which means they roll more smoothly on the means, which should result in less friction, which should lead to less wear. This is also the part of the equation where the stainless inner plates come in. Because the stainless is so hard, the rollers, which are the prime wearing parts of your chain, will wear at a slower rate.
This slower wear could be because the chain is so strong. Wippermann has test results indicating that they make the strongest chains on the market, and the hollow pin 10S1 tested here is the strongest hollow-pin chain on the market. But strength alone doesn’t really strike us as important because even the weakest chain they tested doesn’t have breakage issues.
Now that we’ve given the chain its due, with an attention to detail we have heretofore eschewed, we’re pretty much back at the beginning. Chains are amazing components that, if cleaned and lubed properly, and checked for wear at regular intervals, can largely be ignored. But we’ll be paying attention to this Wippermann because if it can cut our chain replacement interval from three months to four or five, the cost savings will more than offset the added initial investment. We can see the easy removal via the ConneX link helping towards this goal.