Road Cycling

Finding the best bicycle chain: What over 3000 hours of testing revealed – CyclingTips

The bicycle chain. Most won’t give it a second thought when it comes time for a new one, and it’s common to simply replace the worn chain with one that matches the name on the derailleurs. Perhaps a rare few will try something else in the pursuit of improved corrosion resistance, better shifting, lighter weight, or a few dollars saved.

But given the chain is one of the hardest-working components on a bike, why do we stop there? We know the choice of chain lube can have major influence over a chain’s durability and efficiency, but surely chains themselves must vary in how durable and efficient they are?

These are questions often asked without definitive answers, but there is some insight emerging. Adam Kerin of Zero Friction Cycling is doing some impressive work in this space and has spent some 3,000 hours and over AU$15,000 of his own money to find the best chain. With exclusive access to Zero Friction Cycling’s findings, we dive deep into the topic to help find the best bike chain you can buy.

Durability versus efficiency

As previously reported in our best chain lube feature, Adam Kerin found an almost direct correlation between reduced friction (efficiency) and improved chain durability when selecting chain lubricants. And that makes sense: if a lubricant is causing vast abrasive wear on metal, it has to be wasting energy, too.

However, when it comes to the chains themselves, there is no such correlation or pattern. What the testing did show is that there are substantial differences in the durability and efficiency between chains, and some chains excel in one area, while others manage to find a healthy balance of both. And those differences can be quite apparent, with thousands of kilometres separating the best and worst in terms of durability, and as much as a 4 watt (at 250W, 90rpm) difference in drag – not insignificant figures.

Imagine spending a year of your life watching this do circles. Adam Kerin doesn’t have to imagine it – he did it.

Kerin subjected 31 models of chain to his motorised Tacx Neo torture chamber, keeping the lube (White Lightning Epic Ride, previously tested to be a poor and abrasive lube) and contamination controlled, all while measuring chain wear along the way. In all he clocked a combined 80,000 km of simulated riding. Each chain was tested at least twice (53 links at a time), matched with a half-length of Shimano Ultegra control chain each time. And yes, that control chain proved repeatably stable, validating the results shared here.

Additionally, I reached out to CeramicSpeed for access to their chain data. There’s a lot of information to unpack here.

Price, coatings and cut-outs

According to Kerin, it’s quite easy to see how the manufacturing tolerances, materials, metal treatments, and coatings directly impact on the durability, efficiency and even how well a chain gets along with a certain lubricant.

However, the specifics of those different coatings and processes remain a closely guarded secret of each respective brand. Kerin and I found ourselves going in loops with brands who repeated their marketing documentation for the specific differences between models – seems Coca-Cola and KFC aren’t the only ones unwilling to share their secret recipes.

An exploded view of a single chain link. Rarely is each component given the same treatment or coating, and often the more you spend, the more components in the chain are given premium treatments. For instance, expensive low-friction and surface-hardening treatments done to the rollers are typically kept for the most premium chains.

It’s often these coatings and materials used that dictate a price difference in chains. A lower grade of steel and/or different levels of material hardening may be present between the cheapest and most expensive of chains. Low friction coatings are typically the most obvious difference, with the likes of Shimano 105, Ultegra and Dura-Ace chains offering an increasing number of coated parts as the price increases (and kudos to Shimano for being relatively transparent on this topic).

For SRAM, it’s latest top-tier chains feature “Hard Chrome” which is described by the company’s Road Technical Marketing Coordinator, Brooklyn Fowler, as being “a far more expensive process requiring very stringent process control that results in an extremely hard and therefore wear-resistant surface.” Compare that to the simple “Chrome” mentioned for chains such as the Red 22 which according to Fowler is simply “used to prevent corrosion and give a nice appearance.”

“Some treatments are more about marketing and aesthetics versus performance,” Kerin said. “Just like a chain’s lubrication and cleanliness – it is what is going on inside the chain that counts. The outside is vastly less important.” One example Kerin provides is KMC’s DLC (Diamond Like Coating) which is applied after the chain is assembled, rather than directly on the internal pieces which are most responsible for slowing chain elongation.

I’ll avoid regurgitating the marketing names of the various coatings and treatments used by each company. After all, what those names mean remains a closely-guarded secret.

Manufacturing tolerances surely play a large role, too, and it makes sense that more expensive chain models would be treated to more stringent quality control and tighter manufacturing tolerances. However, tolerances change between batches, and so as Kerin found, it’s not a given that spending more gives you more.

Weight also plays a factor in the price of a chain. Premium chains from most brands feature slotted (or drilled) plates and hollow pins for weight savings. Those hollow pins often create a stronger chain, too, at least according to Shimano and SRAM, with such chains earning an extra peening process that tapers the ends of the pins.

Other considerations

There are of course other factors beyond durability and efficiency that help to define a good chain, and it can often greatly depend on your specific drivetrain setup.

Cross-compatibility between models is a tricky game in the chain world. Every drivetrain manufacturer will tell you not to run any chain other than their own, while the aftermarket chain makers just say “trust us, it’s cool”. In most cases, 8, 9, 10 and 11-speed drivetrain users can mix-and-match between brands without too much concern – as long as you keep with the right cog count (as covered in our drivetrain compatibility article). And heck, in many cases you can even pick a chain that’s one speed higher than your drivetrain and see improved shifting and durability (narrower chains are less likely to rub on the edges of nearby cogs, while most companies have seemingly improved durability with each generation).

However, 12-speed is a totally different story. Shimano’s new 12-speed mountain bike system absolutely works best with Shimano’s own chain, and that chain doesn’t play nicely with others. Meanwhile, SRAM AXS Road uses a chain with an oversized roller, meaning you currently can’t AXS other brands (get it, eh, eh?).

Not covered in this test is shifting performance, and those with lots of experiencing in swapping chains, such as Kerin, typically say it makes a negligible difference. My experience suggests that the drivetrain manufacturers typically optimise their chain plate shapes to best match their own shifting ramps, and there is some difference, even if it’s difficult to detect. Shift quality is subjective but durability and efficiency are not.

Also not covered is corrosion resistance. Generally speaking, higher-end chains offer coatings or materials which are better equipped to resist rust when left to the elements.

And lastly, tensile and rivet strength is a factor that’s important but is currently unknown. Kerin is in the process of working on this very area, so stay tuned. In the meantime know that all chains tested fall under regulated strength standards and are considered quality items from reputable companies.

Testing Protocol: A game of roller versus elongation wear

As recently covered in our deep dive on chain wear, there are multiple ways to measure chain wear (aka chain stretch). For Kerin, his previous approach had always been to use a KMC Digital chain checker, something that repeatably reads to .01mm. However, variances in recorded roller diameter and wear rates of the rollers themselves forced Kerin to also adopt the more traditional method of measuring total chain elongation. I won’t get into what this all means as our chain wear article covers it in detail, but for the sake of transparency, the wear rates are listed as including roller wear (KMC digital chain wear checker tool) and as the pin-to-pin elongation (full length of 53-link chain section, measured under load).

KMC Digital chain wear gauge

The KMC Digital Chain Wear Checker is a personal favourite as it allows easy and finite wear measurement. However, do beware that it is influenced by chain roller diameter, and as Adam Kerin found out, is all but useless on SRAM chains.

I’ll save you all the specifics of Kerin’s testing and testing protocol, but if you’re interested, hang up your bike, call your family, let your work know you’re feeling under the weather, and cancel all of your arrangements. Once you’ve done that, then read Zero Friction Cycling’s chain testing brief and its lubricant test protocol. Yeah … it’s long.

The most durable 11-speed chains

Going into this test, Kerin was expecting to find that the top chains from the major manufacturers were pretty close, and similarly when comparing the lower-level chains. “However, there were some big surprises which required a lot of further investigation and additional independent testing – it has taken over a year!”

Kerin tested 31 models of chain, all bought out of his own pocket. This is most, but not all of them.

Kerin’s durability testing isn’t the first in the space, and not long ago Wippermann Connex conducted its own such test to find the most durable chain. Some of those results line up with what Kerin found, but there are a number of obvious discrepancies (especially related to KMC and SRAM chains).

Wippermann’s test was run on a full-load machine (single speed, no rear derailleur) and the chains were worn to an oh-so-toast 1%. Wippermann also only measured elongation wear, completely overlooking roller wear as a factor to consider (an area Wippermann chains didn’t fare so well in with Kerin’s test). Whereas Kerin’s test is simulated on a real bike, with a derailleur to release chain tension and allow the lube, grit and dirt to settle into the chain in more real-world ways, and he ran his testing to a more relevant .5% wear that aims to leave the drivetrain components in a suitable condition for a new chain.

Kerin’s testing points to the Wippermann Connex SX, Wippermann Connex SB, SRAM XX1 Hard Chrome and YBN E-bike as being the 11-speed kings of durability in terms of resistance to elongation wear (take note, the elongation wear qualifier is important, which I’ll soon cover). Coming in just behind, and reaching the .5% wear mark at near 3,000 km were the Shimano Dura-Ace (HG-901), YBN SLA Gold, Campagnolo Chorus, Campagnolo Record, and YBN Anti Corrosion.

If 3,500 km doesn’t sound impressive, keep in mind that each chain is subjected to an accelerated process of wear with grit and a known poor choice of chain lube.

At the other end of the scale was the KMC X11E chain which lasted only 1,694 km in Kerin’s gritty test, and inexplicably, KMC’s US$120 DLC chain wasn’t any better. For now, Kerin’s theory is that the coatings used on many KMC chains repel common lubricants from doing their task, and it’s a theory backed up by the fact that many users often report their KMC chains sounding dry and squeaky in short periods of time.

Kerin did retest the KMC X11E chain with a good lube (NFS) and also found wear rates to be relatively poor when compared to the control chain (however, and as expected, the NFS lube did result in almost twice the distance before wear). That said, Kerin has tested a handful of KMC models, including the brand-new X11TT oil-slick (race day) chain, which actually posted impressively good durability results – despite KMC’s own claim it trades 5% durability for improved speed – and so it’s not out of the question that Kerin got his hands on a bad batch of KMC chains.

Because of this unexplained inconsistency, and the surprisingly good results of the brand new X11TT chain, Kerin plans to retest the DLC chain in near time, a chain that KMC claims to be its most durable 11-speed offering. This article will be updated once those results are in.

After KMC’s X11E chain, it was FSA’s Team Issue chain and SRAM’s budget PC1130 which were due for replacement by the 2,000 km mark, two-thirds of what many popular premium chains reached.

However, as teased in the chain wear article, Kerin found many discrepancies between pure elongation wear (total length) and wear that included the chain rollers when measured with a chain wear tool. Specifically, Kerin notes the average lifespan of a chain tested to .5% with a digital chain wear checker was 2,200 km, whereas the average increased to 2,700 km (19% increase) when measured on elongation.

Testing by Adam Kerin of Zero Friction Cycling points to there being big discrepancies between roller-included and pure elongation wear. The chains which show high and relatively even numbers for both measurement methods are best.

Much of this is related to the hardness, coatings and tolerances of the rollers. Where it’s common to see inner, outer and pins given special heat treatments, the rollers are rarely spoken of – and this is certainly an element that came up in Kerin’s testing.

Both Campagnolo Record and YBN SLA chains achieved almost equal roller-based and elongation-based wear rates – the desired outcome as it means chain wear tools will provide an accurate gauge. Both of these chains are excellent choices. SRAM’s XX1 Hard Chrome chain did great in this regard too, but as covered in the next section, it’s a tricky chain to measure.

However, almost all other 11-speed chains showed discrepancies between roller-based and pure elongation wear. And two of the most durable chains in terms of elongation, the Wippermann SX and SB, showed some of the largest discrepancies between the two wear-check methods, hitting just 1,872 and 1,902 km respectively with a chain wear checking tool versus the 3,389 and 3,490 km achieved through pure elongation measurement.

Other chains that showed wear noticeably faster via a chain wear checker than pure elongation were Shimano Dura-Ace, YBN E-bike chain, SRAM PC1170 and SRAM PC1190.

This chart combines the measured wear and purchase cost of each chain. It’s somewhat misleading as some of the cheapest chains, which had OK durability, are also those that you need to watch carefully for progressive wear as coatings are worn away. It’s these cheaper chains that are most likely to leave you with unexpected drivetrain wear unless you’re fastidious with your wear checking. You’ll also likely be gaining a chain that’s smoother, stronger, and more resistant to rust when spending more.

So what can one do with this information? Well, it’s important to consider that it’s the rollers that interface with the cogs. And to a point, it’s the distance between these rollers that the cogs must mesh with. As suggested in the chain wear article, measuring the roller-to-roller distance may have its flaws, but realistically, it’s still the easiest and most repeatable method for gauging chain wear and its impact on cog wear.

Taking things further, Kerin also measured each chain before testing to check manufacturing tolerances. The vast majority offered the correct pitch of 12.7mm per link, however, there were a small handful of chains that overshot the mark. Variance in roller dimensions can be excused, but a difference in pure elongation when new cannot, and for that, Kerin points to sloppy manufacturing (perhaps isolated to bad batches) as the only answer. FSA was the worst offender in this case, while KMC (DLC and X11E), Wippermann Connex (SB), and even Campagnolo (Record 12-speed) also had chains which were slightly over the mark in this sense.

The most durable 12-speed chains

It’s commonly thought that chains have become less durable as extra cogs have been added to the rear cassette, but seemingly, that is a misconception. With lessons learned in materials engineering, metal treatments and design, many 11-speed chains improved in durability over 10-speed chains, and it seems the same applies for certain brands of 12-speed chains, too.

Shimano’s new XTR 12-speed chain proved to be outstanding in this regard and aligns perfectly with what Shimano claims as far as improved durability. However, and as Kerin points out, the new chains feature a totally new plate shaping that’s designed to improve shift performance, but in turn, makes it a poor fit for other drivetrains. The likes of WolfTooth are now offering compatible rings, but at least for now, Shimano’s excellent 12-speed chains are best kept to their own 12-speed mountain bike drivetrains.

Both Shimano and SRAM can comfortably claim to have improved longevity with their top-tier 12-speed chains versus the equivalent 11-speed options.

If the durability of SRAM’s 11-speed XX1 chain was impressive, then the results of SRAM’s high-end Eagle chains are simply mind-blowing. The top-tier X01 and XX1 Eagle chains both beat Kerin’s 5,000 km test and only recorded 70% of the allowed elongation wear at the time of doing so. Extrapolated out, these chains would likely have hit 7,000 km with the terrible control chain lube. They’re so durable, in fact, that they had started to wear through the cogs from pure abrasion before measuring as worn. Keep in mind that the control lubricant was intentionally abrasive, and so you can expect great life from your SRAM Eagle drivetrain if you keep it clean.

“SRAM claim the world’s longest-lasting chain with their XX1, and they are not kidding,” Kerin said. “Both the X01 and XX1 chains were so far ahead of any other chain from a pure elongation wear measure that I had to re-run the tests. The results were basically identical. Their longevity is phenomenal.”

A pure cost vs distance analysis points toward SRAM’s cheaper chains being better value in the long run. But just be warned that they’re only better value if you keep a close check on the more rapid chain wear and replace before they cause elongation wear on the cogs. This can be a big gamble given just how expensive 12-speed cassettes are.

However it’s not all rainbows for SRAM, and as I’ll discuss in the next section, those tight tolerances are seemingly costing them watts. Likewise, the same great durability, unfortunately, isn’t present in SRAM’s cheaper Eagle NX and Eagle GX. If you run SRAM Eagle, then spend the extra on an X01 chain.

And as covered in the chain wear article, SRAM chains do present major issues if using standard chain wear measuring tools. This is directly related to the use of oversized rollers. In fact, common chain tools won’t physically fit into the X01 and XX1-level SRAM chains, even after elongation wear is measured. At least for now, SRAM chains are best measured with backside-to-backside wear tools such as the Pedros’ Chain Checker Plus II and Park Tool CC-4, or better yet, with a pure elongation wear measurement.

Campagnolo may just be the exception to 12-speed being more durable, and its new 12-speed Record chain does suffer a slight drop in durability compared to the 11-speed version. Still, Kerin is happy to call it a great chain.

KMC’s X12 Ti Nitride 12-speed chain falls well short in expected durability. However, as covered in the next section, it certainly has a purpose.

More and more 12-speed chains are continually hitting the market, and these are something that Kerin will likely revisit in the future. For example, Kerin is eagerly awaiting a new production 12-speed chain from YBN.

Kerin’s testing rig is currently setup for running regular drivetrain components. SRAM’s new AXS Road requires some very specific cogs, and aftermarket options are limited.

Perhaps the most glaring omissions from the list are SRAM’s new Flat Top chains required for its Red and Force AXS road groupsets. These chains feature oversized rollers which require specific cassettes and chainrings to use. At the time of writing, Kerin was not setup to do such testing, but does suggest that based on the SRAM Eagle chain results, the AXS Flat Top chain will be, without question, amazingly durable. And the expectation is that the Red version, with its Hard Chrome coated rollers, will be the more durable of the two.

The most efficient 11 and 12-speed chains

There are a mind-numbing number of factors that go into making a chain efficient, and that’s no surprise when you consider there are over 38,000 unique instances of sliding friction involved every minute at 90 rpm. And when it comes to understanding what makes a chain fast, there’s arguably nobody on this planet that knows the space better than Jason Smith, formerly of FrictionFacts and now the Chief Technology Officer at CeramicSpeed.

So what makes a chain fast? The brief answer is: larger gaps between the various components, allowing lubricant to travel freely and do its job while reducing the sheer amount of friction between the various chain parts. Examples of this are seen with KMC and Shimano chains, which are both known to show minor amounts of roller-based wear when new, and according to CeramicSpeed, are lightning-fast, too.

CeramicSpeed was willing to share some of its recent and typically-secret data about which chains perform best with the UFO V2 race treatment process. The process for applying the secret-formula wax-based submersion lubricant (after a multi-stage cleaning process) is the same across all chain models, and so it provides a clear and precise indication of the most efficient chains.

CeramicSpeed’s data shows the results of its race-day UFO chains. These figures are of actual wattage lost to friction per chain. The lower the number, the better. Keep in mind that CeramicSpeed’s chains are using a coating that’s truly special, and the friction numbers between chain models are likely to be far greater with regular lubricants. CeramicSpeed states that chains with the stock factory grease (as they come out of the packet) are typically in the range of 8-10W.

Shimano is clearly working some magic with its 11-speed chains, and Campagnolo isn’t too far behind. KMC and YBN are also worth considering if you’re looking to get more efficiency from your drivetrain. And KMC’s new (and expensive!) X11TT chain is a little too fresh to know for sure but is likely competitive with Shimano, too.

On the reverse of this, CeramicSpeed’s testing points to SRAM chains as consistently being the least efficient. In fact, some of SRAM’s newest chains (Eagle XX1) are sluggish enough that CeramicSpeed currently chooses to not offer race-day treatments for them. A micrometre gives one indication for why this sluggishness may exist, with SRAM chains revealing far tighter tolerances between components than is seen with many of SRAM’s competitors. However, tolerance or gaps between chain pieces are only a part of the story, and the coatings and chain materials used are also likely responsible.

According to CeramicSpeed’s data, the Eagle X01 chain (which sits at an average wattage of 6.27W with UFO V2 treatment) is approximately half a watt more efficient than the top-tier Eagle XX1 Gold chain. And similarly, SRAM’s Force AXS Flat Top chain is faster than the more expensive Red version. Seemingly the two Eagle chains are structurally identical but with different coatings applied, and it’s the coating that seems to cause a spike in drag. And this finding — of the second-tier chain being faster — goes against the trends seen in other chain brands.

CeramicSpeed’s own UFO chain data creates a clear picture of which brands are fast, and which are not. (Note: Graph shows average wattage figures and is therefore only an approximation). *SRAM’s Eagle X01 UFO V2-treated chain has been tested, but is currently not sold by CeramicSpeed.

SRAM, of course, denies that its chains are slower than the competition, and Brooklyn Fowler explained that SRAM does indeed do efficiency testing and designs its products accordingly.

“Efficiency testing is extremely challenging to do properly, and is only valid when testing a complete system,” Fowler said. “A chain-only test on a cog or chainring that is not specifically designed for that chain is meaningless. SRAM has invested many, many years and countless hours to get this right. Our data shows that our drivetrains perform comparably to the competition, sometimes slightly above and sometimes slightly below, usually within +/- tenths of a percent (0.x%) of efficiency.”

Of course, the likes of Adam Kerin and CeramicSpeed’s engineers strongly disagree with SRAM’s suggestion that chain-only testing is meaningless. Personally I don’t doubt that SRAM does its own in-house (and secret) testing, but one must also consider that their top-tier drivetrains feature premium (and expensive) ceramic bearing-equipped derailleur pulley wheels and bottom bracket bearings, and low-friction coatings on cogs – all things that could help to make up some of the difference that’s being lost in the chain. And so it’s not hard to imagine that a chain with looser interfaces, although not as durable, could prove to be more efficient.

Worth spending more? A case of Shimano 105 vs Ultegra vs Dura-Ace

Mixing and matching of components across different model levels is nothing new, but only recently did I hear an employee of Shimano state that if there’s one part you should spend more on, it’s the chain.

With increasingly prevalent low-friction coatings and expected improvements to material tolerances with each bump up in price, Shimano chains do show some improvements in durability as the price goes up – at least to a point. These coatings also help to explain why Kerin experienced a progressive ramp-up of wear rates on cheaper models of chains – likely the result of increased material friction once the coatings had worn away. As Kerin suggests, it’s these cheaper chains that are more likely to damage your drivetrain components through unexpected wear.

At least for Shimano, the efficiency does improve as you spend more. CeramicSpeed’s data is a little dated in this area, but they suggest there’s an approximate half a watt difference (again, at 250W, 90 rpm) between Ultegra and Dura-Ace chains.

And as mentioned before, the hollow pins found on the Dura-Ace chain are not simply about weight savings — they result in a stronger rivet.

That all said, Kerin’s data does suggest the Shimano Ultegra HG-701 11-speed chain offers better durability over the more expensive Dura-Ace HG-901 model. There are a few factors here, but it comes down to the fact that Kerin’s sample set of Ultegra chains was vastly larger than that of the Dura-Ace. And where the Dura-Ace 11-speed posted better elongation wear numbers, it fell short with the digital chain checker (roller play and wear).

This is explained by the Dura-Ace chain sample coming out of the box with a measured .12mm “wear” on the KMC digital chain checker, whereas the batch of Ultegra chains started at .05/.06mm measurable “wear”. Keep in mind that Kerin’s test considers .5mm to be worn out, and so .12mm is almost a quarter of the allowable wear allowance. Kerin believes this is a batch variance, and that it’s quite possible (even likely) the Dura-Ace chain can offer improved durability.

Given all of this, and to a point, it makes financial and performance sense to spend a little more and get the better chain – even if it’s just for peace of mind through not having to check wear quite as often. The same applies to those using Campagnolo chains or SRAM Red AXS, while SRAM Eagle 12-speed users are likely best off choosing the second-tier “Hard Chrome” X01 chain which tested to be equally durable and faster compared to its more expensive (but arguably better-looking) XX1 sibling.

They don’t make them like they used to … And that’s a good thing

It’s commonly said that the wider chains of past drivetrains were more durable. Sure, older 8-, 9- and even 10-speed systems do offer wider cog widths which provide increased surface area with the chain, but does that actually mean the chains are more durable?

It’s a question I posed to Kerin after the previous testing was done, and he got the Zero Friction Cycling torture machine up and running again to find out. In this, he tested the top Shimano chains from each respective speed, and the results may surprise you.

Both Shimano and SRAM have been able to increase chain durability with each iteration. Note: Shimano Ultegra HG-701 11-speed chain included as it showed better wear rates with the KMC Digital chain checker than the Dura-Ace chain. This is explained in a previous section.

It seems that with each gear added, durability has improved. And at least for Shimano chains, 10-speed saw a significant jump in durability from 9- and 8-speed, and Shimano’s latest 12-speed XTR mountain bike chain rules the roost as Shimano’s most durable offering.

The reasoning for this is less clear, but certain materials have improved, manufacturing processes have become refined, and new low-friction coatings have been added. Similarly, the chain designs themselves have changed, and where 8- and even 9-speed chains would see the inner links turn solely on the connecting pins, newer chains typically see these forces shared across the pins and specifically stamped plates, too.

Zero Friction Cycling’s favourite chains

With a business focussed on finding the best drivetrain lubricants and chains to sell through exhaustive testing, Zero Friction Cycling is certainly a unique, passion-fuelled commercial endeavour. Below are Adam Kerin’s specific chain recommendations that he chooses to race with (and as a result, the products he’ll be choosing to stock following this test).

For 11-speed chains, Kerin’s overall favourite is still YBN. “It is typically within around half a watt of the fastest chains but without the ‘worn’ starting point, while its hardened rollers mean wear-rate tracking with a regular chain wear checker is accurate,” he said. “The result is around a 50% longer lifespan versus Shimano.”

As covered in-depth in our Holy Grail of chain lube article, Kerin is a strong proponent of submersion waxing chains for both durability and efficiency, and this is another driver for his YBN recommendation. “The nickel PTFE coating on YBN chains get along extremely well with my favourite lube – Mspeedwax – with a treatment staying silky smooth for noticeably longer before starting to feel dry – and their shift performance is perfect,” Kerin said. “With the lower wear rates, I also believe it is likely that the YBN chain will hold its speed for longer.”

When it comes to 12-speed chains, the Shimano XTR impressed Kerin most. “Aside from my machine testing, I also field-tested the very fast KMC x12, however, their material coatings cause the Mspeedwax treatment to feel dry in under two hours of use.” Seeking a race chain for his SRAM Eagle-equipped bikes that’s faster than SRAM’s own offering, Kerin swapped to a Shimano 12-speed compatible chainring.

“I have since ridden the XTR 12 chain on my Eagle AXS drivetrain,” he said. “The Mspeedwax treatment is still silky smooth after nearly six hours of hard training – and whilst I don’t have efficiency results yet, I will be shocked if the XTR chain isn’t very fast. I also think that shifting is even a bit better than the already great Eagle chain — it certainly isn’t worse.”

Compatibility is, of course, an issue worth considering with such a combination, and as Kerin admits, the Shimano-compatible chainring does prevent him from using the incredibly durable SRAM Eagle chain. “The XTR’s lifespan is still very impressive, so like always, I will simply have a dedicated training chain and another XTR chain fully optimised [for] race days.”

A long story, wrapped up

Did you skip to the end hoping I’d summarise all of this? Well, you’re in luck. The synopsis is that all three major drivetrain manufacturers are doing an admirable job of retaining your business. With all the data to hand, I don’t see major reason to move away from the drivetrain manufacturer’s recommended chain – a chain that’s surely been optimised to get the best shifting performance from your cogs.

Of course, there are exceptions to this. Those racing at the top-level on SRAM mountain bike drivetrains should consider alternative options (such as KMC’s X12 chain, or a Shimano chain as suggested by Kerin) to get the most efficiency possible. However, and if possible, you should most definitely swap back to the impressively durable SRAM chains in your training.

Campagnolo users, regardless of the level of Campagnolo drivetrain used, should stick with Campagnolo Record chains. They’re brilliant.

And Shimano users shouldn’t see much reason to stray, either. Shimano chains are seemingly the most efficient on the market while also offering decent durability. Yes, there are more durable chains which are almost as fast (such as YBN), but these may only be worth the extra expense if you’re in the chain waxing clan. If you’re sticking with Shimano 11-speed, I’d say it’s worth upgrading your Shimano chain to at least an Ultegra level, and if efficiency matters to you, then Dura-Ace is worth the extra.

And perhaps the biggest takeaway from all of this testing is that no matter how durable a chain is, the lubricant you use will play the most critical role in drivetrain durability. Kerin toasted an endless number of chainrings and cassettes in his testing, and basically, any chain that lasted over 2,500 km ripped through the cassette and chainrings through nothing more than abrasion from the gritty lubricant.

As always, run a good lube and keep your drivetrain clean – that’s the real trick to getting the most value and performance from your drivetrain components.