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Technical FAQ: Shifting and chain issues

  • By Lennard Zinn
  • Published May. 6, 2014
Chain watchers are a good investment, as they prevent chains from falling off the chainrings while shifting. Photo: Logan VonBokel | VeloNews.com

Dropping chains

Dear Lennard,
I’ve got a Chorus-equipped Bianchi Infinito that I’ve been having trouble with dropping chains to the inside when downshifting. I come from the mountain biking side of things, where a dropped chain can (usually) be remedied by putting a little upshift pressure on your front derailleur and slowly pedaling the chain back on. This has no effect on my road bike — even a full movement of the FD doesn’t cause the fallen chain to touch the chainrings.

Are front derailleurs supposed to allow for pedaling back on by design? Is my shop just not setting up the derailleur correctly? Maybe it’s a Campy thing? Should I just give up and get one of those chain catcher things?

As you might imagine, it’s annoying while riding solo, and super frustrating when it happens with a group at a base of a climb!
— Tim

Dear Tim,
Hmmm. I am always able on any of my road bikes to pedal the chain back on when it drops off to the inside, and I have done it on Campy, Shimano, and SRAM-equipped ones. It’s a little tougher with a compact crank with 34-50 chainrings than with a standard 39-53, but I have still done it many times. So yes, I would wonder about derailleur adjustment, particularly the height and rotational adjustment of the derailleur as well as the inner limit screw setting, both in that it’s allowing the chain to drop so frequently, and in that you can’t pedal it back on.

That said, an inner stop (one of those chain catcher things) is a good idea to prevent the dropped chain in the first place if it happens to you often, as it sounds like it does.
― Lennard

10-speed/11-speed compatability

Dear Lennard,
I have a first-year S-Works Roubaix with a 10-speed cluster and a 50-34 compact crank. The Group is primarily Dura-Ace, but the rings and cranks bear “Specialized” branding (the crank arms are carbon.)

Over the years, the clear coat on the crank arms has peeled and become scuffed. I’d like to consider changing the front rings and crank. The newest Ultegra with a four-leg spider and “Hollowtech” crank arms is light and probably would work, but they’re sold as compatible with an 11-speed rear cluster.

Can I mate the current Ultegra rings/cranks to a 10-cog rear cluster so that a ring and crank swap doesn’t mandate a new rear cogset and derailleur, new shifters, and new chain?

I went to my local shop, and they told me it wouldn’t work, that the narrow 11-speed chain and ramp angles were not compatible with a Dura-Ace 10-speed rear cluster. The mechanic implied that the new cranks/rings combo was designed specifically for the 11-speed chain and that thicker 10-speed chains wouldn’t work as well with it. They also told me I’d need to change my bottom bracket, but then I guess that would come as part of the 11-speed group.
— Jim

Dear Jim,
I’ve answered this before. Again, the spacing between chainrings is essentially the same on both 10-speed and 11-speed cranks. And this explains FSA’s view on 10-speed and 11-speed compatibility of its chainrings.

Spacing is clearly not an issue. Shift pins and shaping of the medial side of the outer chainring is continuously evolving and improving shifting. While your LBS mechanic was right in that the 11-speed crank “wouldn’t work as well with” the 10-speed chain, my experience is that the difference is subtle and that it works quite well. There’s no reason for you to switch to an 11-speed chain; I’m sure you’ll be quite happy with the shifting of your entire 10-speed drivetrain with the new crank.
― Lennard

More on lawyer tabs

Dear Lennard,
You know, in all the talk about lawyer tabs and defeating them, the conversation seems to always be around safety vs. wheel change speed. There’s another huge benefit to lawyer tabs that I’ve seen first hand.

Roof Racks! We all take perfect care of our race bikes (of course) but how many half rusted or stiff closing roof rack skewers have you seen in your time? I’ve seen many (and shared rides with many friends) that were very hard to fine adjust, and once arrived at a race with a buddy where his fork was halfway out of the roof rack skewer (He’d filed his tabs off). On a five-hour drive, the wind is doing it’s best to rip your bike off the rack, and that little lawyer tab might be all that stops it.

Of course, having new and well maintained roof racks is always important, but again — a lot of us carpool to races, and when your buddy’s car is worth less than your bike, is it really worth the extra risk?
— Bill

Dear Bill,
In general, I agree with you that the bike is safer on a roof rack with lawyer tabs. My daughter’s fork came off of a friend’s roof rack on the highway last Friday (the wheel strap held it on). I had filed her lawyer tabs off years ago.

However, I once had my bike snagged by a tree branch at the end of my driveway, which I tend to enter at speed as it’s around 100 meters long. The fact that it could yank the bike out of the rack because I had filed off my lawyer tabs saved the car from damage and the rack and bike from more damage from what they already sustained. This is a rare instance, and the lawyer tabs being present are probably more likely to prevent damage on a roof rack than cause it. By the way, I’m still riding that bike.

Besides the fact that it is safer and the UCI prohibits it in racing, I find that nowadays there is little reason to file off lawyer tabs. That’s because young and relatively new riders tend to be totally trained to unscrew the skewer after flipping the lever and will do so even on a bike without lawyer tabs, so there is no time savings. I long ago stopped filing the lawyer tabs off on anybody else’s forks (and never did it on customers’ forks), but I haven’t done it on my own forks for awhile, either; my last few bikes had disc brakes, and I would never file off a lawyer tab on a disc-brake fork, not even my own. But I’m building myself a new titanium road bike with standard rim brakes, and I’m not yet sure what I’ll do with the fork. I don’t have a single non-disc-brake road or cyclocross bike with a lawyer tab, but there’s a first time for everything …

It’s a hard transition for me to make, since I spent my whole life riding bikes without lawyer tabs. And for the first 15 or so years of my framebuilding career, until carbon forks became de rigueur, I built forks for every frame using dropouts that had no lawyer tabs. I don’t think framebuilders could even buy dropouts that had a lawyer tab until maybe 1995 or even 2000.

The tendency for experienced cyclists is to think that only a clueless rider would ever ride with their skewer loose. But it can happen to anyone. Since my good friend Dawes Wilson, who is as old-school as I am and who has decades of racing without lawyer tabs under his belt, hit a bump and had the front wheel fall out of an old mountain bike he used for cruising around town and landed on his face, I’ve reconsidered how much I care about fast wheel changes. If you do not check your skewer before every single time you hop on a bike, particularly the one you leave leaning against walls in town and ride without a helmet on, you do not know if somebody or something might have gotten hooked on your skewer since the last time you secured it. Sometimes progress comes over our objections, and in this case it is in the form of annoying little nubs sticking out of your fork.
― Lennard

More on EPS adjustment

Dear Lennard,
I had a similar problem as well. I found that my removable derailleur hanger was loose; once I tightened it the problem went away.
— Jeff

Dear Jeff,
Ooh, good point!
― Lennard

Dear Lennard,
Apart from re-zeroing the system, how do I check the alignment of the derailleur hanger?
— Jonathan

Dear Jonathan,
With this tool.
― Lennard

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Lennard Zinn

Lennard Zinn

Our longtime technical writer joined VeloNews in 1987. He is also a framebuilder, a former U.S. National Team rider, and author of many bicycle books, including Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance and Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance, as well as Zinn and the Art of Triathlon Bikes and Zinn's Cycling Primer: Maintenance Tips and Skill Building for Cyclists. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in physics from Colorado College. Readers can send brief technical questions to Ask LZ.

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