Bicycle Chain – ULTIMATE GUIDE

The chain of your bike is one of the most essential parts of the bike. Without a good chain, you will run into all kinds of issues and these include limited shifting. However, one of the main reasons for bike chain management is to avoid damage. No one wants to deal with a bicycle chain that slips off the cogs while riding.

Understanding the bike chain is fundamental in this situation and once you get better with overall maintenance, you will find your bike performing at a peak level. The goal is to have your bike perform like it is new. To make this possible, you will need to understand the chain and how the complete drivetrain of the bike works.

To help you enhance your performance and get the best out of your bike, we have designed this article. The article will explore a variety of factors related to your bike chain and we will try to share the process of fixing and managing the chain of your bike. We will also explore some of the dangers for those that risk it without caring for their bike chain.

How Bike Chains Work

Before looking at some of the other information, you will need to understand how a bike chain works. Bike chains are essential to the bike and they enable the user to switch between different speeds. These speeds will enhance the tension on the pedals and will propel the bike forward. The chains will connect the rear to the front of the bike.

While this might seem straightforward, there are two different types of bike chains that you will need to understand. Depending on the bike you use for performance, one of these chains will be on the bike.

Here is a basic breakdown of the two chains you will encounter on your bicycle:

Single Speed Bike Chain

As you might have noticed, there are plenty of bikes that only have one speed. The chains used to propel these bikes forward are slightly different from the drivetrain chains. These chains perform best when there is one sprocket on the crankset and one sprocket on the wheel. The rollers on these chains are commonly 1/8 of an inch thick.

Single Speed Bike Chain
Single Speed Bike Chain

The chain on these bikes is not made to move from sprocket to sprocket and they will work by internally regulating the geared speeds. While this does sound like it has multiple gears, it is still referred to as a one-speed chain. You as the user will not be able to control any changes in pedaling difficulty or tension.

Multi Speed Chain

Derailleur chains are what you will find on most road bikes and mountain bikes. These chains are designed to hop between the different sprockets. However, choosing them and allowing for maintenance can be a bit more tricky due to the nature of the chain. However, you have more control over the movement.

multi speed chain
Multi Speed Chain

It is often a tough process to find the right chain when you are looking for a new one. However, you will need to focus on the rear hub of the drivetrain to make the best decision. Rear cogs can vary in numbers and they are generally 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, or 12 sprockets, which means that the size between the rivets on your chain will vary depending on the sprockets. Here is a small breakdown:

  • 12 rear cogs – 5.3mm
  • 11 rear cogs – 5.5mm
  • 10 rear cogs – 6mm
  • 9 rear cogs – 6.5 to 7mm
  • 8 rear cogs – 7mm
  • 7 rear cogs – 7mm
  • 6 rear cogs – 7mm

You also need to keep in mind that the size of the chain affects the front of the bike as well. Chainrings need to be wide enough to accommodate the front of the bike depending on the different speeds that it has to offer. It is up to you to determine which will be ideal. However, it is best to ensure that you have the front and the rear of the bike working together when selecting a bike chain.

Chains for electric bicycles

With the boom in electric bicycles, manufacturers began offering specific components. And in the case of electric bicycles, the chain is probably the most important since it is stressed not only by the rider’s power but several times by the engine’s power.

Special chains for electric bicycles are thus characterized by a longer service life, which is achieved on the one hand by strengthening the material with a link, and on the other hand by harder, i.e., more durable, pins.

Choosing The Right Chain

One of the most daunting issues is choosing the right chain. However, you can look and the manufacturer of the drivetrain. For most bikes you can buy, SRAM or Shimano should be the two names you come across often. If you are in doubt, you might want to consider looking for the same chain that the manufacturer recommends.

Bike Chain Diagram

Bicycle chains are made up of several pairs of steel outer (1) and inner links (2) connected by pins (3). Each of these pairs divides between the rings (5). The pin (rivet) is tightly stretched through both outer links and freely rotates in the inner and intermediate rings (4).

Bike Chain Diagram
Bike Chain Diagram

Every modern bicycle chain is manufactured according to the “one-half inch pitch” standard, meaning the distance between the pins is 0.5 inches (about 1.27 cm).

The sprocket teeth are manufactured to the same standard so that any standard bicycle chain can be used. However, this does not mean that all chain models are interchangeable.

Are Bicycle Chains Universal?

No, not all bicycle chains are the same, and therefore not all chain models are interchangeable. Each type of chain has specific characteristics that make it compatible with certain types of bicycles. For example, a BMX bike will require a different chain than a mountain bike.

When buying a chain, some packages also include a Chain Link Connector

Bike Chain Link Connector

A very important detail is the joining of chains, which in today’s modern times is mainly done with the help of chain connectors. Therefore, no tools are needed, unlike normal chain riveting, where a chain riveter and the appropriate skill are required.

Chain Links, like chains, differ in width, which determines them for a given type of chain according to the number of gears. Again, we have clutches for chains for 6, 7, and 8 gears – the same clutch size, and clutches for 9, 10, 11, and 12 gears – each is specific.

They are also different in shape; each manufacturer has its specific Links. I have selected a couple of couplings from different manufacturers in the picture.

Type of Master Links
Type of Master Links

Chain dimensions or Size

The size of the chain is an important factor for the entire transmission system to function properly. Most often, we encounter choosing the right size when replacing it. If we are not sure, we must choose the same chain that was used on your bike until now.

Width

As I mentioned above, the width of the chain is also determined by the number of rear wheels. The more wheels there are, the smaller their spacing is, which also changes the width of the chain. Using the wrong width can cause the chain to fall or get stuck.

The table below shows a summary and indicative dimensions of the outer and inner width of the chain.

Drivetrain CapabilityWidth (Inches)Width (MM)Internal Width (Inches)
5/6/7/8 Speeds9/32-inches7.1-7.3 mm3/32-inches
9 Speed¼ – 9/32-inches6.5-7.0 mm11/128-inches
10 Speed¼ – 9/32-inches6.0-7.0 mm11/128-inches
10 Speed Narrow7/32-inches5.88 mm11/128-inches
11-Speed7/32-inches5.5-5.62 mm11/128-inches
12-Speed13/64-inches5.3 mm11/128-inches

Length

Each chain has its length determined by the number of links. Of course, the more there are, the longer the chain. This number is always indicated on the chain packaging and is given in numbers, for example, 114, 116…

With use, the chain is lengthened, or the individual links are stretched. Its extension should be monitored regularly so that it does not cause damage to other parts of the transmission and does not cause a fall or injury to the rider. I write about it in more detail in the chain life section.

What Material Are Bike Chains Made Of?

In the production of the chain, the primary material is steel or stainless steel. We can say that 90% of bicycle chains have an additional surface treatment. However, some manufacturers make chains from a material such as Titan, mainly to save weight and make the chain’s properties as good as possible.

Surface treatment

Surface treatment is very important. Cheap chains either have no surface treatment or only a minimal one, but this does not protect the chain from corrosion. However, higher quality chains also have a higher quality surface treatment.

Each part of the chain can have a different surface treatment, but for example, the inner and outer plates do not have to be coated the same because each one has a different role. The outer chainrings only come into play when shifting from an internal to an external cog, while the internal chainrings mate with the cassette cogs as the chain moves up.

Here are examples of surface treatments:

  • GST (Greener Surface Treatment) – ecological surface treatment that lasts up to a thousand hours of use
  • DHT (Diamond Hard Tech) – extremely hard surface treatment guarantees great wear resistance
  • EPT (EcoProTeQ) – surface treatment that doubled the service life. A smoother surface reduces noise and maximizes rust resistance. The technology belongs to KMC.

There are several technologies, and I would rather cover them in a separate article.

How Long Does A Bike Chain Last?

The life of this component depends on the rate of use, the number of kilometers, and the category in which you drive. A road bike ridden by a recreational rider needs to be replaced after 3-4 thousand kilometers.

MTBs last around 1,000 kilometers. This is due to mud, worse terrain conditions, and the like. The significant difference between the 11-speed and the 10-speed is not particularly noticeable. In the past, however, it was true that 9-speeds could withstand more.

Of course, it also depends on the manufacturer and the used material of the chain, respectively, as the surface finish. In this direction, every manufacturer is developing, and there are several options on the market. Some manufacturers guarantee even 10,000 km driven with one chain, for example. KMC

It is not possible to specifically say how long the chain will last. It depends on your style, outdoor conditions, and your approach to regular maintenance.

Maintenance

As I mentioned above, extending the life of the chain and the entire drive unit is possible thanks to proper maintenance.

If you have already cleaned the chain, the second step is properly lubricating it. Which lubricant to lubricate in dry conditions, which in wet conditions.

A cleaned and well-lubricated chain is the precursor of longer service life. You need to use the right lubricant.

But how do I know if it’s the right time to change the chain? The next part of this article will help you in your decision.

When is it time to replace the bicycle chain?

Since the life of the chain depends on various factors, wear must be checked during regular bicycle maintenance. This check also depends on the driving style, but it is advisable to set it every 800 km.

A pulled and worn chain destroys the converters and pinions; in that case, we would have to replace the chain and these components. Ultimately, we would have to reach deeper into our pockets.

We know 3 basic ways to find out if the chain is stretched:

  • Visually
  • Using a caliber
  • Using a caliper

You can read all 3 methods with a detailed description in this article:

When measuring with a scale or caliper, you must follow these principles:

  • Do not measure in just one place, but the chain in three – four places.
  • There must be no coupling on the measured section.
  • Measure it under light load.
  • If you find that this component is past its prime, don’t think twice and replace it.

Dangers Of Neglecting The Bike Chain

The bike chain is an important part of the bike and you will need to keep it in pristine condition. Bike chain rust is something that all cyclists will need to deal with at some point, especially if the bike is left outdoors. Here are some of the common dangers that you might want to keep in mind if you don’t care for the bike chain.

Missing Shifts

One of the biggest issues when bike chain rust sets in is that your cogs will be blocked from entering the chain links. One of the main issues that could stem from this is that the chain will jump off the cogs, which means that you could be left with a bike that cannot be controlled. The worst-case scenario is that so much friction is created that the chain snaps. Keep in mind that rust on the chain could weaken the structural integrity and lead to chain damage.

Snapping The Chain

Another big issue or risk that you will run into is that the chain could snap. A chain that snaps on a bike is extremely dangerous and it could lead to some serious injury. While your brakes will still work and you could manage to slow down the bike, you might notice it too late. A snapped chain at speed could put you at risk of falling and being injured.

While a snapped chain is something that could happen at any time, doing bike chain management means that you will know the exact condition of the bike chain at all times. You won’t be risking potential damage to the chain and you will still be in control of the wear.

Additional Damage To The Bike

Aside from having an accident and falling when you are riding the bike, you might also wear out the cogs on the sprockets. These could be damaged by the constant friction caused by using a rusty chain. Replacing the drivetrain of your bike could be very expensive and it is much better to avoid having to do this if possible.

Serious Injury

We have touched on the risk of serious injury, but when you are confident in your bike, you tend to take more risks. We tend to risk it more when we have confidence that something will work. This means that a chain snapping is something unforeseen and it could catch you out. If you are at top speeds or riding through steep mountain passes, you could be at risk of falling, which can lead to serious injury.

Final advice

Manufacturers produce bicycle chains together with converters, cassettes, or derailleurs as a single unit for everything to work well. Therefore, if you don’t know which bike chain to choose, stick with the manufacturer’s brand from which you have the transmission assembly.

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