Choosing a single speed or fixed gear chain.
Customers typically ask us "Which chain should I get and why?". It can be a little confusing given all the options as well as some of the myths and realities usually heard out on the Internet. This post will help you make a choice as well as give you some insight into how chains actually differ.
Your chain choice will come down to what type of riding you are doing (casual single speed to track-style fixed riding) and a combination of decisions that you’ll need to consider:
- Do I have a 3/32” or 1/8" drivetrain?
- Will the chain be strong enough for my riding?
- Do I want or need a longer laster chain?
- How important is the weight of the chain?
- Do I need a low friction chain?
- What if I want a certain color or aesthetic?
- And, of course, what fits my budget?
It is important to remember that chains are a wear-and-tear item on your bike. It will eventually stretch, wear, corrode or break at some point. You’ll probably end up replacing it every year or so (depending on mileage). Just keep that in mind on how much you want to spend.
Before we jump in, let’s discuss the design of chains to help you make a decision. If uninterested, feel free to scroll down to Choosing a Chain section.
Most modern bike chains are all of the same design - be it for single speed, fixed riding, geared riding or even e-bikes. The only exception would be “bushing chains”, which are a traditional chain design that pre-dated bike chains (and described below) and are still found on heavy-duty single speed or track chains. Modern bike chains are typically called “bushingless chains” as the bushing was essentially removed to accommodate the needs of modern bikes.
For sizing, all bike chains have a chain pitch, the distance between the pins, of 1/2". The only thing that varies is the width, or the distance between the 2 inner plates. For single speed, it will be either 3/32” or 1/8". This is important for compatibility discussed below.
The other factor is the chain length, which will depend on your bike size and gearing ratio. Most chains will be long enough to handle most gearing ratios and will need to be cut to size. It is only a concern in extreme conditions. If you want to be sure, use a bike chain length calculator like this one.
Chain Design: Modern bike chains (aka “bushingless chains”)
For chain design, let’s look at an exploded view of a modern chain - aka a "bushingless chain" and the parts of that chain:
- There are outer plates and inner plates that are linked with a roller and a pin.
- The plates provide the structural integrity and a surface to hold the chain on the chainring and sprockets.
- The rollers allows the chain to roll in and out of the teeth of the chainring and sprocket and provide a grabbing surface for the chainring or sprocket teeth to pull the chain forwards or backwards.
- The pin keeps the chain together while allowing the length of the chain to be easily changed.
- The inner plate also has a raised extrusion on the inside to hold the roller in place and keep it from shifting or moving. These extrusions extend partly under the roller, but leave a small gap in the middle to allow for chain movement and ease of lubrication.
Chain Design: Bushing/Bushed chains
A bushing chain is similar except there is a bushing or metal sleeve that runs from plate to plate to hold the roller in place and provide additional stiffness and strength. This design is what you would find on a motorcycle or industrial chain.
Given the bushing goes all the way across the chain and under the roller vs. the raised shoulder of a bushingless chain, it is stiffer, stronger and more durable. You can see below that it provides a solid “axle” on the chain vs. the gap of a bushingless chain.
While the design is strong, stiffer and more durable, it has some drawbacks. It can be heavier, less forgiving to bad chain alignment and doesn’t allow lubricant to penetrate the chain easily. It also can’t be used for geared bikes due to its stiffness.
Given that fact, a bushing design is only found in single speed / fixed gear chains that are geared toward heavy-duty or track-specific use.
Chain wear or “stretch”
It is also important to understand how chains wear or "stretch". All chains will “stretch” over time. Stretch is when the pitch of the chain lengthens slightly (ie 1%) which causes the roller not to properly seat and move across the teeth. This stretch is not caused by the plates themselves getting longer, but rather the wearing down at the points where the plates, rollers and pins come together.
It is important to not use a stretched chain. It raises the likelihood of chain failure or, more importantly, it will start to harm the teeth on your chainring and sprockets. You should be checking for stretch annually at a minimum if not more frequently.
CHOOSING A CHAIN
Different riders will have different needs. A casual single speed rider will probably be okay with a more basic chain. A commuter or heavy use rider will most likely want a chain that lasts longer. A performance rider may want lighter weight or lower friction. And, a fixed rider - especially brakeless, may want a very strong, highly-durable chain to avoid the catastrophe of a broken chain. Of course, budget may come into play too.
To start, make sure the chain matches your drivetrain. Single Speeds and fixed gears will have either a 3/32” or 1/8" drivetrain. Both works with some pros and cons. Just make sure the chain you choose is compatible. Fortunately, 1/8" chains work on 1/8" and 3/32” drivetrains while 3/32” chains only work on 3/32” drivetrains.
Myth: "1/8" chains are stronger or more durable than 3/32" chains because they are bigger." That is not the case. The strength and durability of the chain is driven by the factors we mention below. The width is not one of those factors. However, more high strength / high durability chains are made 1/8" so you may find more options for that drivetrain.
Strength and Durability
Strength and durability for chains tend to go hand in hand. However, for most riders, durability is more important than strength.
In general, any basic chain is strong enough for most riders. It can take a thousand+ newtons of force while most riders only generate a few hundred newtons. Only the strongest riders - and some brakeless riders - need to look for a specific high-strength chain.
However, chains will wear over time and be susceptible to breaking or they may “stretch” as discussed earlier They can also corrode with rust, especially in wintery or salty environments.
Chains can be made more durable or long-lasting through different design considerations:
- Bushing design. As mentioned, these chains have high strength and durability due to the bushing connecting the plates. Examples include the Izumi ECO, Connex 7R8/1R8, Connex 108, KMC X101, and Izumi Super Toughness chains.
- Heavier duty plates. Plates can be made slightly thicker and taller to provide more strength and durability. An example is the KMC Z1eHX, which has high strength without being a bushing chain.
KMXZ1eHX with high, thick plates
- Higher grade of steel. The plates and or pins can use special steel, be heat-treated or case-hardened to provide more strength and durability. Examples include the Izumi Super Toughness, which uses high-carbon steel, or the KMC X101, which uses heat-treated steel.
- Mushroom riveting. The pins are riveted in a mushroom shape so they are less likely to fall out or wear out. An example is the KMC K1SL.
KMC K1SL with mushroom rivets
- Coated/Plated. Chains can be coated or plated with elements like Nickel that resist corrosion. Example is the Connex 7R8 chain with nickel plating.
Of course, many of these chains with higher durability can be more expensive given the design and materials. While a basic light/medium duty chain will only be $10-15, a heavy duty chain can go up to $95 (taking into account weight and other performance features). However, a $50 chain will not last 5x longer than a $10 chain. It may last 2-3x longer so you are also paying for the convenience of not changing your chain more often or other performance features (lightweight, lower friction, etc.)
Chains can be a heavy part of your bike and so dropping the weight can help keep it a little nimble. The heaviest duty chains, like the Connex 7R8, can weigh 1/3 of a pound more than a basic chain, like the Wabi Chain. Of course, it will be a more durable chain so it may be worth the weight penalty for some riders.
Chains can also be designed to be both strong/durable and lightweight too. For example, the KMC K1SL, uses perforated plates and hollow pins to provide a chain that is the weight of a basic chain while performing as a medium-to-heavy duty chain.
Check our our table at the end for average weights of chains for comparison.
Some riders, especially track or performance riders, may want a stiff chain that fully transfers power with limited flex in the chain. Admittedly, this may be small amount, but it may count for some riders.
Bushing chains provide the stiffest performance (along with high strength and durability), which is why almost all track chains are bushing chains.
Certain chains promote low friction coatings for optimum performance. For example, the KMC X101 promotes a chamfered plate and Titanium Nitride coating for lower friction. Similarly, the Izumi KAI chain promotes its low friction coating as key to its success as an Olympic track racing chain.
KMC X101 with chamfered plates and Titanium Oxide coating
The difference for many riders will not be noticeable so it is not generally recommended for a casual rider.
In some cases, you may want a certain color or style. Most chains come in silver as a default, but some come in black or gold. A few chains come in alternating colors. The popular Izumi Super Toughness comes in the iconic black and gold and easily recognizable.
If chain color is critical to matching your build, you may find you’ll have to reprioritize some of the other factors. For example, black chains may be harder to find than silver or gold. Your choices may be a Wabi chain, an Izumi ECO or a KMC Z1eHX (gunmetal gray).
Wabi chains come in silver, black and gold.
Some chains will have unique designs that may be appealing. The KMC K1 and KMC K1SL have unique plate designs that some riders may like. The KMC HL1 has a half link design that may also appeal to certain riders.
KMC HL1 has a full half link design
If you are trying to be very specific with your chain length and tension, a chain with a half link design may be needed. This will allow you to make small tweaks to fit. The KMC HL1 is an all half link option (but at a high weight). The KMC Z1eHX comes with a single half link, which is as effective.
COMPARING CHAINS TABLE
Here is a table of popular chains for comparison on widths, colors, average weight and features.
It really depends on your needs, wants and budget. Here are some general recommendations from us.
- Casual single speed rider. You’ll be fine with a basic Wabi chain or similar.
- Daily single speed commuter. You’ll probably want a heavier duty chain where you won’t have to worry about stretch or corrosion. Connex 7R8 (3/32"), Connex 1R8 (1/8") or KMC Z1eHX (3/32" or 1/8").
- Performance single speed rider. A medium/high duty chain in a lightweight. KMC K1SL or KMC X101.
- Casual fixed gear rider. Strength, durability and stiffness without breaking the bank. Izumi ECO or Connex 108.
- Serious fixed gear / brakeless. Serious strength, durability and performance. Izumi Super Toughness or KMC X101.
Hope that helps. Feel free to contact us with questions at email@example.com.