What mountain bike chain do you need?

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The chain of a mountain bike is one of the most important parts of the bicycle as it transfers the power from the paddle to the wheels. Since the chain of your mountain bike is handling all the paddling power and pushing the bike forward it wouldn’t come as a surprise that the chain of your mountain bike needs regular care and maintenance. But most of the riders don’t have enough knowledge about chains in fact majority of riders think that all chains are the same. But in reality, there are different types of chains available and all of them have different applications.

The correct type of chain that will best suit your mountain bike depends on the type of riding your bike made for and the number of gears it has. The manufacturer of the chain you pick can also make some difference when it comes to proper fitting and power delivery because cassettes made by some companies such as Campagnolo don’t sit well with chains from other manufacturers. But you should be able to fit chains from most manufacturers on your bike as long as the chain is made from good quality material and matches the number of sprockets in your bike’s rear cassette. Some mountain bikes have 9, 10, 11 and sometimes even 12 sprockets in their rear cassette and length of chain for each of these bikes will be different. Whenever you are getting a chain for your mountain bike, make sure to get a new one instead of buying a used one because chains are often replaced when they have completed their working lifecycle and if you get a used chain you might end up with a failed chain or one that is close to failing.

You can find mountain bike chains with different specifications and lengths at a wide price spectrum. Therefore selecting the correct length for your mountain bike chain can become a bit tricky with so many different options available. If you fail to get the correct type of chain that is best suited with your mountain bike it can make the ride rougher, noisier, and less enjoyable. That is why we are going to explain everything you need to know so you can pick the best kind of chain for your mountain bike.

How to choose the best chain for your mountain bike?

Below are some steps that you can follow to find out the best fitting chain for your mountain bike, so make a pen and paper ready to note down all the information you need:

  • Finding out the number of gears on your bike

If you don’t know the number of gears your mountain bike has, you can easily find out by taking a look at the rear cassette of your bike. Pay attention to how many sprockets the rear cassette of your mountain bike has. The total number of sprockets in your bike’s rear hub will tell you how many gears your bike has. The majority of modern mountain bikes come with at least 11 sprockets in the rear cassette which means they have 11 gears. But in older bikes, this number can be as low as 5 or 8.

  • Determine the manufacturer of your mountain bike’s drivetrain

As we mentioned earlier not all mountain bikes cassettes are created equal and some brands of cassettes will only work well with a certain type of chain. So to find you the manufacturer of your cassette system, take a look at the rear gearing mechanism of the mountain bike and you should be able to see the name of the manufacturer on it. Once you have determined the manufacturer of your mountain bike’s gearing system you can write it down or take a picture of the mechanism to help you in buying the correct chain for your mountain bike.

  • Know the length of your mountain bike chain

The length for the chain of your mountain bike depends on the kind of riding it is designed to handle because mountain bikes are designed for different purposes and the size of their gears is also different to tackle the specific type of riding. For example, if you have a downhill mountain bike its gears will be smaller to allow the rider to paddle faster when going downhill because a smaller gear can spin faster. Similarly, if you have a mountain bike specifically designed for climbing then the size of its gears will be larger to make the climb easier. So the length of the chain for a mountain bike with smaller gears will be shorter than the one with bigger gears.

  • Determine the correct material for your mountain bike chain

Again the types of materials you need in your mountain bike’s chain depend on how you plan to use it. When you go shopping for mountain bike chains you will get to know that almost all of them are made from steel alloy as a standard. But some of the chains come with chrome, nickel, and even titanium plating for added durability. The added plating on top of the chain is helpful if you are planning on putting some serious tension on your mountain bike’s chain by riding it in harsh conditions such as steep rocky terrains. But with added protection comes extra cost and reinforced chains are generally more expensive as compared to standard none plated ones. So unless you are planning to do some serious shredding, a steel alloy chain will do just fine.

  • Color of the chain

For the style, the look of their mountain bike matter as much as the functionality to some conscious riders. So to give your bike a uniform look, you can even select a specific color for the chain of your mountain bike.

Once you have collected all this information, you can combine all the points to determine which chain fits all of the above-mentioned requirements perfectly. Selecting a chain that is perfectly aligned with your riding style and your bike’s transmission will make you want to ride your bike a lot more as it’ll feel smoother.

What are the main types of mountain bike chains?

The basic function of all kinds of mountain bike chains is to transfer energy from the paddles to the rear wheels to make the bike move. Almost all bike chains consist of steel plates that are connected with the help of rivets. But the major difference lies in what kind of transmission the chain is going to be used in. Two major types of chains are; one-speed chains and Derailleur chains. Both of them can only be used for the type of transmission they are designed for.

  • One speed chains: As the name suggests one-speed chains are designed to fit a bike with just one gear. One speed bikes contain only one big sprocket in the front that is attached to the paddle and a smaller one attached in the hub of the rear wheel. The length of a link in a one-speed chain is 9 millimeters from rivet to rivet and they are 3.3 millimeters in width. But some single-speed chains that have been designed to be used in more extreme conditions can be wider than 3.3 millimeters to reduce the friction that is produced between the chain and the sprockets during rough paddling.
  • Derailleur Chains (Multi-gear chains): Most modern bikes come with Derailleur transmission which allows the biker to shift from one gear to another according to the requirement of the ride. But the thing with derailleur chains is that since the chain has to shift from one gear to another there is very little spacing between the different gears and the chains for derailleur transmission are narrower compared to one-speed chains. Links of a derailleur chain are longer than the links of a single-speed chain and each link is half an inch or around 12.7 mm in length and this length is standard in all derailleur chains because a majority of manufacturers make their transmission to fit this standard chain size. With the increase in the number of gears, the width of the chain reduces significantly as you can see below:
  • A mountain bike with 12 gears will have the narrowest chain of all at 5.3 mm.
  • A mountain bike with 11 gears will have a chain width of 5.5 mm.
  • A mountain bike with 10 gears will have a chain width of 6 mm.
  • A mountain bike with 9 gears will have a chain width of around 7 mm.

Any bike with less than 8 gears will usually have a 7mm wide chain since there is not a lot of spacing between the gears below the 9-speed transmission.

When choosing the correct width chain for your mountain, bike you should also pay attention to the front sprocket that is attached to the paddle along with the rear cassette. The chain will also shift from one sprocket to the other in the front crankset when the gears are shifted, so the chain’s width should be according to the spacing between the sprockets at the front crankset to prevent the chain from getting stuck in the space between the sprockets. Just like the spacing between the rear sprockets in a derailleur drivetrain reduces with the increase in gears, the same happens at the front crankset as well.  

When to replace the mountain bike chain?

Mountain bike chains wear out over time and need to be replaced after regular intervals to avoid getting stuck in the middle of the trail. There is no fixed amount of distance provided by the chain manufacturers after which you have to change your mountain bike chain so you have to keep an eye out for the signs of wear and tear on your mountain bike chain to know when it needs replacing. Below are some telltale signs that will let you know when it is time to buy a new set of chains for your mountain bike.

  • Difficulty in shifting gears of the bike and rough paddling

If your mountain bike is skipping gears or it is getting stuck between gears, then this might indicate that your mountain bike’s chain is at the end of its lifespan and needs replacement.

  • 2000 mile rule

Although the companies that manufacture mountain bike chains don’t give a rule of thumb for when to replace the chain, replacing the chain of a mountain bike every 2000 miles is a generally accepted rule in the community. Since mountain bike chains suffer a lot more abuse compared to regular bikes, a rider who rides in really intense muddy conditions and doesn’t lube the chain often might have to change his bike’s chain much earlier. So if your mountain bike has gone over 2000 miles with a chain, it might be a good time to replace it.

  • Your mountain bike’s drivetrain components are wearing out quickly

If your bike’s chainring and cassette are wearing out way too fast and show signs of damage it might be due to a worn-out chain. A worn-out chain will put more strain on your bike’s drivetrain and it will cause the mechanism to wear out earlier than it should. Drivetrain components are meant to last a lot longer than the chain so regularly replacing the chain can save you some serious bucks in the form of a longer-lasting drivetrain mechanism.

  • Your chain has stretched longer than when it was new

The most scientific and accurate way to know if you need to replace your mountain bike chain or not is by checking if it has “chain stretch” or not. The best way to check if your mountain bikes chain has stretched or not is by measuring it from one rivet to another one that is a complete 12 inches away. As we mentioned earlier a new chain’s link is half an inch in length so when you measure the chain with a ruler, the 12-inch marker should be exactly aligned with the rivet that is 12 inches away from the rivet at 0 inches marker. If the chain has stretched slightly more than 12 inches than it is an indicator that your chain is going to need replacing.

  • The sidewalls of your mountain bike’s chain have worn out

Some riders who ride their mountain bike with less torque may end up stretching their chain from side to side instead of rivet to rivet. The reason for this is because a chain is not being pulled by the teeth of the sprocket as much.  It will end up sitting on the sprocket for longer periods and this can wear out the walls of the chain. With the chain getting wider, it is much easier for it to get stuck while shifting because there isn’t enough room for the chain between the gears to fit a wider chain. So if you notice that your mountain bike’s chain hasn’t stretched in length but the shifting is laggy, there is a good chance that your bike’s chain has worn from sides.

An extremely worn out chain will start to show its impact on the drivetrain and the teeth of the sprockets will show signs of damage and at this point, you will have to replace other drivetrain parts along with the chain. So if you see any sign of chain wear it might be a good idea to replace it because replacing a chain is a lot cheaper than replacing the whole shifting mechanism.

Ways to make your mountain bike’s chain last longer

  • Keep the chain of your mountain bike clean

Keeping the chain clean is a great way to reduce wear and tear of the chain as well as your bike’s shifting mechanism.

  • Keep the chain of your mountain bike well lubricated

A well-lubricated chain will keep your ride smooth not to mention it will reduce friction between the chain and the sprockets. So it is a good idea to use any good quality bike chain lube to keep your chain lubricated and make sure to wipe the excess lube off to avoid collecting dirt on the chain after you are done lubricating.

  • Replacing the Cassette and the crankset of the drivetrain regularly

Just like a worn-out chain can damage the drive train components of your mountain bike, a worn-out shifting mechanism can also wear out your bike’s chain quickly. So if the teeth of your mountain bike’s front or rear sprocket have started to appear less pointy or they have started to look hook-shaped then it is a sign that you need to replace them.

Conclusion:

Paying attention to your mountain bike chain’s condition can save you the trouble of being stranded with a broken or stuck chain. While the type of chain that is best suited for your mountain bike depends on the type of shifting mechanism and the number of gears your bike has, the indicators of a worn-out chain are usually the same on all kinds of mountain bikes.