If you’re an avid cyclist (or E-cyclist), you might have already experienced a bicycle chain that keeps falling off, skipping over the chain ring or breaking apart when you’re on the road. Hopefully, you were riding at a safe speed and didn’t crash the bike or sustain any injuries.
Regardless of whether this happened to you or not, it doesn’t hurt to know how long a new chain is supposed to last.
For most riders, an original chain is supposed to last 3,000 miles or four years. So if you surpass either of these conditions, I recommend you replace the bike chain as soon as possible.
That said, you might be able to run a little longer or change it even earlier depending on the bike chain’s condition, so in the following sections, I’ll discuss several topics such as:
How long do electric bike chains last?
Factors that can affect the chain life
When and how to determine if you need a new chain
Tips on improving the lifespan of your bike chains
How Long Do Electric Bike Chains Last?
As mentioned, a standard bike chain will last around 3,000 miles or four years on average. However, this is only an approximation and can vary significantly depending on several factors, most of which relate to how often you use the bike and how many miles you cover.
In the case of most amateur bicycle riders, there are only three simple scenarios that can determine a worn-out chain: when using road bikes, mountain bikes, or using an electric bike to commute or get around town.
Road bikes are generally designed to be lightweight and fast. They have narrow tires and prefer to roll over well-paved roads such as asphalt and packed gravel. Road bikes prioritize speed over comfort or weight capacity, and they usually do not put too much strain on the bike chain.
Therefore, if you perform the necessary maintenance procedures on time, you will ride further and longer without needing to replace a worn chain. (Even if you are riding super fast regularly.) Therefore, on average, you might be able to squeeze in 3,000-5,000 miles.
Mountain bikes are a different story entirely. All that swerving, jumping around and exposing the drivetrain to mud, sand, and snow frequently will wear out not just your drivetrain system but your entire bike. So if you are an aggressive mountain biker, always carry a spare chain because we’re looking at 500-1500 miles of use on your bicycle chain, even if you wash your bike and service the chain after every ride.
The above conditions hold true for electric road bikes and E-MTBs, but if we are digging deeper about electric bikes and how they differ in this aspect, we must consider the different types of electric bike motors and the varying top speeds.
Since E-bikes can run at higher speeds (usually 20-28mph or even higher if derestricted), they need a sturdier drivetrain with an even stronger chain that is able to handle these speeds. E-bikes usually come with two types of motors: Mid drives and hub drives. Compared to a mid-drive motor, an E-bike with a geared hub motor will put less strain on the chain since it doesn’t transfer torque into the drivetrain. Therefore, if you want to go easy on the bicycle chain, I recommend hub drives.
Nonetheless, with proper maintenance and a “gentle” riding style on even terrain, you could make an E-bike chain last around the usual 3,000 miles.
However, when shopping for replacements, make sure you buy a high-quality chain designed to work with the type of electric bike you own.
Factors that can Aggravate Bicycle Chain Wear
Let’s face it, bicycle chains (unlike belts) won’t last forever, and you’ll have to replace them sooner or later. Several factors can influence chain life that can cause premature wear on the chain and start affecting other components such as the chainrings, derailleurs, and eventually other aspects such as your comfort and safety. Here’s a quick breakdown of these factors.
Extreme temperatures can accelerate wear and tear on the chain due to friction. Although it’s not recommended to ride around in either extreme (hot or cold), it’s mostly higher temperatures that can increase the chain’s friction with the chainrings because of thermal expansion.
Negative zero temperatures do not affect the chain as much, but it is highly detrimental to the E-bike batteries, and that’s why it’s best to stay away from either extreme.
Another aspect that affects chain life is your riding style. It includes how much weight you put into the bicycle and how you shift gears, brake, and turn corners.
The weight can significantly impact the entire bicycle. If you are a heavier rider or carry hundreds of pounds of gear, the drivetrain will get overwhelmed and eventually wear down the cogs and chain.
Apart from that, how frequently you may need to replace your bike chain depends on how you shift the gears. If you shift while pedaling and always use high gear ratios (where the chain tilts to either side without being straight), it will stress out your bicycle chain and create constant friction. (Friction accelerates wear and chain suck.)
Terrain and Weather Conditions
If you encounter sand, mud, or snow frequently while riding, the links inside your bicycle chain will get clogged up with these particles. It will make it difficult to ride your E-bike, putting extra friction on your drivetrain system and causing the components to wear out faster.
Also, if you ride during wet weather conditions, the extra moisture that comes into contact with the bicycle chain will corrode it faster.
Maintenance (or Lack Thereof)
This one’s fairly obvious: if you don’t carry out periodic maintenance on the chain drive, it will wear out faster and cause problems later on. Lack of maintenance is a significant factor that affects a chain and is one of the most common reasons for a reduced lifespan. (Since many cyclists tend to put this off.)
So make sure to perform regular maintenance. Otherwise, you will have to get the bike chain replaced sooner than expected.
When Should you Buy an Electric Bike Chain?
I recommend always keeping an extra chain with you at all times, even while you’re out riding. That way, you won’t get stranded whenever the chain snaps. That said, you should perform weekly “chain checks” to ensure your chain has not worn down.
Manually Checking the Teeth Gap
If you don’t have special chain wear indicator tools and have some experience dealing with bicycle chains, you can check the chain stretch manually.
You can do this by stretching the chain to the longest gear combination (Largest sprockets on the front and rear derailleurs), dragging a chain link away from the front chainring teeth, and checking the clearance (or how much slack there is) between the teeth and the rotating chains.
Using a Chain Checker
Apart from the manual method and using a ruler, the most reliable method to gauge the wear and tear on your bicycle chain is by using a dedicated chain checker/chain wear indicator tool. These tools are easy to use and give a very accurate measurement of chain wear.
Under most circumstances, it is ideal if you replace the chain when it’s 0.5% worn. (Although keeping it under 0.75% is also acceptable as long as you aren’t using the E-bike for racing or other heavy-duty applications)
How to Improve the Lifespan of your Electric Bike Chain?
As mentioned previously, you will drastically improve the lifespan of the drivetrain if you carry out the proper maintenance procedures.
Here, I’m not talking just about scrubbing/degreasing the chain regularly; you also need to add wet or dry lube (depending on the conditions you are driving) into the rollers, let the chain soak it all up overnight, and wipe off the excess lube. (So that dust won’t stick onto it.)
Whether it’s an E-bike or a regular pedal-powered bicycle, you want to stay away from putting in a cheap chain. Low-quality chains aren’t as strong and have a higher probability of snapping.
I always recommend installing KMC chains or Shimano chains. These modern chains, especially ones designed for E-bikes, will last the longest and retain their strength for hundreds of miles.
If you’re a heavy-duty bikepacker or aggressive mountain biker, you can reduce chain wear by rotating back and forth between two or multiple chains.
Rotating chains help reduce the wear on your drivetrain and help you get more mileage out of your old chains. However, you need to keep performing regular maintenance and thoroughly cleaning these two (or more) chains whenever installing or removing them every 1000 miles.
Switching to a Belt Drive
If you feel like chains are too demanding, you can take it easy by switching to belt drives. Belt drives are made from superior materials that never corrode and require very little maintenance (almost next to none if you manage to keep it clean).
However, note that with belt-drive systems, you will have to contend with internal hub gears, mid-drive motors, and high upfront costs.
Chain drives have been around for decades, and they are very reliable at transferring power from the pedals or mid-drive motors. However, compared to the up-and-coming belt drives: chains have a significantly lower lifespan since they wear down after 3,000 miles or during 3-5 years. (Compared to the 10,000 in belt drives.)
Regardless, if you install high-quality chains and carry out regular maintenance, you could get more mileage out of a chain drive system.
Andrew Strider is an electric bike enthusiast. He currently owns 5 electric bikes and is an active member of his local electric bike club where he is able to test many other models/brands a few times a month.
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