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I recently took my bike in for a service and the mechanic urged me to replace my chain, potentially at great cost (might need a new wheel). He said it might jam or pop off. He couldn't explain to me why my safety might be threatened but repeatedly asserted that it would be threatened.

So, why exactly is an old stretched chain a safety issue? How exactly might I be more likely to crash because of this?

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    I don't know why you'd need a new wheel, unless the sprocket cluster needs replacing and the mechanic bungles things getting it off. – Daniel R Hicks Apr 7 at 12:36
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    The worst danger you face is the chain could jump off and jam the wheel, but that's more a function of derailer adjustment than chain/sprocket condition. More likely your chain would jam through one of several mechanisms and the crank would "lock" (or, alternatively, "slip"). If this happens at an inconvenient time (eg, in traffic or on a hill) it could result in injury. – Daniel R Hicks Apr 7 at 12:40
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    If your mechanic said that part of replacing a chain may include a new wheel it may be time to find a new mechanic. – David D Apr 7 at 13:32
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    Is it possible the mechanic said "you need a new freewheel"? – shoover Apr 7 at 18:39
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    @shoover And/or a new chain-wheel (=chain-ring). I really can't see why to replace the wheel if this means the rear wheel! – Carel Apr 7 at 19:50
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A worn, stretched chain will accelerate wear on sprocket and chainring teeth. There will then be a greater chance that the chain will slip off of and override the sprocket teeth as you apply a power stroke through the crank. When this happens the pedal and your foot suddenly slips downward, which could throw you off the bike, especially if you were off the saddle and standing on the pedals.

A new chain is not usually regarded as a 'great cost'. They are not cheap but not expensive either. There's no reason you need a new wheel, unless there are other problems of course. You probably do need a new cassette though.

Whether you need to replace the chain and cassette depends on your situation, your bike and how you ride. If you have a quality bike, do a lot of miles and want an efficient drivetrain you absolutely should replace it. If you do a few casual miles occasionally and are not experiencing any problems you can probably get away with leaving it as it is.

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    I'm guessing the asker has a fairly low-specced bike, since most people who have nicer equipment know more about it. In that case, a new chain shouldn't cost more than about 10 dollars/euro/pounds, which is pretty cheap. – David Richerby Apr 7 at 13:24
  • The mechanic said that I "might" need a new cassette, and, if so, this might mean I would also need a new wheel. Sounds like this was just bs? Terrible! Thanks heaps for this everybody. I will definitely change mechanics. It's definitely a problem that so many mechanics are also bike sales stores. Felt like they were just trying to get me to buy a new bike. – kennyB Apr 7 at 23:18
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    @kennyB, if your chain has been out for a long time, it might have adversely affected the cassette - insofar the mechanic was speaking correctly. If buying a new wheel is cheaper than just replacing the cassette on the existing wheel, I'd look for a new shop... ;) – AnoE Apr 8 at 9:13
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    @kennyB Just what sort of bicycle do you have? The only way I can imagine a competent bike mechanic thinking you need a new wheel is if you have a vintage hub that they don't manufacture cassettes and/or cassette tools for. – HAEM Apr 8 at 9:54
  • "A worn, stretched chain will accelerate wear on sprocket and chainring teeth" - would love to see the science behind this as from my own experience I get more life out of the whole lot by continuing a worn chain with a worn cassette, than I ever did replacing chains regularly according to chain wear checkers. I'm not convinced they wear any faster, it's just a new chain won't mesh with a partly worn cassette so will skip, but worn will mesh fine with worn, so long as it's at the same rate. MTBs with 1x set ups and clutch mechs might however help matters. – tjmoore Apr 8 at 14:05
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As chains stretch, they wear the chainrings and rear cogs and the teeth on them start to become pointed and eventually don't grip the chain so well. The danger is that, when you push on the pedals, the chain slips from tooth to tooth on the chainring, which turns with much less resistance than you were expecting – you just have the friction of the chain slipping against the teeth, rather than the resistance of you driving the bike forwards. When the pedals suddenly turn much easier than you were expecting, you can very easily fall off the bike, especially if you were pushing hard, which is the time the chain is most likely to slip. Any time you fall off the bike while you're just cycling along in traffic is a potential under-a-truck moment. To some extent, you can mitigate this by cycling gently but there's always the risk that you try to pedal hard in some kind of emergency situation, forget that you can't do that, and come off.

Having said that, there is something a little confusing. Maybe you just misunderstood your mechanic, but there's no reason that you should require a new wheel, unless that's completely independent from your need for a new chain. However, you may well need new chainrings and new rear cogs: because the stretched chain wears them to match itself, they'll also skip with a new chain.

Unless you need a high-end chain (which you'd probably know about if you did) I'd expect a new chain to cost about 10 dollars/pounds/euros ("about" means the currency unit doesn't matter much among those), new rear cogs to be about 25 and new chainrings maybe 30ish. Plus labour.

  • Agreed. Just want to point out that for nicer components (e.g. a recent 11 speed Ultegra or SRAM Force group) you can pretty much double the price estimates. – Michael Apr 7 at 15:40
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    Is the condescending statement strictly necessary? " (because people who have higher-end components tend to know more about their bike than you do)" – trognanders Apr 8 at 6:49
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    @trognanders I was trying not to be condescending, and I'm sorry it came across that way. If anyone can phrase it better, please do suggest something. I think it's an important point, which needs to be made somehow. The asker has been told that a new chain will be expensive: unless the asker has a high-end bike (and most people who've spent $1000+ on a bike know it), a new chain isn't expensive at all. – David Richerby Apr 8 at 8:37
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    @DavidRicherby A new cassette + chain + labor could easily range in the 100 USD. It's not exactly inexpensive. Especially when you can get a used bicycle for less than that. – Antzi Apr 8 at 8:59
  • @Antzi I already covered all of that in my answer. But the chain itself shouldn't be much more than $10 or so of that. – David Richerby Apr 8 at 9:00
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Well, if chain is worn, it might snap when you push pedal strong, which will cause your leg that was pushing to drop down very fast, and as consequence you could loose balance and fall.

That is explanation why it is unsafe. As others have pointed out it is economically unsound not to change it since it will cause damage on other more expensive parts. Something like insisting not to change oil in your car because it is expensive (and you might need to change filter with it!), or brake fluid.

So while it is great to want understand things about your bicycle, you might want to give a bit more benefit of doubt to your bike mechanic.

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Chains have a clearly defined specification for wear. Once the length of a specific number of links is longer than some maximum tolerance the chain should be replaced. If the chain is stretched, it is a good investment to replace it.

A decent chain should be around $20-$40. They are very easy to replace. No, another wheel is not necessary. You do not have to buy a new cassette. Severely worn chains will eventually wear rear cassettes and cause performance issues though, so it is a thing to consider.

Is there a safety issue? Maybe the chain will break and jam up your rear wheel causing a crash. Maybe it will break or slip and your foot will slip off causing a crash. Probably mostly a scare tactic, but not completely imaginary.

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