A bike chain is one of the consumable parts a cyclist must deal with and is probably replaced more often than any other bike bit. Or it should be.
While it’s fun to buy new parts for bikes, the chain is as utilitarian as parts get. It’s always hard to know what to spend on such a functional item.
How much does a bike chain cost?
This article will tell you the price of chains, how to look after them, and how replacing them regularly saves you money in the long term.
So, How Much Does A Bike Chain Cost?
A bike chain could cost you anything between $10 to around $100.
The most expensive chain ever produced was probably the £6000 ($8,400) chain used in Bradley Wiggins’ hour record of 2015. A little overkill for our readers!
Rather like Bradley’s chain, the most expensive of these chains are largely about efficiency, particularly in the way they are lubricated.
Chains tend to cost a lot when they’re lightweight, too. And the more gears your bike has, generally the more expensive the chain. Plus, you’ll pay extra for gold chains or other colors and patterns.
Installing Your Own Chain vs Getting The Local Bike Shop To Do It
Installing a chain is straightforward enough to do yourself, though it gets time consuming if you count every single link to size the chain.
You’ll need a chain tool, ideally, to break the new chain, and that will cost you anywhere from about $10 to over $100. You can pick up a perfectly serviceable Topeak or Lezyne chain tool for a small sum.
Most bike shops are going to charge you $25 to $40 to install a chain, so you’ll save money with a cheap chain tool the second time you use it.
Be aware that some chain tools are only designed to work with a specific size of chain, based on how many gears the bike has. As well, multitool chain tools tend to have more fragile pins. A dedicated chain tool is likely to be more robust.
Deciding whether to do these things yourself may hinge on how much disposable cash and/or time you have available. A job that would take a mechanic 10-15 minutes can easily take several times longer for the DIY amateur.
You need to find a local bike shop (LBS) you can trust to get the work done quickly and efficiently. Otherwise, it’s not uncommon to be kept off the road/trail for days for jobs that might’ve taken you half an hour.
Video: How to Size and Install a New Chain
Why Replacing An Old Chain Can Save You Money
It’s always tempting to just ride and ride a bike until something goes wrong, but that blithely euphoric state of mind will eventually cost you.
How A Worn Chain Damages More Expensive Consumables
A bike chain never stretches. Its tensile strength doesn’t weaken. As the chain wears, the “pitch” of the chain elongates (defined below). This comes about through wear between the pin and bushing or bearing surface.
Side note: multi-geared bikes with derailleurs all use “bushingless” chains for their lateral flexibility. This flexibility comes at the cost of greater wear. The “bushed” chains found on other bikes also wear but at a lesser rate.
The pitch of a chain is found by measuring the distance between three pins and dividing by two. When the chain is new, this measurement will be ½”, but as it wears the distance grows slightly greater. What effect does this have?
A worn chain rides further up the sprockets of a cassette as it adapts to its new pitch. This wears “pockets” into the rear of every tooth.
If the chain is allowed to wear until it is 1% longer or more, it will start skating over the most worn sprockets (i.e., in the most favored gears). At that point, you’ve written off the cassette.
New chains can also skate on worn sprockets because their natural ½” pitch settles higher on the pocket-shaped teeth. When the cyclist applies significant force, the chain struggles to grip the tooth.
Video: How To Check For Bicycle Cassette Wear
Chainrings, which drive the chain rather than be driven by it, develop pockets in the front of their teeth if used with a worn chain.
Worn chainrings can cause a phenomenon known as “chainsuck” and create a noisy, vibrating engagement with the chain that manifests as a gritty feeling when pedaling.
Chainrings and cassettes wear down in proportion to the number of teeth they have and obviously to the amount of use they get by the cyclist.
Replacing chains regularly, then, is an exercise in damage limitation and attains the best economy in most circumstances.
What About Ignoring The Chain Altogether?
Another possibility, if the bike is old or secondhand and its parts are already worn, is to ride them all into the ground until they fail. Then replace the lot. This is not risk-free if you like explosive out-of-the-saddle sprints, but it can work with moderate pedaling.
You really don’t want the chain falling off when putting down the power.
Read more: Belt-Drive commuter bikes guide
When Should I Replace A Bike Chain? How To Check If Your Chain Is Worn
You can’t tell if a chain is worn just by looking at it. Three common ways to measure chain are as follows.
Using a Ruler
Each full link in a chain measures one inch. It comprises an inner half-link and an outer half-link. The full link measures one inch when new, but it elongates marginally over time.
Using a ruler with inches, line up the zero mark with the center of any pin on the chain, then study the mark at 12 inches to see how closely it aligns with the corresponding pin center.
If the pin is 1/16” to the right of the mark or more, the chain needs replacing. At 1/8”, you’ve left it too long and your most-used cassette sprockets will also be worn.
This method is best performed if you have good access to your bike with ample light. Otherwise, it’s prone to error. It relies on you holding the ruler and chain straight.
Video: How To Measure Bike Chain Wear With A Ruler
Using a Chain Wear Tool
Most chain wear tools are simple drop-in gauges that slot in between chain links. They’re called “go – no go” gauges as they give you a binary answer as to whether your chain needs replacing.
With one of these tools, you slot one end into the chain, and then attempt to slot the other end in without forcing it. If it doesn’t drop in, the chain is not sufficiently worn.
These tools typically measure for different percentages of wear, depending on which way up you hold them. The number at the end represents the percentage.
A bike chain intended for 5 to 10 speed cassettes should be replaced as it reaches 0.75 percent of elongation. For 11 and 12 speed chains, the change is made at 0.5% of elongation.
Single-speed or two-speed chains can endure 1.0 percent of wear before they need changing.
Important: Chain wear tools that push chain rollers apart rather than falling on identical sides of two rollers are inherently less accurate. These will report worn chains “conservatively”, costing you more money in replacements.
Shimano CN40/41/42 tools all report wear accurately.
Pull The Chain
With the chain on the smallest cassette sprocket and the big chainring, try to lift the chain away from the front of the chainring. If you can see daylight between chain and chainring, it means the chain is worn. That’s a ballpark method—a starting point.
Read more: How to shorten a bicycle chain
How To Choose The Right Bike Chain For Your Bike
Having decided that you need to buy a new bike chain, where do you begin with the choice? Different bikes with different numbers of gears need different chains. They’re not all interchangeable.
The specification you need to look for in a chain is the width. A chain that is wider than the width of your existing chain will be incompatible on a derailleur system because it will foul the adjacent sprockets of the cassette.
Below is a table to help you find a compatible chain.
Note that the inner widths of all these chains are either the same or extremely close to it. They are all nominally 3/32” chains. Where they notably differ is in their outer width, the extremes of which are the ends of the pins.
With all this in mind, the following statements are true:
- An 8-speed chain will work with 6/7/8 speed cassettes.
- You can usually size down chains by one speed (e.g., 11-10, 10-9). This is often said to be quieter, though shifting may not be quite as smooth.
- A 6-speed chain is incompatible with narrower 7 or 8-speed+ cassettes.
- Some 10-speed chains may work on some 11-speed cassettes (inadvisable).
- Higher-speed chains are weaker in terms of resistance to lateral forces since their shortened pins are flush with thinner side plates.
You’ll usually save money by choosing a chain designed for a specific speed of cassette. You can mix Campagnolo 11-speed chains with Shimano 11-speed cassettes and vice versa.
SRAM and Shimano chains and cassettes are mostly interchangeable.
The Shimano Hyperglide+ chain is designed for use only with the corresponding Shimano Hyperglide+ cassette.
Independent manufacturers like KMC or Wippermann make chains for all speeds of cassette from 6 to 12. They also make chains for single speed bikes.
Most single speed bikes use a 1/8” (3.175 mm) wide chain, making them sturdier, cheaper and incompatible with multispeed cassettes. Single speed chains may be of the “bushed” variety for extra lateral strength and durability.
Read more: Shimano Ultegra and 105 groupsets compared
How To Make A Bike Chain Last Longer
A chain’s lifespan is entirely contingent on how clean and lubricated it is kept. So, how should you go about maintaining it?
Clean The Chain Regularly
Cleaning the chain is how you’ll make it last longer. How should you do it? There are different methods you can use. Which one you go for may depend on how expensive your chain and components were or how time-crunched you are.
Method 1 – Stiff Brushes And Degreaser
This method ideally requires that you clean the whole drivetrain. Otherwise, dirt and gunk from the cassette, chainrings and jockey wheels soil the chain again.
- Get the bike onto a bike stand, take off the rear wheel and install a chain keeper to hold the chain. Using a stiff brush, brush the chainring and pulley wheels first with degreaser.
- Next, brush degreaser onto the chain at various angles while back-pedaling slowly. Brush the cassette sprockets on your separated rear wheel.
- Rinse all components with a low-pressure stream of water, dry them with a clean rag and reassemble the bike.
Method 2 – Chain Cleaning Devices
Commercially available chain cleaners house a bath of degreaser and contain rotating brushes to clean between the chain rollers.
Though this method and the above method do clean the chain, a chain that looks sparkling from the outside still probably contains some grit in between the pins and bushings or bearing surfaces. And this is where a chain wears down.
Cleaning the exterior surfaces of a chain remains useful since dirt on the outside can easily become dirt on the inside. However, to extend your chain’s lifespan by a significant amount, you need the next method.
Method 3 – Bathing And Agitating The Chain
This method is like the first method in that you clean other components using degreaser as described. But, instead of leaving the chain on the bike, you unlatch its master link and remove it.
- Place the dirty chain in a plastic lunch box or bottle full of pure engine degreaser. Put the lid on and agitate the chain regularly while you go about cleaning the rest of the bike with diluted engine degreaser.
- Return to your chain once other parts are clean and scrub it with a brush, rinsing with water. Drop it sideways onto a hard surface to nudge remaining debris out.
- Reinstall the chain and, while still on the bike stand, turn the pedals to shake out any remaining water. Once the chain is dry, it will need lubricating, just as it does after a rainy bike ride.
Lubricate The Chain
The best lubricants are something of a contentious issue. You could broadly divide them into paraffin wax lubricants, which require fastidious chain cleaning and prep to use, and drip lubes. Both types have their detractors.
Tests performed by Zero Friction Cycling suggest superior cumulative wear from a paraffin wax lube—namely Molten Speed Wax—compared to drip lubes.
Paraffin wax lubes are harder work and more expensive at the outset for a potential long-term saving.
Video: Why Wax Your Chain?
Bike Chains: Frequently Asked Questions
How Much Does It Cost To Replace A Bike Chain Yourself?
If you already have a chain tool, you could do it for under $10 depending on the chain you’re replacing. Higher speed chains are more expensive, so an 11-speed costs around $30 minimum.
Should I Replace A Rusty Bike Chain?
You should replace a severely rusted chain, but superficial ruston outer casings can be ignored, save for serving as a reminder to lube more often.
How Long Will A Bike Chain Last?
Most chains subjected to a typical cleaning regime last about 2,000 to 3,000 miles before needing replacement. A meticulously maintained chain could last for up to 8,000 miles or more.