Bike Chain Types and How to Know Which One Your Set of Wheels Needs


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bike gear and chain

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There are many bike chain types available out there. Here is how you can know which chain types your bike needs.

Everyone that has a bike knows that there are different chain types. Knowing which kind to get for your bike is important if you want your bike to achieve peak performance. We will go over different types of bike chains so you can discover which type your bike needs.

THE ORIGINS OF BIKE CHAINS

rusty bike gear and chain

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The history of bike chains is an interesting one. You may be surprised to learn that the chain on your bike has its origins in the ‘Bush Roller Chain’ invented back in 1880. That chain still being in use today shows you how good the craftsmanship is. This chain will probably be used for decades to come.

It is called a roller chain because it is made up of cylindrical rollers that are connected with side links. There are gaps in between the rollers that fit into the teeth on a sprocket and help drive the bike. The bike chains today are made out of alloy steel to ensure the chains are strong, a design that is not that different from the roller chain’s beginnings.

An innovation in the late 1800s called the ‘Safety’ bike gave us a design that many bikes still use today. The safety aspect came in the form of the bike having a much lower frame than the comical-looking ones with outrageously large front wheels and tiny back wheels. Since it was difficult to get on and off those bikes, the safety bicycle was the start of everyday people riding bikes.

With the new bikes, there was greater control over speed, maneuvers, and braking. It sounds surprising, but those funny-looking bikes, called penny-farthing bikes, had no brakes! The bike chain that paved the way for modern single speed and multi-speed chains was the Bush Roller Chain. This new chain made it easy for anyone to ride a bike safely and easily, no matter if they were children or adults.

Single Speed and Multi-speed Chains

bike chain and gear

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For any bike out there, the chain is the heart of the vehicle. Without a chain, you will not go anywhere. Unlike a car engine, if your chain malfunctions, it will be an easy and inexpensive fix. The drive mechanism of a chain makes it a highly efficient power transfer system that can move you large distances fast, regardless if you are driving on flat roads or in rugged mountains. 

It is fascinating how integral the chain is to a bike. It connects the pedals, chain rings, sprockets, rear cassette, hubs, and cranks. Thanks to the chain, all that pedaling you do will convert your energy into forward movement. This is why you want to get the right chain type for your bike. There is no need to work harder at pedaling than you already need to!

Bike chains have a simple design, only needing one tool to both install and remove them. Bike chains can be separated into two major categories: single speed and multi-speed. 

A single speed chain is wider than a multi-speed chain, coming in at 1/8” in width. Given its width, it will not fit in a multi-speed freewheel and will have trouble getting through a derailleur cage. You will mostly find single speed chains on BMX bikes, children’s bikes, and coastal cruising bikes. This chain type has a pitch of 1/2” and indicates how long the links are. 

A multi-speed chain is narrower and comes in different lengths. The most common size you will come across for a multi-speed chain is 3/32” in width. You will find multi-speed chains on speed bikes and mountain bikes where you need to be able to chain the gears based on the difficulty of the terrain you are on. This type of bike chain also has a pitch of 1/2” like a single speed chain does. 

You will find greater flex on a multi-speed chain so that it can operate better with a derailleur system. Since the alignment on a multi-speed bike can be off by nearly three inches depending on which gear you are in, this kind of side-to-side flex is essential for the bike to function properly. Given the narrow chainrings on the freewheel, having a narrow chain is important so that gears can switch easily.

If you have a multi-speed bike, you will want to get a multi-speed chain. While it technically is possible to use a wider single speed chain, you will have to convert your multi-speed bike into a fixed gear bike given that a single speed chain is too wide to fit through the rear derailleur without getting stuck.

WEAR AND TEAR ON BIKE CHAINS

bike tools and gears

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It is inevitable that your chain will experience wear and tear. Normally around the 3,000-mile mark is when people start noticing their chains starting to wear out. If you find it difficult to keep track of this or do not trust yourself to be able to visually gauge wear on your bike’s chain, consider getting a wear gauge. 

With a gauge, you can see exactly how much wear your chain has. If you notice more than 0.5% of the chain worn away, it is time to get a new chain. If you think it will not be a big deal to keep wearing out your chain, you will start wearing out the rings and the rear cassette. The replacement costs for these are significantly higher than a bike chain replacement, so stay on top of your bike chain’s wear.

No matter what kind of bike chain you need and get, maintenance is a crucial aspect of caring for your bike. Even though a chain is solidly built most of the time, it will stretch and wear as time goes on. As it stretches, it will start skipping over the sprocket teeth, especially when it is under greater load pressure. This is the tell-tale sign that most people wait to see and hear before replacing a chain.

Besides checking if there is any wear on a chain, you should also check the chain’s length periodically and identify whether it has stretched or not.

If you want to perform a visual inspection of your bike’s chain, you can do so in the following way:

  • Put your bike up against a wall.
  • Shift your chain onto the smallest rear sprocket while having the chain sit on the biggest ring in the front.
  • Place the chain between your thumb and forefinger horizontal to the bike and pull it lightly towards you.
  • If you notice any movement in the bottom wheel of the rear derailleur, then that is an indicator that a replacement chain is necessary.

A more serious situation will be if you can pull the bike chain so far that you can see most or all of the sprocket tooth. If you find yourself in this unfortunate scenario, you will probably have to replace your cassette and rings. Save yourself the money and extra work by replacing your bike chain when the signs of wear begin to appear.

THE GARAGE DOOR OPENER CHAIN

There are times when you may find it necessary to create a longer chain. This would come in handy when making a long cargo trike or a bike that is unusually tall. You would take a single speed chain that is 1/8” in width and comes from a garage door opener. The reason you want to get it from there is that those chains are much longer than your standard single speed chains. 

An inexpensive chain link tool will make the process of creating this type of unique chain simple. If the chain is rusty, you are better off throwing it away. Your first thought may be to oil up a rusty old chain, but this may actually make it less efficient. There can be more wear on it and debris can get stuck to the oil. The only time when oiling a chain is worth considering is if your bike is constantly outside.

If you are someone that likes to get creative with their bikes, you can use a bike chain calculator to figure out what length your bike chain needs to be. Rather than trying to figure it out manually, take advantage of tools like this at your disposal so that you can avoid a headache in the future.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A BIKE CHAIN

A man installing a bike chain

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Now that you know the difference between the bike chain types available, there are a few things you should look out for when you want to buy a bike chain. Paying attention to these details will help you save time and money going forward.

  • Get a chain whose width is the same as the width your bike was designed to use. Your shifting performance can decrease if you use the wrong type of chain. It will switch gears slower because the chain will take longer to alternate between gears and settle into a new cog.
  • Spend a little extra money and avoid cheap chains. When it comes to bike chains, you get what you pay for. The cheaper ones have significantly less durability than the more expensive ones. A chain you pay more for will have a greater tolerance for various types of terrain, which is especially important for mountain bikes.
  • Check and see if you can use a standard universal chain tool or if the chain has its own special tool. Some more expensive chains come with their own tool, but the high price tag of the chains is usually too much for this to be any reconciliation, especially if you already have a bike chain tool.
  • As a general rule, avoid buying the expensive high-end chains unless you regularly compete in races. It will not be miles ahead of standard chains, but if you have the money for them, it will not hurt your performance. If you can only afford a regular-priced chain, you will be fine.
  • You will want to get a chain that works best with the number of speeds you have on your bike. Count how many gears you have on the back of your bike. This will indicate to you the chain to get. If you have a single speed bike, this is easy because there is one gear. If you have a multi-speed bike, you will need to get a chain that corresponds to the number of gears you have.

Wrapping Up

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Now that you know all about different bike chain types out there, you can make sure that you get the proper chain for your bike. Chains only need to be changed every few thousand miles unless you are putting them through very frequent strain. If you going by this advice, the rings and cogs on your bike will be going strong for decades to come.

The key takeaway, when it comes to bike chains, is getting a chain that is the correct width. It is easy to tell whether a bike is single speed or multi-speed bike. This means that getting the proper chain should be easily identifiable. Single speed bikes need a wide chain whereas multi-speed bikes require a narrow chain to account for the narrow spaces between the gears in the back of the bike.

Now you can take what you learned and apply it to your biking lifestyle and ride using a bike chain that gives you a smooth and easy ride.

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