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When you see chains advertised, they are specifically noted to be for 11-speed or 10-speed bikes or something similar. Does this mean the they are for bikes with any front cog configuration but only 11 or 10 cogs at the back, and if so, how can that be?

I do not understand how the rear cassette dictates the type and length of chain to purchase, when I would assume the front cogs make more of a difference in length of chain used. Am I simply looking at it wrong, am I missing something or is there really nothing more to it?

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1 Answer 1

The description is of the chain width. There's quite a lot of history, but the short answer is "they make chains narrower to fit more gears in".

In order to fit more rear sprockets in without making the rear wheel ludicrously wide manufacturers have crammed them closer together. To make that work they've made the chain narrower, limited mostly by material strength (for a given cost and manufacturing complexity, anyway). One consequence of this is that front chainrings also have to be narrower, but there's enough tolerance there that you can usually run a chainring one step wider than ideal and get away with it. Running a narrower chainring than you need will almost always work, but since they're usually more expensive that's not often done (except for people running 7 speed setups where the cheap chainrings are 8/9 speed these days)

Most chains are the same length when sold, with extra links discarded when the chain is fitted. Most bike shops have a bin of those offcuts and use them to replace broken links or if someone is especially poor they can stitch together a full chain out of the bits (it's very slow and many modern chains are not designed to be assembled without special joining pins). The problem is for people with folding bikes that often have longer than usual chains, as the standard size is frequently a few links sort of what they need. Recumbents obviously suffer from this to an even greater degree, taking between 2.5 and 3.5 chains. SRAM and others sell chain in rolls which mitigates this problem, but obviously you'd need to be using a lot of chain to justify buying it 100m at a time.

Wikipedia has a useful description and link to more detail. Key info:

  • 6 speed - 7.8mm (all brands)
  • 7 speed - 7.3mm (all brands)
  • 8 speed - 7.1mm (all brands)
  • 9 speed - 6.6 to 6.8mm (all brands)
  • 10 speed - 6.2mm (Shimano, Campagnolo)
  • 10 speed(Narrow) - 5.88mm (Campagnolo, KMC)
  • 10 speed(Narrow, Direction) - 5.88mm (Shimano CN-5700,CN-6700,CN-7900)
  • 11 speed - 5.5mm (Campagnolo, KMC, Shimano CN-9000)
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Yes, chain width is confusing, and manufacturers don't make it any easier by constantly juggling nomenclatures. –  Daniel R Hicks Nov 9 '13 at 13:47
    
The two sizes of Campag 10 speed can be a bit of an issue, mostly because it can be hard to tell by looking at the chain what size it is - you actually have to measure it. But that's Campag for you. Oh, and Shimano's 10mm pitch chain which I assume they came up with at after-work drinks one day. If you want to drive someone nuts put one link of that into a standard chain. –  Mσᶎ Nov 10 '13 at 0:11
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