Are Mountain Bike vs. Road Bike Chains the Same? Guide with Tips and Tricks

The two most popular types of bikes are mountain bikes and road bikes. The two differ in performance and purpose, with mountain bikes designed for off-road riding while road bikes are designed for on-road or paved-surface riding. Due to their different functions, they also have different styles of components, from cassettes, derailleurs, wheels, handlebars, brakes, and pedals to bike chains. In this article, we'll explore the differences between mountain bike vs. road bike chains, from their designs to their riding terrains.

Mountain bike vs. road bike chains are not the same. Mountain bike chains are designed to handle heavier loads and shift up for mountainous terrain. Road bike chains are designed for shifting down, high-speed sprints, and flat terrain.

The main differences between mountain and road bikes lie in speed and riding terrains/conditions. Mountain bikes are heavier and designed to handle rougher terrains like off-road trails, dirt paths, and extreme streets. They have more sturdy components suited to help riders stay upright, increase control and balance, improve comfort, and handle gearing for all kinds of off-road and technical trails. On the other hand, road bikes are lightweight and designed for on-road cycling on trails, such as city streets, paved roads, mountain passes, cycle paths, and more. They are built for speed and long distances with light, agile and aerodynamic components.

Mountain biking is a favorite activity for many, as this article by the ACSM Health and Fitness Journal discusses. The varying terrains allow for natural full-body workouts and help improve the balance and coordination of different body parts. If you're starting out with mountain biking, our guide on what mountain bike you should buy has some helpful tips to choose a suitable bike.

What is a Bike Chain?

Although often overlooked, the bike chain is one of the most crucial components of your bike, whether mountain bike or road bike. 

A bike chain is a component of the drivetrain that transfers power from the pedals to the wheel of the bike. 

The performance of the bike depends on the chain drive system, which is very efficient, according to this research paper released by Industrial Design and Mechanical Engineering. The chain is one of the factors responsible for making the bike the most energy-efficient mode of human-powered transport, according to this article from the Science of Cycling.

Turning the pedals rotates the crankarm and chainrings, which pulls the chain. Then, the pedaling force moves the chain which rotates the cassette and rear wheel, helping to propel the bike forward. While this drivetrain system is extremely efficient, there are other factors and accessories that can help improve the efficiency even more. One such factor is the bike pedals you fit on your bike which is explained in our article on choosing bike pedals for grip maximization.

For both mountain bike vs. road bike chains, when you pedal, the chain transfers that energy to the drivetrain, which propels the bike forwards.
The bike chain is responsible for transferring power in the drivetrain and moving the bike forward. Source:

The bike chain typically consists of chain plates (outer and inner), rollers, and pins. The chain pin connects each pair of outer plates while the chain roller separates each pair of inner plates. The chain is made of alternating sets of outer links and inner links. Each individual outer or inner link constitutes a half link and measures 0.5 (1/2) inches. One outer link with an adjacent inner link makes up a full link, measuring 1 inch. For more information, check our guide on mountain bike chain installation.

A bike chain has components that connect to make it strong yet flexible.
Parts of a bike chain. Source: ISC Companies.

Mountain Bike vs. Road Bike Chains and Their Design Differences

Mountain bikes and road bikes have different chains suited for their different performance and purposes. Mountain bike chains are more suited for off-road riding, while road bike chains are more suited for road riding. As a result, the chains have different design features to aid maximum efficiency and performance on these riding trails and conditions.

Key differences between mountain bike vs. road bike chains are that mountain bike chains are designed for high load, steep terrain, and shifting up, while road bike chains are designed for shifting down, low load, flat terrain, and sprinting. 

Mountain bike chains are designed for handling heavier loads than road bike chains.
Mountain bikes and road bikes are designed for different riding terrains and conditions, and so the bike chains have different features. Source:

Mountain Bike Chain Design Features

Mountain bike chains come with various features to aid riding over rough and technical terrains. The design varies depending on the manufacturer's brand. Some like this make use of solid rivet pin construction rather than hollow pins. This gives added strength and durability to the chains, helping them handle the most treacherous terrains. Some MTB chains feature ramping or chamfered edges to the side plates to make shifting and chain articulation more efficient, according to KMC. Some chains come with high-end coatings such as Titanium Nitride or Nickel plating to prevent rust, enhance dirt resistance, and improve drivetrain efficiency and shifting performance. Chains for high-pivot mountain bikes typically have a longer length due to increased chain growth and extended routing.

If you're a regular cross country, downhill, enduro, and freeride mountain biker, your bike chain will need to be regularly and properly maintained with a kit like this. This will help prolong the longevity and durability of your mountain bike chain, keeping it running smoothly for longer periods. Our article on quick and proper mountain bike chain maintenance shares tools, methods, tips, and tricks for cleaning and lubricating your bike chain.

Other essential bike components for mountain biking are the tires. Our article on how to choose mountain bike tires for maximum grip provides a guide to help you choose the right tires for riding on the various terrains mentioned above. 

Maintaining your chain and drivetrain properly will ensure that it runs smoothly for as long as possible.
Routinely cleaning and lubricating your mountain bike chain helps to preserve the lifespan of your chain. Source: Amazon.

Here are the design features and benefits of mountain bike chains:

1. Designed to Shift Up

Mountain biking involves a lot of cycling over rough terrains, so there is a need to use the right gears to maintain maximum efficiency. To help with the tougher riding conditions, mountain bike chains like these have side plates designed to aid shifting up efficiently under load. Upshifting means moving to a higher gear. This reduces the pedaling cadence, so the crank makes fewer revolutions than the rear wheel. In addition, the higher gears will increase the distance covered for each rotation of the pedals. As a result, pedaling will feel harder, but you'll achieve higher speeds.

Mountain bike chains are designed to shift up and power the drivetrain efficiently. If you're experiencing problems with upshifting gears, our comprehensive guide to fixing a mountain bike chain that's jumping gears or skipping will come in handy. Faulty or difficult gears could also indicate a problem with the shifters. You can read our article on diagnosing and fixing mountain bike grip shifters for a more in-depth explanation.

Most modern mountain bikes make use of one-by, or 1x, drivetrains. This drivetrain makes use of only one front chainring and several gears on the cassette, usually 9, 10, 11, or 12 gears. This results in simpler and more efficient gear shifting, as this research by CeramicsSpeed shows. It also reduces the weight, as well as the number of parts to be maintained. To learn more about mountain bike chainrings, read our article on mountain bike front chainring size options.

Mountain bike chains allow for upshifting, which makes it easier to ride on extreme terrain.
Mountain bike chains help over rough terrains by upshifting efficiently. Source:

2. Designed for Steep Terrain

Mountain bike chains are also designed to handle steep terrains. These terrains can be quite challenging and daunting for riders, but mountain bike chains like these and other mtb components help to provide a smooth riding experience. With mountain bike chains, transferring power from the pedals to the wheels is easier and more efficient. This helps you efficiently push through rough and steep terrains in the higher gears. In addition, the chains are optimized for lower cadences, saving energy and helping with longer endurance rides.

Mountain bike chains are useful for increasing anti-squat which is the resistance of the bike's suspension to tension and compression caused by pedaling, as explained in this article by Bike Rumor. They help in transferring more energy for the forward movement of the bike. As a result, the mountain biker will be able to pedal through tough and rocky trails that would hinder a road biker.

When mountain biking on steep terrains, it is important to protect yourself. Check out our articles on mountain bike armor pieces and mountain bike armor designs for optimum protection. To help protect your bike on those rough and muddy trails, read our article on how to install mountain bike fenders.

Mountain bike chains allow for upshifting making it easier to ride on extreme terrain.
Riding on steep terrains is easier and smoother with mountain bike chains. Source: MB Action.

3. Designed for Heavy Load

When it comes to handling heavy loads, mountain bike chains are also quite efficient. According to this study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, bike touring has several health and fitness benefits. While bike camping and touring are very rewarding activities, the heavy camping gear and backpacks on your bike can affect handling and slow you down. 

To help improve the bike's balance and handling, the chains have high tensile strength, sufficient length, and lubrication. With mountain bike chains, you'll be able to navigate various terrains in varied weather safely. You can also fit hand grips like these and tire grips like these to help improve stability with the heavy load. Our guide on common mountain bike grip upgrades provides a thorough explanation to assist you.

To help reduce extra weight in the form of your tool bag, read our article on fixing a mountain bike tool bag that's heavy. Our related article on mountain bike tool kit essentials will help you choose which tools to take along on your rides.

A mountain bike chain is better able to withstand the extra weight of travel bags and tool bags for long trips than a road bike chain.
Mountain bike chains can handle the extra weight of luggage and backpacks. Source: TomsBikeTrip.

Examples of Mountain Bike Chains

Name Top Design Feature Example Price
Solid Pin Chain Solid pin construction Sram Pc Solid Pin Bicycle Chain ~$30
Chamfer Design Chain Chamfered edges Kmc 10 Speed Bicycle Chain ~$30
Nickel Plated Chain Nickel plating coating Nickel Plated Roller Chain ~$25

Road Bike Chain Design Features

Road bike are designed for speed, so the bike components like these chains are lightweight. These bikes feature light, tall, and thin wheels to reduce friction. In the same way, road bike chains are tailored to be light and agile. Chains like this feature a hollow pin construction to decrease weight without sacrificing strength or durability. Some also include slots in the side plates for a lighter build. Chains like these are also made of titanium which is lighter than the typical steel construction, according to this research by the International Journal of Scientific Research in Science, Engineering, and Technology. For easy connection and disconnection of the chains, the chains make use of either a master link or a connection pin system. Road bike chains are also shorter as there are rear shocks and suspension forks.

Here are the design features and benefits of road bike chains:

1. Designed to Shift Down

Road bike chains are designed for downshifting to aid in easy pedaling. This shifts the chain onto a lower gear and helps to increase pedaling cadence. Downshifting helps the bike to handle smoother riding conditions. It also helps when climbing uphill as lower gears make the pedals easier to push. On the other hand, higher gears make the pedals harder to push. Shifting the chain to lower gears gives you extra torque for pushing through uphill climbs. Check out this Youtube tutorial by Trek Bicycle for more information on shifting gears on a road bike.

2. Designed for Flat Terrain

With road bike chains, riding on flat terrains is much more efficient. You need easy gearing and pedaling when riding on flat terrains for a seamless and comfortable riding experience. Road bike chains offer less resistance, helping you spin the pedals faster. This helps when coasting through the flats. They’re designed to maintain a consistent cadence and even pedal strokes.

Road bike chains are designed for pedaling at a higher cadence than mountain bike chains.
Road bike chains make cycling on flat terrains more comfortable with easier pedaling. Source:

3. Designed for Sprints

Road bike chains like these are designed for high-speed sprint capabilities in racing conditions. With a lighter build, high tolerance, and polish, the chains are designed for increased speed and long distances. While mountain bikes require an upright posture for increased comfort, road bikes allow for a forward-leaning posture to improve aerodynamics and pedaling power.

Rad bike chains are designed for faster and smoother riding as is necessary for road riding and racing.
Road bike chains can handle high speeds for road bike racing. Source:

Examples of Road Bike Chains

Name Top Design Feature Example Price
Hollow pin chain Hollow pin Hollow-Pin Bike Chain $40
Connection pin chain Connection pin system Shimano HG71 chain $35
Quick link chain Master link system Camper Matters Bike Chain $10

Can You Use a Mountain Bike Chain on a Road Bike?

Yes and no. The answer depends on the speed of your drivetrain transmission. If your bike has a 6 to 9-speed cassette, you can easily use a mountain bike vs. road bike chain interchangeably. This includes a Shimano Ultegra chain like this. However, you have to make sure the length and width of the chain are compatible with the drivetrain. On a low-gear bike, the differences between the two types of chain are too minimal to have any significant effect.

Mountain bike chains can be used on a road bikes with 6 or 9-speed cassettes only. In these cassettes, the chains are interchangeable if the bike chain length and width are the same. 

Bike Chain Compatibility for 6-9 Speed Cassettes

You can use a mountain bike chain on a road bike and vice versa for bikes with 6-9 speed cassettes. However, you need to get a chain that matches your cassette speed. If you’re looking to fit a new chain on your bike, check out our step-by-step guide on how to replace a chain on a mountain bike.

Here are the factors that affect bike chain compatibility for 6-9 speed cassettes:

Factor 1. Length of the Bike Chain

One essential step before installing your mountain bike chain is checking for the proper chain length. No standard lengths fit all types of bikes, so you need to ensure the chain length is right for your bike. A chain that’s too long will lead to frequent chain slipping. On the other hand, a short chain will cause difficulty shifting gears, stretch your derailleur cage, and damage your drivetrain. If you’re wondering whether your mountain bike chain is too our article discusses symptoms and fixes. Our article explaining what to do if a mountain bike chain is too short will also prove helpful.

A chain that fits your drivetrain will allow you to change gears smoothly and efficiently.
A properly sized chain will shift up and down efficiently. Source:

One factor that influences the compatibility of your chain length is the speed of your transmission. The cassette speed refers to the number of gears or rear cogs. The more gears, the longer your chain will be. In addition, the chain speed should match the cassette speed. However, for 6 to 9-speed cassettes, the chains are generally interchangeable with each other. Therefore, it would be best if you also looked out for the gear combinations. The higher the gear combo, the longer the chain has to be, as this article by Velobike discusses.

To measure the proper chain length, you can compare the chain with a previous chain, use a chain length formula or fit the chain in the large/large gear combination. When comparing your chains, make sure you use the number of links rather than external length as the chain might be longer due to wear. You can use a chain length calculator app like this to determine the proper length for your bike. Alternatively, you can make use of the largest front chainring and largest cog test. This video tutorial by Park Tool goes into more detail.

Mountain bikes and road bike chains have to be compatible with the cassette speeds of those respective types of bikes.
Ensure you choose chains that are compatible with the speeds of the cassette. Source: AliExpress.

Factor 2. Width of the Bike Chain

Another factor to consider when choosing a compatible bike chain is the width of your chain. The chain width should correspond with the number of cogs on the cassette. The higher the number of cassette cogs, the thinner the chain will be. The width between the cogs also decreases with an increase in number resulting in a larger cassette with more cogs needing a narrower chain. 

Fitting a narrow chain on a wide cassette or crankset will lead to the chain coming off on rides as it won’t fit properly. The chain will be more likely to fall and get stuck, which can be very dangerous. If you’re experiencing this problem, read through our article on how to easily fix a mountain bike chain that keeps coming off.

To ensure that the width of the bike chain is compatible with the width of the cogs, check that the chain speed matches the cassette speed. If the speeds are compatible, you should be able to fit a road bike chain on a mountain bike chain.

A narrower chain will be compatible with a larger cassette that has more cogs.
Check that the chain width matches the number of cogs in the cassette. Source:

Summary of Casette Speed and Chain Width Compatibility

Number Of Cogs Chain Width
6 Speed 7.1 – 7.3 mm
7 Speed 7.1 – 7.3 mm
8 Speed 7.1 – 7.3 mm
9 Speed 6.5 – 7.0 mm
10 Speed 6.0 – 7.0 mm
11 Speed 5.5 – 5.62 mm
12 Speed 5.3 mm

Bike Chain Compatibility Factors for 10+ Speed Chain 

For 10+ speed bikes or elite racers, the bike, whether mountain or road, must use manufacturer-recommended bike components. 

To ensure bike chain compatibility for a 10+ speed bike, make sure the drive train component manufacturers are the same and ensure that the derailleurs match the chain speeds.

It is usually recommended to use the same manufacturer brand for all drivetrain components (chain, chainrings, cassette, derailleurs, etc.) like this for optimum compatibility. This is due to the shape of the cogs and derailleurs. When dealing with 10-speed and above cassettes, the manufacturing is usually more calibrated and precise. As a result, it is ideal to use the same manufacturer's products for your entire drivetrain. For the same reasons, it is usually best not to fit a 10+ speed road bike chain on a mountain bike.

Here are the factors that affect bike chain compatibility for 10+ speed cassettes:

Factor 1. Manufacturer Consistency

Having your entire drivetrain from the same manufacturer is important on both mountain and road bikes. This is due to the unique shape and size of components from each manufacturer. Manufacturers of bike drivetrains usually make a compatible chain to fit the drivetrain as well which would be the most compatible option available. They should be your first choice when purchasing a new chain. For instance, if you have a 10-speed SRAM cassette, then a 10-speed SRAM chain like this should be your go-to option.

 It is best to use the same brand of mountain bike and road bike chains as the other drivetrain components of the bike.
Choose chains and cassettes from the same manufacturer for maximum compatibility. Source: Bike-Discount.

As this page on the Campagnolo site recommends, a Campagnolo chain is only compatible with Campagnolo cassettes. There are some exceptions, as some chain brands can be interchangeable. However, as a general rule of thumb, it is best to go with the same manufacturer when you can. A certain brand of chain will definitely not perform as well on a different brand of drivetrain, and this can cause more problems down the line. You must also check the manufacturer's instructions and recommended tools when installing your bike chain.

For optimal riding your drivetrain components, including the chain, need to be compatible with each other.
The different drivetrain components must be compatible with each other for the best efficiency. Source: BikeTips.

Factor 2. Derailleur Type

As stated above, for 10-speed bikes and above, road and mountain bike drivetrain components will not work with each other. These bikes require different derailleurs even if from the same manufacturer. Generally speaking, it is best not to interchange derailleurs from different brands as this can result in poor or faulty shifting. This is because different brands use different cable pull ratios – the distance the derailleur moves per millimeter of cable pulled through by the gear shifters. Shift ratio, the distance the cable moves in response to shifter clicks, also differs among brands. Even different products from the same brand make use of different cable pull ratios. As a result, it is important to choose the correct derailleur type for maximum efficiency.

Once you choose a manufacturer brand, you must then figure out the speed of your bike chain, cassette, and shifters. Chains usually come with speed labeled on the packaging. You can count the number of cogs on your cassette to get the speed. For the shifters, count the number of clicks of the right shifter. The shifter speed will be one number more than the number of clicks. So, A 9-speed shifter will have eight clicks. Our article on how to choose mountain bike grip shifters discusses shifter compatibility in more detail.

For maximized riding performance, the speeds of all your drivetrain components should match.
 For optimum compatibility, the derailleur speed should match the chain speed, cassette speed, and shifter speed. Source: CyclingTips.

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