There is one constant in mountain biking.  You will need to replace your chain sooner or later. The question is when?  How can we take care of our chain so it lasts longer, and how long can we expect a chain to last?

There are many variables that affect how long a chain will last.  It could last several months, or it could last much longer.  A typical mountain bike chain will last 750 miles of single track riding.  It’s not easy to gauge exactly how long a chain will last, but there are ways to prolong the life of the chain.

What does chain wear mean?

People new to mountain biking might not know why the chain is important and what it looks like when it starts to show wear.  The more you ride, the more the chain will stretch out.  It can also experience a side-to-side wear that is more difficult to see.

The reason we need to pay attention to our chain is that it will be harder to shift gears, and eventually, the chain will break.  In addition, riding with a stretched-out chain will cause your cassette to wear out more quickly.  The biggest reason we should worry is that a worn chain can cause us to spend more money on our bike.

How do I know it is time for a new chain?

Your chain is going to wear out.  That’s a good thing.  That means you are riding your bike often, and that is our goal. 

Obviously, if your chain breaks, you will know it needs to be replaced.  However, we want to replace it before we get to that point.  There is nothing worse than being miles into the trail and having your chain break. 

The easiest way to check for wear is to pull the chain away from the chainring.  When you pull it out, if you see light between the chain and chainring, it is time to think about replacing the chain.

If you are a stickler for detail, you can measure.  Line up the rivets on a ruler, the chain should be 12 inches across 12 links.  If it is off, chances are your chain is in need of repair/replacement.

There are tools to check the wear of the chain.  Mountain bikers have many opinions on the best tool.  My advice is to ask your local bike shop.  This might be something that is just not worth your time. 

For a beginning mountain biker, this might all be too much.  The bottom line is that if you have any doubt, ask your bike mechanic.  This is a good reason to have a relationship with a bike shop.  Have your bike serviced regularly, and the mechanic will keep an eye on your chain life.

What causes mountain bike chain wear?

While it is virtually impossible to tell when your chain will wear out, it is possible to know what causes chain wear.  Knowing what elements affect the chain will help us know when our chain might be at the end of its lifetime.

Bikes have more gears now, and the chains are thinner.  Thus, they are going to break sooner than the old school big chains.  The rollers in the chain get stretched and give the appearance of being stretched out.

Riding in rough/muddy conditions puts extra stress on components, so keep that in mind.  Not only is it good trail etiquette to not ride muddy trails, it will also extend the life of your bike components.

check mountain bike chain
check mountain bike chain

Riding a lot puts pressure on the chain, and it will cause wear.  Duh, right?  That’s what we should be doing.  Don’t stop riding.  Just know that the more you ride, the sooner your chain will give out.

How do I lube my chain, and how often should I do it?

  1. The first step is to get a good bike lube. This is a matter of opinion.  Ask other bikers and/or your local shop.  Some people swear by a certain brand.  When you are starting out, don’t worry as much about the brand—you will probably settle on a favorite along the way.
  2. Make sure the chain is clean. You can use a degreaser, or just wipe off the chain with a rag.
  3. Apply the lube directly to the chain as you use your other hand to backpedal the back wheel. Make sure to get it all lubed—run it through a couple of times.
  4. Use a rag to wipe off excess lube. Hold the rag against the chain lightly, and backpedal the wheel again. 

How often you lube depends on how often you ride and the conditions in which you ride.  A good rule of thumb in the beginning is to lube after every 3rd or 4th ride.  Be careful not to over-lube, as that causes problems as well.

What happens if my chain breaks on a ride?

Being in the middle of a ride when your chain breaks is not fun.  You can walk the bike back out (REALLY no fun), or you can repair the chain yourself. Carrying proper tools in your pack is something you should start to think about. Here are the steps to fix a broken chain:

  1. Clean off the chain as much as you can. That could be difficult if you are in the woods.  If you have a rag, use your water to wipe it off.
  2. Use a chainbreak tool to push the pin halfway out of the broken link.
  3. Pull the broken link off and put it in your pack (don’t throw it down on the ground).
  4. If the chain has come off, you will need to put it back on your bike.
  5. Put the two ends of the chain into each another and line up the holes.
  6. Reverse the chainbreak tool and push the pin through, completing the link.
  7. Move the chain around so it is loose enough and lube it if you have lube with you.
  8. Use your smallest back gear because the chain is shorter now.

This is just to get you out of the woods without walking.  You will need to add another link or take it to your bike shop for repair/replacement.

Often, if you ride a heavy-populated trail, experienced bikers will stop and help you fix your chain.  Never be afraid to ask for help.  Overall, mountain bikers are good people who are eager to help.

Should I replace my cassette when I replace the chain?

This is another question with a vague answer.  It all depends on those factors like how much you ride, what type of terrain you ride on, how much you weigh, what type of bike you have, etc.

replace cassette
replace cassette

The cassette is the cluster of sprockets on the rear hub, slotting onto a freehub body and kept in place with a threaded cassette lockring. A typical cassette uses 9, 10 or 11 sprockets. For laymen, it is the thing with the “teeth.”

The cassette is important because it allows you to use a wide range of gears.  Especially for beginners, it is important to have several different gear options to help you get up that hill easier, get over those features, and ride better and smarter.

As with every other mountain bike component, there are a dizzying array of options if you are not familiar with them.  It is best to ask your bike mechanic or bike friends.  For a beginner, you need something basic that supports the number of gears on your bike.

It usually takes an expert to detect cassette wear, but there are a couple of things you should look for:

  • Are the “teeth” on the cassette starting to look more pointed in places?
  • Is there more wear on some cogs than the other?
  • Put on the rear brake and push down on the pedals. If the chain skips over the top of the teeth or has trouble shifting, it is probably time for a new cassette.

You don’t need to change the cassette as often as the chain.  You will probably need to get a new cassette every 2-3 chain replacements.

How much does it cost to replace the chain?

My chain broke, so I just go buy a new one.  There’s nothing to know about a simple chain, right?  Every single component on a mountain bike has a range of options.  Again, there are variables as to what is the best component for you—where you ride, how much you ride, how much money you want to spend, etc.

This is another reason to develop a relationship with a bike mechanic.  Get advice from someone who knows your riding style and bike.  Obviously, if you have an entry-level bike, you are not going to get a top of the line chain.

The cost of the chain can be anywhere from the $!5 range to $100 and up.  If you are a beginner, you don’t need a fancy chain yet.  Ask your bike maintenance professional or friend what is the cheapest model that will be durable enough for your riding style.

The typical labor charge for replacing just the chain is around $15.

 How do I extend the life of my mountain bike chain?

  1. Buy a really good chain. It isn’t a fun thing to spend money on, but it is worth it in the long-run.
  2. Use less pressure pedaling when you shift gears. The less stress on the chain will extend its life.  Down-shifting to an easier gear during a steep climb puts extra stress on the chain and should be avoided if possible.
  3. Clean your chain after a dirty ride.
  4. Lube your chain