Bike chains may not seem like the sexiest of components, but Shimano's premium road chains are both a marvel of engineering and manufacturing. The bike chain plays an integral part in the smooth operation of your drivetrain, and it's also one of the easiest and most cost-effective component upgrades you can make.
So, when should you replace your chain, what are the key features and benefits of Shimano road chains, and how do DURA-ACE, ULTEGRA, and 105 chains differ? Here’s what you need to know.
Check Your Chain
For starters, it’s important to understand that chains wear out. The more miles you put on your bike, the faster this wear out process happens. Also note that a worn chain accelerates the degradation of your cassette and chainrings, which can impact shift quality and create excessive drivetrain noise. Since it’s less expensive and easier to replace a chain than your cassettes and chainrings, it's important to know when it's time to replace your chain.
The general rule of thumb is to swap on a new chain every 2,000 miles, though if you often ride in wet weather, that number is likely smaller. A better way to gauge chain life is by keeping an eye on wear or "stretch" of the chain. When a chain wears out, the internal parts — rivets and rollers — begin to degrade, giving the illusion of chain stretch. Technically, the chain isn’t stretching. Instead, the pins that join the links wear down, which causes the length of the chain to grow. And it’s that growth that speeds up wear of your cassette and chainrings.
To check your chain for this unwanted “stretch," use a chain wear tool such as the Shimano TL-CN42. Start by hooking one end of the tool over one roller (or pin) in your chain. Now check the other end, which will either come to rest on top of the chain or will fall into the opening between two rollers. Depending on how far it drops between the rollers, your chain may have “stretched” and needs to be replaced.
Chain wear tools have numbers that indicate the degree of wear on your chain. If you get a reading above 0.5 or if your chain wear tool does not drop between the two rollers, your chain is still in great shape. However, if you get a reading between 0.5-0.75, you should replace your chain. And even more extreme, if you get a 0.75 or higher, that means you need to replace your chain and also examine the condition of your cassette and chainrings, looking for signs of excessive wear. If you find them, it’s time to replace them as well.
Once you’ve confirmed you need a new Shimano road chain, it’s time to decide between DURA-ACE, ULTEGRA, and 105. Each of these chains features a level of Shimano SIL-TEC treatment. For those unfamiliar, SIL-TEC is an ultra-low friction surface treatment that involves applying imbedded fluorine particles to the chain using an advanced plating process that is superior to the simple coatings used on other chains.
Among its many benefits, SIL-TEC delivers increased water and dirt resistance, which means the chain remains cleaner and dryer in all riding conditions. This enhances drivetrain efficiency, improves shifting performance, and allows the chain's lube to last longer. SIL-TEC also sheds mud 30% more effectively than chains with conventional Zinc-Nickel plating treatments.
Shimano SIL-TEC chains help reduce overall drivetrain friction, allowing the chain to glide better over chainring and cassette teeth. That means more power is transferred through the drivetrain, so you’ll ride faster while expending less energy.
A chain’s lifespan is also increased with the SIL-TEC treatment, especially if you often ride in inclement conditions. SIL-TEC even delivers a reduction in noise of -2.7 decibels thanks to a 60% reduction in rotation-based sliding friction.
DURA-ACE – ULTEGRA – 105
Top-of-the-line DURA-ACE chains feature a complete SIL-TEC treatment on its plates and rollers for increased durability and efficiency. DURA-ACE chains also utilize hollow pin construction, which keeps weight low (around 247 grams), and they feature Shimano’s asymmetric HG-X11 design that further enhances front and rear shifts while reducing drivetrain noise.
ULTEGRA road chains come in at just 257 grams and get SIL-TEC treatment on the roller link plates and pin link plates for increased durability. Shimano ULTEGRA road chains also utilize HG-X11 directional chain technology that results in smoother shifts and greater overall performance. This is in part because the right and left sides are optimized for front and rear shifting, respectively. It all adds up to a chain that is efficient, quiet, and requires less maintenance.
Finally, for riders on a more restrictive budget, Shimano’s 105 road chain is a great option that features the same technologies as DURA-ACE and ULTEGRA. 105 chains get SIL-TEC treatment on the inner plate surfaces and have HG-X11 directional chain technology that offers precise shifting and improved durability.
When it comes to maintaining a smooth and efficient drivetrain, checking your bike's chain is the most important place to start. Help prevent additional wear and tear on your drivetrain by replacing your chain regularly and consider upgrading to a Shimano SIL-TEC chain for improved performance. Whether you go with DURA-ACE, ULTEGRA, and 105, you know you're getting the best-in-class technology with long-wearing, ultra-efficient Shimano chains.