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There’s no detail too small or no gain too marginal for the top riders at the Tour de France.
And no area of a bike is free from scrutiny. While weight and aerodynamics have historically been the two most obsessed over factors, lately drivetrains have become something of a final frontier for bike optimization, with greater importance being placed on chains.
For Ineos Grenadiers, the team that coined the phrase “marginal gains,” that phrase can just as easily be “marginal chains” when it comes to its partnership with Muc-Off to make their drivetrains as efficient as possible.
In the leadup to the Tour, the Muc-Off team was working in overdrive, with constant, 24/7 contact with their pro team liaisons, treating and optimizing chains and ensuring everything was perfect for both the Ineos Grenadiers and EF Education–EasyPost.
Muc-Off, known for making bike cleaning products and more recently chain lubricants, gave VeloNews an exclusive look at this chain optimization process that can take half a day to complete.
Making old chains new (and new chains even better)
After the teams send in a batch of chains, they are labeled with a “Chain Passport” identifier so that they can be tracked through the process.
First, they’re measured with a dynamometer for a baseline assessment so that Muc-Off knows just how much each chain has improved by the end of the process. The optimization process works for both old and new chains, though more commonly teams send in already raced chains for a refresh.
And contrary to popular belief, a new chain is rarely faster than a used one — especially after this process, says Muc-Off. Incredibly, EF’s current chains are on their third or fourth consecutive grand tour. Though chains do wear out eventually, and the initial assessment of a chain shows whether it’s worth optimizing again or retiring.
After a baseline test, it’s off to an ultrasonic tank, which contains a cleaning agent heated to a precise temperature allowing it to reach deep inside each chain link. Particularly dirty chains get a coating of the brand’s High Pressure Quick Drying Degreaser before the ultrasonic bath.
Muc-Off utilizes both a larger tank for batches of chains and smaller ones for individual treatment.
Next, the chains get treated with a “running-in” lubricant then put back on the dynamometer for two hours, yielding wattage loss results.
Afterward, it’s back to the ultrasonic tank to remove the running-in lubricant. After drying, it’s back to the ultrasonic tank once more, this time to add Muc-Off’s high-end Ludicrous AF chain lubricant.
Just as the tank allows the cleaning agents to reach every crevice of each link, it does the same for the lubricant, ensuring each contact point is optimally lubricated. Muc-Off says the teams have requested only this particular chain lube be used this season.
After drying the chains, it’s time for one more 15-minute assessment run on the dynamometer. But Muc-Off isn’t necessarily done at this point. Each chain has to meet a minimum performance threshold — those falling short go back through the process again, bringing the total time from a minimum of four hours to up to 12.
That’s half a day to ensure that a chain is as fast as it possibly can be, and the final result can be quite impressive. Muc-Off’s R&D department claims up to 40% wattage savings are possible through this process.
However, not every chain will be equally fast after this process. Muc-Off returns the chains with a chart showing each individual one’s relative performance, ranked from best to worst.
That way top riders can be given the absolute best equipment. That’s marginal gains taken to the max.
Have the chains made a difference?
It’s hard to pinpoint success on any one thing, but EF is having arguably one of its best Tours ever with a stage win and several days in the polka-dot jersey for Magnus Cort, among several near misses on other stages, including a close shot at the yellow jersey for Neilson Powless.
And Ineos looks set to place Geraint Thomas on the overall podium along with a signature Alpe d’Huez victory for Tour debutant Tom Pidcock.
Come Sunday, when the men finish and the inaugural Tour de France Femmes rolls out, Canyon//SRAM and EF Education-TIBCO-SVT will also enjoy chains optimized in the exact same process.