Wipperman chains

October 15, 2001, by Dan Empfield (www.slowtwitch.com)

The last thing I went looking for at Interbike this year was a new chain. Chains are chains. Right? The exception would be chains made specifically by or for a component company to interface with its proprietary components, and that would be the case with everything I would ride (Shimano Dura Ace or Ultegra, or Campy Record, Chorus or Centaur––new name for Daytona). That proprietary thing means that I'm pretty much stuck with Shimano's chain for its groups and Campy's chain for its 10-speed groups.

Or so I thought.

A friend of mine whom I respect says, "Let me drag you over to the Wipperman booth. Look at these chains."

"Drag" was the operative word. There's no sex appeal in chains, hence the metaphor "ball and chain." But I did let myself be dragged over, and for two reasons: My friend said that Wipperman made a chain that was compatible with Campy's 10-speed systems, and because while I love almost everything about Campy's 10-speed, the chain was the reason I had to include the qualifier.

Several things about Campy's chain you should know: First, the chain is fifty bucks (somewhat less if you shop mail order). Second, you've got to buy the seventy-buck tool to attach the fifty-buck chain. Third, even if you buy the cheaper value group (Centaur)––two price levels down––you still have to buy the fifty-buck chain. I could live with all that, except frankly my experience with the chain has been underwhelming. Every now and then it makes a noise or, in a certain gear, does a clicka-thunka thing that I'd rather it not do. (Upon inspection it seemed properly attached.)

So I took this Wipperman Campy-10-speed-compatible chain home from Interbike and determined to give it a whirl because of several things that all seemed counter to my Campy issues. It is quite a bit less expensive than that Campy chain––perhaps half the price. It is made by a 107-year-old chain company, as opposed to Campagnolo—which makes fabulous components but has been unsure, it seems to me, where it wants to go with chains, what with its partnership with Rohloff some years back and its more recent determination to make its own chain. The Wipperman is a well-made chain, with models both in nickel and in stainless steel. Finally, this company has its own connection system that really trumps the rest of the industry.

It's called the Connex system, and yes, you need a chain tool––a regular old chain tool, not a proprietary one––to shorten the chain to the right length. But after that, there's no pressing a pin back in. There are a pair of plates, each with a pin installed, and they go on opposite sides of the chain. You slide the pins in and hook them together and presto––no chain tool, no tool of any kind––your chain is together. No stiff links to unbind. Nothing. Couldn't be easier.

I contrast that with Campagnolo's Perma-Link system, which consists of a variety of very small parts that must be assembled with a Campy tool and woe unto you if you try to assemble it any other way.

So I came home from Interbike but immediately had to jump on a plane to Kona, and upon returning thought I'd take the chain out for a go-round. I was short on time, though, and I thought, "Ah, I'll ride the Campy chain one last time." Out I went, and––North County being what it is––my group and I were up one hill and down another, and we came to a grade which was estimated to be somewhere between 24 and 27 percent. My chain did its clicka-thunka thing about a quarter of the way up, and shortly thereafter the noises switched to "pop" and "splat," the former being the final noise the chain ever made, the latter the noise my body made as it bounced off the pavement.

As an aside, I consider this payback for the article I wrote on the scene at the Chicago Mrs. T's Triathlon––specifically my description of the woman who tried to pedal her chain-derailled bike. Both she and I tipped over as our chains failed to gain purchase. She fared better, as her remedy was lifting her body off the pavement and her chain onto the gear. I lifted my body off the pavement and my thumb into the air––to attract passers-by with room for me and a bike with an impotent drivetrain.

No real harm done except for some minor bumps and bruises, and I don't mean to pick on Campy––I snapped a Shimano 9-speed chain about a year ago. No doubt in both instances I made a mistake in attaching the chain ends to each other, but as these are the only two chains I've broken in 23 years of cycling I must assume that making these connections are more critical these days than in times past, when chains didn't have to be as narrow.

My Wipperman test ride now became a matter of necessity, as I had no chain. I wondered whether these magic links would turn out to be a puzzle beyond my capability, but honestly it was the easiest chain attachment I've ever made. I'd say it was a snap, except it was more of a slide––one, two, three and I was a-riding.

Baby, it's smooth. You just don't think one chain is that different until you ride one that's this good. No noise, no skip, no hitch, just a nice ride. I took it immediately to some steepish hills––getting back on the horse, so to speak––and even tried shifting up and down while out of the saddle on some double-digit grades. It was at least as good as my Campy chain at making the shift in either direction under load.

I generally prefer riding my Campagnolo 10-speed bike to my Dura Ace 9-speed bike, because the former offers the extra gear, is a tad lighter, and most of all I like the Ergo-Power shift system better than STI. (It doesn't shift any better, I just like the style of mechanism and the shape of the hoods.) But I didn't like Campy's chain. I thought it was inferior and overpriced. Campagnolo would no doubt be stung to see bad comments about its chain in print, but its position on the Wipperman––I asked––is that its people are not familiar enough with it to be able to attest to its function, but in general they welcome the notion of other companies coming into the marketplace with complementary products.

Campy is taking the long view, and I'm glad to hear it. Wipperman is a blessing in disguise for Campagnolo. The chain makes groups like Centaur much more affordable for OEs (bike manufacturers), and these bike makers' assembly houses no longer need to buy––and teach their employees to use––a Campy chain tool. They don't need any tool!

This chain also makes Campy users feel more comfortable through the existence of choices in aftermarket consumables. And it makes Campagnolo's fine drivetrains work (in my experience) even better.

Wipperman also makes Shimano-compatible chains, and I'll now mount one up on my Dura Ace bike. I expect I'll like it just as well, but I don't know. I also can't speak to this chain's longevity, although its distributors point to this as one of its attributes. The best site on the web touting Wipperman is that of its UK distributor. For those U.S. retailers who're reading this and don't know where to get Wipperman chains, you'll find them at Sinclair, your Carnac cycling shoe importer.

As for retailers who carry this chain, that's where readers will have to do some hunting. I couldn't find them on Colorado Cyclist's web catalog, nor on Excel Sports' site. I'm sure this will change, though, especially with the existence of the new 10-speed chain written about above.