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Bicycle Chain Size Chart (Illustration)

Here's a closer look at the bicycle chains including their different types, components, sizes, and tolerances to help you pick the right one for your bike. We've also included a guide on how to put a new chain and how to check for wear to ensure you'll bike will be in its tiptop shape.

Closeup of a bicycle chain.

Any bike enthusiast will tell you that the bike chain is one of the most important components of the bicycle. The wrong type of bicycle chain will make or break the journey, and could seriously injure you. The most important things to look for when you are looking for bicycle chains are the size in length, their coating, and some manufacturing differences.

Your bike will come with a chain, but if you love biking, you will need to replace it at some point. Follow this guide to learn more about the types of bicycle chains, and how to get the right one for a good ride every time.

Components of Bicycle Chains

Closeup of bicycle parts.

The most common parts of bicycle chains are side links, cylindrical rollers, and roller chains. A roller chain is the part that works the most on the bike. Your legs when biking will move the roller chain between the different crank components and the sprocket in the front. These chains are held together by the side links and the rollers.

The most important things you will see when shopping for bike chains include the coatings, what they are made of, and what the manufacturers do to them to make them work.

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Bicycle Chain Coatings

Man applying lubricant on bike chain.

Bicycle material are an important part of the bicycle chain. These will be greased and oiled, and need to be made of a material that can withstand coatings over time. The material of the chain is going to be a driver in the price of the chain.

The most common material used for bicycle chains is stainless steel, and some chains will have metal hardenings on them to withstand the grease and oil that comes with a bike chain. It is hard to say which is the best, because each brand has as its mission the goal of making the best coating for bike chains. That is how important this part of the bicycle chain is.

These chains are marketed in a way that will tell you what is on the chain, and that is about it, and the coatings are marketed as competitively. You’ll see nickel plated or hard stainless steel terms that will tell you the quality the manufacturer wants you to think it is. The goal of the chain coating is to be wear-resistant, while also being able to handle grease and oil that comes with a bike chain.

A liquid coating that you use regularly can be purchased separately. You want something that will not attract dirt easily. The drier coatings such as wax or Teflon will be the easiest to keep clean.

If you don’t know already, keeping your chain clean will be an integral part of bicycle chain maintenance. Your chains need to be cleaned before you coat them and you will need to wipe them dry when you are done. Alternatively, you can change your chain frequently in order to maintain the chain if you are using chains that are affordable.

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Manufacturing Tolerances

This refers to crossing brands when you are working with bike components. Bike riders will do this for affordability. Most manufacturers will not want you to do this, obviously, because they want you to keep spending money with them. But when you are revamping your own bike, you want it to be the best, at the best price.

You can safely mix brands on eight, nine, 10, and 11-speed bikes if they have the proper amount of cog counts that you need for your chain. Some riders will even get chains that are a speed higher than the speed their bike is designed for. Before you mix brands, check for manufacturing tolerances.

Sizes of Bike Chains

The size of the bike chain may be the factor in the bike chain that you spend the most amount of time researching. An average bike chain will be approximately 116 links, but they will have a lot of moving parts that you need to understand if you are an avid rider. You will need a chain that matches the same number of bike gears that you have.

That means that the chain needs to be the long enough to be shifted without jamming. Too long will give the chain slack that could slow you down, or worse, cause an accident. There are bike chain charts, and ways to determine what size of chain that you need.

Things to keep in mind here are link length, total length, internal width and external width. The average link length is one-half an inch and that is a standard today. The total length is measured by the number of links.

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The best way to determine the length of chain that you will need is by checking the old chain, and matching accordingly. You can also use the  numbers on the sprockets and cogs to determine length. These will be printed on the parts of the bike.

Measure how long the distance is between the crank’s middle and the rear of the axle to get a length. You can also count the number of teeth in the sprockets to determine the length of the chain.

How to Put on a New Chain

Man putting on a new bike chain.

It is not that hard to put a new bike chain on, and you will be a pro at it after a few attempts. Sometimes you can reassemble a chain, and other times you will have to buy a new one. You may want to get in the habit of keeping spare chain links around so that when the time comes, you have something on hand if you need a spare link.

You want to start by making sure the chain rings are not missing any teeth.

If your bike chain is not in terrible shape, shift the rear derailleur into its high gear, and the front derailleur into the low gear. You should see both of your derailleurs hovering over the drivetrain. This will minimize the tension that your chains and cables are feeling.

Work from the back to the front, pulling the bicycle chain back like a bow and arrow, and putting it into the pulley. When it is hanging over the high gear, lay the chain along the teeth of the bike, working from the back to the front. When it is in the proper position, you can pull any slack from it over the front of the chain ring.

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From here, you can work on ensuring the teeth fit into the links of the bike chains. After you have done that, you can pedal the bike a few feet to ensure the chain is secure. Don’t touch the drivetrain of the bicycle while the chain is moving. Make sure that you change the gears back to normal before you hit the trails. Test the bike chain on a low gear before you go for your normal rides.

You will know right away if the length of the chain is good or not. You can adjust by adding links, if you kept a spare around, or removing them as needed. You also need to make sure your limit screws are tight enough, but not too tight. Too loose and the chain system goes slack, and too tight will put pressure on the chain that could ruin your entire chore. You can check this by shifting into higher gears and adding the pressure you need to see if the chain falls off. Tighten or loosen as necessary.

How to Check for Chain Wear

Man checking for chain wear.

When you have signs of chain wear, it is time to get a new chain. Or, replace the old one. Chain wear is also known as chain stretch.

Chain wear occurs when the material from the pins of the chain begins to wear down. This is caused by pedalling sometimes, but also from the stretch of spacing between links on a chain that occurs with normal wear and tear. When this happens, the length of a chain will grow and the links won’t fit on the bike anymore.

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Using the bike anyway with the same chain will result in possibly damaging the sprockets and the derailleurs. Pedalling at this point will lead the chain to slide over the teeth and into the next position on the sprocket. That will weaken the performance of the bike, and, possibly damage the bike all together.

You can prevent this by maintaining and lubricating your bike chain regularly. The chain of a bike is weakened when it is dirtier. Your chain will last as long as you maintain it. The load of the bike, weight on the bike, and even speed you typically ride will not have as much of an impact on what happens to your chain as the maintenance you give to your chain.

Love your bicycle chain, and your chain will love you back for a very long time. Stainless steel chains are recommended, but nickel-plated chains are also very effective in lasting for your bicycle. When your bike chain undergoes wear and tear, it will grow, and not shrink. If you see it moving even one-sixteenth of an inch in length, it is time to consider getting a new chain.

You have to be careful about maintaining the chain with the right timing, because the sprockets on the bike will be the first thing to go after the chain if you do not perform regular maintenance here.

Still, replacing the cassettes of the sockets and the chainrings can be just as easy as replacing the bicycle chain, and less expensive. If you find that your chain is skipping, even after you have replaced it with a new chain, you should be checking the teeth of the bike sprockets because they may have some wear and tear on them that needs tending to.  Replacing bike sprockets can be affordable if you do your research, but it is overall less expensive than buying a new bike as they can run expensive if you aren’t sure what you are looking for.

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