Getting the wrong chain on your bike can damage all the components from your drivetrain, and this can cost you a lot of money to repair. A bike’s drivetrain has the same importance as the motor on a car, the chain is an important component of the drivetrain so getting the right one is very important.
The chain will have a major impact on your bike’s performance and the lifespan of your drivetrains components.
MTB and road chains are not the same, MTB chains are designed to shift up more easily under load because oftentimes on trails you face stiff ascents and you aren’t in the right gear, road chains are designed to shift down more quickly and this helps when you get prepared for a sprint.
In this article, I will tell you what is the difference between different types of chains used on mountain bikes and road bikes and which ones are interchangeable. So keep reading!
Are Road and MTB Chains Different?
Mountain biking and road biking have developed a lot in the last couple of years and bike components are becoming more and more specialized for a type of riding, it has gone sofas as now we have chains that are declared to be designed for road bikes or for mountain bikes.
Many veteran riders have the opinion that the two chains are the same and it is all a marketing strategy, but manufacturers are declaring that the two chains aren’t interchangeable and you should buy an MTB chain if you have a mountain bike and a road chain if you have a road bike.
So what are the changes over the years on these chains? The most important change is the chain width that becomes narrower to fit the new cassettes that come with more gears.
|Nr. of cogs on the cassette||Chain width|
|6,7 and 8 speeds||7.1 mm|
|9 speeds||6.8 mm|
|10 speeds||Shimano: 6.1 mm|
SRAM: 5.95 mm
|11 speeds||Shimano: 5.62 mm|
SRAM: 5.7 mm
|12 speeds||Shimano: 5.25 mm|
SRAM: 5.25 mm
As we can see in the table above the chains were a lot wider and to be honest if you have a 6 to 9-speed cassette you don’t have to worry too much if the chain is for mountain bikes or road bikes, you need to get a chain with 7.1 mm or 6.8 mm width and that is all.
So a chain width can be reduced by reducing the inner with or the other width of the chain, the inner with of chains for 10 to 12-speed cassettes is the same, only the width of the chainplates changes.
Because of this, we can see that the chain width suffers little changes from 10 to 11 speed and from 11 to 12 speed, a 0.37 or 0.45 mm is a small change that the naked eye can’t really perceive, and because of this many people think that those chains are identical. But they aren’t!
Chains for a 6 to 9-speed cassette are universal so you don’t need to worry too much.
If you have a 10-speed, 11-speed, or 12-speed cassette you must get a chain designed for it, as you can see the width of the chains manufactured by Shimano differs from SRAM’s chains. Cassettes for 10 speed and up are harder to manufacture and every manufacturer has its own design for them.
For this reason, it is not ideal to combine parts of your drivetrain that are produced by different manufacturers, they aren’t designed to work with each other, and as the guys from Shimano said in an interview. The guy that designed the cassette sits close to the guy that designs the chain and he sits close to the guy that designs the derailleur and when they are finished they will all be tested together.
Keep in mind that on these cassettes that have 10 or more speeds the distances between gears are so small that the chains must be produced at incredible accuracy.
Now if we compare the two biking disciplines we can see that they are fairly different, so the needs of the riders are different.
In mountain biking, one of the biggest problems is that many times you need to change gears under load because you aren’t in the right gear for a stiff climb. So MTB chains are designed to be easily changed up under load so that you can change gears when you are in the middle of a climb without destroying your cassette.
In road biking, you often need to sprint to move in front of another ride so a chain needs to easily move down so that you can start your sprint as soon as possible, and with this in mind, the road chain was designed.
Are Road and MTB Chains Interchangeable?
One question I get a lot is if road bike chains are interchangeable with mountain bike chains and if you have older bikes with 6 to 9-speed cassettes the answer is yes.
Things are getting complicated when we speak of 10-speed and up cassettes, here the manufacturing precision is insane and drivetrains are designed as a hole for every manufacturer.
The ideal case for 10-speed bikes and up is to have the entire drivetrain (cassette, chain, derailleur, etc.) from the same manufacturer, yes you can combine an SRAM chain with a Shimano cassette but they won’t perform as well as an SRAM chain on an SRAM cassette.
Because the differences are so small between cassettes and chains you will not spot them right away with the naked eye and you will have the impression that they work well together but you can’t be further from the truth.
An SRAM derailleur is perfectly calibrated to work with the SRAM chains and cassettes and even if you have the impression that they work well with Shimano parts it is just an illusion that will cost you in the long run, because your cassette will wear down more easily and you end up paying more to replace it.
So we can easily say that an SRAM MTB chain is not interchangeable with a Shimano MTB chain, you can do it but you will have extra were on your cassette and derailleur so it will not be worth it.
Keep in mind that Shimano chains are directional and SRAM ones are not, you should put the Shimano chain with the inscription facing the outside of the bike.
Road bike derailleurs are different than mountain bike derailleurs and the cogs on the cassette have different designs than the ones on a mountain bike so even if you can put the chain from a road bike on a mountain bike and vice versa it is not recommended for 10-speed bikes and up.
In conclusion, we can say that is not worth saving a couple of bucks by using a chain from a road bike on a mountain bike and vice versa if you have a 10 to 12-speed bike.
On bikes with 6 to 9-speed, you can definitely do it with no conscience.
If you have an expensive 12-speed bike it is recommended that all your drive train components should have the same manufacturer because they are designed to work flawlessly together and this will prolong their life.
I started mountain biking many years ago to improve my overall health state. After my first ride, I fell in love with the sport. Now I spend dozens of hours a week researching and training to compete in local XC and Enduro events.