How to avoid dropping your chain in a cyclocross race

You trained hard. Practiced your skills and arrived in peak physical and mental condition. The whistle blows and your race is going great - then, disaster! Your chain comes off and all your hard work is down the drain.

What went wrong? A derailed chain can happen even to professional riders at the very top of the sport, and they have the luxury of always riding new, well-maintained equipment installed and maintained by experienced mechanics, multiple race-ready bikes, and years of skills. Cyclocross is simply hard on equipment at every level.

The risk of dropping a chain can never be entirely eliminated, but you can reduce the risk dramatically by adopting some best practices:

  • Don't use a longer chain then necessary. It's tempting to leave a new chain uncut so that you can swap between wheels with different gear ranges, but take the time to shorten your chains. 
  • Clean and lubricate your chain. Starting a race with a chain that is already gunked up dramatically increases the risk of failure. Clean it in between events and lube it, sparingly, with a quality chain lube. 
  • Avoid cross-chainring. If you are using a traditional double chainring setup, using the big-to-big or small-to-small combos is asking for trouble. Chains work best in the middle of the cassette, not at extremes. Sometimes these combos are unavoidable, but if you constantly find yourself in the largest or smallest cog consider if a cassette with different gear range can help. yclocross bike right fo ryou? 
  • Consider a "1x" drivetrain (a crankset with a single front chainring instead of the traditional double chainring setup). 1x drivetrains are lighter, less complicated, and less likely to jam as a double can when shifting between the inner and outer chainrings. You don't need a new bike, your double-equipped bike can be inexpensively changed to a single with a few parts. 
  • Carefully consider a chainguide or anti-chain-drop device, if your bike will accept one
  • Use a "clutch" type rear derailleur, if one is compatible with your shifters. These feature a lockout switch that prevents the chain from slapping around while riding, but "unlocks" so you can still easily install and remove wheels. 
  • Never drop your bike. When you carry the bike on your shoulder during a runup, or use the "suitcase" carry to go over a barrier, think about gently setting the bike down instead of dropping it. It's certainly tempting to drop the bike - your heart is going a million miles an hour, you're out of breath, and it's heavy, but don't do it. If it bounces the chain can pop off. Set it down gently instead and practice doing so during training so that it becomes ingrained and you don't have to think about it. 
  • Consider starting with a brand new chain for key events. Chains you've used, but which still have plenty of life left, can be moved to backup bikes. 
If the worst happens and you do drop your chain, don't panic. You're still in the race. Cyclocross is unpredictable and those who may have passed you can crash, get a flat tire, or have their own mechanical problems, so always ride all the way to the finish line.