I’ve received conflicting recommendations as to what chain brand to use and why. Are there any meaningful differences between chains and does the chain you use really matter?
Sean , TN
A bike is a sum of its parts and it only takes one of those parts not interacting well with the others for the bike not to work well. Your chain is at the heart of your drivetrain and is absolutely crucial to powering your bike forward and to shifting performance. Therefore, with chains, compatibility and durability are a must and mechanical serviceability is a consideration as well. In other words, what chain you use can really matter.
Compatibility: One would think that chain compatibility would be as simple as finding a chain that is made for the same number of gears you have on your rear cassette. There was a time when that was pretty much true. However, with the advent of the 10 speed drivetrain found on most road and tri bikes today, tolerances and spacing became so tight that chains become more brand specific. Shimano and SRAM ten speed compatible chains tend to be very close to 5.9mm wide while Campagnolo 10 speed compatible chains are a little wider at 6.1mm. While 0.2mm is a pretty small number, it can be a meaningful number. At certain chain angles, if your chain is too wide or too narrow for the drive train it is being used on, the likelihood of the chain catching on the other teeth in the drivetrain and creating skipping, noise or inconsistent operation will be higher.
If you want guaranteed compatibility, you should keep the brand of chain the same as that of your derailleurs and shift levers as components within a brand are designed as a system to work best together. This being said, as long as dimensions are very similar to each other, chain brands are usually interchangeable and some brands may have advantages (see “serviceability” below) worth considering. SRAM 10 speed chains share the same width as Shimano, and therefore usually work interchangeably. Wippermann makes two widths of their Connex chains with “S” labeled models (10SO, for example) being designed to be compatible with Shimano and non-S series (1008, for example) chains being designed to work with Campagnolo.
(Tech Update: As of 9/07, all common 10 speed chains measure between 5.95mm and 6.1mm and should be universally compatibile between brands. Some Wippermann Connex links interfere with some 11 tooth lockrings, but Wippermann is now only producing “S” chain models and all are universal to SRAM, Shimano or Campagnolo.)
Durability: The old adage of a chain only being as strong as its weakest link is true; all it takes is one pin or link to fail and your bike will come to a stop in a hurry. Usually, this weakest link is the chain’s master link or pin, which can sometimes be compromised at installation or simply may not be as strong as the permanent links surrounding it. All of the chains from the established builders are reliable; however, if you have to pick a weakest link, the master pins that Shimano chains use seem to be a bit more finicky than the rest. This being said, we still recommend Shimano chains frequently as they shift exceptionally well when used with other Shimano components and the failure rate, when properly installed, is still quite low.
When it comes to how long the chain lasts, every rider has their own maintenance and wear patterns that affect the stretch and service life of their chain. The cleaner and better lubricated you keep your drivetrain, the longer the chain will last. This being said, I’ve seen powerful riders stretch 10 speed chains to the point of needing replacement in less than 1200 miles while lighter riders can often go well above 2000 miles. Higher quality chains will often use nickel or even stainless steel in their construction to increase resistance to stretching and some models even offer weight saving features like hollow pins. Wippermann offers the broadest range of material and coating options – even offering a titanium chain for those looking for a way to dispose of $400 on a part that needs replacing regularly.
Serviceability: If you only remove your chain to replace it, ease of removal will not matter much; however, if you like to remove your chain for cleaning or servicing, some chains are easier than others. 9 and 10 speed chains made by Wippermann offer a removable and reusable “Connex” link while SRAM chains offer a removable and reusable “PowerLink” on their 9 speed chains and a single time use “PowerLink” on their 10 speed chains. SRAM says that a reusable “PowerLink” could not be made strong enough in a 10 speed width and thus their 10 speed “PowerLink” is permanent. Shimano and Campagnolo chains attach with special single use pins and Campagnolo says that their pin has to be installed with their special (and pricey) chain breaker. While this is debatable, you can replace Campagnolo and Shimano’s one-time use pins with a replaceable aftermarket master link (like Forster’s “SuperLink”) that allows you to remove the chain without having to install a new pin. Forster also makes a replaceable “SuperLink” to replace SRAM’s one time use “PowerLink”. There are a few models of “SuperLink” available and it is important to use a model that is compatible with your chain.
The roller chain design used on bicycles has been around for well over one hundred years and its roots can even be traced all the way back to DaVinci. Centuries later, no one has come up with a design that transfers human power more efficiently. A modern roller chain is simple and also technical at the same time. The chamfered plates and subtle details that make-up a modern bicycle chain are a significant reason why modern index shifting works so well and why 10 speed rear cassettes can exist and work so well. As chain technology has evolved, and more brands have entered the market, so has the importance of addressing compatibility with the rest of your components as well as considering how your chain addresses durability and serviceability.
Enjoy the ride and train hard and smart!
originally published July 2007/Copyright © 2007