Broken Bike Chain?

Yes, broken bike chain is a syndrome and no one is immune. It can happen to you with haste. And sometimes there is no explanation other than shoddy craftsmanship. Most of the time it’s a result of poor care.

With chains doing so much of the work, ie, taking you forward up hills and across the land, they get all of the brunt and no thanks. No one gets off their bike and says, “I am so happy about that chain! It’s allowed me to pedal my bike up to this ridge line. Damn it’s gorgeous up here!”

Usually it goes something more like this: “This is a damn fine bike.” They take a look around and move along with a high level of stoke. Life is good. The chain goes unthanked.



What about when the chain breaks? My breaks have been in places that are exclusively isolated and inconvenient. I have to say that at the moment I was not excited about my relationship with my chain.

Why they break:

You’re asking why this happens. So am I. But I know why. Let’s take a look:

  1. chain needed replacing a long time ago and is structurally unsound to operate
  2. really bad shifting (under load)
  3. Installed by an idiot (someone unqualified)
  4. Manufacturer Defect

1. Chain’s need to be replaced as they are a serious wear item. The chain is an assembly of small parts where metal on metal movement is part of life. As the chain twists and bends laterally and rolls over thousands of rpm’s per ride, it’s exposed to dirt and grime and bad shifts. The plates wear at their carrier pins and develop flex. At a certain point this starts to be measured as “chain stretch.” It’s because now the fittings of plates against pins is super sloppy.

broken chain example 1 & 2
fractured chain plates

Then one day under load you shift and then a plate fractures or peels away from the pin and you have a broken chain. End.

broken chain
example 3 & 4

2. When chains shift from cog to cog or chainring to chainring, the chain flexes in an abrupt way, much like when you’re about to miss an exit on the highway at 80 mph and you go for it. Something that is otherwise straight takes on a temporary sharp bend to go to the next gear. When this action happens under load or hard, fast pedaling (like we see done on e-bikes) the chain wears the pins at an accelerated rate. Now concepts from rule 1 apply.

breaking chain
example 5 – chain plate peeling away; chain are quite strong and for a bit this will actually feel like something is going on with shifting until one makes a solid chain inspection

3. When a chain is installed using a formerly pressed out pin, or if a new pin is improperly installed:

improperly installed chain pin
improperly installed chain pin leads to nearly immediate breakage – repaired by simply replacing the link with a master-link

Sometimes the pin installation isn’t right but seems so close that it requires a trained eye. But generally, using a previously pressed pin is the culprit here.

Each chain pin as little flanges at the end that essentially hold the outer chain plates in place. Once a pin is pressed back out it knocks this flange off one side and once pressed back in there is nothing to retain the outer plate on that side of the pin. Do yourself a favor and replace it with either a masterlink or a new chain pin, depending on what chain you have.

shimano chain pin
shimano chain pins, each for a different speed chain.
sram power link
SRAM master link or power link (black is for 10 speed)

4. Sometimes you’re the victim of poor manufacture. Get to your local shop and talk with them about it. Here’s one:

SRAM XX1 Eagle chain that appears to have had a defective pin, notice how the pin is broken in the middle and the ends are still within the outer plates?



Remedies:

Get a new chain. Sometimes you need new chainrings and cogs as well, depending on how worn things are.

Fat Bike Packing – Day 2, Soapstone

Back out on the open road I descended on into Soapstone Basin by following the switchbacks down the mountain-side. The road was beleaguered by trucks hauling smaller off-road vehicles. The men driving these trucks were of size. They never move a muscle in order to move about.

This is how the Terminator won the battle against humanity.

Water. The spigots were an oasis in a country that shouldn’t have been devoid of water. There was a river nearby. This seriously shouldn’t have been the first water I’d seen in so long but I failed to trust the sources I did see because of the large populations seemingly living in such close proximity. This water was good. No nasty flavor, no hint of chlorine. Hell, it may have been free of Fluoride. Don’t tell anyone. It’s a good thing.

I drank a bunch. Topped off my reservoirs and headed immediately out to find a place to camp. I wasted an hour thinking I could find a place just there off the road. But in the end I paid $20 for a spot over a the Soapstone campground. At least, I thought, there should be running water there. I was wrong. There wasn’t a single spigot that worked. Turns out that the only running water at a campsite was the Lost Creek site, some 15 miles up the road.

So I grabbed a sweet site in the middle of the campground close to a toilet. It was open and spacious, like a comfortable house. I had room to walk around and contemplate my existence. After setting up camp I grabbed my extra bladder and headed for the sanitary station once more 1 mile back the way I came. I was able to bring back one more gallon of water.

I used it all before I left camp the following morning. Mostly drinking it.

I never really took stock before when backpacking how much I used water at camp, between drinking and cooking, one gallon per person per night seems to be about par for me. The next time I do this I’m simply going to bring an empty jug. And planning routes around water is such a legitimate thing. Which isn’t a thing I’ve ever spent much time thinking about! While backpacking in the true backcountry I just grab water where I find it. But it always seems more common. With bike packing, as this was my first experience touring altogether, water stops seem more dispersed and something to consider while planning routes and camps.

With all the consideration for water, the other main concern was food. I had definitely brought enough, with an emergency supply of bars and electrolyte powder as a luxury, just in case. But I didn’t have anything else. Night took its time getting to camp, descending slowly as I ate some more oysters and mashed potatoes. That felt like a dinner I’d repeat and recommend to others.
The camps adjacent to me were literally all trailer or camper oriented. I was there with a bike, empty car park, and a lone single man tent. My experience was so completely opposite of my fellow campers that it was nearly only laughable.

I built a nice fire out of some scrap wood I’d found around the area. While I didn’t mind the solitude a fire is about as useful as a cold fire pit when you’re not sharing it with someone. My fire-ring companion is my wife. We always enjoy them together. This time, I was alone and staring blankly into a fire that simply burned for warmth. There was no social gathering around this fire.

About 9:30 I stuffed the fire out and headed for the tent. I tied the bike to a tree so that the local children would have a hard time borrowing it for the night. There were a lot of children about. And I slept really well that night. It was quiet except for the one guy with his generator running into the night and early in the morning. Not sure what he needed all that electricity for. Probably his electric toothbrush.

Department Store Bikes (part 1)

Let’s take a look at a few things: Without insurance it will cost you roughly $16,000 (possibly more) to surgically repair a broken wrist. A broken wrist which could result from riding a bike that wasn’t assembled correctly. This is a mechanical failure that can lead to a crash.

Now, you want to start mountain biking, just for example. You see that Fatbikes are taking hold and you think it would be fun to have one. You go to a bike shop and find that an entry level Fatboy from Specialized is $1400. Whoa! That’s a ton of money.




Specialized Fatboy

Then you visit Walmart and find that they have a Mongoose fatbike called the Dolomite. It’s on sale online for $207.53.

Mongoose Dolomite

Thinking about this, “oh, it’s just a bike” runs through your mind and you fail to see the implications of “just a bike.” You buy their bike. On your first test-ride around the neighborhood you realize it doesn’t shift through its meagre 7 gears like you think it ought to. With a thump you hit a curb and the handlebars spin to a 90 degree angle from the forward direction they should face. As you tumble slowly over the bars into the grass next to the curb the handlebar pokes your abdomen causing a painful charlie-horse. You sprain your wrist breaking the fall.

But you’re fine. It’s at this point that you realize this bike wasn’t assembled correctly. In the bike shop we see these bikes all the time. While they fit a budget quite nicely they come with absolutely no guarantee of quality or proper assembly. In fact, we see them improperly assembled all the time. Forks on backwards, bolts left loose, bottom brackets loose, and pedals mounted half-heartedly.

Aside from this, we see the cheapest use of materials possible. The fork dropouts (basically responsible for holding your front wheel in the frame) aren’t substantial enough to take the mildest abuse from trail riding.




Bikes like the Fatboy are 1. assembled correctly at your local bike shop and 2. are built with quality parts and materials. I don’t care if you’re a Specialized brand hater, that’s beside the point. The fact is, if you injure yourself on a bike that comes from a shop, it’s usually a result of the way you’re riding. It’s typical for a beginner to crash in mild situations. It happens to experienced riders all the time. But you’re not crashing as a result of improper bicycle assembly or use of poor materials.

Would it have been worth paying $1400 to have a bike that shifts correctly, was safe to ride, and has the guarantee of a local shop? You can judge for yourself. $16,000 for a broke wrist? You could buy 14 really great and well built bikes for that price.