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Just like a car, the road bike is a vehicle with an engine. The road bike’s engine is the drivetrain, which consists of the chain, chainrings, cranks or crankarms, cassette, and the front and rear derailleurs. The drivetrain is what gets the road bike moving. If you give it regular care and maintenance, your drivetrain will provide you with many miles on the road.
How long does a road bike drivetrain last? That depends on where and how you ride, and how well you clean and maintain it. A high-quality drivetrain can last a long time, even up to 20 years for some cyclists. However, if it’s starting to make noise, it is hard to pedal, or you have difficulty shifting gears, the drivetrain is likely nearing the end of its life.
A road bike drivetrain is something you should never ignore or assume always to be reliable. You can’t help normal wear and tear, but you can slow it down. Several factors can affect the life of your drivetrain, and there are many things you can do–on and off the bike–to prolong the life of your drivetrain and save money on repairs and part replacements.
What affects the life of a drivetrain?
Lube your chain. Ignoring the chain can mean decreasing the life of the entire drivetrain. If your chain squeaks, it’s starting to build up rust, which puts undue wear on the other drivetrain components. Clean and lubricate the chain at least once a week. You probably need to do it more often if you pack on the miles or ride in wet conditions.
Don’t overdo the chain lube. There can be too much of a good thing. The last thing you want is to squeak as you go down the road. However, don’t let this fear compel you to lube the chain too much. Overdoing the chain lube, especially on the outside of the chain, will attract more dirt and grime, which will wear down your drivetrain more quickly.
One chain won’t last you forever. Chains wear down because of the dirt and grime that fly up. They also stretch with each passing mile. Replacing your chain is easy to forget, so make it a habit to inspect your chain regularly for signs of wear and stretching. Your bike will thank you for it, and a $20 chain is a lot easier to replace than a $200 cassette.
Do you take your road bike off paved roads? Maybe you crave more adventure. There’s nothing wrong with taking your road bike on less-traveled gravel or dirt paths. Just keep in mind that doing so could put additional wear and stress on the drivetrain. The road grit your tires stir up and mix with the chain and cassette and grind against the metal.
Don’t forget to wipe down your bike and the drivetrain after every ride. At the end of a trip, if you habitually hop off your bike and stow it without cleaning it, your drivetrain will accumulate layer upon layer of dirt and road tar. A post-ride wipe-down takes just a few seconds and will save you money on repairs and new parts later on.
Don’t fear the hose. Many riders think that a water hose will cause the same kind of damage to the bottom bracket and bearings as a power washer. On the contrary, using a hose along with a bucket of water and dish detergent or degreaser (see amazon) will give your road bike a thorough cleaning. Be sure to avoid using too much water pressure.
Never leave your bike in the rain. Rain washes away lubrication, causing the chain and the drivetrain to rust, which means costly repairs later on. For some people, finding storage for a road bike can be challenging. Leaving the bike outside for a day or two is not a big deal. If possible, stow your bike inside and out of the elements over the long term.
Shifting makes a difference. As the drivetrain components work together, there will be grinding of metal on metal, causing normal wear. However, this shouldn’t discourage you from shifting at all. Shifting is unavoidable on a road bike. Instead, lubricate your chain and keep your components clean between rides to prolong your drivetrain’s life.
Be smart when shifting gears. If you hear a painful crunch when you shift, you’re probably not shifting correctly, which can put undue strain on your drivetrain. Work on shifting when you’re sitting on the saddle, not standing. Change gears when you’re pedaling smoothly and not putting extra weight on either pedal. Also, shift just one or two gears at a time.
Related Article: Can a Road Bike Go on Gravel?
Taking Care of Each Drivetrain Component
When the miles add up, the chain stretches. A chain checker tool will indicate whether a chain stretches so much that you should replace it. You should replace your chain more frequently than you would the rest of the drivetrain. Chains are relatively inexpensive compared to the other drivetrain components.
The chainrings in front are part of your road bike’s transmission. They can get dented or cracked, so they deserve a quick inspection before you head out before each ride. If the “teeth” start to curve, that means the chainrings have worn down, and you’ll have to start thinking about replacing them if you want to maintain smooth gear shifting.
Inspect the cranks or crankarms for dents and cracks before you head out. To check for “play,” grab one of the cranks (not the pedal) and move it back and forth perpendicular to the bike frame. There shouldn’t be any movement. If there is, see if your bolts are loose or if you need to tweak the bearings.
The cassette will likely show some wear after about 1000 miles. Wear can occur sooner if excess grime and dirt from the chain work their way to the cassette. When cleaning the cassette, use an old toothbrush to get between the sprockets. If the teeth look like shark fins instead of rounded nubs, start thinking about replacing the cassette.
The front derailleur moves the chain from one chainring to another. This component needs regular cleaning and lubrication as much as any other part of the drivetrain. Knowing how to make adjustments to the front derailleur will ensure that your gears shift smoothly and efficiently.
The rear derailleur is a complex system of devices that move the chain on the cassette from one sprocket to another. Your rear derailleur works hard to get you up those hills, so you need to take care of it. Take time to learn how a derailleur system works so you can make your own adjustments to it as needed.
How long will a road bike chain last?
Under the best conditions, you might go 5000 miles before having to replace the chain. However, the life of the chain depends a great deal on you. Clean and lubricate it properly, and avoid hard shifting. Also, adding new lubricant on old lubricate will cause your chain to be gummy, which causes shifting problems.
Related Article: How Long Do Road Bike Tires Last?
What tools do I need to clean my drivetrain?
The tools you need to have include rags, a biodegradable solvent, lube, disposable gloves, and a brush. Tools that are nice to have are a repair stand and a chain-cleaner tool. It’s also a good idea to have on hand tools for adjusting and repairing components. You might as well fix while you’re cleaning.
How much does it cost to replace an entire drivetrain?
That depends on the type of bike and quality of drivetrain you want to buy. The price for a new chain and cassette can range from $100 to $400 and beyond, depending on the kind of road bike you have and the quality of the components you want to get. Expect to pay more for new chainrings.
Do I have to replace the whole drivetrain or just individual components?
That can be a tough call if money is an issue. Certain elements, like the chain, usually need replacement more often than others. If you keep your chain clean and replace it as necessary, you can continue using the whole drivetrain until you start having shifting problems.