Our friends over at CyclingTips embarked on a mammoth test this past year to find the best bicycle chain going. They worked with Adam Kerin of Zero Friction Cycling, who spent 3,000 hours and over AU$15,000 of his own money, using a motorised Tacx Neo torture rack and precision measurements to determine the most durable and efficient chains.
Of course, chains matter a lot more to road bikers, where every lost watt can mean big losses over the course of a long ride, but there's plenty us mountain bikers can take away from this too, especially as some mountain bike chains got put through the wringer along with the road chains too.
We'd recommend reading the whole best bicycle chain
test, but if you just want to get to the meat of it, here are the four key takeaways.There are clear differences between chain brands
Is a chain just a chain? Apparently not, according to this investigation. CyclingTips found a range of up to 4 watts in power difference between the most (Shimano 11-speed) and least efficient (SRAM Eagle X01) chain. Bear in mind this is just from one part of the drivetrain and SRAM claim that efficiency testing is only valid if it is carried out over the whole drivetrain, and they believe that their whole drivetrains perform comparably to the competition. However, 4 watts is a fairly substantial gulf, especially if efficiency is your ultimate aim.
There was also a huge difference in the durability of the chains tested. CyclingTips believe you could get thousands of kilometers more use out of the most durable (SRAM XX1) than the least durable (KMC X11E). According to Adam Kerin, “SRAM claim the world’s longest-lasting chain with their XX1, and they are not kidding. Both the X01 and XX1 chains were so far ahead of any other chain from a pure elongation wear measure that I had to re-run the tests. The results were basically identical. Their longevity is phenomenal.” More cogs=more durability
The test found that the more cogs a chain is designed to operate over, the more durable it is. This may go against conventional wisdom that older 8-, 9- and even 10-speed systems offer wider cog widths, which provide increased surface area with the chain and should make them more durable. However, the opposite was true here
The reasoning for this is less clear, but certain materials have improved, manufacturing processes have become refined, and new low-friction coatings have been added. Similarly, the chain designs themselves have changed, and where 8- and even 9-speed chains would see the inner links turn solely on the connecting pins, newer chains typically see these forces shared across the pins and specifically stamped plates, too.Your lubricant is as important as your chain
The chains were tested with a purposefully gritty lubricant to accelerate the chain wear in the test. This showed that, no matter how durable a chain is, the lubricant you use will play the most critical role in drivetrain durability. Kerin apparently ground down an endless number of chainrings and cassettes with any chain that made it past the 2,500km mark, effectively destroying the rest of the drivetrain before it failed. As always, run a good lube and keep your drivetrain clean – that’s the real trick to getting the most value and performance from your drivetrain components.Most brands offer good options
One of the main takeaways from the study is that there is probably nothing wrong with the stock set up you're likely to already be running. Shimano chains are seemingly the most efficient on the market while also offering decent durability. SRAM chains were not quite as efficient in this test, but their durability scores them big points and should help them survive mountain biking all year round in even the worst conditions. If you're running a stock chain at the moment, don't rush out to change it, it's probably doing its job just fine.
However, there is merit in spending more on chains from within the big brands. For example, Eagle XO1 and XX1 were measurably more durable than NX and GX chains. And if you’re racing, XTR is more efficient than XT.
Read the full best bicycle chain