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A buyer's guide to bike chains

Cyclist magazine
13 Jun 2021

A vital but often overlooked part of your bicycle’s drivetrain, the chain is actually its most crucial link

One of the things we love about bicycles is the way everything about them is functional, and just about every element is there, on display, for the whole world to see. Even the oily working bits are fully exposed, and none more so than the links that make up your chain.

Early pioneers of the safety bicycle would still recognise the design of the chain, albeit thanks to modern computer design and manufacturing technology, the size and detailing would probably blow their minds.

However, while the basic design has remained the same, the detailing of both the chain links and the corresponding contact points has been modified, fettled and fine-tuned to allow those narrower chains to also function better with less shifting force, more reliability, less friction and more speed, yet still stand the test of time.

They've also got ever narrower as more gears have been added to the rear cassette over the years. And it's the number of gears that you need yours to work with that dictates whether you'll be after a 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, or even 13-speed compatible option.

As with most things in life, the more you play, the more refinement and therefore performance you’ll get. Of course, a cheap but fresh and well-scrubbed chain is still preferable to a dirty or worn model costing ten times the price.

Here, then, is our guide to what you should be looking for when buying your next chain…

The best bike chains: Best 10-speed chains

Sram PC1051

Part of SRAM’s awe-inspiringly big range, the PC1051 is highly rated due to its proven durability. It’s on the second rung of the 10-speed offerings, thanks to its solid rivet pin and plate construction.

While designed for Sram groupsets, it’s compatible with Shimano too.

Wippermann Connex 10S0

Another long-standing name in chains, Wippermann has a tremendous reputation. The 10S0 is the cheapest in the German brand’s range of 10-speed offerings but nevertheless promises fast and precise shifting while also being long-lasting thanks to the hardened pins.

The best bike chains: Best 11-speed chains

Best money-no-object: KMC X11SL DLC

With the X11, KMC is getting seriously technical. Hollow inner and outer plates along with hollow pins shed vital grams and the whole thing has been given a hard surface coating (DLC) to increase wear-resistance to make it last longer.

Best all-round: Shimano 5800 105 11spd

Leaning heavily on its forerunners, the CN-HG600-11 is the cheapest of the Japanese manufacturer Shimano's offerings for 11-speed groupsets.

Like its big brothers, it gets asymmetric plates and a low-friction surface treatment to aid shift speed and reduce wear, in the form of its proprietary Sil-Tec coating.

Best for Campy users: Campagnolo Potenza 11spd

Campagnolo has taken a new approach with its latest cost-conscience groupset. Rather than have multiple offerings of chain, it has decided to make just one 11-speed version and use it across the lower three groupsets, which brings some level of cost-benefit as well as ensuring reliable performance.

The best bike chains: Best 12-speed chains

Best all-round: Sram Force 12spd

Being the first firm to offer a 12-speed groupset it only seems fair we include a model from Sram in your roundup of the best bicycle chains. Both notable for their distinctive flat-top profile, while you could spend more on its top-end Red model, you won’t miss much by opting for this slightly cheaper Force 12-speed chain.

Actually, whichever you pick you’ll find the chain is one of the few relatively affordable bits of the brand’s range of ultra-modern 12-speed drivetrains to replace.

Read our guide on how to oil a bike chain, best bike chain lube and the best bike cleaning kits

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