Chains are often the fastest wearing piece of our bikes and a crucial part of transmission performance in terms of wear and wattage saving. But they’re very possibly the most neglected or overlooked item too so which are the best ones for durability and/or drag in the dirt or on the road?
For this buyers guide we’ve pulled together the best independent data from the excellent Zero Friction Cycling website as well as factoring tens of thousands of hours of riding feedback from the Cyclingnews and Bike Perfect teams. We’ve also thrown out which chains do you use and why questions to all our biking buddies from enduro e-bikers to time triallists.
Unsurprisingly that’s thrown up a wide range of answers, but it’s also pointed out some solid recommendations to work with for every type of rider, whether your priorities are sheer speed, epic longevity or cost-effective value for 10-, 11- or 12-speed systems.
If you not sure what you need to consider when buying a new chain, jump to the info below:
Best chains for mountain bike, gravel and road
SRAM’s X01 Eagle chain misses out on the gold anodised finish of the XX1 Eagle chain but it’s a fair whack cheaper. It’s still the same hard-chrome surface treatment reducing friction and massively extending lifespan according to lab tests and more importantly our own experience in the worst conditions. You get allegedly stronger hollow pins, too. While some tests we’ve seen say they’re fractionally less efficient we always feel the opposite when they’re teamed with an X-Sync2 chainring. The ‘humped’ PowerLink joining links seem tougher and quieter than most and the shape and rainbow finish makes them easy to find in the chain. The hard-wearing performance means they can chew through other brand components very fast but an X01 chain is an excellent and noticeable upgrade for any Eagle set-up.
The second-tier version of SRAM’s AXS transmission ‘ecosystem’ gets the same narrower-but-stronger big roller, asymmetric ‘Flat Top’ link design as the flagship Red chain. It gets the same epic lifespan ‘Hard-Chrome’ finish, too. Lack of hollow pins make it a bit heavier but we’ve had no problem with the solid pin construction so far and it means they can serve it up for half the price making them an AXS bargain.
Australian chain and lube specialists Zero Friction Cycling has devoted years to searching out the best chains to sell. That makes the fact that YBN’s SLA is its go-to 11-speed chain a big deal and they’ve got the data (minimal-drag properties) to back it up. YBN SLA's last well too, not least because its surface coatings sync well with the highest performance lubricants. Chromium carbide hardened rollers definitely help too, and weight weenies can even opt for titanium rollers to save 15-20g depending on chain length. Pricing is relatively expensive, they’re very hard to find in bricks and mortar shops and lazy Googling will just drop you onto the Young British Naturists site. Shifting is good with all 11-speed systems as well as SRAM and Campagnolo 12-speed. The gold Ti-Nitride finish looks killer on most bikes.
German chain brand Wipperman has a very loyal following, particularly among powerful, high-mileage riders. The top-of-the-line SX gets stainless steel inner plates to remove any corrosion issues. It feels clean and efficient on the bike and that sensation is backed up by lab results we’ve seen.
The Speed Wing outer plate also helps initiate shifting early for swift and responsive changes on all mech types we’ve tried. Wipperman has a deservedly good reputation for longevity and strength on- and off-road which makes this slightly-higher-than-average price a good investment over time. Unlike most brands the split link is reusable, so removal for deep cleaning is free and easy. Be sure to refit the link and chain the right way round though or the directional shaping will skip, particularly on smaller cogs.
Shimano has a habit of loading all its top tech into lower groupsets over time, but its really given riders on a budget a bargain bonus with the recent SLX introduction. The chain sums it up nicely too as it delivers all the same Hyperglide+ shaping tweaks and Dynamic Chain Engagement roller upgrades. You even get Shimano’s Sil-Tec low friction Flourine coating for extra slickness so the only thing you’re missing is hollow pins.
The new XT and SLX only started appearing in summer so we’ve no big bank of long-term data yet, but so far our sets have been churning through a particularly grim autumn and winter without issue. They seem more rust resistant than other similarly priced chains when we aren’t on point with our cleaning and lubing routine, too.
SRAM’s totally new 12-speed AXS groups introduced a new X-Range chainring and cassette sizes but the flat-topped chains are probably the most striking ‘why-has-nobody-thought-of-that-before’ piece of the system. The asymmetric links are stronger despite being narrower and ‘Hard Chrome’ roller and inner face surface treatment is giving outstanding lifespans so far. The hollow pins are lighter and also create a stronger link according to SRAM. The oversized rollers mean they only work on AXS systems though and Force chains with solid pins are half the price.
We’re still waiting for Shimano to unleash its 12-speed road groups on us so Dura Ace, Ultegra and 105 chains don’t have the same new shape and coating tech as their MTB siblings. Ultegra is definitely Shimano’s sweet-spot road chain though with very efficient test results when new thanks to chamfered plates that shift sweetly across 11-speed setups. You also get a bayonet fit ‘Quick Link’ to finally finish years of snap rivet chain joining misery. Shimano’s looser link junctions normally return. While Dura Ace tends to test slightly faster (and right at the top of the heap) Ultegra sits in a price/performance sweet spot according to extensive anecdotal evidence from our rider and workshop panel and available lab data. The bigger gaps load up well with waxy lubes and durability is on par with other decent quality 11-speed chains as long as you stay away from SRAM cassettes.
XTR was Shimano’s first 12-speed, single-ring optimised group and therefore the first one to use its Dynamic Chain Engagement roller tech and Hyperglide+ link and tooth shape evolutions. It’s also got Shimano’s Sil-Tec low-friction Flourine coating and hollow pins. The result is probably the best-shifting off-road set-up around and it’s proving significantly more durable than Shimano 11-speed chains in the real world and lab testing, too. The QuickLink is way easier to work with than the old snap rivet system and it’s also cheap for a top-end chain. It still doesn’t quite match top-end Eagle in toughness though and you can get all the same tech (but without hollow pins) in the recently introduced XT and SLX chains.
KMC chains are a cost-saving choice on a lot of complete bikes and they generally do okay. Shifting generally isn’t as good as same brand setups and corrosion tends to be faster in less caring homes, but look after them and they tick round reliably enough. The Ti-Nitride-coated Super Light features a glided defence against rusting though and the slippery finish also boosts efficiency to Shimano-like levels. The slotted links shave out a few grams if you’re really trying to lighten your load but leave less failsafe strength if you slur a shift under torque or the chain gets crunched on a log/rock.
Muc-Off’s specialist chain development with British Cycling started in 2015 with Bradley Wiggin’s successful (if short-lived) hour record attempt and has gone on to bag multiple grand tours and Olympic medals. There’s some serious science involved here but basically, they take either a Shimano or SRAM 11-speed chain, intensively clean it and then impregnate it with a special blend of its Nanotech lube.
It's not the only company producing an impregnated chain - CeramicSpeed and Zero Friction Cycling and others offer similar products - but Muc-Off claim its version turns fastest, lasts longest and is more durable in wet and dirty conditions than wax-based versions. We’ve not been lucky enough to try them though so we can’t comment.
How to buy the right chain
1. Different speeds
Chains are sold as suitable for a given number of cogs on the rear cassette. That’s because more cogs demand a narrower chain to fit in the smaller gaps. ‘Logical’ thought says that wider chains with more contact area would last better. However actual data points to the fact that because they’re more recent and more evolved narrower chains actually last better. In other words, even though 10-speed chains had a big jump in performance from 7/8/9 speed set-up, 11-speed chains last better than 10, and 12 better than 11. Because the links are less likely to rub on the neighbouring cogs going up a gear with your chain choice is a useful wear-extending hack. Don’t try working it the other way though as a 12-speed chain won’t work on 11 and so on.
2. Brand specific
All transmission brands prefer you to use their own chainrings and cassettes and in general, it's a good idea. For example, our experience suggests SRAM equipment is generally ‘harder’ so its chains wear out ‘softer’ Shimano rings and cassettes very quickly and Shimano chains die fast on SRAM hardware. SRAM’s AXS flat-top chains also have larger rollers which are transmission-specific and the Dynamic Chain Engagement and Hyperglide+ evolutions on Shimano’s new 12-speed groupsets definitely make a tangible difference.
Generally chain brands without a matching transmission - KMC, YBN and Wipperman - sit somewhere in the middle and work okay with either.
As well as being more efficient, brands are constantly changing chain plate shapes and tooth profiles on chainrings and cassettes to get the chain to transfer faster and smoother between gears. There’s some serious tech goes into them too - SRAM’s XX1 Eagle chain plates have a 38-step manufacturing process - and you’ll nearly always find that matching brands work better together. While YBN and Wipperman again work okay with most brands we often find KMC tend to shift slower and more noisily than others.
It’s been calculated that a typical 116-link chain produces over 40,000 surface-against-surface movements per minute at a typical pedalling cadence. That’s a lot of micro friction even in a perfectly clean environment but even summer road riding comes with a fair dose of dust and grit getting into those bearing surfaces. Head off-road in winter and a chain can turn from showroom shiny to squeaking, grinding, corrosion-breeding casualties in under an hour. Obviously, the conditions you ride in have a massive influence on longevity, but the published data we’ve seen backs up our own experience that SRAM 11- and 12-speed chains generally live longest, with Campagnolo and YBN close behind, but Shimano’s relatively recently introduced XTR 12-speed chain looking like a stronger-and-stronger contender with every passing month on our longterm set-up.
There’s a lot of hype online about which chains will save you the most watts in mechanical drag and a premium chain will measurably outperform a cheaper one in clean conditions. We’re talking about just 5 watts at 250 watts (2%) between top-end and top-value chains though. That’s far less than the difference between a dirty and badly maintained or clean-and-cared for transmission though and less than the difference a good or bad lube, or tucking on a wheel can make. In other words, unless you’re doing time trials on a regular basis we’d concentrate more on longevity than power loss when choosing.
There’s a definite temptation to just buy the cheapest option that your local shop/preferred online supplier has in your favourite brand. There are points where it’s worth paying more or less though.
SRAM’s Hard Chrome finish on its top chains boosts longevity dramatically right through the transmission so XX1, XO1 and Red are worth the investment. We’ve found NX and SX Eagle chains are noticeably faster to rust if you don’t lube fast after washing too. Ultegra is definitely a sweet spot in the Shimano range and KMC’s latest premium chain seems to definitely be a step above previous, cheaper offerings Campagnolo and YBN have a much more linear performance to price ratio.
Whatever chain you have cleaning and lubing it thoroughly and immediately after a ride will always significantly boost its performance and longevity. Some tests we’ve seen suggest it can make a tenfold difference in extreme situations and we know that a chain that’s been left to rust and lock solid will never feel that good again however much you scrub and wax it. Chain wear translates directly to wear on expensive cassettes and chainrings. It also increases the chance of something skipping or jamming and ripping off a mech, breaking a spoke or scarring a frame.