After some hard touring miles on dirt roads and in the rain, as well as some abuse on the Dawson Overland Trail I bought a new SRAM PC-951 chain in Whitehorse and installed it a few hundred miles down the Alaska Highway. There are multiple approaches to chain and cassette maintenance. To maintain performance I try to change chains when they wear by conventional standards, usually around 1500-2000 miles. If your first ride on a new chain looks like this, a long life is dubious. I often run three chains per cassette, until new chains no longer mate well with the worn cogs. I’ve noticed a lot of wear on the middle chainring of my new FSA Alpha Drive crankset; soft aluminum alloy and only 32 teeth are to blame, as well as a properly worn out chain this last cycle. The inner and outer rings look good. I’ll be looking for some steel replacement rings at some point, especially for the middle ring and will investigate the possibility of flipping the chainring but with the shifting aids it may not be possible. I’ve used a bottle of Boeshield T-9 lube since Anchorage, with mixed feelings. If allowed to rest for a period it remains attached to the chain as it dries to a waxy finish, but as I’ve found with other wax-based lubes it does accumulate on the chain in crusty black clumps and doesn’t penetrate the important inner parts of the chain as well as I’d like. The aerosol T-9 that I’d used at the bicycle shop was less viscous and penetrated the chain much better, but the drip bottle seems to be a slightly different formulation. Overall, it worked fine and might do very well in cleaner conditions. Of course, a worn out chain will always act hungry, begging for lube soon after the last application.
I’m back to Pro-Link, which is my favorite lightweight wet lube. It is thin enough to penetrate well and also works as an effective solvent, helping to wipe away road grit and accumulation when cleaning. Wax-based lubes aren’t much cleaner in real world conditions, and in either case a clean chain is possible through diligent care. The worst chain lubes in my experience have been viscous wet lubes and extremely waxy varieties. Anything designed for “extreme” conditions is usually extremely messy and creates buildup, either wet or waxy. For now I’ve emptied the remaining T-9 into the half-bottle of Pro-Link that I was given in Whitehorse at the Icycle Sports bike shop. The combination is thin enough to penetrate, and leaves a light waxy film for the long haul. When it gets dirty it’s easy to wipe off, so I’m satisfied. Riding on paved roads in dry weather helps a lot. And while some people swear by the non-method of wearing everything out together all at once (chain, cassette and chainrings), I actually perceive the improved performance of a new chain. Aside from shifting performance, the each link rolls with less resistance and requires less lube, less frequently. It’s imperfect for sure, but belt drives and Rohloffs have their own caveats. If you can’t stand it perhaps single speed touring is for you, or hiking.
If you told me you don’t know anything about chains and lube and don’t care, I’d suggest an Alivio drivetrain (or some such equivalent) and a bottle of Tri-Flow. Actually, ignoring the drivetrain is easier and more enjoyable than one might think. There are certainly better things to do on tour than to dote on cheap Asian-made metal bits.
It’s also time to lubricate the full length of cable and housing running to my rear derailleur. Despite a healthy application of lightweight lube upon installation, shifting is a bit sluggish as the rear derailleur tugs the cable through six feet of housing. Next time I buy a new cassette, it will surely be an inexpensive 8 speed model. The current 9 speed cassette was lightly used and was taken off a repair bike, upgrading to a long-cage 10 speed system. Surprisingly, this is the first time I’ve ridden a 9 speed system, not that it’s vasty different. Friction shifting requires a little more precision and in theory, the parts wear faster. Back to eight soon, and cheaper chains and cassettes. When it comes to consumables such as chains and rings, inexpensive stuff works fine and can eventually be replaced. If you really require something durable, quality steel rings are where it’s at, although for significant cost some coated aluminum models claim to be extremely durable. In either case, low-grade aluminum and steel will wear faster, although it’s not uncommon for a 32T ring to show wear after a few thousand miles as it has relatively fewer teeth to distribute the load.
I’ve lost the neoprene Aardvark saddle cover (available from VO, made in Utah) in a beaver pond somewhere and I noticed how a rain shower pebbled the surface of my Brooks B17, so I figured it was time for some leather treatment. Aside from protection from the rain, the neoprene cover concealed the prized saddle and actually made it considerably more comfortable, acting as a thin cushion and to reduce abrasion. It was far more durable than the uncomfortable and ill-fitting urethane-coated nylon Brooks covers available. The Aardvark cover is obscure, but it has been a favorite piece of equipment.
A coat of Sno-Seal, which is a common beeswax based waterproofing product in the US (from South Carolina, since 1933), seems to be a good way to treat both my Brooks saddle and to reproof the Carradice saddlebag. The bag has not lagged in watertightness that I can tell, but it’s appearance has become quite dull and dry and a bit of wax in the fibers will brighten it and will keep the leather straps from dry-cracking. Of course, when it rains the wax will help to keep the water from penetrating, but the trade for waterproofness is always breathability. In warm summer weather it is all a wash, as none of this is very important when the sun is shining. When the waxed cotton receives a cooling deluge, the fabric become quite stiff and confidently waterproof. When cold, it becomes so hard you can knock on it. For saddle treatment I’ve used Brooks Proofide and VO Saddle Care made by Peter Limmer, along with assorted oil- and wax-based products when available. For cotton products including my Ostrich handlebar bag and other Carradie saddlebags, I’ve often used a tin of Filson’s Oil Finish Wax although I’m noticing that Sno-Seal is more common and less expensive, at least up north. Martexin also makes a treatment for waxed canvas, but I’ve never used it. Sno-Seal appears to have a less complicated recipe than the coveted Proofide concoction, composed mainly of a soft, refined beeswax (this one came in a toothpaste tube, others come in a jar). Their claim is that animal fats and oils degrade the leathers, while the beeswax simply impregnates it. It applies well in direct sunlight on a summer day. Most of all, I like the look of an old product that doesn’t change and doesn’t need to; it’s a good lesson to do one thing, and to do it well.