For many people thinking of bicycle components, the bike chain is probably one of the least exciting components. However, it is one of the most important and if you take the bike chain off the bike, you won’t get anywhere. The bike chain is responsible for connecting the pedals to the wheels and pushing the bike forward. However, knowing what material is bike chains made of could help you find the right one.
What Material Is Bike Chains Made Of? The traditional bike chain is made from steel, which gives the chain optimal durability, but also ensures that it can run effectively on your bicycle. The catch comes when we look at supplemental features when bike chains are constructed and this could prevent things like rust from accumulating and the overall durability.
To help you understand more about the construction of bike chains, we will dive deeper into the construction. We will look at what most bike chains are made of and why they are made from these materials. Additionally, the coatings are also important and other supplementary factors would improve the quality of the chain.
What Are Bike Chains Made Of?
The traditional bike chain is often made from steel, which works well with other components to ensure the chain works as smoothly as possible. The alloy steel is not as heavy as other forms of steel and it can still be flexible for many riders. However, pure steel construction might not be the best and there could be a few flaws.
You will often find that two main types of steel make up the bike chain. Carbon steel and alloy steel. Both of these have similar properties, but many people prefer going the route of alloy steel due to its lighter weight and flexibility. Here is a bit of food for thought when looking at the differences between these two sheets of steel.
- Alloy Steel: Alloy steel might not have the same durability as carbon steel when constructing a bike chain. However, it is far lighter than carbon steel. Additionally, the alloy steel is naturally corrosion resistant, which makes it more functional in various conditions.
- Carbon Steel: Carbon steel includes more iron and carbon when compared to other materials and it is one of the least flexible options. It might be more susceptible to corrosion as well. One of the main reasons many people would choose it is due to the extra strength it offers.
Both of these chain materials are useful depending on the conditions you are riding. If you need more performance, a chain that is higher in alloy steel would provide more flexibility. It often also outperforms the carbon chain when it comes to resisting weather conditions effectively. Most people would recommend looking at the alloy steel bike chain.
Most Important Variables Of Bike Chains
While bike chains can be made from the best possible materials, there are often many variables that you need to account for. These variables often include things like weather conditions that could potentially cause rust. Numerous other factors are also important to consider when you are buying a brand new bike chain for your bike:
The first thing you will need to keep in mind is the coatings of the bike chain. Numerous elements like alloy and even nickel can be used to coat bike chains and keep rust or elements at bay. However, modern bike chains now include titanium as the main coating, which should essentially keep the rust at bay, while also making the chain lighter.
However, you will need to keep in mind that titanium is often one of the most expensive components and this would spike the price of the chain. One of the main brands using this is KMC, which uses titanium carbon nitride as the main coating material. These chains come out black and they can reduce friction as well. Here is a breakdown of the coatings you could find according to each brand:
- KMC: KMC is known to primarily rely on three different coatings for its chains. The most expensive of these will be titanium nitride. However, you can find chains coated in nickel or diamond-like coating (KMC DLC 10/12-Speed Bike Chains) with prevents corrosion.
- Shimano: Shimano is widely known for its Sil-Tec coatings, which often feature a silicone overlay. However, some of the more expensive options will also have a diamond-like coating available.
- SRAM: SRAM is slightly more expensive when comparing overall prices and you could find the titanium nitride coating or the diamond-like coating from many of their bike chains.
- Campagnolo: Campagnolo uses numerous friction-reducing compounds for their coatings. These often range from silica or even titanium. You will be able to choose which one fits your budget best.
Outer Chain Design
The most noticeable difference we found between brands is the design of the outer plates of the bike chain. A design that features some form of ramping is common in most bike chains and it will improve the shifting of the chain from one gear to the other. However, this might not be the most effective way to set up a chain.
If you have the funds to spend, you might want to consider the chamfered edges on the sides of your bike chain. These are slightly different and they also look better. Unfortunately, it will significantly lift the price of the chain.
Many of the best chains in the world would also have slots in the side plates, which takes a lot of engineering for you to perfect. These chains will have hollow pins inserted that would still keep the chain together. The main aim of these chains is to keep the weight as low as possible. Unfortunately, it does make them more expensive.
KMC often includes chamfered edges on their chains, while Campagnolo will have a rounded end on some of their bike chains. The KMC 11-speed X11 SL is perfect for the X1 drivetrain with the X-shaped protrusion and outer face. These chains can be used for road or off-road bikes.
Friction Reducing Compounds
The last thing you want to deal with in a bike chain is friction that constantly shoots back the chain. Friction could reduce the efficacy of the chain moving, while it also prevents the chain from quickly jumping from one gear to the other. Having various coatings could improve this aspect of the chain significantly.
Brands like Silca and CeramicSpeed are two of the best-known brands to include these coatings. Bear in mind that the coatings do not last forever. The manufacturer will state that these pre-treated chains would do around 100 miles before the coating wears off.
You could find these chains often used in competitive situations and they are best for race-day conditions. However, they might not pack the punch you might need when it comes to wet weather conditions. During the wet, the chain friction should already be low enough. The main issue arises when the chain needs to dry and you let it simmer. This could potentially lead to the accumulation of rust and corrosion of the metal.
The Full Titanium Chain
Titanium is one of the most unique compounds on the market and you often see these expensive chains on the market. However, these chains are not used as much due to the price, but they also lack some of the flexibility that other components would need. The downside to this is that you have an overpriced chain that does not boost performance.
If you want to casually cycle for a couple of years without the fear of having to replace your bike chain, you might want to consider titanium as the main compound. However, we don’t recommend it as one of the most effective options.
YBN is one of the most renowned brands of the titanium bike chain and while very few bikes have this as a standard option, it is something you can buy separately. For instance, the YBN SFL-210 Bike Chain is one of the top options and it is compatible with all SRAM and Shimano components.
How Often Should I Replace A Bike Chain?
While your bike chain might be incredibly durable, you will occasionally need to replace the chain to ensure that it operates at its optimal level. Using a chain checker is often the best way to ensure you know when to replace the chain, but various factors would influence how long a bike chain would last you. Three main factors influence when you should replace a bike chain:
- When Your Ride: If you ride in severe wet conditions, you could be placing plenty of strain on the chain in terms of the conditions. Wet conditions could cause rust on the chain to accumulate.
- How You Ride: The harder and more severe pedaling techniques you use, the more friction is created. This would damage the chain and wear out some of the minor components. If you have an aggressive riding style, you might need to change the chain more frequently to avoid it breaking.
- Where You Ride: If you are only riding on open terrains like in urban areas, you won’t accumulate plenty of natural debris on the bike chain. Riders that love mountain biking might need to replace the chain more frequently due to muddy conditions.
Your bike chain is one of the most important components when it comes to keeping your bike in the best operating condition. Yes, it might take you more time to do maintenance after each ride, but this could extend the lifespan of your chain. Additionally, it is far less expensive to maintain the chain than it would be to buy a new one.
How Often Should I Clean A Bike Chain
Once again, this would come down to how often your ride. If you ride more frequently, you would need to clean it more often. It is best to clean the bike chain when you encounter bad weather conditions. However, it would also make sense to clean your chain once a week. Keep in mind that storing it in the right conditions and ensuring it has optimal lubrication could also make a big difference.
What Material Is Bike Chains Made Of Summary
The use of a bike chain is an important part of your bike and knowing which one you would use will make the biggest difference to your performance. You don’t need to have the best and most expensive chain, but having something functional will not only improve your performance but also make the chain last longer. You can learn more about bicycle chains in our Guide.