This post contains affiliate links. For more information, visit my disclosure page.
When it comes to cycling, bike chains are your most important accessory for the simple fact that without a bike chain, you won’t be able to cycle. No matter how fancy or premium your other bike parts are, if there’s no quality chain that connects the cassette and the crank, what’s the point?
So, if you want to be able to cycle through your neighborhood, get to your destination, and even beat some tough trails along the way, you need the best bike chains for your ride.
7 Best Bike Chains in 2021
Check out these seven best bicycle chains in 2021:
SHIMANO Ultegra CN-6701 Chain
Our top pick is the Shimano Ultegra CN-6701 chain, which is easily one of the highest quality options since it comes from the king of all bike parts, Shimano. The Ultegra is also one of the best creations in Shimano’s bike chains lineup, and is all about smooth performance and enhanced power transfer.
This means it’s ideal for long riding hours, so you’ll have lots of fun and challenge on the trail. This completely redesigned chain features a half cutout, asymmetric design for the inner and outer plates, with the outer plate being perforated to lower the weight and also eliminate chain stuck, while the inner plate is reshaped to lessen drivetrain friction.
You’ll be benefiting from this overhaul in many ways. For one thing, you can enjoy a smoother rear shifting even when you are carrying heavy loads, enhanced connection between the crank and cassette, and effortless and noiseless pedaling due to the minimized noise and chain suck.
- Completely redesigned and overhauled
- Makes for better performance
- Resistant to elements due to zinc alloy coating
- Lightweight construction
- Easy to install and use
KMC X11SL 11 Speed 116L Bike Chain
If you want a more cost-effective option, KMC chains are the way to go. The KMC X11SL 11 speed chain, for example, has a Ti-Nitride-coated Super Light that features a slippery finish that boosts your cycling efficiency, along with a gilded defense against rusting.
There are also slotted links that effectively shave off a few grams so you can somewhat lighten your load, which makes for an easier and faster ride. Basically, it’s a great bike chain quality that offers a good value for money.
That said, there are a few minor issues due to the cheaper quality construction, such as less failsafe strength in the event of slurring a shift under torque or getting the chain crunched on a rock, reduced shifting smoothness, and more susceptibility to corrosion.
- Hollow pins and slotted links
- Minimized overall weight
- Decent durability with proper maintenance
- Affordable quality option
Shimano CNHG95116 Chain
Another option from Shimano is the CNHG95116 bike chain, which is among the top of the line road bike chains on the market today. With 116 links and an overall weight of a mere 8.3 ounces, it’s easily one of the lightest yet best quality chains you will ever find.
One of the many things we like about this chain is that it features a SIL-Tec surface treatment to improve durability and reduce drivetrain friction, which means a quieter and cleaner ride. The asymmetrical plate design also allows the chain to smoothly glide between the sprocket teeth.
Plus, it comes with a locking pin and detailed installation instructions so you can have an easier time replacing your old chains. All you’ll need are a pair of pliers and a chain-break tool, and you can have a sleek new 10 speed chain with excellent shifting performance in no time.
- Treated surface for enhanced performance
- Smooth and quiet shifting
- Designed for reduced friction
- Durable and lightweight construction
- Easy to install and use
KMC Z-72 7-8sp Chain
Going back to KMC, if you are on the hunt for a mountain bike chain or hybrid bike chain, the KMC Z-72 7-8sp chain is a workhouse that is made for heavy duty use. It’s a high quality, durable, and long lasting chain that’s compatible with pretty much any Shimano, Sram, and Campagnolo groupset.
With a 116 link all-steel construction, this MTB chain is at the heavier side of things at 315 grams, but what it all means is that the chain is really built for strength. Even so, you’ll still get to enjoy decent speeds and reasonably smooth shifting.
To top it all off, this bike chain comes with a proprietary master link called the “Missing Link”, which is similar to Sram’s PowerLock link and Shimano’s Quick Link. basically, it’s a connecting link that you can use to conveniently and easily connect the chain with the use of pliers.
- Strong and durable powerhouse
- Long lasting option
- Quick link included for easy installation
- Value for money option
zonkie 6/7/8 Speed Bike Chain
You might also want to consider the Zonkie bike chain if you need a 6 speed bike chain, or even a 7 or 8 speed. It’s one of the cheapest options currently available on the market, so it’s perfect for those on a tight budget.
And, that’s not to say that it compromises on quality, either. In fact, it’s made with special forging steel with internal oiling and smooth surface polishing. It’s easy to install, disassemble, clean, and re-attach to the drivetrain. The oiling also means you can use it immediately after purchase.
What really sells it for us, though, is that even though it’s really inexpensive, it’s a highly versatile bike chain that works for various drivetrains, which is something that you would be hard pressed to find on most bike chains on the market.
- 7 speed bike chain can be used as 6 or 8 speed
- Suitable for multiple drivetrains
- Strong and durable with steel construction
- Corrosion and rust resistant
KMC X8.93 8-Speed Bike Chain
Another option from KMC is the X8.93 8 speed bike chain, which is a durable cycle chain model that comes in brown, black, and gold bike chain color options. It boasts of a unique double x bridge design that ensures smooth and quick shifting, which is its main selling point.
But, that’s not all. The steel construction and stretch-proof treatment greatly improves the chain’s strength and longevity. It even features mushroomed rivets for extra strength, while the chamfered outer plates reduce risk of cassette interference.
What this means is you can ride with this chain for more than a thousand miles before having to replace your chains again. You will also like the partial nickel coating that prevents rust and corrosion while enhancing the chain’s overall durability. Not to mention, at just 0.16 ounces, it’s likely the lightest bike chain available today.
- Strong construction and design
- Extremely smooth shifting
- Resistant to rust and corrosion
- With removable missing link
Schwinn Bicycle Chain
Last but not the least is the Schwinn bicycle chain, which is the perfect choice to replace your old, rusty bike chain. It boasts of a steel construction and measures ½ x 3/32 inches, making it ideal for 6, 7, or 8 speed bicycles.
It’s pretty long at 56 inches, so you’ll have plenty of leeway to find the perfect chain length and bike speed. That said, it doesn’t include a master link or connecting link, which makes installation a bit cumbersome since you will need a chain breaker for replacement.
Still, it’s one of the highest performing bike chains on the market, which is something to be said for its relatively affordable price point. Even taking into account the lack of a master link and installation instructions, it’s still a great deal all in all.
- High quality steel construction
- Can be used for a 21 speed bike
- Guarantees easy and smooth rides
- Lightweight and durable
How To Find The Best Bike Chains
Below is a list of the most important things you need to consider before buying bicycle chains, so you can be sure that you are getting the right accessory for your ride.
The first thing is your riding style or purpose. For example, do you prefer mountain biking, road biking, or BMX? These all tackle different terrains, and the bike chain needs to be designed in such a way that accommodates the nuances of the terrain.
Think of it this way: mountain bike chains need to withstand the rock grits, and must feature special coatings to prevent debris buildup and rusting, as well as make cleaning easier. BMX bike chains, on the other hand, are narrower and lighter, since the bike needs to easily navigate tough terrain. This typically means alloy construction with rust resistant coatings.
There are also heavy-duty bike chains for motorized e-bikes, specialized high-capacity chains for tandem bikes, and lightweight alloy chains for road bikes that match the bike’s speed.
Bike chains are designed and constructed for a specific number of rear cassette cogs, since more cogs make for smaller gaps, which necessitates a narrower bike chain.
While wider chains offer more contact area, narrower chains today are actually more evolved, so they last considerably longer. To give you an idea, a multi-speed would last longer than a single speed chain. For example, a 24 speed bike chain lasts better than, say, a 12 speed.
If you want to extend the wear of the bike chain even further, you can try going up one gear with the bike chain so that the links rub less on the neighboring cogs. Try it yourself and see the comparison of how different speed chains perform.
One of the great things about the constant effort of bike part brands in improving their chains is that it doesn’t only make the bike chains more efficient, it also makes for smoother and faster shifting, since the chain plate shapes and the tooth profiles on cassettes and chainrings enable the chain to more efficiently transfer between gears.
That said, not all chains are equal in terms of shifting. Shimano makes better chains than KMC, for instance, and some chains are optimized for other things. Matching the chain brand to your drivetrain brand also makes for a more seamless performance.
Bike chains suffer from lots of micro-friction, regardless of whether they are in a clean environment or are exposed to lots of dust, grit, and debris. In fact, on average and at usual pedalling cadence, a 116-link bike chain produces more than 40,000 surface contact movements per minute.
It’s even worse if you go off-roading in the winter, in which case your chain can grind so much and breed corrosion within a single hour. In other words, your riding conditions greatly influence the longevity and wear of your bike chain.
Still, the quality, build, and construction of the bicycle chain and the effectiveness of its coating also affects how long the chain can last.
Different bike chain types and brands have different effects on saving watts when it comes to mechanical drag. Simply put, premium chains will outperform cheaper ones at any time, but you need to understand that the difference is only about 2% or 5 watts at 250 watts.
So, it’s up to you if you want to join the hype. Ultimately, what’s important, and what affects the watts more, is how well-maintained, cleaned, and cared for your bike chain is. This includes tucking on a wheel and using a good quality chain lube. Even the longevity of the chain is a lot more valuable than power loss.
Material and Durability
In terms of material or construction, this is one of the main determining factors for durability and overall quality. What you want here are high-quality models that withstand friction better, which is what makes the chain last longer.
Here are the most common bike chain materials:
- The most popular material for bike chains is alloy steel, which is durable yet inexpensive, and works for just about any riding type or purpose.
- Meanwhile, nickel plated bike chains are the most expensive options available, since they offer excellent rust protection, can be purchased in a variety of colors, and are a must for riding in style.
- There are also titanium chains that are stronger and harder, which means they can stand the test of time. The only downside is that this material is super expensive.
Ease of Installation
Installing new bike chains is fairly easy as long as you know what you are doing. But for some, the process can seem a little tricky, which is why it’s important to buy an easy-to-install kit which typically comes with a missing link that reduces replacement and usage time.
The truth of the matter is, some brands are better than others. Shimano and Sram, for example, are hallmarks in the cycling industry when it comes to producing quality, durable, and long lasting bike parts, and their bike chains live up to that standard.
That said, what’s more important is that you buy your bike chain from the same brand that your drivetrain is made from, since this will make for a smoother, more seamless performance. For instance, if you pair a Shimano ring or cassette with a Sram equipment, the difference in hardness will make the parts wear out quicker.
Of course, there are also chain brands that don’t really have matching transmissions, like KMC, for instance. These chains are good enough to work with any transmission brand.
Don’t fall for the temptation of buying the cheapest bike chain available, or grabbing the first thing you see bearing your favorite brand name. When it comes to bike chains, there’s a time for paying less, and a time for paying more.
If you want to save money, sure, go for a budget chain, but make sure that it’s still good quality like KMC chains instead of the obscure brand names. But if you want the best in terms of performance and longevity, you need to invest in a premium bike chain from a well-known brand.
Remember, once your chain wears, that directly translates to wear on your expensive chainrings and cassettes. It also leads to jamming, skipping, ripping off mechs, scarring the frame, or breaking spokes. Not to mention, a rusty bike chain, even when scrubbed and waxed, will never be able to offer the same smooth ride that it once did.
As such, it’s also important to spend time and effort on regular maintenance. Get yourself a good quality home bike repair stand, and buy the best bike chain cleaner like the Finish Line Shop Quality Bicycle Chain Cleaner to ensure that your ride always looks and works great.
At the end of the day, the best bike chain is one that works for your specific riding needs and lifestyle. But what’s more important than buying the right chain is keeping it clean and in perfect condition so it lasts longer and offers a better level of performance.