Saturday, May 17, 2008

How To - Get the Chain Back On Cleanly

In an ideal world, your chain would never fall off your chainring. But it seems that it happens, inevitably, no matter how well you adjust your derailleur.

One thing worse than the chain falling off the chainring is the fact that you have to get it back on just to get going again. And usually, unless you clean your bike obsessively, your chain is covered in black inky stuff that gets everywhere after you finished putting on your chain.

In order to replicate this dilemma authentically, I've (ahem) purposefully neglected cleaning my chain for a few weeks. Combined with a wet lube, my chain is now appropriately "untouchable".

So, if you dump the chain off the rings (like I did one one recent ride), what do you do?

I've seen people fiddle with sticks, leaves, napkins, allen wrenches, all sorts of McGyver tools, trying to avoid touching the gross black chain. But there is one tool you can use, it's free, and it's available anywhere (except when you're falling, but if you're falling that long, getting the chain back on will be the least of your worries). What is that tool?


Yep, good 'ole gravity.

And you thought its only purpose was to slow you on hills.

Gravity is very useful when you have a dropped chain and a bit of time. Now, if you do a Millar and drop it while you're winning the prologue of the Tour, then my technique below would be inappropriate. Get your fingers greasy and expect to need new bar tape for the next ride. But for virtually any solo or understanding group ride, the steps below work well.

First off, please excuse my poor photography. I'm at a loss at how to light things properly without using a lot of lights. Lights are one thing we're a bit short of in our temporary apartment. The flash is great but it lights up whatever is closest.

Anyway, let's start with the premise that you just dropped the chain. If you really want to do this, pedal backwards and toe the lower bit of chain inwards while standing on the drive side of the bike. The chain will derail to the inside of the small ring (if you have a right side drivetrain).

Role playing would add some feeling of authenticity here, so I'll do it in font.

"Egads! I've dropped my chain!"

(For the R rated version you'll have to go on a group ride and listen for the various realistic things to say when someone drops a chain).

Okay, you've dropped your chain. Now what?

Step 1: First verify that you dropped the chain due to a sloppy shift or sloppy adjustments. If the crank is falling off and that's why the chain dropped off, then you should fix the crank or at least figure out if it's rideable. Just make sure the chain dropped and that's it.

No other problems with the bike? Then carry on.

Step 2: Pick up your bike. Yeah, bike riders don't have strong upper bodies, I know, hurts climbing and stuff. Personally I think climbing is overrated, and for me anyway, protecting my collarbone is up there in importance. Having some muscles around the shoulder area helps pad impacts. But some upper body strength also helps in lifting your bike.

Grasp the downtube and lift the back of the bike so high off the ground that your bike looks like it's trying to float away on a balloon attached to the rear wheel. In other words, hold the bike vertically, front wheel down. You should see something like this (if you're staring closely at the bike):

Note the poor, derailed, dirty chain on the poor, dirty bike. I'm holding the bike like this, the picture was not rotated. Chain is kind of limp.

See how the chain is hanging? That's a good sign. If it's not hanging, if it looks sort of jagged like a heart rate line next to a hospital bed, your chain is probably stiff and not happy. A nicely hanging chain is a happy one.

Step 3: Tilt the bike back and forth along its main plane (i.e. parallel to its wheels). You'll see that the chain tilts back and forth too. Tilt the bike such that the chain engages the chainring. You'll want to engage the small ring, or the middle ring if you have a triple. I purposely derailed the chain on my bike from the big ring off into the bottom bracket for these pictures. So the derailleur is positioned over the big ring. Don't worry if your derailleur is too. No matter where the front derailleur is situated, this trick works.

Here is the chain, floating just next to the small ring. I'll tilt the bike clockwise to get the chain to sit on the chainring. And no, Michelin didn't pay me to put the tire label in the picture.

Note that the chainstay (yellow sticker) is now pointing to about 12:30 PM. In the prior picture, it was pointing at about 11:30 AM. I tilted the bike about 1 hour worth. And now the chain is engaged on the small ring, just for a few teeth.

Step 4: Start rotating the cranks with your hand. GENTLY. This will pull the chain onto the chainring.

I'm starting to pedal GENTLY. The chain is just barely engaged. The angle of the lower part of the chain (the right side in the picture above) shows that most of the chain is still derailed. The fact that the right side of the chain (in the picture) is straight means it's no longer hanging limply.

Pedaling here, you can see I've moved the crank about 90 degrees from the prior picture. You can see that the chain has engaged about halfway. The rest of the chain is still off. But with another 90-120 degrees of pedaling, the chain will be on.

And lo and behold, the chain is on. I know, black chain (it's silver when it's clean) on black chainrings are not ideal for photographic purposes. Sorry.

Step 5: If you derailed off the big ring, or you want to put it in the big ring to start off, put the bike down, shift into the big ring, lift the back of the bike up again, and pedal (use your toe to turn the cranks). The chain should go right up there. I didn't take a picture of that but you can imagine it in your head. Or, if you want, practice it with the bike.

Step 6: Check your fingers (the cranks get dirty too), wipe off on your shorts or any very dark pieces of your kit (letters of sponsors' names work, or logos, etc etc). Then, after putting the bike down with a feeling of satisfaction, throw your leg over it and get ready to go.

Chains shouldn't drop off but they eventually do. This will allow you to get going again without touching anything "icky". It demonstrates a certain fluency on the bike and not only will it keep your kit pristine, it will also be another skill you have that differentiates you from the "non-serious" cyclist.

Since the bike is so dirty, I'll be doing some picture type things on how to clean the bike. That'll be coming up later.


Colin R said...

While I appreciate the pro-ness of this maneuver, it seems like a lot of work compared to the mtb-er's favorite, "pedal as gingerly as possible while using the front derailleur to push the chain back onto the offending ring." Is there are reason this method isn't cool enough for you?

josh said...

knocking on wood...

you can usually avoid dumping a chain by having a properly adjusted derailler AND proper cable tension...the FD can usually *work* with a bit of a slack cable...but is more prone to dumping the chain (when downshifting).

anyways, you can just upshit and pedal (carefully) to get it back on.

unless you know something colin and I don't ??

Aki said...

Ah, totally right. I forgot to mention that with Campy, when you dump it, doesn't come back up the way Shimano does. You need to have something to hold the chain up on Campy, like a sensor or something, otherwise the chain just drops off the chainring and sits on the BB shell. When you try the "pedal gingerly" method the chainring just rubs against the chain and there's no "pick up" action.

With Shimano, for whatever reason (probably combination of front derailleur cage, chainring design, maybe chain), the chain picks up when you pedal slowly and shove the shifter into the big ring.

With the SRM, using the standard "side of the down tube" pickup sensor thing, the pickup acts as a chain hanger so the chain doesn't drop all the way down. The problem was that the sensor thing isn't very strong and I ended up breaking its mount pedaling gingerly the second or third time I dropped the chain.

Finally, double shifting Campy aggressively seems to be the only time I drop a chain. Big ring to small, big cog to small. And maybe hit a bump while I'm doing it. The chain just bounces off the inside ring. My cables are pretty taut with the Nokons and my desire for fast shifts, especially up front.

I appreciate the feedback, both of you. I forgot about the fact that this is probably Campy specific.

David said...

I have Shimano, so in general I can recover fine. However I have found that I don't get into trouble in the first place if I make sure the chain is in the middle of my cassette when I go from big ring to little ring. If I am in the easiest gear in back, and then realize that I am still in the big chain ring, then I know I am rolling the dice my trying to move to the little chain ring without first shifting over a couple of cogs in back. Ride on... -Dave

Rich said...

Campy shifts back on just fine with the front derailleur while pedaling. Not sure why you have problems shifting chain back on. Works for both outside an inside chain drops. Though on the outside I usually stop and do it by hand to prevent gouging the crank arm more.
Maybe the SRM crank parts get in the way?

WMdeR said...

I had serious trouble with chain drop on 8s campy equipment, though I was generally able to shift to the big ring and re-engage the chain as described above. I eventually did what the pros of the late 1990's did, and added a chain minder to my bike. No more dropping the chain to the inside on crossover shifts. Going to 10s substantially improved the shifting problem, though I still use a chain minder, as the bottom bracket gussets on my racing bike wedge the chain badly if it ends up off on the inside.



Erik said...

I think chains seem to drop when you least expect it, even when the FD is dialed. It sucks when they damage the BB shell, which they can do if you are on a fast group ride and your mind is in mash mode.

I recently got a new frame and dropped the chain during a fast ride - I was shiting to the small ring and as it was enroute, I hit a nasty expansion joint and off it went. I was in the middle of the cassette and my FD adjustment is kosher.

So I picked up a Deda dog fang. The peace of mind is nice to have.

Aki said...

I found the Deda Dog Fang (formerly known, I think, as the much less sexy sounding Third Eye Chain Watcher) to be problematic. When I regularly used a "inner chain guard", I adjusted my derailleur so it would overshift by a huge margin. I bounced my chain off the guard repeatedly. I found the Third Eye/Deda to be less than durable, cracking after a short time.

I found N-Gear's Jump Stop to be much better, metal plate, adjustable in/out separate from height, and extremely durable. Only problem is finding one that fits my frame.

A quick search found someone who thinks the same way:
3rd Eye vs Jump Stop.

Also, regarding Campy dropping chains, it seems in the Giro that it was just Campy and SRAM that had un-pickable-chain-drops. Savoldelli was one such affected person:
Savoldelli drops chain in 2008 Giro TT.

Anonymous said...

If I drop a chain, I usually give it to the team mechanic or radio for a bike change, lol! Otherwise, I sit on the side of the road, cursing out the mechanic or anything other than myself...they all drop every once in awhile, be cool and take your time soft pedaling it back into position or do the old fashion method of using your fingers to pick up the chain and never get off the bike! Tricky, but then again, racing a bike in general, is pretty tricky stuff.
Good luck AKI!