Your chain is the essential link between the front part of your drivetrain (the pedals, cranks and chainrings) and the rear (the gear sprockets and hub). It’s vital to keep this part of your bike clean and happy to keep everything else in working order.
They’re also a consumable component, meaning that they wear down after time and need to be replaced. Failing to keep on top of this can result in the rest of the drivetrain wearing down, which becomes very expensive to replace. It’s most cost-effective to replace your chain when it’s half-worn to extend the lifespan of your drivetrain. You can also extend the life of your chain through regular cleaning and oiling.
So when it comes to replacing your chain, which one do you buy? There are quite a lot of factors to consider. The kind of chain you need depends largely on which type of bike you’re riding. Chains come in different widths, to suit specific bike types, and to accommodate different numbers of gear sprockets.
If you’re feeling unsure, don’t worry. Here’s our guide for what to look for in a chain, along with our roundup of the best.
Number of gears
When your chain is worn out, you need to replace it with a new one that matches the number of gears you have. If you’re not sure how many gears your drivetrain has, you can count the sprockets on the rear wheel. Or, if you have a gear shifter with an indicator on it, you’ll be able to see which number the indicator goes to. Modern bikes usually have between 9 and 12 gears, while some older ones can have between 5 and 8. Plus there are singlespeed bikes with only one gear.
It is crucial to know this, because the width of the chain needs to be compatible with the gaps between the sprockets. The more sprockets, the smaller the gaps, and therefore the narrower the chain. The fewer sprockets, the larger the gaps, the wider the chain.
As a general rule of thumb, chains and cassettes (gear sprockets) will be compatible across manufacturers. Shimano chains will work with a SRAM drivetrain, and vice-versa. The main compatibility issue to be aware of is with Campagnolo, if you have it. Some Campagnolo drivetrains will only work with Campagnolo chains, and the opposite can be true as well
Unless you’re a serious athlete, you probably don’t need to worry too much about this, but it’s worth knowing that most bike chains are constructed from alloy steel for strength. Some performance models, however, will feature high-end alloy parts, or perhaps hollow pins and side plates to make them lightweight. If you want some weight savings, look for these.
Great for the singlespeeder who forgets to lube often
First things first, the KMC Z410 is for singlespeed bikes only (i.e. with one gear). It has a basic design, but its drop buster configuration, mated with an oversized chain plate, makes it strong enough to withstand a bit of tough love, while maintaining smooth running.
Its anti-drop design features a nickel plating, helping to prevent the build up of rust, and extend the life of the chain. This means it requires less lubing than some of its competitors, reducing overall maintenance costs. This also makes it a great option if you forget to keep your chain lubed all the time.
It’s compatible with Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo drivetrains, and is easy to install. Overall it’s a budget-friendly bike chain that will work well with any single-speed bike.
A great budget option for older bikes
If you’re on a tight budget, this 6, 7 and 8-speed chain from Zonkie is one of the cheapest available that’s actually worth buying. Accommodating three different speed drivetrains, it’s incredibly versatile, as well as inexpensive.
It’s constructed from forging steel, known to be extremely durable. It’s also resistant to rust and corrosion, though we’d recommend against using it for long periods of time in bad weather, or storing it outside.
If you’re happy to spend time cleaning your chain to extend its life, then one of the great things about this one is that you can easily disassemble the joints and reassemble them after cleaning. Just keep it lubed for longevity.
Durability at an unbeatable price
This 9-speed SRAM chain with its PowerLink connector is undeniably the best value chain on this list, because it’s one of the strongest that the company has ever built. It’s compatible with Shimano and Campagnolo drivetrains, making it super versatile, while the inner and outer plates are coated to protect it against the elements.
SRAM’s two-step riveting process, combined with chrome pins, produces a hardened and durable chain that shifts not only smoothly, but quickly. That brand’s Power Chain II technology is meant to help with front shifting under load, making this a very useful chain for any utilitarian cyclists or cycle tourers.
Finally it features the PowerLink, which makes it easy to remove, clean, and reinstall the chain without requiring any tools. Doing so allows you to extend its lifespan, and is highly recommended. If you want all that durability, you need to keep it clean and well-oiled at all times.
Great for endurance cyclists and hill climbers
The Shimano Ultegra CN-6701 is designed to enhance power transfer and provide smooth performance for long hours at a time. This makes it a great option for endurance cyclists, whether you’re racing over long miles or taking your sweet time.
It cleverly eliminates chain suck and noise with its asymmetric, half-cutout plate design and perforated outer plates. This latter aspect also helps to keep the weight down. The shape of the inner plate decreases friction, to aid effortless pedalling and smooth rear shifting, even when under pressure, like climbing a steep hill out of the saddle. Finally the chain is coated with zinc alloy to help it stand up to the elements.
The lightweight CN-6701 will work for any Shimano 10-speed road bike, and is easy to install and use.
Super lightweight for quality performance
The SRAM PC 1170 chain is extremely lightweight, thanks to its hollow pin construction. As well as shedding ounces, the hollow pins offer increased strength as well as incredibly smooth front and rear shifting. The shape of the outer plates helps to keep noise to a minimum as you pedal, while the entire thing is coated from the inside out to help protect it against the elements.
Once again SRAM has included its PowerLink technology, allowing for easy removal for cleaning. Be sure to make good use of it. This performance-focused chain is perfect for serious cyclists who want to get the best out of their bikes, and therefore requires a bit of love in return.
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Mildred is a Reviews Writer for Cyclingnews who loves all forms of cycling from long-distance audax to daily errand-running by bike. She does almost everything on two wheels, including moving house, and started out her cycling career working in a bike shop. For the past five years she's volunteered at The Bristol Bike Project as a mechanic and session coordinator, and now sits on its board of directors. Since then she's gone on to write for a multitude of cycling publications, including Bikeradar, Cycling Plus, Singletrack, Red Bull, Cycling UK and Total Women's Cycling. She's dedicated to providing more coverage of women's specific cycling tech, elevating under-represented voices in the sport, and making cycling more accessible overall.
Height: 156cm (5'2")
Rides: Liv Devote, Genesis Equilibrium Disc 20, Triban RC520 Women's Disc, Genesis Flyer, Whyte Victoria, Cotic BFe 26, Clandestine custom bike
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