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Compatibility [01] Chains

Updated: 05/01/2021.

This post explains bicycle chains compatibility – which chains can be combined with which number of “speeds”. First basic facts about chain will be explained. Then compatibility and possible mixing will be given per number of speeds a chain is designed for. From one to 12 speeds.

Basic bicycle chains facts

All the bicycle chains share the same pitch of half an inch.

One hole link - outer with the inner is exactly one inch long.
One whole link (one pair of outer with one pair of inner plates) is exactly one inch long.

Where chains differ is the width. The more speeds, the narrower chain. Single speed chains are the widest, both on the outside, and the inner roller width. They have roller width of 1/8″ (3.175 mm).

Inner roller width of all the multi speed chains is almost the same, being:

  • Single speed chains have inner width of 1/8″ (3.175 mm).
  • Multi speed chains, from 5 to 8 have inner width of 3/32″ (2.38 mm).
  • Multi speed chains from 9 to 12 speeds have inner width of 11/128″ (2.18 mm).
  • “Exotic” standard for freight bicycles is 5/32″ (4 mm).

Where they differ significantly is the outer width.

R - outer chain width C - outer width with at the joining link (for single speed chains)
R – outer chain width
C – outer width at the joining link (for single speed chains)
From left to right: Campagnolo 11 speed, SRAM 10 speed, Shimano 9 sp, SRAM 6/7/8 sp, old 5 speed, 1/8" single speed chain. Note how rollers of all the multispeed chains are of the same width.
From left to right:
Campagnolo 11 speed, SRAM 10 speed, Shimano 9 sp, SRAM 6/7/8 sp, old 5 speed, 1/8″ single speed chain.
Note how rollers of all the multispeed chains are almost of the same width.

Detailed overview of dimension standards is in the post: Bicycle drive chain standard dimensions.
Post giving full view and explanation of bicycle chain construction (parts): Bicycle chain wear (elongation).

Single speed chains

Single speed chains are the widest of all. Both by the outer and the inner roller width: 1/8″ (3.175 mm) wide, compared to 3/32″ (2.38 mm) multi speed ones. Since single speed chain is by far the cheapest, there is no need to experiment with multi speed chains. However, 6 to 8 speed chains can fit some single speed bicycles – depending on the chainring width.

5, 6, 7 and 8 speed chains

7.1 mm wide 8 speed chain will fit all the other systems (5, 6 and 7 speed ones).  Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo all use the same chain with 8 speeds. Chain for 7 speeds is a bit wider – 7.3 mm, while a 6 speed one is substantially wider – 7.8 mm. That is why the reverse is not the case and a 7 speed chain and especially a 6 speed one will not work as well on an 8 speed system.

Of others, 9 speed chain can work. It is a bit narrower than optimal, but it can be used. Reverse is not wise, since wider 5 – 8 speed chain can get stuck between narrower 9 speed sprockets.

Going further narrower, like a 10, or 11 speed chain on an 8 speed cassette can and often does work. However, especially with older 6 speed cassettes combined with 11, or 12 speed chains, there is a risk of a chain getting stuck between cassette sprocket teeth and/or poorer shifting.

9 speeds

Chain width is about 6.7 mm. In a pinch, a 10 speed chain can be used. Still, narrower chain is more expensive, doesn’t last as long and will cause a bit slower shifting… but it will work. Problems generally occur at the rear – on cassettes. Front chainrings are less sensitive to the thickness of chain used.

Otherwise, all the 9 speed chains will work well, regardless of the manufacturer: Campagnolo, SRAM and Shimano.

10 speeds

Chain width is 5.88 mm. Same as for 9 speeds: all the manufacturers can be mixed and a chain for one speed more can be used in a pinch – an 11  speed chain in this case.

11 speeds

Chain width is 5.62 mm. 11 speed chains of all the manufacturers are mutually compatible.

Since 10 and 11 speed chains are almost the same width, as well as cassette teeth, 10 speed chain can be used in stead of 11 speed one, without it jamming between the sprockets. However, this will still not work perfectly and will cause premature sprocket wear, so better to avoid it.

Exception are Shimano Hyperglide+ chains, that work only with Hyperglide+ cassettes, whether they are 11, or 12-speed (same chain is used) – according to Shimano, haven’t put that to the test.

12 speeds

Chain width is 5.25 mm. Made by SRAM, and (from the mid 2018) by Shimano for their 12 speed MTB groupsets (for now), and Campagnolo (who only make road groupsets).

Not sure how it works with other systems, waiting for user input and a chance to test it.

Symmetrical vs asymmetrical chains

Shimano is, as far as I know, the only manufacturer that makes asymmetrical chains (as well as regular, symmetrical ones). The advantage of asymmetrical chain is easier and quicker shifting from small to large front chainring and vice versa.

Assymetric Shimano chain.
Asymmetric Shimano chain.

The picture above shows how asymmetrical chain doesn’t have the same outer plates for “outer” and “inner” (towards the bicycle) side.

When Shimano first introduced asymmetrical chains for road double chainrings, it was recommended not to use them on triple chainrings. They still, however, work well on triple chainrings as well.

Table of chain outer widths:

ChainThickness
 mm.
All 6-speed7.8
All 7-speed7.3
All 8-speed7.1
All 9-speed6.6 – 6.8
10-speed old Campagnolo6.2
All other 10-speed5.88
All 11-speed5.62
SRAM 12-speed MTB5.25

Related post – How to shorten a new chain to size when mounting:

Optimal chain length for bicycles with a derailleur (multi-geared bicycles)
Optimal chain length for bicycles with a derailleur (multi-geared bicycles)

Compatibility posts are also available in eBook (printable and Kindle) and paperback editions on Amazon:

Bicycle drivetrain compatibility book
Bicycle drivetrain compatibility book
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26 thoughts on “Compatibility [01] Chains”

  1. Recently tried 9spd chain with 10 spd 11-28 cassette and it did not work at all in the single step area of the cassette except for the 11t and 15t cogs. The 12-13-14t area kept chain skipping attributed to
    the chain being picked up by the next larger cog. The 17t and larger cogs were fine with the chain.
    As you note 10 spd chains seem to work fine on 11 spd cassettes. Wear factor to be determined.
    FWIW the cassette and chain were both new.

    Reply
  2. Would you know if possible to run a 12 speed SRAM AXS group while using a Cannondale SISL2 crank with 50/34 chain rings (came with 10 speed group)?

    Reply
    • Living in an impoverished country that Serbia is, I’ll probably get to work with 12 speed stuff in a year, or two, as it comes in second hand from Germany. 🙂

      So haven’t tried it.

      Based on the technical info – AXS is not a standard chain, like 12 speed SRAM Eagle chain is. It is similar to Shimano’s Hyperglide + chain – as in designed to work with the matching chainrings and cassettes (and, I’d bet a beer – to NOT work with the older stuff, so we can all go and buy the new stuff 🙂 ).

      So I would be surprised if it worked decently. But, as I said, haven’t tried it. Any feedback is welcome and appreciated, until I get my hands on those.

  3. Landed here from another site where chains were discussed, it’s a good and useful summary.
    One clarification that needs to be added. Chainrings in 9,8,7 speeds relied on protruding pins in the chain, and spacing between rings is bit wider. So if you use 9s crankset with 10s chain, you risk slightly worse shifting, but also jamming the chain between rings.
    Simple solution – On my 9s Athena cranks, I’ve put small zipties on the chainring arms, to prevent the chain falling between rings. Two zipties on both sides of the crank were enough, I’ll try to find a picture.

    Reply
    • That’s a very useful (good) feedback.

      My current setup, on the “haul everything” bike is the following:
      – Shimano FC-M563 (“8 speed” triple cranks)
      – Shimano Tourney 7 speed cassette
      – Shimano Ultegra CN-6701 (10 speed “road” chain) – using the setup for a chain-durability comparison test.

      It works well – never had it get stuck between the chainrings.
      Also – never had anyone come to my shop with such a problem.
      Now – 99.99% of the people in Serbia ride Shimano, or SRAM. Campagnolo is like a Unicorn: everyone knows it is cool, but no one has seen it. 🙂
      (I’ve fixed and tuned a few Campagnolo bicycles, but it’s literally about 1 in a 1000, if not even more rare)

      Could it be said that those problems are Campagnolo specific?
      Did anyone have similar problems with Shimano, or SRAM?

  4. I’m assuming you can use a 12 speed chain on any gear scenario. Yes? I’m currently operating both 11 speed and 12 speed cassettes on multiple bikes – all using 12 speed chains (SRAM XX1 Rainbow chains) and shifting appears perfect.

    Reply
    • I’m using a 10 speed chain on a 7 speed cassette (and “7-8 speed” cranks) – works fine.
      But I haven’t tested 12 speed chains on fewer gear drivetrains, so can’t confirm. But I would expect them to work OK.

    • Chain “cares” about the sprockets, doesn’t really “care” about the rest of the stuff.
      So 11 speed chains are generally interchangeable, except Shimano XTR M9100 11 speed chains (as noted and linked in this article’s section on 11 speed chains).

  5. I have a Kmc X10 sl dlc 10 speed black/green chain (Was bloody expensive) looking to fit it to my 9 speed bike I’m aware the sizings between 9 and 10 are a tiny bit different but will it work?

    Reply
    • It should work fine.
      The other way round (9 speed chain on a 10 speed cassette) could cause problems – since the chain would be too wide.
      But this, with the chain being slightly narrower than necessary is fine.
      Currently running a 10-speed chain on a 7 speed cassette myself. 🙂

  6. Is a wider 7 spd chain (7.2 -7.3) going to work better than a “one size fits all” 6,7,8 spd chain (7.1), on my Ultegra 7 speed?

    Reply
  7. Would SRAM 10 Ring Chainrings work with the new SHIMANO 105 11-speed groupset? I have some really nice Carbon Cranks and nearly new 10 speed SRAM chainrings on my bike, but want to upgrade to the SHIMANO 105 11-speed shifters/derrailleuer/Cassette. What are your thoughts?

    Reply
    • I’d definitely give the old cranks a test before buying anything new. Would expect them to work fine.

      Although, I’d first consider: what is wrong/lacking with the current setup? What exactly needs to be upgraded?

  8. Thank you for all of your good information!
    I am trying to make an old 5-speed ride-able for my wife, and this information helped quite a bit.
    I thought I had it all figured out- just get a compatible chain for a 6,7, or 8 speed and I’m good to go, but then saw a comment in a 6-speed KMC chain advertisement where the poster said the chain wouldn’t work oh his/her 5-speed. I’m now thinking that comment must have been in error, as no reason was given for why it wouldn’t work.
    Trying to do this cheaply, as if she doesn’t take to riding like I have, no big loss- but also if she does take to it, I may have to get her a newer bike with a triple chain ring setup to climb some of the 5% grades in the area. I could tweak the gearset on this old Murray, but the steel frame would be a hard thing for which to compensate!

    Reply
  9. Hi Relja,

    Thank you for the excellent and informative article! I’m looking for a little help on how I can best add lower gearing to my road bike and wondered if you might be able to provide any advice.

    I have a 1986 Cannondale SR400 that I love and have been riding since it was new. I’m now 59 though and looking for a little lower gearing than the 175mm 42/52 Shimano 105 chainset and 13-24 SunTour six speed threaded 126mm freewheel allow so I can spin up the hilly areas I enjoy riding. The front and rear derailleurs are SunTour Cycone friction. I upgraded the wheels around 1990 to Campy C record hubs with Omega Hardox rims, so I’m reluctant to switch to a modern cassette 130mm freehub, both because of the excellence of the current wheels, and the 126mm to 130mm hub spacing difference with my aluminum frame. I’ve seen a few 7 speed freewheels that have a 28 tooth cog, but they were quite inexpensive and I thought they may be heavy and/or lower quality items. If I switch components, I’d like to reduce weight and improve quality/performance. I also wasn’t sure about the ability of my short cage rear derailleur to handle it.

    I’m wondering about the possibility of using a compact chainset such as a 50-34 but noticed they are often listed as “11 Speed” or “12 Speed” chainsets. Would you know if such chainsets might perform properly with a six speed freewheel using a six speed chain?

    Any suggestions or recommendations would be greatly appreciated!!!

    Thanks very much Relja, and have a Blessed Day!!!

    Mitch
    “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Colossians 3:17, 3:23-24

    Reply
    • Hello Mitch,

      Brief answer:
      Any road cranks, including 10, and 11 speed 50-34 ones (probably even better 46-30 – to offer lower gearing) should work.

      Long… long answer: 🙂
      Your comment struck a cord – some 2 weeks ago I had to resort to this (zig-zag) technique for a significant part of a rather steep and long climb. 🙂 It was a Sunday, and a relatively abandoned road at this part of the year – any odd traffic could be heard coming from kilometres away.

      I also run 42/53 (half-step gearing 🙂 ), but with a Shimano deore rear derailleur, and a custom made cassette that goes from 12 to 34 teeth. Laced the rear wheel with a Joytech freehub (cheap, 2nd hand, but works well), and used good sprockets of 3 different cassettes (and a mix of Uniglide and Hyperglide sprockets, combined – mix of 7 and 8 speed sprockets and spacers). Friction (down tube) shifters allowed for that to work wonderfully. And, I hope as I get back into shape that I won’t have to swap the cranks for a triple, or a more modern compact double (like 30-46, or 34-54). I kinda like the half step gearing up front – for most of the terrain – at least with the custom cassette I’ve made.

      Not 100% sure (would have to check) if the rear spacing on my bike is 126, or 130, but I know that I had to remove some spacers from the hub – replacing them with a bit narrower ones (because I didn’t want to “torture” the frame, even though it’s a steel one – it rides too wonderfully to be touched 🙂 ). And, in order to avoid the rear wheel from getting extremely dished, I narrowed both the left, and the right hand side. Resulting in the chain rubbing on the chainstay when on the smallest rear sprocket – so using the H limit screw, I prevented RD from ever shifting onto the smallest rear sprocket (so it’s used only to lock the others in place, and the cassette is effectively a 7-speed 14-15-17-19-24-28-34 one).

      There are also 7 speed freewheels made by Shimano, with 13-34 gearing. The quality is quite good (durable, reliable), but I don’t suppose they are super light. And going in that direction would probably require swapping your rear derailleur for a new one. Like Shimano Claris SG (mid-sized cage), or Acera / Deore MTB SGS (long cage).

      Other option, you mentioned, is swapping the cranks. Going with a triple (50-39-30, or a MTB one like 44-34-24) would require replacing the front derailleur. Well, probably the rear derailleur as well, to avoid the chain from getting slack if using small-small gearing combos (as discussed here under “4. Rear derailleur chain wrap capacity not big enough“).

      On the other hand, a “smaller” double would allow for everything except the cranks to remain the same. 50-34 is a “tricky” combo with modern cassettes, the ones that start with 11, or 12 teeth. With such cassettes, the 50T large chain is too large to be used on flats with the smallest 3 sprockets, while the 34 T chainring is too small to be used with anything other than the smallest 3 sprockets. So one ends up riding severely cross chained quite often. However, those, more reasonable (in my opinion at least), cassettes that start with 13, or 14 teeth can be used nicely on the flats, from the larger 50 T chainring, without the chain being too crossed. So it might be a good match.

      There are also cranks that have 46-30 T combo. Those provide a bit more “universal” large chainring, while the smaller one can be useful for extremely long steep climbs, when one just gets their “legs full” (exhausted).

      These modern cranks are often sold and marketed as 10, or 11 (or even 12) speed ones. But, especially if using friction shifters, I would be surprised to notice any kind of problem. Sure – when using the smaller chainring, and the outer part of the cassette (smallest 1/3 of the sprockets, riding severely cross chained), depending on your chainstay length, you might have the chain rub against the largest chainring. But that is the situation when you should shift to the larger chainring anyway (further discussed in the 5th chapter of my article about bicycle chainline). For a full disclosure – I haven’t tested this with any 12 speed cranks. But unless we’re talking about the new MTB stuff, designed for a different kind of chain, I’d expect it to work as well (a discussion on Shimano 12 speed MTB cranks for specially designed chain).

      Relja

  10. Hi Relja,

    Thank you so much for your very informative and helpful reply! I probably spend 80% of my time riding in just 4 gears: 42-19, 42-17, 52-19 & 52-17. These cover me on the flats and small rollers depending on wind speed/direction, and the remaining 20% of the time I’m in 42-24 for uphill and 52-13 for down. That said, it sounds like the compact options you suggested might provide just what I need. The 46-30 combo with the more ‘universal large chainring is especially interesting, as it seems I could spend the majority of my time on the large chainring to cover the range I use most and only shift to the smaller ring when it gets hilly, although I guess after all these years I am pretty used to the double shift. 🙂

    BTW, I recently heard a suggestion to consider shortening the crank arms as a way to help keep cadence up hills. I’ve always run 175mm’s, as I’m 6’3″ with a 36″ inseem and weigh 175 lbs. Have you ever heard of doing this? I thought crank arm length was typically tied to leg length.

    Thanks again very much for the super info Relja, and have a Blessed Day!

    Take care!

    Mitch

    “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Colossians 3:17, 3:23-24

    Reply
    • Shorter cranks generally do make higher cadences a bit easier. But that’s not the whole story. There are a few more things to bare in mind:

      1) Taller people, i.e. those with longer legs, might still find longer cranks as a better fit.
      2) On the climbs, cadences rarely go super-high, while longer cranks do provide more leverage.
      3) Differences are relatively subtle, slight, unless one rides over 100 rpm quite often.

      So I wouldn’t sweat the length of the current cranks, while, if buying a new set (all else being equal), I’d probably look for 172.5 mm length (for 6’3″ height, and a road bicycle).

      Regards,
      Relja

  11. Hey Relja,

    Thanks for your additional helpful info! You’ve given me a lot of great tips, and as a result, I feel MUCH better prepared to find the right solution to keep me in the saddle a bit more and improve my “advanced age” hill climbing. 🙂

    It’s certain to be a fun adventure, and I’m really looking forward to upgrading my ride.

    Here’s wishing you and yours a very Blessed Christmas and most Joyous New Year, filled with lots of happy riding adventures.

    Thanks again Relja, and all the best!

    Take care!

    Mitch

    “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Colossians 3:17, 3:23-24

    Reply
    • Hi Mitch,

      Thanks – happy holidays to you to. 🙂
      Let me know what you went for and how it worked out for you.

      Regards,
      Relja

  12. Hi there Relja,

    I am wondering if an MTB 8 speed to 12 speed chains will work on a bmx chainring? Because, I would like to install a BMX crank to my DH bike.

    Thanks,

    Marcea

    Reply
    • Hi Marcea,

      It depends. Some single speed chainrings are designed for single speed chains – so multi speed chains, that are narrower in their mid-section (between the inner plates, call it “roller width”) won’t fit.
      Some can take multi speed chains. Still, even with those – 12 speed chains, like the Shimano MTB 12 speed one, won’t work very well with anything but their chainrings and cassettes.
      Also, I fail to see the point in buying a more expensive multi speed chain for a single speed drivetrain. Single speed chains are noticeably cheaper, and not less durable.

      Relja

  13. Relja,

    Yikes!, I am reading it again your article above. Online store leads me to this – > Chainring for BMX is indeed 1/8″ whereas the multi speed is 3/32″. You’re right, but I am a little bit sad. Somehow converting my DH to BMX, It was a childhooood memory though for a BMX bike.

    Happy Holidays and Gracias!.

    Marcea

    Reply

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