How to Buy a Bike Chain: A Comprehensive Guide

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Written By Ethan Richards
UPDATED:
How to Buy a Bike Chain

The humble bike chain, often overlooked but essential to a bicycle’s very essence, is the unassuming yet vital component that connects the pedals to the wheels, propelling you forward with every turn. It’s a small but mighty part that plays a monumental role in your cycling experience. In this comprehensive guide, we delve into the world of bike chains, demystifying their intricacies. We’ll unravel the various types, sizes, and functions of bike chains, shedding light on the critical role they play in your cycling adventures. Whether you’re looking to replace a worn-out chain or seeking insights into maintaining your current one, this guide is your go-to resource for all things bike chain-related. Let’s get started on a journey that will help you choose and care for the perfect bike chain, ensuring smooth and enjoyable rides ahead.

new chain on rear wheel

Anatomy of a Bike Chain

To truly grasp the essence of a bike chain, let’s dissect its anatomy. At the heart of a bike chain are its links, pins, and rollers, all working in harmony to facilitate the seamless transmission of power. Each link is a fundamental building block, and these links come together to form a continuous loop, connecting the front chainring to the rear cassette.

new chain on rear wheel

Pins, those small cylindrical protrusions within the links, serve as the linchpins holding master link of the chain together. They are precisely positioned to maintain the integrity of master link of the chain, ensuring it doesn’t disassemble during the rigors of cycling.

Rollers, nestled between the links and the pins, are the components that make the chain’s movement smooth and fluid. They rotate on the pins, reducing friction as the chain moves across the gears.

Demystifying Bike Chains: How They Work

Chain Links: A bike chain is comprised of a series of interconnected links. Each link consists of an outer plate, an inner plate, a roller, and a pin. These links are designed to pivot around the pins, allowing for flexibility and movement.

Engagement with Chainrings and Cogs: Bike chains engage with two critical components: chainrings and cogs. Chainrings are the front gears connected to drive chain and to your pedals, while cogs are the rear gears attached to the rear wheel’s hub. As you pedal, the bike chain wraps around these chainrings and cogs, forming a continuous loop.

new bike chain

Power Transmission: When you push down on the pedals, you apply force to the bike’s chain. This force is transferred through the chain to the rear wheel’s hub, causing the wheel to turn. This turning motion propels the bicycle forward.

Gear Shifting: To adapt to different terrains and riding conditions, your bike is equipped with a gear-shifting system. The derailleur (a mechanical device that moves the chain) shifts the chain onto different chainrings and rear cogs each. Smaller chainrings provide an easier pedaling experience, ideal for climbing hills, while larger chainrings offer higher speeds on flat terrain. Similarly, different cogs in the rear cassette offer a range of resistance.

Smooth Rotation: The key to a well-functioning bike chain is the smooth rotation of the chain around hollow pins in the chainrings and cogs. As you pedal, the chain links pivot around the pins, flexing to accommodate the gear shifts. Proper lubrication and tension are essential to reduce friction and ensure smooth rotation.

The Varieties of Bike Chains

mechanic fixing heavy bike chain

Road Bike Chains

Key Features:

  1. Narrower Profile: Road bike chains are characterized by their narrower design, allowing for quick and seamless shifting between gears, a crucial requirement for road cyclists.
  2. Lightweight: To keep road bikes as light as possible, these chains are meticulously engineered to be lightweight while maintaining strength and durability.
  3. Precise Shifting: Road bike chains are designed to work seamlessly with the closely spaced cogs of a road bike’s cassette, ensuring precise and instantaneous gear changes.
mountain bike side view

Mountain Bike Chains

Key Features:

  1. Robust Construction: Mountain bike chains are typically wider and more robust to handle the higher torque and stress generated by rough off-road trails.
  2. Enhanced Durability: These chains incorporate durable materials and coatings to resist corrosion and wear from dirt and debris.
  3. Consistent Performance: Mountain bike chains are engineered for consistent performance even in less-than-ideal conditions, ensuring reliable shifting and power transmission.

Belt Drives for Motorcycles: Innovative Technology for Enhanced Performance

Key Features:

  1. Durability: Belt drives are known for their exceptional longevity. The materials used in these belts are resistant to corrosion, rust, and stretching, ensuring a prolonged service life even in demanding riding conditions.
  2. Low Maintenance: Unlike traditional chains that require frequent lubrication and adjustment, belt drives are virtually maintenance-free. Riders can enjoy more time on the road and less time in the garage.
  3. Clean and Quiet: Belt drives operate silently and cleanly. They don’t produce the noise associated with chain drives, providing a quieter and more enjoyable riding experience. Moreover, they won’t leave oil or grease marks on your motorcycle.
  4. Efficiency: Belt drives offer excellent power transfer efficiency. They minimize energy loss, translating to improved acceleration and fuel efficiency.
  5. Smooth Riding: The absence of chain links and their associated vibrations results in smoother power delivery to the rear wheel. This leads to enhanced riding comfort and reduced rider fatigue on long journeys.

Additional Types of Bike Chains

1. Single-Speed Chains: These chains are designed for bikes with only one gear, commonly found on fixies, single-speed road bikes, and some mountain bikes. They are typically wider and more robust to handle the higher torque demands of single-speed riding.

2. BMX Chains: BMX chains are built to endure the rigors of freestyle BMX riding, which includes jumps, tricks, and high-impact landings. They are robust, compact, and less prone to stretching.

3. Track Chains: Track or fixed-gear chains are engineered for use on fixed-gear and track bikes. They are exceptionally strong and durable, designed to handle the demands of fixed-gear cycling where the pedals are always in motion.

4. E-Bike Chains: Electric bicycles (e-bikes) have gained popularity, and specialized e-bike chains are designed to handle the extra torque and stress generated by electric motors. These new chains are built to be more durable and longer-lasting.

5. Half-Link Chains: Half-link chains offer more precise tension adjustment, making them popular among BMX and fixed-gear riders who require fine-tuned chain tension for tricks and track cycling.

6. Coated Chains: Some chains come with special coatings, such as Teflon or DLC (diamond-like carbon), which reduce friction and enhance durability. Coated chains are often found on high-performance road bikes.

7. Tandem Bike Chains: Tandem bicycles, built for two or more riders, require longer chains to accommodate their extended frames. Tandem bicycle chains are designed to provide the necessary length and strength for these bikes.

8. Touring Bike Chains: Touring bike chains are engineered for long-distance bike touring, where durability and reliability are paramount. They are built to handle the challenges of extended rides with heavy loads.

9. Multi-Speed Chains: While road and mountain bike chains are the most common multi-speed chains, there can be variations based on brand and compatibility. It’s important to select a chain that matches the speed of your bike’s drivetrain, such chains such as 9-speed, 10-speed, or 11-speed chains.

bicycle chain

Deciphering Bike/Bicycle Chains Sizes

1. Chain Length: Bike chain length is determined by the number of links it contains. Proper chain length ensures that your bike’s drivetrain operates smoothly. To determine the right length, wrap the chain around the largest front chainring and the largest rear cog without passing through the derailleur. Add two links to this length, and that’s your ideal chain length.

2. Chain Width: Chain width refers to the internal width of the chain, specifically the space between the inner plates and outer plates. The most common widths are 1/8-inch and 3/32-inch. Single-speed and BMX bikes often use 1/8-inch chains, while most multi-speed bikes, including road and mountain bikes, use 3/32-inch chains. It’s vital to match the chain width to your bike’s drivetrain components, including the chainring and cassette.

bike chains

3. Compatibility: Bike chains are designed to work seamlessly with specific drivetrains. Road bike chains, for instance, are compatible with road bike drivetrains, while mountain bike chains are designed for mountain bike components. Mixing incompatible chains and drivetrain components can result in poor shifting, excessive wear, and reduced performance. For-example; A Shimano chain will not work particularly well with Campagnolo cassettes. Campagnolo chains will not work well with Shimano or SRAM cassettes.

4. Speed Chains: The term “speed” refers to the number of cogs on the rear cassette. Common speeds include 8-speed, 9-speed, 10-speed, 11-speed, and 12-speed chains. To ensure bicycle chain compatibility and smooth shifting, it’s crucial to select a chain that matches your bike’s speed. For instance, an 11-speed chain is designed for use with an 11-speed cassette.

5. Chain Dimensions: The dimensions of a bike chain are typically printed on the chain itself or found in the manufacturer’s specifications. These dimensions include the width (3/32-inch or 1/8-inch) and the chain’s speed rating. Matching these dimensions with your bike’s drivetrain components is essential for optimal performance.

6. Mountain Bike Chain Size: Mountain bike chains often come in various sizes to accommodate different setups. These sizes are typically denoted as 9-speed, 10-speed, or 12-speed, aligning with the number of rear cassette cogs. Ensure your mountain bike chain matches the cassette’s speed rating for smooth gear transitions.

bike chain with blades

Here’s a table providing a general guideline for bike chain sizes/lengths based on the number of speeds (gears) in your bike’s drivetrain:

Drivetrain SpeedsChainstay Length (Inches)Chain Length (Links)
6-Speed16 to 1794 to 96
7-Speed16 to 1798 to 100
8-Speed16 to 17102 to 104
9-Speed16 to 17106 to 108
10-Speed16 to 17110 to 112
11-Speed16 to 17114 to 116
12-Speed16 to 17118 to 120

Note: The chainstay length and chain length can vary depending on the specific bike frame and drivetrain components. It’s essential to measure your bike’s chainstay length and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for the precise chain length needed for your bike.

The Buying Process

Purchasing the right bike chain involves several considerations to ensure compatibility and performance. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you through the buying process:

1. Determine the Chain Size:

Start by identifying your bike’s chain size. You can do this by either referring to your old chain (if you’re replacing it) or checking your bike’s specifications in the owner’s manual or manufacturer’s website. Measure the chain’s length, counting the number of links. This will help you choose a chain of the correct length and size.

different chains and drivetrain sizes

2. Check Speed Compatibility:

Ensure that the chain you’re buying matches the speed of your bike’s drivetrain. For example, if you have a 10-speed bike, select a 10-speed chain. Speed compatibility is crucial for smooth gear shifting and overall performance.

3. Decide on Chain Type:

Determine whether you need a road bike chain, mountain bike chain, or a specialized chain designed for specific conditions (e.g., a chain suitable for wet and muddy terrains). Choose a chain type that suits your riding style and environment.

4. Consider Brand and Quality:

Research reputable brands known for manufacturing high-quality bike chains. Brands like Shimano, SRAM, and KMC are well-regarded in the cycling community. Higher-quality chains often offer better durability, smoother shifting, and improved overall performance.

5. Budget:

Set a budget based on your needs and preferences. Bike chains come in a wide price range, so you’ll find options to fit various budgets. Keep in mind that investing in a quality chain can pay off in terms of longevity and performance.

6. Read Reviews and Seek Recommendations:

Before making a purchase, read reviews and seek recommendations from fellow cyclists or online cycling communities. Real-world experiences can provide valuable insights into a chain’s performance and longevity.

7. Purchase from Reputable Sellers:

Choose a reputable seller or bike shop to buy your chain. Established retailers and expensive chains often carry authentic products and provide customer support. Beware of counterfeit or subpar chains from unreliable sources, as these can compromise your riding experience and safety.

8. Check for Warranty:

Some manufacturers offer warranties on their chains, which can provide peace of mind in case of defects or premature wear. Check if the chain you’re considering comes with a warranty and understand its terms and conditions.

9. Installation:

Unless you have experience with bike maintenance, consider having your new chain installed by a professional bike mechanic. Proper installation is crucial for safety and performance.

Choosing the Right Chain for Your Bike

Choosing the right bike chain for your bicycle depends on several factors, each tailored to your specific riding style and terrain. Here are some recommendations, along with the reasons why these specific chains are suggested:

bike chains

For road bikes, such as those used for long-distance rides on smooth pavements, lightweight and durable options like the Shimano Ultegra CN-6701 or SRAM PC-1130 are recommended. These chains offer precise shifting and efficient power transfer, enhancing the road cycling experience. Opt for a 10 or 11-speed chain that matches your drivetrain for optimal performance.

Mountain bikes, built for rugged off-road adventures, require durable chains that can handle muddy and challenging terrains. Chains like the KMC X11.93 or SRAM PC-1110 fit the bill. These chains are designed to withstand harsh conditions, ensuring reliable performance. Anti-rust coatings are advantageous in wet conditions, maintaining their integrity over time.

Touring bikes, often used for long-distance journeys, demand reliable and durable chains. Chains like the Shimano Deore CN-HG54 or SRAM PC-1051 strike a balance between strength and cost-effectiveness, making them ideal for extended travel. Ensure compatibility with your bike’s speed configuration for the best fit.

Commuter bikes benefit from dependable and reasonably priced chains. The KMC Z7 or Shimano HG40 chains provide a good balance between durability and cost-effectiveness. Regular maintenance through cleaning and lubrication is essential for consistent performance.

For high-performance racing bikes, where precision and reduced friction are critical, lightweight chains like the Shimano Dura-Ace CN-9000 or SRAM Red 22 are recommended. These chains are designed for minimal resistance, ensuring that every pedal stroke contributes to your speed and efficiency.

E-bikes, which have increased power demands, require chains specially designed to handle the added stress. Chains like the KMC E10 EPT or Shimano E8000 series (for e-bikes) are ideal for ensuring longevity under e-bike conditions.

Maintenance and Care

Maintenance and care are essential to ensure the longevity and smooth operation of your bike chain. Here are some practical tips for keeping your bike chain in top condition:

apply chain lube to increase chain life

Regular Cleaning: Dirt, grime, and debris can accumulate on your bike chain, leading to increased wear and reduced efficiency. Clean your chain regularly using a chain cleaning tool or a brush and degreaser. Scrub the chain thoroughly to remove all contaminants. Rinse with clean water and allow it to dry completely before applying lubricant.

Lubrication: Proper lubrication is crucial for reducing friction, preventing rust, and ensuring smooth shifting. Use a quality bike chain lubricant that’s appropriate for your riding conditions. Apply a small amount of lubricant to each chain link while turning the pedals backward. Wipe off any excess lubricant to prevent attracting dirt.

Chain Tension: Check your chain’s tension periodically. A properly tensioned chain ensures efficient power transfer and shifting. Most modern bikes have a derailleur that maintains chain tension automatically. However, if you have a single-speed or fixed-gear bike, ensure the chain tension is correct by adjusting the rear wheel position.

Wear Check: Regularly inspect your chain for wear using a chain wear tool or a ruler. If the chain has stretched beyond its recommended limit, it’s time for a replacement. Riding with a worn chain can lead to premature wear on other drivetrain components like the cassette and chainrings.

Replacement: When it’s time to replace your bike chain, make sure to select the correct chain type and size for your bike. Replacing your chain before it becomes excessively worn can extend the lifespan of your cassette and chainrings, saving you money in the long run.

Storage: When not in use, store your bike in a dry, cool place. Avoid leaving it exposed to extreme temperatures or humidity, as this can cause the chain to deteriorate faster. If you won’t be riding your bike for an extended period, consider applying a rust inhibitor to the chain.

old bike chain

FAQs

Q: Can I use the same chain lubricant for all weather conditions?

A: There are different chain lubricants designed for specific conditions. Wet lubes work well in rainy conditions, while dry lubes are better for dry and dusty environments. Choose a lubricant that suits your riding conditions.

Q: When should I replace my bike chain?

A: You should replace your bike chain when it shows signs of wear, such as elongation, skipping gears, or visible rust. A chain-checking tool can help you determine when it’s time for a replacement.

Q: Are all bike chains compatible with any bike?

A: No, bike chains come in various sizes and speeds. It’s crucial to choose a chain that matches your bike’s drivetrain specifications for optimal performance.

Q: Can I cut a bike chain to adjust its length?

A: Yes, you can shorten a bike chain to fit your specific bike size by removing excess chain stretch and links. However, ensure you have the right tools and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines to do it correctly.

Q: How to Clean a Mountain Bike Chain?

A: To clean a mountain bike chain, you’ll need a chain cleaning tool, degreaser, a brush, and a clean rag. Place the chain cleaner on the chain, fill it with degreaser, and pedal the bike backward. Scrub the dirty chain well with a brush to remove dirt and grime. Rinse with water, dry thoroughly, and apply fresh lubricant.

Q: What Type of Chain Lube Should I Use?

A: The type of chain lube you should use depends on your riding conditions. Wet lubes are ideal for wet and muddy conditions, while dry lubes work best in dry and dusty environments. All-weather lubes offer versatility for varying conditions. Also note that, all the modern chains, from 7 to 12 speeds have no mechanism of keeping the lubricant inside, and dirt out.

Q: Where to Buy Bike Chain Lube?

A: You can buy bike chain lube at local bike shops, sporting goods stores, or online retailers. Popular brands include Finish Line, Pedro’s, and Park Tool.

Q: Where to Buy Bike Grease?

A: Bike grease can also be found at local bike shops, auto parts stores, and online retailers. Look for trusted brands like Park Tool, Phil Wood, or Shimano.

Q: How to Put a Chain on a Mountain Bike?

A: To install a chain on a mountain bike, first thread it through the rear hub and derailleur, around the cassette, and then through the front chainring. Ensure it’s properly aligned on the jockey wheels and chainring. Use a chain tool to connect the ends, maintaining proper tension.

different types of chains

Conclusion

In conclusion, understanding your bike chain is crucial for every cyclist, whether you’re a seasoned rider or just starting your cycling journey. A well-maintained bike/bicycle chain ensures efficient power transfer, smooth gear shifts, and a longer lifespan for your drivetrain components. We’ve delved into the intricacies of bike chains, from their composition to sizing, and even recommendations for your specific chain models. Remember, choosing the right chain depends on your bike type, riding style, and terrain.

By following our comprehensive guide, you can confidently select, maintain, and care for the right bike chain that suits your needs. Whether you’re a road cyclist, a mountain biker, or a commuter, a well-maintained bike chain will ensure that your rides are smooth, efficient, and enjoyable. So, gear up and hit the road or trail with confidence, knowing that your bike’s heart—the chain—is in excellent shape. Happy cycling!

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