Besides the rider, one of the largest losses of energy on a bike is the drivetrain. From specialty ceramic bearings to low friction jockey pulleys, there are all kinds of products for the express purpose of cutting drivetrain power losses. A key factor in all of this is using the best mountain bike chain possible. In looking for the best we came across the CeramicSpeed UFO KMC chain.
For many KMC is not all that much of a household name. That is understandable, most of us don’t study chains, or even know that they probably made the chain that came on our bikes. KMC is one of the largest makers of chains in the world, not just for the bike industry, but for motorcycles and other uses.
One key thing to remember when it comes to a bike chain is that there is considerable engineering involved with the chain and gears. Ignoring that engineering can present issues in making your drivetrain function appropriately. It sounds silly, but it really does matter.
Top Pick: CeramicSpeed UFO KMC Chain
When it comes to picking the best mountain bike chain, there should be a number of factors involved. When it comes down to it, all chains are not equal. We need to look at things like shifting performance, weight, and other key features.
Chains get worn out from bending. That bending force at issue is sideways, not up and down. Effectively, every time you shift, you are wearing your chain out. So, are there ways to combat that wear?
The CeramicSpeed UFO KMC chain works on this wear by preinstalling a very liberal specialty wax coating. Thus the chain having a waxy appearance. If we can reduce wear by using a superior lubricant, it will go far in improving drivetrain performance.
One of the cool aspects of wax coatings is that they are not as dirty as petroleum lubricants. I don’t think it is possible to maintain a clean chain at all times, but wax makes it come so close! Wax also stays put better in rain, and runs quieter since it not only covers the chain itself, but the residue winds up on the cogs and chainrings as well.
A chain like this may not be for everyone. Some drivetrains refuse to shift properly using non-standard components. I have two bikes that when you match the chain to the wrong cassette cogs, it skips a gear in the middle. When using the right chain, it works perfectly.
Best High-End Chain: YBN SLA Chain
This is crazy expensive, but it is possible to get a titanium chain! Check out the YBN SLA chain series. Nearly every chain made is normally made out of some type of steel, thus the heavyweight.
This model of chain, the YBN SLA Titanium chain replaces steel with titanium for a significant weight savings. There are a few chains that can rival its weight, but they are high end as well, such as from Campagnolo or Sram. Alternate chains may employ cut-outs in the links, or hollow pins to achieve reasonable weight savings.
Titanium has a few advantages, that end up turning into disadvantages. Titanium is a very hard metal. So it will wear out surrounding metals quicker. Chainrings since they are aluminum will wear out fast with a titanium chain.
I would recommend using a chain like this only for special circumstances. When weight savings is the ultimate goal, then go with a chain like this, but otherwise, train, or do standard riding with a lower cost affordable chain of some sort.
Most Affordable: SRAM PC 1051
For affordable chains that work with pretty much any shifting system, look at the SRAM PC chain series. I keep several of these in my shop and put them on almost any bike. They are also easy to choose the proper chain for an application.
The SRAM PC chain runs a number system for what drivetrain it fits. So a SRAM PC 1051 would fit a 10 speed rear cassette spacing. You can step up a grade by purchasing the 1071 chain for 10-speed cassettes which employ cut out links.
The cool thing with these chains is their really low cost. They are well made and very dependable. But, you can really put the miles in, and throw them away when they get worn.
At half the cost of upper-end chains, it makes sense to put one of these on your bike for normal everyday riding. When shifting performance is a must, then employ the best and most compatible chain you can find.
Best Chain in a Pinch: KMC Z Chain
The KMC Z chain is standard on so many bikes. It is a very basic chain. In a pinch, such as I had to get home, or I’m stuck without a choice, the KMC Z chain will work for you, at least partially.
On ultra-narrow 11 and now 12-speed drive trains, you are nearly forced to run very specific chains. A tenth of a millimeter makes a difference. Really! The engineering from a 9 speed to a 10-speed cassette takes exactly 1 tenth (.1) of a millimeter off of every spacer in the cassette. The chain should match accordingly.
KMC makes the Z chain, and there are a few varieties. This is a super cheap chain and really works on department store bikes. But if you had to, you could use one on a limited basis. It would partially work and gets you pedaling. Will all the gears work perfectly? No, but a few will.
Key Features When Choosing the Best Mountain Bike Chain
Basically, every chain you will see will have a hardened and polished roller pin. That is a given. In the grand scheme of things, this is the least of our worries. Chain design and compatibility are probably more important than what the chain looks like.
The most important aspect to shop for is compatibility. You have to make sure that the chain will work with the cassette you have. When you mix manufacturers too far, you will see performance issues, usually while shifting. However, there are some combinations that work anyway. It would be hard to list them here but are mostly found by experience.
If you are running an ultra-narrow setup on your mountain bike, you pretty much have to get the same manufacturer of the chain. 11 speed is starting to open up more with KMC specialty chains. But with the new SRAM 12-speed setups, you will probably want only an SRAM chain on your bike.
What ends up being the important factor is side plate design. You will see in the pictures above, that the side plates change. How much they bulge, the angles, the sharpness, and other factors change how the chain shifts.
Lubrication is very important. Keep your chains lubed based on the region and atmosphere you ride in most. What works in the desert doesn’t work in the forest. Try out a wax-based lubricant like White Lightning. This was one of the first wax lubes, that evaporates upon application leaving this wax film.
If you want to take lubrication up a notch, try a heavier wax. Something like Muc Off, or Wend lubricants apply a very have wax to the chain directly. Some even employ a stick to rub it on, but don’t confuse it with your deodorant!
Compatibility is the first and foremost aspect of choosing the best mountain bike chain for your bike. If you are looking for ultimate performance, you might try out a high-end chain like the CeramicSpeed UFO KMC chain.
Now, for the chain you chose above, lubrication is key. The right lubricant will make shifting a breeze, pedaling easier and your whole drive train last much longer.
Whether you are looking for better shifting performance on your e-MTB or want some cool upgrades to your hardtail, a high-quality chain can make riding fun again.