Dr Hutch: Has turning chains up to 11 created cycling's weakest link?

Modern bicycle componentry is largely without fault – but through meticulous note-keeping the Doc thinks he's uncovered one area with room for improvement

Mar Cavendish's broken chain stage 13, 2021 Tour de Franceage
(Image credit: Chris Graythen?Getty Images)

What’s soft and buttery, with a smooth stretchy feel and a gossamer-like transience? That’s right, it’s an 11-speed bike chain. I don’t especially want to give the impression that I’ve just arrived from 1955, but stone the crows there’s not much bike riding in a modern chain.

Given my fairly modest mileage on my summer bike, I reckon I’ve had to replace a chain too soon if I can remember installing the previous one without having to look it up. (Yes – I write it down. Record keeping is just one of the reasons I’m so popular at parties.)

I can remember putting on the one I’ve just had to take off again quite vividly, because it was in the middle of last summer. Why so vividly? Because its predecessor didn’t waste time stretching, it just broke, and let me assure you that that had very little to do with any sort of Wout van Aert-esque torque. It dumped me on my arse in the middle of a main road in a fashion that hovered between ‘undignified’ and ‘prospective roadkill’.

Now, it’s not the first very high component wear rate I’ve encountered in cycling. At college my mate Tony bought a pair of wheels with ceramic-coated rims, which were designed to improve braking performance. They didn’t half work – in a single winter club run he totally destroyed two sets of brake blocks. 

But at least his was a problem that solved itself, in as much as when the blocks had worn away, the bolts that had been attaching them to the calipers were able to scrape the (expensive) coating right off the rims, turning them back into normal wheels.

In contrast a stretched chain does not stretch itself out of being a problem. (And please don’t get in touch to tell me chains don’t ‘stretch’ and give me some guff about pins and rollers – you know perfectly well what I’m talking about.)

It’s nice that as well as making chains last less long, they’ve also made them more expensive. To the extent that there are Audaxers and other varieties of long distance riders that have either gone back to 8/9 speed or 10-speed.

We do ask a lot of chains, I’ll accept that. And we take them for granted. That’s despite the chain drive being arguably the greatest step forward that bike design has ever seen. People get excited about every other bike component – when was the last time someone excitedly pointed out their new chain? 

The only bit of genuine chain-bragging I can remember was in the 90s when Tony (him again) bought a titanium chain. It was priced somewhere between a Ford

Fiesta and an Escort. That was expensive enough that Tony never actually used it – in terms of what it did for the mileage of his best bike it might as well have been a lock. 

After a struggle to be fair to the modern chain, I did eventually manage to think of a couple of upsides. When they stretch, they make you feel like much more of a mile muncher than you actually are. When they break, they give you a certain Mark Cavendish swagger.

They wear so very fast that at least they don’t take the chainrings and cassette down with them. And since their career is so brief you barely ever need to really clean one before it’s time to replace it. 

I don’t suppose I’ll go back to 10-speed, but I’d love it if someone would make an 11-speed chain I can grow old with. It doesn’t seem so much to ask.

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