Which bike chains are best?

Other than your legs, the bike chain is one of the hardest working components on your bike. It’s also one that tends to get overlooked the most because of its long lifespan. However, after putting in a couple of thousand miles on your bike, you may start noticing the tension getting loose or it starting to rust. The Shimano Ultegra CN-6701 Chain is a heavy-duty option that allows cyclists to seamlessly switch gears at top speeds.

What to know before you buy a bike chain

Speed

When selecting your new bike chain, it’s essential that you match the number of gears on your bike to the speed or gears on the chain. By matching the two, you ensure the best fit and maximum performance. 

Bike chains use six speeds. However, contrary to common sense, instead of ranging from one to six, you’ll find them with speeds between six to 11. 

Chains are designed to move up or down along the rear cassette as you shift gears. That’s why each speed has a different width and gradually gets narrower the higher it gets. For example, a six-speed bike chain has a width of 7.8 mm, and an 11-speed chain has a width of 5.5 mm. 

If you enjoy biking on the road and mountains, you’re in luck. Both riding styles generally use the same speeds, so you can save money by using a single bike chain for either bike. 

Biking style

Most chains have features that make them more suitable for one riding style over another. While some chains can be used interchangeably, that may cause it to break down quicker. You can use many road chains on mountain bikes, but it may end up shortening the chain’s lifespan. 

With road bikes, the goal is to keep the weight as light as possible. However, that’s not suitable for mountain biking when you need a more durable chain that can handle all the dirt and debris it collects.  

Quick fixes and easy installation

Typically, bikes without derailleurs have a higher chance of getting a loose chain in the middle of a ride. Even if your bike has them, if the chain tension doesn’t seem right, it might be time to get your derailleurs replaced. 

In either case, the bike chain you select should be durable enough that it doesn’t stretch out too quickly. If you find the chain can’t hold the right tension or keeps falling off, it’s a sure sign that it’s time to start looking for a new one. 

Fortunately, most bike chains are relatively straightforward to install. However, if it’s your first or second time replacing a bike chain, it’s beneficial to use one that comes with missing links for a more rapid and user-friendly installation. 

What to look for in a quality bike chain

Material

When choosing your bike chain, you want one that uses material that can withstand friction for increased durability. In order to achieve this, manufacturers use alloy steel, titanium and nickel as chain materials. 

Of the three options, alloy steel is the most commonly used. It’s extremely versatile, durable and affordable for many bikers. If you want a more robust chain that can withstand miles of aggressive biking, titanium is the way to go. However, the increased strength comes with a high premium. 

Nickel-plated chains are the most expensive option, but they typically come with the benefit of high-quality rust protection. This makes them perfect for all biking styles, particularly mountain biking. 

Compatibility

Chain and gear compatibility varies with each brand. For example, while most brands work well together, if you pair a chain designed for a specific speed from one brand with gears designed for a different speed from another, it can result in decreased performance. 

Generally, it’s best to use the same brand for your chain and gears in order to get the most out of your chain.

Rust-resistant coating

Regardless of your biking preference, bike chains build up dirt and get rusty. It’s beneficial to select one that is nickel-plated or, at the very least, has a rust-resistant coating to extend the life of your bike chain.

How much you can expect to spend on bike chains

Depending on the size and material, you can expect to spend between $12-$86 on a quality bike chain. 

Best bike chains FAQ

How often should I lubricate my bike chain?

A. It depends on your riding frequency, conditions and maintenance routine. Cyclists who bike every day in muddy or rainy conditions may need to lubricate their bike chain after each ride. However, people who ride once a week in bright, sunny conditions may only need to lubricate it once a month. In order to avoid lubricating too much, you’ll know when it’s time by paying attention to any squeaking, grinding or creaking sounds. 

How long does a bike chain last?

A. Depending on your riding style, most will need to be changed every 2,000 to 3,000 miles. 

What’s the best bike chain to buy?

Top bike chain

SHIMANO Ultegra CN-6701 Chain

Shimano Ultegra CN-6701 Chain

What you need to know: This durable and lightweight bike chain is made from zinc-alloy steel and ideal for those who want a smoother ride and mountain biking experience.

What you’ll love: Cyclists will experience smooth shifting at high speeds, thanks to the enhanced designs of the inner and outer plates and the HyperGlide system. The chain comes at a standard length of 116 links and is designed for 10-speed bikes.

What you should consider: It requires a chain breaker to install. 

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon and Backcountry

Top bike chain for the money

KMC Z72 Bike Chain

KMC Z72 Bike Chain

What you need to know: This is a budget-friendly option for any rider with a six- to eight-speed bike who is looking for a steady, quiet ride. 

What you’ll love: The standard 116 links are used in the construction of this steel chain, and the missing link system makes it one of the easiest to install. Even though it’s made from alloy steel, this chain is relatively lightweight at only 12.8 ounces. KMC created a product with most of the high-quality features and finishes you’d find in more expensive chains at almost half the cost. 

What you should consider: It may not be as durable as higher-priced chains.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Worth checking out

KMC X10SL Silver Bike Chain

KMC X10SL Silver Bike Chain

What you need to know: If you prefer a super-light bike chain with incredible durability, this is the one for you.

What you’ll love: It’s compatible with Shimano or SRAM 10-speed systems. It’s nickel-plated to help resist corrosion and abrasion. 

What you should consider: This is a high-quality chain that commands a premium on the more expensive end. 

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

 

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Christopher Lee writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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