The Powerful Role Your Bike Chain Plays: All You Need To Know About Bicycle Chains

Product Name & Award

Overall Score

Price Range

Speeds

$

10

$$$

8

$$

6-7

$$

10

$

10

After thoroughly reviewing dozens of different bike chains available today, we think the Shimano Ultegra CN-6701 is the best option available today.

A bike chain is an integral part of every bicycle, but if you’re like many cyclists, your knowledge about bicycle chains might be pretty limited.

Bike chains are a small yet hard-working bike part that usually goes unnoticed until something goes wrong in the middle of a ride. 

We’ve put together a comprehensive guide on bike chains and selected some of the best chains available. We believe that cyclists of every experience level should have a good understanding of how their bicycle works and have access to some of the finest bike parts on the market.

Our Recommendations

Now that you’ve had an in-depth look at bike chains, you should be able to select and install your new bike chain with confidence and ease.

Our comprehensive guide wouldn’t be complete without a few recommendations. We are sharing some of our favorite bike chains, and we think you’ll be eager to try one or two out, too.

Best Bike Chain

It was hard for us to choose just one bike chain as our favorite so we’ve selected five bike chains that are worthy of fitting into the “best” category (and in no particular order).

KMC X8.99 Bicycle Chain

KMC is one of the top chain manufacturers and supply to Shimano and Campagnolo.

This KMC bike chain is stretch-proof and is able to withstand a little more wear and tear which means you can get more mileage of the bike chain.

With high-quality alloy materials and a mushroomed pin, this chain is one of the most durable chains available. Compatible with 8 speeds and measuring in ½” x 3/32” with 116 links, you’ll want to see how quiet and smooth this chain really is on your 8-speed.

KMC Z50 Bicycle Chain

This KMC chain is another favorite of ours because just one look and you know it’s durable.

Compatible with 6 or 7 speeds and measuring ½” x 3/32”, and 116 links, this chain might very well become your new favorite best mountain bike chain.

We love this bike chain because it’s durable and we know what to expect from the KMC name.

Shimano Ultegra CN-6701 Chain

Shimano has a long and successful history of making high-quality bike parts and the Ultegra chain is no exception. As a top-rated bike chain, it’s one of the best 10 speed chains for road bikes.

The zinc-alloy steel keeps the chain durable and lightweight. An asymmetric design, with redesigned inner and outer plates, improves the contact with the rear sprockets for a smooth and quiet shift.

The Shimano Ultegra CN-6701 is a chain that will improve your shifting performance and your power transfer to make your next road ride the best.

Shimano XT 10-Speed Chain CN-HG95

It was hard for us to pick just one Shimano chain as a favorite, so we selected another one as one of the best road bike chains. This chain is made of zinc-alloy, too.

We like this chain because a treatment called Sil-Tec is used on the plates and allows them to pivot around the derailleur, cogs, and chainrings with ease. 

Shimano also found a way to reduce friction by 60 percent between the inner and outer links of the chain, which helps make the ride all the more smooth.

KMC X10SL DLC Bicycle Chain

This KMC bike chain is super light-weight and is compatible with Shimano, Campagnolo, and SRAM 10 speeds. The measurements of the KMC X10SL DLC chain is ½”x11/128” and has 116 links.

We love this KMC bike chain because the black diamond-like coating significantly reduces wear from abrasives. The surface hardness of the chain is also greater than other chains. Suitable for mountain or road biking, this KMC chain is stable, durable, and is likely to be long-lasting.

What Is A Bike Chain?

When you’re riding your mountain bike on a trail or logging in some major miles on your road bike, you probably have your mind on anything but how the parts of your bike work together.

Bike chains are no exception and you probably only notice them if they don’t work correctly.

You can positively identify your bike chain but do you understand its function? The chain on your bicycle, which is a roller chain, is responsible for transferring the power from your pedals to the wheel of your bike. Thanks to the bike chain, the harder you pedal, the faster your bike goes.

A Closer Look At The Parts

The roller chain is made up of short cylindrical rollers that are held together by side links; these rollers are typically one-half inch apart. The gaps between the rollers “mesh” with the teeth on the sprocket or chainring and the transmission on your bike is engaged.

The bike chain connects your front drivetrain, which includes the pedals, cranks, and chainrings/sprocket, with the rear drivetrain, which includes cassette/sprocket and rear hub.

Most bicycle chains are made of nickel, alloy, or carbon. With proper maintenance, your bike chains should last you a few thousand miles. We’ll discuss how to clean a bike chain and overall maintenance a little later.

bike chain parts

Types of Bike Chains

If you don’t know much about bicycle chains, you may assume that they are all pretty much the same. While all bike chains serve the same function, there are various types of chains based on speed and the type of bicycle (such as mountain or road bikes). 

We will explain these in greater detail, so you know what type of chain you need for your bike. First, let’s take a look at the speed types.

Speed

Bike chains are available in six speeds, from 6 to 11.

As you shift the gears on your bike, the chain moves up (or down) on the sprockets (on the rear cassette). The more speeds (gears) you have on your bike, the narrower the width of the bike chain.

These speeds are common in both road and mountain bikes and often times, the same speed bike chain can be used for either type of bike. Matching the right speed chain to the speed of the bike is essential for a good fit and proper functioning.

6 Speed Bike Chain

A 6-speed chain is the widest and measures a width of 7.8 mm. 

7 Speed Bike Chain

A 7-speed chain measures a width of 7.3 mm.

8 Speed Bike Chain

An 8-speed bike chain measures a width of 7.1 mm.

9 Speed Bike Chain 

A 9-speed bike chain measures a width of 6.6 to 6.8 mm.

10 Speed Bike Chain

A 10-speed bike chain measures a width of 6.2mm on Shimano and Campagnolo brand bikes. Other sizes are 5.8mm for other bike brands like KMC, Shimano, and Campagnolo.

11 Speed Bike Chain

An 11-speed bike chain measures a width of 5.5mm.

Bike Type

The most common bike types are road, mountain, and BMX. While each bike requires the use of a bike chain, one chain may not be suitable for all bikes as there’s no “universal” bike chain. 

We’ll discuss a few things to look for when looking for a chain for your bike, whether it’s a road, mountain, or BMX.

Road Bike Chain

When it comes to a road bike, we know that the ultimate goal is to keep everything as lightweight as possible.

You might be wondering with a bike part as small as a chain, does weight really matter? A lot depends on your own personal preference as a rider.

road bike chain

When shopping around for chains to put on your road bike, if you’re concerned about the weight of the chain make sure you go for lighter materials like alloy.

As a general rule, that will also keep you from getting totally frustrated, stick with a chain that’s specifically designed to fit the speed of your bike. 

You may read on forums and other places that you might be able to use a 6 speed chain on a 7 speed bike (for example), but it’s usually not worth the risk of losing money and causing extensive damage to your drivetrain or even getting hurt while riding.

If you’re unsure about what kind of road bike chain you should get, check out our favorite picks at the end of this guide or you can head to your local bike shop and get some advice.

MTB Chain

These days, many bike chains are suitable for both road and mountain biking. Again, the most important thing to pay attention to is the size. An 8 speed chain should fit an 8 speed bike; just stick to the sizing rules. 

Mountain bikers may want to look for a bike chain that can withstand a little more grit and grime than a standard, lightweight road bike chain. Look for chains with special coating or that are easy to clean. 

If it’s difficult to clean out the mud and other debris, your chains are likely to rust out sooner and have a shorter lifespan.

BMX Chain

If you ride a BMX bike, the chain you choose is going to be different than road or mountain bikes. A majority of BMX bike chains are much narrower than road or mountain bikes; BMX chains measure at ⅛” width.

Much like a road or MTB, it’s important to think about speed when you’re picking out a chain for your BMX bike. Many BMX bikes are single-speed so make sure you get a single-speed chain; a chain of any other size will not work.

bmx chain types

As a BMX rider, you may be interested in a lighter weight chain, so you can make those jumps a little easier and move over rough terrain a little quicker. Look for lightweight materials such as alloy but don’t forget to look for chains that have special protective coating, too.

Traditional BMX Chain

Traditional chains are the most common types of chains found on BMX bikes. A traditional chain has the same inner link-outer link configuration as road and mountain bike chains. These types of chains have two “half-links.”

Half-Link BMX Chain

A BMX half-link chain has identical links that have a thick and thin end. At the thick end, they are the standard width of the chain (which would equal the outer link of the traditional chain). The thinner end equals the size of the inner link of the traditional chain.

A half-link chain is easier to adjust and can be done with more accuracy.

Bike Chain Size Chart

While we touched briefly on the speed bike chain measurements, we’ll discuss other sizing a little more in depth. 

Today’s bikes use chains with a ½ inch pitch. A pitch is the distance from one pin to another. While the widths will vary, depending on the speed of the bike, you can always rely on a half-inch pitch.

The roller widths on a bike chain are 2.4 mm, 3.2mm, 4.0mm, or 4.8mm; this is the internal width between the inner plates. As we mentioned above (in the section on BMX bikes), fixed gear bikes have ⅛” chains.

When you get a new chain for your bicycle, you should be too hung up on the length. As long as there are around 116 links, you should have more than enough to properly size your chain. In most cases, a bike chain is too long, an you end up having to shorten the chain.

Chains are easy to shorten and lengthen so if you make an error, it shouldn’t affect the durability of your chain, and it’s a relatively easy fix.

How To Size A Bike Chain

Keep in mind when you get a new bike chain there’s a good chance that it’s going to be too long for your drivetrain as is, so you need to know how to size a bike chain. Sizing a bike chain can feel like a bit of a process, particularly if it’s your first time. 

While we will walk you through some of the most basic steps for sizing and tightening a new bike chain, it’s always a good idea to watch some of the great videos that are available online. 

Many bike experts offer step-by-step instructions for sizing a chain. Take your time, be patient, and don’t worry about making a mistake.

The easiest way to size your bike chain is to lay it down next to your old chain and shorten the new one to match the old. To do this, you’ll want to remove your old bike chain.

Removing The Old Chain

When you’re ready to remove the chain from your bike, you will need to disconnect or “break” the chain. Before you remove the chain, shift the chain to the smallest chainring and the smallest cog. 

If you’re able, take the chain off of your front chainring or remove your rear wheel (whichever is easiest or if you feel confident enough to do so). 

Whether you prefer to move the chain from the front or take your rear wheel off of your bike, you are removing tension from the chain, which will make the whole process much easier.

Master Link or Standard?

Take a look at the chain on your bike. If you have a master link chain it a “quick release” link which makes it relatively easy to open when “breaking” the chain (this doesn’t affect the durability of the chain while in use).

If you have a standard chain, you’ll want to use a chain tool to break the chain. This is done by aligning the pin of the chain tool with a pin in the chain and turning until the pin moves. Again, taking a look at videos can help you get a better visual of this whole process.

Ready To “Size” The Chain

Now that your chain is removed you can easily and accurately size the chain. As we mentioned above, the easiest way to determine the length is to lay it next to your old chain. Keep in mind that older chains may be a little loose, depending on how badly they need replacing.

Many cyclists size their chains by running the chain through the front derailleur and then drape the chain over the big chainring in the front and the big cog in the rear. 

If you’re not familiar with the names of your bike parts, this is a good time to learn (always double check by looking at an “Anatomy of a Bike” chart).

how to size a bike chain

The derailleur is the mechanism that moves the chain from one sprocket to the next when the gears are shifted. The cog is part of the cassette and the chainring attached to the pedal. (When you look at the diagram or think about your bike, imagine your chain making a big loop).

Before you put your chain through the rear derailleur, pull the two ends of the chain together, so it’s a snug fit. This should give you the correct bike chain length. You should have two chain links (or one-inch) of overlap and an extra half link where you will connect the chain.

Don’t remove any extra links before double checking that the two ends of the chain will connect. Just to be on the safe side, you might want to count the links of your old chain and match it with the new chain. 

How To Tighten A Bike Chain

Fewer things are frustrating than a chain that keeps coming undone in the middle of a ride. If this is a problem, you need to tighten up your bike chain. If your chain, when engaged, moves up or down more than an inch, you need to tighten your bike chain.

Loose chains are more frequent on bicycles that don’t have a derailleur. If your bike has a derailleur and it’s no longer keeping the right chain tension, it may be time to replace the derailleur (don’t worry, it’s not uncommon to need a new one).

If you don’t have a derailleur on your bike, you need to loosen the bolts that hold your back tire. Next, move the tire back until the chain starts to tighten. Now you will determine the right amount of tension (remember, the chain shouldn’t move any more than one-inch).

While you can tighten a bike chain on your own, it may be easier if someone else can give you a hand. If the chain keeps falling off or can’t hold the tension, it’s time to think about getting a new chain.

When To Replace Your Bike Chain

Replacing your bike chain on a regular basis not only helps eliminate frustrating rides where you stop to adjust your chain but newer chains are better for your bike, overall. 

Even though many bike mechanics suggest replacing your bike chain every 2,000 to 3,000 miles, you may need to replace it sooner, and it’s important to recognize the signs.

When your chain begins to wear out, it starts to stretch, and then it might skip over teeth on the sprocket. If you catch this problem soon enough, you might not need to replace the cassette or chainrings, but sometimes new parts are the best option.

Here are a few other ways to determine if you need a new bike chain:

  1. Lift the chain off of the front chainring. Shift your gears into the smallest cog on the rear and the largest chainring in front, then life the chain. If you notice a big gap between the chain and the chainring it’s probably time to start shopping around for a new bike chain.
  2. If you have a ruler handy, measure your chain with a ruler. Pick a rivet on the chain and line it up at the zero mark on the ruler. Next, count 23 rivets; your last rivet should be at the 12” mark. If your measurement is off by more than 1/16” it’s time for a new chain.
  3. Using a chain checker tool is another effective way to see if you need a new chain. There are a couple different brands available that are slightly different but serve the same function.

Why Should You Choose Your Bike Chain Carefully

As will any bike part, it’s important to think carefully before selecting your bike chain; that’s why you’re reading this comprehensive guide.

Bike chains may seem relatively straightforward, but they might also be confusing for some, too (especially if you’ve never had to replace a bike chain).

what's the best bike chain

It’s important to take the time to select the right size bike chain for your bike type because if you put the wrong chain or even one that doesn’t fit quite right, you could end up doing damage to your bike. 

Any part that breaks on your bike or isn’t functioning properly could end up putting your safety at risk while you ride.

Bike chains are far less expensive than having to replace the drivetrain or other essential parts on your bicycle. 

Things To Remember When Choosing Your Bike Chain

Although all bike chains serve the same purpose, there’s no such thing as a universal bike chain (as there’s no universal bicycle). Here are things to remember when selecting a new chain for your bicycle.

Number of Speeds

When picking out a bike chain, it must fit with the speeds of your bike. A 6 speed bike chain will not fit an 11-speed bike and vice versa, as each chain has differing widths. For the chain to function properly, it shouldn’t be too snug or too loose.

Durability

Every cyclist wants a durable bike chain. While you’re selecting a new bike chain, look for steel chains with hard rivets, these are more likely to be durable. Be prepared to pay a little more for durability (and reliability).

Ease of Use and Installation

Some cyclists can change a bike chain in no time at all while others struggle with it the first few times. Using and installing a bike chain shouldn’t be difficult but don’t get too frustrated if it is at first. 

As we mentioned earlier, there are many helpful “how to” videos that can guide you through the process if you need a little more help. If you choose the right bike chain, you should have minimal issues with using and installing them on your bicycle.

Bike Chain Maintenance

While we already mentioned the importance in keeping an eye out for signs that you need a new bike chain, there are ways you can prolong the life of your bike chain.

Before you ride, take a quick look at your chain and the gears. By keeping your chain lubricated, the bike will shift easier, and your drivetrain will have a longer life, too. Don’t overdo the lubrication as it can actually attract dirt and other particles that can cause damage.

How To Clean Your Bike Chain

Even if your chains look relatively clean, you’ll want to use a rag and some degreaser and give your chain a quick wipedown. If your chains are looking gunky and really dirty, consider using a chain cleaning device.

After you’ve cleaned your bike chain and the degreaser is dry, apply some lubricant slowly onto the chain and focus on each link. If you ride in the rain or live in damp or humid environments, always use lube to keep your chain from rusting.

A little upkeep on your bike chains can go a long way.

how to clean a bike chain

Outfitting Your Bike With The Right Chain Can Make For A Better Ride

If you’re like many cyclists, you probably thought that bike chains were all the same, and you didn’t know much about them until yours fell off track while on a ride.

A worn out chain can make your ride frustrating and unsafe but a new chain, that fits properly, can make you want to log on more miles than ever before.

Now that you know there’s a difference in bike chains, how to install them, and as well as a few general maintenance tips, you should be able to choose a bike chain like a pro.

Resources

“6-speed, 7-speed, 8-speed, 9-speed, 10-speed, 11-speed?” Harris Cyclery,

https://www.sheldonbrown.com/speeds.html#chains

“Anatomy of a Bicycle” Bicycling,

https://www.bicycling.com/sites/default/files/uploads/BIKE_ANATOMY.pdf

“Bike Chains Sizes” My Wheels and More,

http://mywheelsandmore.com/bicycleChains/bicycleChainSizes.htm

“Chain Length Sizing” Park Tool,

https://www.parktool.com/blog/repair-help/chain-length-sizing#article-section-4

About the Author Max Shumpert

Over the last few years, I’ve taken my love of the outdoors, hiking, skiing, trekking and exploring to the next level by starting this site. I started a bike shop in Denver, CO, and have seen amazing growth over the last few years. Getting paid to do what I love has been a dream come true for me. That’s also what led me to start BikesReviewed.com. In my shop, I spend a large amount of time helping people find the perfect bike for them and the style of biking they’re going to be doing. It only made sense that I expanded my reach and got online, making it possible for me to help people all over the world. If biking and staying fit is your priority, too, you’ve come to the right place.

Leave a Comment: