How to properly install an 11-speed chain
The chain could be called the heart of the bicycle. After all, it’s the piece of the machine that makes the bike go forward. It’s also the piece that can end a ride suddenly and unexpectedly when it snaps in half. A broken chain, without the tools or the expertise to fix it, will inevitably cut a ride short and could mean a long walk home. This nightmare scenario is compounded by the fact that an improperly installed chain can do serious damage to expensive components like the chainrings, drivetrain, derailleur and, even in some cases, the frame. For this month’s “Garage Files” we’re taking a look at the unsung hero of the bike—the chain—and how to install it properly from start to finish. In our opinion, this is one skill every rider should have in his or her bag of tricks before he or she embarks on a serious trail ride.
—Ruler (or other chain checker device) —Degreaser (optional)
—Needlenose or master link pliers
2-Knowing whether or not it’s time to change your chain is half the battle. There’s a very easy way to tell if your chain is worn and stretched out by using a simple ruler.
3-Measure 12 links from the center of the pin. This will be a total of 24 pins measured. A new chain will measure exactly 12 inches. If your chain measures more than 12 1/8 inches, it’s time for a replacement.
4-To start, shift the chain into the smallest gear combo to reduce the tension. Our bike uses a single-ring drivetrain, but if your bike uses a double, shift to the small chainring as well.
5-Our SRAM X01 derailleur has a Cage Lock feature that will help to further reduce chain tension during this process. If using SRAM, engage this feature. If using Shimano, turn the Shadow Plus switch off.
6-The worn chain we’re replacing does not have a master link like SRAM’s Powerlink, so we’re using a chain breaker to remove the old one.
7-Remove the chain pin completely, and the chain will separate like so.
8-A spent chain can be used for art projects, but should never be reinstalled on a bike with any confidence that it will last. We’re recycling this one.
9-Our new KMC X11 chain comes with a special coating that’s designed to lubricate the links right from the factory. This coating will work remarkably well for most conditions and can be installed as is. For most riding conditions, this is the best practice.
10-However, the heavy lubricant attracts excessive dirt and grime in our dry and dusty SoCal environment. We’ve had better luck stripping the stock lubricants and using our own. To do this, we use a plastic bag as a makeshift solvent tank.
11-Simply put the chain in a plastic bag, and then spray your favorite degreaser in and let it soak for a few minutes. Again, this is not a necessary step, and only beneficial for riders in certain conditions or for those who have a very specific lubricant preference.
12-After soaking, dry the chain off with a clean shop rag and allow to air-dry for a few minutes.
13-Now we must size the chain. Run the new chain over the largest cog and chainring combo without running it through the derailleur. Make note of which link would connect the chain back together and remain snug.
15-Add the four pins to your initial measurement, and then make note of which pin you plan to break. Remember, if you’re using a chain with a master link, like our KMC, you will need to remove an extra half a link to make room for the connector.
16-Now, with the chain sized appropriately, we’re ready to cut off the extra links. We’re using a Park CT-3 tool that’s compatible with our 11-speed chain.
17-With the chain cut to size now, reroute the chain through the derailleur pulleys and through the front derailleur if you have one.
18-Master links use two sides that oppose one another and snap together without the use of tools.
19-Install the master link by running the pins through the cut pieces of chain, and then threading the pins through the holes like so.
20-Backpedal the bike gently so that the master link is on the top portion of the chain. Then, hold the rear wheel in place and push down on the crank. This should create enough tension on the chain to click the master link into place. If you’ve done this correctly, you will hear it snap in.
21-Then, shift to the largest cog and chainring combo to make sure the chain is not too short. When sized correctly, the derailleur pulleys will have a little extra wiggle room, like shown here.
22-Since this is a full-suspension bike, we like to go a step further and check that the chain will be properly sized even at full compression. To check this, let the air out of the shock and run the bike through its full travel. If a chain is too short, the derailleur will become taut before the shock bottoms. This could cause irreversible damage to the drivetrain components.
23-Removing a chain that uses a master link is also easy, even if you don’t have a special pair of master-link pliers. We use a pair of needle-nose pliers to push the links opposite one another.
24-Simply squeeze them in opposing directions and they will click apart.
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