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I just got my mountain bike back from the shop after a frame warranty, and they replaced my chain as it was apparently worn (2x11). They recommended changing the cassette and chainrings while I was at it, but I wanted to inspect those myself before making those relatively expensive changes.

That got me to think: how does lubricating the chain stop the cassette and chainrings from wearing? You’re not supposed to cover the cassette nor chainrings in lube, so what is preventing them from wearing?

In my case, I noticed that some of my favorite cogs had their contact faces deformed. There was a slight burr where the chain contacts the cog. On the other hand, the big chainring (my favorite) showed significant wear. I’m not surprised by this, considering the occurrence of chainring strikes and shifts under big power, but in some spots I’m pretty sure there’s shavings of metal missing. This corroborates to the fact that I now experience chain slippage every so often when using the new chain. This surely can’t be normal, what am I doing wrong?

I’ve only had the bike for 900km too, and I’m pretty good when it comes to cleaning and lubing. My drivetrain is Shimano SLX M7000 if it matters.

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    Cleaning will likely be more important. – Vladimir F Sep 2 at 17:35
  • I agree with @VladimirF. Grit on the sprockets grinds them down, obviously. Grit inside the chain lengthens the chain, and that contributes to wear on the sprockets as well. – Adam Rice Sep 2 at 17:43
  • They wanted to make good for the work they've done. No way rings AND cassette could be worn in such a way after just 900km, or you bashed them really badly. – Carel Sep 2 at 18:12
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    @Carel Mountain biking? You can definitely wear out an MTB drivetrain in 900 km – Paul H Sep 2 at 18:14
  • @Carel I haven’t smashed them into anything crazy. It’s usually just a failed bunny hop that results in the rings glancing off the obstacle. I do agree about the shop ripping me off, they charged me almost $200 for the chain and new cables and rear brake hose. I hope I don’t have to warranty the bike again. – MaplePanda Sep 2 at 18:48
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In the ideal case, the chain will not actually be rubbing significantly against the chainrings under load. As the chain wears, the spacing between the chain links becomes different from the tooth spacing, and this difference in spacing means that there is sliding contact as the teeth engage the chain.

The rollers inside the chain help to convert some of this sliding motion into rolling friction (transferring the actual sliding contact to the more protected and better lubricated internal joints of the chain), but any binding of these rollers against the pins again leads to sliding contact between the tooth and the chain.

Keeping the chain lubricated (and, as noted in the question comments, clean) will both minimize the wear that stretches the chain and prevent roller binding, thus reducing the wear on the teeth.

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I just got my mountain bike back from the shop after a frame warranty, and they replaced my chain as it was apparently worn (2x11). They recommended changing the cassette and chainrings while I was at it, but I wanted to inspect those myself before making those relatively expensive changes.

Choose a different shop the next time. There is absolutely no reason to change the chainrings when changing the chain. In fact, the converse is true: if you change the chainrings, you MAY need to change a worn chain to a new one.

The rule is that a new driving component may not drive a worn driven component. So everything rearwards MAY need to be changed. So,

  • If you only change a cassette, you're fine
  • If you change a chain, you MAY need to change the cassette
  • If you change a chainring / chainrings, you MAY need to change the chain, which MAY necessitate you to change the cassette as well

Note the word "may". Only testing will reveal if the chain skips.

Thus, reputable bicycle shops do a test. If changing a chain, they don't blindly suggest changing the cassette as well, but rather test whether the chain skips on the worn cassette.

how does lubricating the chain stop the cassette and chainrings from wearing?

If the chain is not lubricated, it wears rapidly. A worn chain has longer link spacing, thus not driving a cassette sprocket perfectly. The load on the cassette sprocket teeth is concentrated on one tooth, quickly altering the shape of the tooth to be such that it only works with the existing worn chain and no longer works with a new chain. This effect is largest on the most-used sprockets and smallest sprockets.

If the chain is lubricated, it wears less rapidly (assuming you clean the chain prior to re-lubrication and only re-lubricate if the chain clearly needs more lubricant, i.e. it is starting to squeak).

A chain excessively lubricated will carry dirt from the outside of the chain to the innards, wearing the chain very rapidly.

Thus, the golden middle path is to lubricate only a chain that clearly needs lubricant, clean it before lubrication, and wipe the excess lubricant away so that the excessive lubrication does not cause rapid chain wear.

You’re not supposed to cover the cassette nor chainrings in lube, so what is preventing them from wearing?

It's the chain wear that wears the cassette and the chainrings. The chainring wear is not dangerous but the cassette wear is. When changing a worn chain, you may need to change the cassette or some of its individual sprockets. You almost never have to change chainrings.

This corroborates to the fact that I now experience chain slippage every so often when using the new chain. This surely can’t be normal, what am I doing wrong?

You (or the shop) caught chain wear too late. Replace the chain earlier, and the sprockets are more likely to work with a new chain.

So you in this very special case need to replace the cassette as well, but not the chainrings. For the new chain, purchase a Shimano TL-CN42 chainwear indicator. The Shimano wear indicator is the only accurate wear indicator I'm aware of. All of the others are complete and total garbage and not worth spending money on. See this explanation for details.

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  • -1 Your answer has many inaccuracies. Excessive chainring wear can be just as dangerous as excessive cassette wear. An excessively worn chainring will not safely interact with a new chain, as the chain will rise on the teeth under torque. If the problem is bad enough the chain can be thrown clean off the chainring under torque, which could lead to a crash. Excessively worn chains can also be dangerous in their own right, as they are more likely to fail (i.e., snap), again potentially causing a crash. Please revise to remove downvote. – Rider_X Sep 3 at 15:28

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