What Is A Narrow Wide Chainring – And Should You Be Using One?

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If you’re the unlucky owner of a regularly-dropping chain, a narrow wide chainring might provide the perfect solution to your chain retention woes.

A narrow wide chainring employs a special tooth profile to increase chain retention, with alternating narrower and wider teeth to match the alternating gaps in your chain.

This is especially useful for those who enjoy riding rough, off-road trails since it’s likely they’re all too familiar with the unwelcome phenomenon of chain dropping.

For some, this will ultimately have the effect of more time in the saddle and a more enjoyable ride – something we’re all striving to achieve. However, depending on where you ride, the use of a narrow wide chainring might also come with some unfortunate drawbacks.

But how does a narrow wide chainring work? And how do you know if a narrow wide chainring is right for you?

This guide will tell you everything you need to know about narrow wide chainrings. To get you up to speed, we’ll be covering:

  • What Is A Narrow Wide Chainring?
  • How Does A Narrow Wide Chainring Work?
  • Should You Be Using A Narrow Wide Chainring?
  • How Much Does A Narrow Wide Chainring Cost?

Ready for the lowdown on how to retain that chain?

Let’s get going!

What Is A Narrow Wide Chainring: Title Image

What Is A Narrow Wide Chainring?

Whether you’re an off-road fanatic, a gravel grinder, or even a purist roadie, it’s very likely that at some point or another you’ll have experienced the dreaded chain drop.

You’re going over some fun, rough terrain, and suddenly your feet are spinning out with absolutely no resistance as if they’re trying to lift a helicopter into the air – it’s incredibly frustrating.

Next thing you know, your hands are filthy after manhandling your chain to get it back on the chainrings, and you spread all that muck to your nice white bar tape, a complete disaster.

It’s even worse if you’re in the middle of a race, or just trying to bag a KOM on your local climb – having to dismount and put your chain back in place takes up valuable time and slows you down.

If you’re using a mountain bike or gravel bike, it’s likely you have a clutch on your rear derailleur, which is there to reduce chain slap but also acts to prevent this exact scenario. This is not a perfect system, however, and sometimes it’s just not enough, and the chain drops anyway. A chain guide can help too, but let’s be honest, they’re not the most aesthetic contraptions.

If this is happening often, you might consider investing in a narrow wide chainring. Its only purpose is chain retention: it uses a special alternating narrow wide tooth profile to keep your chain locked onto your crankset, drastically reducing your chances of a dropped chain and mucky hands.

How Does A Narrow Wide Chainring Work?

If you’ve ever – for some reason – intensely studied your chain, you’ll have noticed that the gaps between links alternate in width, some narrower, and some wider. The width here means the distance between the inner and outer plates, not the distance between the rollers.

This is because the chain is made up of over 100 individual cylindrical rollers which are connected by inner plates and outer plates, and secured together with pins. You couldn’t have all inner or all outer plates or they wouldn’t slide over each other to be connected.

Most modern chainrings have a uniform tooth profile to fit the narrow chain links. The width of each tooth is identical, but this results in horizontal gaps between the teeth and the chain in the wider-width links.

These gaps are, for the most part, not your friend.

Close-up photo of a bike chain against a soft-focus grey background.

Especially if you regularly ride over rougher terrain, they result in significantly lower chain retention, due to the extra “play” the chain has when rotated by the chainrings. Vertical vibrations cause the chain to lift and fall in these wider areas, resulting in an increased chance of a dropped chain.

That’s where narrow wide chainrings come in.

The tooth profile alternates between wider and narrower teeth, a pattern that repeats over the whole circumference of the chainring, to match up perfectly with your chain.

This closes those gaps and effectively “locks” your chain into place, reducing any possible vertical displacement when going over rough terrain.

Close-up of a narrow wide chainring on a red mountain bike.

Should You Be Using A Narrow Wide Chainring?

Well, that depends.

If you’re constantly testing the limits of your bike, attempting to traverse your local hiking paths, or are just a lover of rough terrain, then you’re far more likely to experience regular chain drops. In this case, a narrow wide chainring might begin to solve this problem, and could be a worthwhile investment for you.

However, there are some drawbacks to narrow wide chainrings.

The biggest disadvantage of narrow wide chainrings is decreased resistance to dirt. Avid users of narrow wide chainrings might notice that their bike suddenly needs washing much more regularly than before.

This is because when you do away with the gaps between the chain and the chainring teeth, there’s nowhere for the mud and grit to fall through. The “locking” mechanism that prevents the chain from moving on the chainrings also tends to lock in the dirt, too.

This doesn’t just make your bike look a bit worse for wear, but will also rapidly decrease the mechanical efficiency of the chain itself. Mud between the rollers and the outer plates will result in a less smooth rotation of the rollers, which makes the chain stiffer and less flexible, resulting in lower efficiency.

This means that if you’re not going over super bumpy tracks and trails, it might not be worth the cost of decreased drivetrain efficiency. Without regular cleaning, it will also decrease the lifetime of your chain.

Something to consider here as well is that narrow wide chainrings only work with a 1x chainring setup. The chain “locking” function makes it completely impossible to change gears at the front (you can still change gears on the cassette).

An example of a 1x drivetrain on a mountain bike without a narrow wide chainring.

This means that if you’re a roadie, they’re probably not the ideal solution for you. Additionally, if you run a 2x drivetrain on your gravel or mountain bike, you will have to change to a 1x setup to be compatible with a narrow wide chainring.

This isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, though, depending on the type of riding you do.

A 1x setup has numerous advantages, including a lighter, simpler, and streamlined experience, you can flog your front derailleur for some cold, hard cash – and you can always repurpose your front shifter to activate a dropper post!

Another (minor) disadvantage of narrow wide chainrings is that they only come in even-toothed sizes. This is to ensure that there is the same number of narrow and wide teeth, so as to not result in consecutive identical teeth.

This might not seem like a big deal to most. But, if you’re very into your gear ratios and you think you’ve got the perfect setup, then reducing or increasing the number of teeth on the chainring by even a single tooth will make a noticeable difference to the gear ratios – especially when using your easiest gear.

How Much Does A Narrow Wide Chainring Cost?

Like all bike components, the cost of a narrow wide chainring varies significantly.

If you’re happy to get a chainring that doesn’t match the rest of your groupset (but is still compatible) then you’re looking at the $20-50 region. These will work perfectly fine, especially if you opt for a tried and tested brand, like Hope or RaceFace, for example.

However, if you want a specific brand or range of chainrings, then you’re looking at potentially a bit more. For example, the Shimano XT narrow wide chainring retails at $90.

A mountain biker rides through a valley with snow-capped mountains behind.

Now You Know All About Narrow Wide Chainrings…

You can decide if they’re the right chain-retention solution for your style of riding!

If you ride the roughest trails you can find (that aren’t extremely muddy!), then they’re the perfect technology for you, since they will make your life considerably easier by dramatically increasing chain retention.

However, if you’re riding some pretty muddy tracks then you should decide if it’s worth the increased maintenance for optimum efficiency, and it might be worth considering a chain guide instead.

If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with nice, manicured trails or beautiful, endless, even gravel roads, then it might not be worth the extra maintenance and potential decreased component-life, since it’s unlikely that you’re going to be experiencing super regular chain drops.

If you are experiencing a lot of chain drops on even terrain (particularly when shifting), it might be worth checking the limit screws on your front derailleur.

Found This Narrow-Wide Chainring Guide Helpful? Check Out More From The BikeTips Experts Below!

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Jack is an experienced cycling writer based in San Diego, California. Though he loves group rides on a road bike, his true passion is backcountry bikepacking trips. His greatest adventure so far has been cycling the length of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, and the next bucket-list trip is already in the works. Jack has a collection of vintage steel racing bikes that he rides and painstakingly restores. The jewel in the crown is his Colnago Master X-Light.

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