Cycling Accessories

Are Bicycle Chains Universal?

This post may contain affiliate links, which help to keep Discerning Cyclist rolling. Learn more.

Much like there are more than one type of bicycle, there is more than one type of chain. Given the importance of its function of transferring power from the pedals to the drive-wheel at the rear of the bicycle, you need to ensure you have the correct one working for you.

Do All Bike Chains Fit All Bikes?

No. Not all makes and models of bike chains fit on all bikes. Most modern bike chains are made to the one-half inch pitch, but this dosn’t mean all chains fit all bikes.

In order to be as effective as possible, a chain must be suited to the type of bicycle being ridden. There are different types across the cycling disciplines. A chain used for track cycling on a velodrome is not best suited to a BMX. And we must consider the length and width needed to ride well.

Types of Bicycle Chains

There are two main types of traditional bike chains: single speed chains and derailleur chains.

The average discerning cyclist will come across one-speed chains and derailleur chains. Those with an eye for the aesthetic and design of a belt-driven bicycle will be ingrained with the knowledge of their benefits and pitfalls. Let’s break down the component parts of a standard chain.

There are four parts to a bicycle chain. The roller, the pins or rivets, the outer plates and the inner plates. The inner and outer plates have two holes to make it look like a wider, graphic number eight.

The chain consists of multiple pairs of outer plates and inner plates held together by rivets. The roller separates each pair of inner plates. The pin or rivet is driven in to be pressed tightly through the outer plates with as little protrusion as possible.

The rivet is free to pivot on the roller and the inner plates. 

A punch press is used to convert sheet steel into the inner and out plates. Heat treatment will then harden the steel. Afterwards they are prepared and polished for additional treatment to assist in the resistance to corrosion and to support smooth running. 

These coatings will be more effective as you move through the price range. You can pay as little as £4 / $5 or as much as £100 / $136. 

A chain will on average last you between 2,000 miles / 3,218 kilometres and 3,000 miles 4,828 kilometres depending upon how you ride and in what type of condition or terrain. 

The majority of modern bicycle chains that are manufactured have a 0.5 inch / 1.27 cm distance or ‘pitch’ between the centre of one rivet and another. This is standardised in order that the teeth of your crankset and teeth of your sprockets on the rear wheel can be cut to accept this chain and run as smoothly as possible.

Component manufacturers can tinker with their designs in order to get one up on the competition as well as ensuring you return to them for a replacement. They can be recycled if you carry out your own repairs.

It does make sense to stick to the same type of chain that arrived with your new bicycle, or at least from the same manufacturer if you are considering an upgrade. Home maintenance through regular cleaning and lubrication is essential.

Your correspondent rides a road bike and a gravel bike. Each has their chain checked for signs of a gritty paste build up every ride. Combine your pedal stroke with grinding friction of this paste on your metal chain and it will wear itself and the more expensive components it serves down more quickly.

Each chain has a deep clean every second or third ride. This involves a car-wash style rotation through a handheld device, drying and the application of a dot of lubrication on each of the over one hundred rivets. 

One Speed Chains 

A one-speed chain is engineered for a bicycle which gets its forward motion from a single sprocket on the rear wheel and a crankset which usually features a larger number of teeth. It is not designed to work on a bicycle with a derailleur. They are made for single-speed bicycles or those with rear hubs containing internal gears. 

The roller width is usually one-eighth of an inch or 3.3 millimetres thick. The one speed chain is also referred to as the ‘eight-inch’ chain.

Maintaining our theme that different machines are designed to do different things and with different parts, there are some freestyle BMX chains which use a wider chain of three-sixteenths of an inch or 4.8 millimetres thick. The machine, which includes a wider sprocket to accommodate the chain, is designed to have a longer life due to the wear these bicycles get from being used for a trick called a grind. 

Derailleur Chains

As we add more sprockets to the rear wheel we create a cassette and our chain needs to shift up and down from one to the other. 

As well as operating with the rear, the chain must work in conjunction with the chain set as usual. Introduce multiple chainrings to the front and you multiply the problems of the chain slipping through the two rings when moving from one to another.

Starting with the rear cassette, the number of individual sprockets have been designated to equate with the ‘speed’ of the bicycle. We hear of a 10 speed bicycle or the same machine doubled-up to a 20 speed bicycle. We talk less of 20 geared machines. As the number of sprockets increases the fight for space on the cassette and freewheel, so the chain gets narrower.

How Do I Know What Bike Chain Size I Need?

Bike Chain Size Calculator 

You can find out by entering some essential information into the calculator below. You need to have a steady eye to count the number of teeth on your largest chainring and number of teeth on the largest sprocket.

You should be able to find your chainstay length online, but if not you should take the length from the centre of the bottom bracket axle to the centre of the rear wheel axle in millimetres.

Chain Length Calculator

Does It Matter What Chain You Put on a Bike?

Yes. A chain that is too long will cause inaccurate gear shifting which slips and will ‘drop off’ its rotation. A chain that is too short has the potential to damage your derailleur or teeth of your sprockets. As a minimum you will not be able to use all of the gears through lack of capacity. 

Which Bike Chain Should I Buy?

Always consider your budget and proposed use of the bicycle. The mechanic at a local bike shop can help you choose and will also give you advice on maintenance and scheduled replacement lead times. Keep it clean and lubricated and you may not even realise it is there and running smoothly.

Discerning Cyclist Store

Visit the Discerning Cyclist's Shop

Ride in style

Join our weeky newsletter to get early access to our latest discoveries.

Related reads