Links On Links: Bike Chains, The Definitive Guide

Bikes might be greater than the sum of their own parts, but without bike chains they’d be practically useless.

This should be common knowledge to every cyclist out there reading this. Your chain links the drivetrain to the rest of the frame, ensuring that the momentum you build with each rotation gets you to where you need to be.

That’s obviously a very general statement, but it works. You see, you don’t need to be a pro rider to understand the purpose and need for bike chains as they are pretty self-explanatory.

But did you know there are multiple types of bike chains out there for you to check out, each varying in size, compatibility, durability and lifespan?

This isn’t one of those one size fits all scenarios. For there are chains for all kinds of bikes — be it road bike chains to the electric bike chain, and that’s without mentioning the highly popular gold bike chains!

Quick FYI: Gold bike chains don’t really do anything different or special, they’re simply built different, that’s all.

Today we’re linking you with the right information, to help you out the next time you’re in need of a new bike chain.

Feel free to skip it, but we’re going to start with how a bike chain works before covering the different types out there.

rear bike wheel sprocket Not all bike chains are universal, remember that

How Does A Bike Chain Work Exactly?

Consider the bike chain easily the most important part of any bicycle — electric or otherwise — up there in terms of importance with the brakes and the wheels themselves.

Not to mention the locks, don’t ever forget about the locks, or bike security generally.

So, how does a bike chain work then? That’s simple: your chain links the front part of your drivetrain, which consists of the pedals, cranks, and chainrings/sprocket, to the rear, which consists of the cassette/sprocket and rear hub.

Did You Know: Most modern bike chains are known as ‘roller chains.’ These are short cylindrical rollers that are held in place via side links. Gaps between the rollers themselves meld with the teeth on a sprocket or chainring to cause the transmission to drive when turned.

The kinetic energy you build as you pedal causes the chain to rotate, thus causing the rear wheel to move! It sounds super complicated but it’s as easy as you pedal, the chain moves causing the wheel to turn, and as a result of that, you go forwards.

Again, we probably didn’t need to include this info here, but it’s also worth a quick reminder before we move on. Besides, you’d be surprised to learn just how many people don’t know how their bikes work (which is baffling to us).

Who Invented Bike Chains?

Let’s take a quick detour before moving on and provide more behind bike chains — or more specifically, who invented them.

The earliest chain-based tech we know of was created by one Leonardo Da Vinci (yes, that Da Vinci), which goes all the way back to the 15th century. Without his work, there’s no telling how long it might have taken to get out on two-wheels.

It took around close to 400 years for his ideas to transition into something that somewhat resembles the bikes we know and love today.

You see, bikes were limited by the materials/advancements in technology that we have today. Bikes before the 1880s were in their infancy, and the common drivetrain wasn’t a thing up until that point.

One J.K Starley is credited as the originator of the bike chain thanks to an invention he called ‘The Rover’ back in 1885. This was the first bicycle with a chain connected to the back wheel, which not only made it easier to ride, but safer too.

The penny-farthing, or high-wheel bike as it’s otherwise known, were very common modes of transport back then, but the large wheel made for a somewhat dangerous experience. Starley’s bike made both wheels the exact same size.

Early bike chains were incredibly heavy and not at all like the ones we have in the modern day.

bike chain on workshop table Without a chain, your bike is just two wheels and a frame

The Two Main Types of Bike Chains

Not every bike chain is compatible with every type of bicycle — this is something that we’ll be covering more as we look at road bike chains, electric bike chains and gold bike chains (yes, we’re going to cover those too).

Know that there are two main bike chains of note:

  1. One-Speed Chains
  2. Derailleur Chains

Both act very differently to one another, despite looking the same for the most part. One is better for multi-gear bikes, others, single speed. Which you choose will depend entirely on the bike you own or the bike you have your eye on.

Should we look at both of them in greater detail?

One-Speed Chains

One-speed chains are very common and can be found on most bicycles you come across. They are designed for bikes with one sprocket on the crankset and second sprocket on the wheel itself. The width of these bike chains are typically 1/8″ wide — or 3.3mm.

We should note that one-speed chains were not designed to shift on the multiple rear cog sets of derailleur bikes, meaning you can’t use these types of links on those types of bikes.

The hint is in the name, a one-speed bike chain will allow you to do just that: travel at a single speed. Some of the most common single speed bikes that we can think of are those tourist bikes you might rent when abroad — aka, city bikes.

How Long Does A One-Speed Chain Last?

Most cycling experts suggest that you can get around 1,000 miles total out of a single one-speed chain, as long as you are keeping it clean and maintained.

Dirt will cause the chain to degrade a lot quicker, so it’s important that you run routine maintenance on your chain and the accompanying drivetrain. Bike lube should do the trick, but not before you clean the chain first with a rag of some kind.

Derailleur Chains

Now that you know what a one-speed chain is and how it works, understanding what the opposite bike chain does should be a piece of cake.

These bike chains (Derailleur chains) were designed to move from sprocket to sprocket, allowing the rider to switch gears seamlessly while travelling. With this chain type, there are a lot more options to pick and choose from, and which you choose will depend on how the bike and how many gears it has.

Rear cog sets have been made with 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, or 12 sprockets — as in, the number of cogs on the rear hub total. We should point out that the more sprockets there are, the narrower the chain gets overall.

Here’s a quick breakdown of chain widths for reference:

  • 12 rear cogs: 5.3 mm
  • 11 rear cogs: 5.5 mm
  • 10 rear cogs: 6 mm
  • 9 rear cogs: 6.5 to 7 mm
  • 6, 7, and 8 rear cogs: 7 mm

Here’s an important note: the chain you choose must take into account the front chainrings. This is because front cranksets are also designed with varying speeds in mind, which does alter the chains from size to size.

Derailleur chains do vary in plate shape, height and size, meaning every chain will feel different when in use as you switch gears.

A more expensive chain typically yields the strongest results as the quality of steel used is a lot more durable in contrast. The rivets used in these chains tend to be a lot harder, capable of absorbing more wear and tear as you cycle around.

Perfect for mountainbikes, given the amount of stress your chain could be under when riding around in the great outdoors.

How Long Does A Derailleur Chain Last?

Again, how long a chain lasts for will depend on what you do to keep it in good knick. That being said, a Shimano chain — one of the leading bike chain brands — has been known to last a lot longer compared to some of the other brands out there.

We’ve heard cyclists state that they’ve gotten anywhere up to 3,500 miles out of a single chain before needing a replacement, which is a lot of ground covered when you stop and think about it.

Of course, riding conditions, maintenance and brand will have an impact on how long it lasts, but this is something you can research yourself. Asking an expert at your local bike store is a great shout.

Online forums and reviews tend to be quite hit or miss when we’ve purchased bike chains in the past.

close up of wheel Some bikes will require one-speed chains, others a Derailleur chain

Choosing The Right Bike Chains

In this section we’ll be helping you find the right bike chain for you, by looking at the various types of bicycles there are available. We’re hoping that by breaking down each chain based on the bike it links with, you then gain a better understanding of what to look out for.

Remember, the bike chains you choose should take into account the type of bike you own, and there are various bike types out there (mountain bikes, road bikes, electric bikes, BMX bikes, etc etc).

Let’s begin with road bike chains.

Road Bike Chains

Road bikes, as in those you see racing in the Tour De France, can be kinda tricky to buy for in terms of the best chains. After all, not every road bike is the same — some have 9 sprockets, others up to 12.

The distance between sprockets matters here as you will need to consider the speed element too. You see, the gap will be wider on say, a 9-speed block over an 11-speed one.

The wrong road bike chain here could spell disaster, which might suck if you’re planning on entering any races and haven’t left enough time to get a new one.

E4TP Recommends: Wippermann Connex 10S0

Mountain Bike Chains

Mountainbike chains are very similar to road bike chains, in that the number of sprockets you see should determine which chain is the right fit. Most mountain bikes you come across are 10, 11 and 12 speed, but it’s still worth checking first.

To work out how many gears, or speeds, your bike has, simply count the number of gears on the rear cassette and multiply it by the number of chainrings on the front. From there you should be able to pick the right chain!

Try to choose a chain from a reputable manufacturer. Mountain bikes tend to get battered about a lot more compared to every other bike, meaning your chain needs to be as durable as it can be.

Choosing a cheap chain and having it break when you’re in the middle of nowhere is less than ideal…

E4TP Recommends: KMC DLC12 12 Speed Bike Chain

BMX Chains

BMX chains are a little different compared to the others we’ve already covered.

Like standard bikes, there are two types of BMX chain in traditional and half-link. The latter allows riders to be a lot more specific with how they position their bike fit for riding, whereas traditional is more in line with the above bike chains.

That was a brief summary of the differences between the two. Let’s break it down a little further:

  • Traditional BMX Chains: Chains that use the same inner link-outer link configuration found in mountain bike chains and road bike chains.
  • Half-Link Chains: These bike chains have a thick and a thin end. Half-link chains have less material needed to shorten them, allowing riders more flexibility in their rear wheel position.

When it comes to BMX chain sizing, know that both traditional and half-link chains are set at the standard 1/8″ width. That being said, some riders actually prefer the 3/16″ chains (heavy-duty chains). Which you choose will depend on how you like to ride.

E4TP Recommends: Odyssey Bluebird BMX Chain

Electric Bike Chains

Electric bikes are a completely different beast, but you didn’t need us to tell you that.

These personal electric transporters make traversing concrete jungles a complete and total breeze. However, with all that power comes even greater responsible if we’re talking bike chains.

You see, e-bikes with mid-drive motors often need a special kind of chain, one capable of the stress imposed by the motor directly.

Bike Chain Fact: Mid-drive motors wear out the chain a lot faster than hub motor bikes. This is because mid-drive motors are built into the centre of the bikes frame, feeding power directly to where the chain and pedals are located.

There are benefits to riding around in a mid-drive e-bike, the most notable being: how balanced it feels given how the weight of the motor is distributed. Riding around in a mid-drive electric bike is said to feel a lot like a standard bike because of this reason.

So with that in mind, do electric bikes require a special type of bike chain?

Technically yes, but very few manufacturers craft bike chains just for power-assisted bicycles. A durable chain from the likes of Shimano should do the trick, chains that are hella strong and should be able to brace the power of the motor.

E4TP Recommends: Shimano CN-E6090 Bicycle Chain

Gold Bike Chains

We’ve reached the moment you’ve all been waiting for! Gold bike chains, let’s talk about them.

There’s a common theory out there that gold chains increase the performance of the bikes they’re wrapped around. We can see why someone might think that, but there aren’t that many differences to that of your standard silver option.

Gold bike chains aren’t even actual gold (you’d be surprised to learn how many think they are). No, no. These gold chains are simply a standard steel chain with a lavish coating.

In short, they can add a lot of character to a bike, but don’t increase the performance of your noble metal steed.

E4TP Recommends: SRAM XX1 Eagle Hollowpin 126 Links 12-Speed Chain

dirty yellow bike Ensure you keep your bike chain dry and lubed up to increase its lifespan

Links On Links: Bike Chains, The Definitive Guide

The connection between you and your bike is only as strong as the chain between your feet. Feel free to parrot this quote the next time you go out cycling with friends.

So, what have we learned today?

We’ve learned that there are various bike chains out there fit for multiple types of bikes (e.g. mountain bike chains, road bike chains, and electric bike chains). We now know that there are no real advantages to gold bike chains either — outside of helping you look incredibly slick as you travel.

How confident are you with going off on your own and buying the right bike chain for you and your bike on a scale of 1-10?

Leave us a comment below and tell us (1 being the least confident and 10 being the most).

Bike Chains FAQ

Who makes the best bike chains?

There are a bunch of quality bike chain manufacturers out there. Off the top of our head, Renold, Shimano, KMC Chain, SRAM and Wippermann are all worthy names. All sell a range of bike chains that should apply to all kinds of bikes, more or less.

How long does a bike chain usually last?

The answer to this question varies, as it depends on how you’re looking after the chain in question. If you’re running routine maintenance on the chain by keeping it clean and well lubricated, then you can easily get around 1,000 miles out of a one chain easily!

Why do bike chains fall off?

Your bike chain is probably falling off as it’s far too loose on the drivetrain. This might not be your fault, as the integrity of the chain (the chainring and cassette teeth specifically) will wear down over time and stretch, this creates additional slack within the chain. If this has happened then it might be time for a new one.

Can I get my bike chain wet?

If you’re asking us if you can cycle in the rain and not have to worry about rust, then the answer is yes, yes you can. Although, you should never leave your chain wet or dirty. It should only take you a couple of minutes to rub the chain down to dry it off. Leaving the chain wet will cause rust, there’s no question about that.

Are bike chains universal?

Unfortunately not. Not every chain will fit every bike you come across despite looking like it can. The sprockets found on a bicycle do vary, which means you need to consider that before you go buying the first chain you see. We know those gold bike chains look cool, but do they fit your bike? If they don’t then you might as well wear it around your neck, because it certainly isn’t going to get you from A) to B).

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