A 12-speed chain can work with an 11-speed cassette. However, it’s recommended to avoid using a Shimano 12-speed chain because it doesn’t play well with 11-speed chainrings.
The inner width of a chain (the distance between the inner plates surrounding the chainring) stays the same regardless of the gear number.
Meanwhile, the outer width (the space between the external plates) decreases as the number of speeds/gears increases.
The purpose of this engineering is to prevent rubbing of the chain against the surrounding cogs.
Consequently, one needs a narrower chain when using a cassette with more cogs.
This is accomplished by making the outer links of the chain thinner. Hence why chains designed for more speeds are inherently weaker than those made for fewer cogs.
Ultimately, single-speed chains are the strongest because they can be very thick since there’s only one cog at the back.
The width of a 12-speed chain is roughly 5.25mm whereas that of an 11-speed chain is 5.62mm. That’s a 0.37mm difference.
The term cog pitch refers to the center to center distance between two cogs. As already mentioned, cassettes with more speeds have a smaller cog pitch.
The Downsides of Using a 12-speed Chain on 11-speed Cassettes
1. Slower shifting (potentially)
Since 12-speed chains are narrower than 11-speed chains, a 12-speed model needs slightly more time to climb the next cog/gear. Thus, in some situations, shifting could feel a bit non-responsive.
Nonetheless, there are no guarantees that the rider will be able to perceive the delay. Whether this will happen depends highly on the entire setup.
Some even report the opposite effect – cleaner and more agile shifting.
2. Shimano Chainring Incompatibility
Shimano’s new 12-speed chains have been specifically redesigned to improve downshifting and chain retention. This is accomplished via narrower/extended inner plates and ramps on the chain.
The extended inner plates of 12-speed chains make the chain too narrow for a regular 11-speed chainring.
Consequently, a 12-speed Shimano chain cannot properly “grab” an 11-speed chainring.
The Pros of Using a 12-speed Chain On An 11-speed Cassette
Combining a 12-speed chain with an 11-speed cassette has the following advantages:
1. Silent Operation
The narrower profile of a 12-speed chain greatly reduces the possibility of chain rubbing and makes the drivetrain silent.
2. Mud Clearance
The extra space between the chain and the adjacent sprockets results in smaller mud accumulation. Thus, a 12-speed chain may actually be better in dirty/muddy conditions.
Having said that, it’s questionable to what extent this occurs.
If you already have a 12-speed chain from another build, using it on an 11-speed system will save you some money that could be invested elsewhere.
4. More Options
If you have an 11-speed drivetrain and for some reason, you can’t find an 11-speed chain in-store, a 12-speed chain will save the day as long as it’s compatible with the chainrings that you have.
FAQ: What About an 11-Speed Chain on a 12-Speed Cassette?
An 11-speed chain will cause chain rubbing and poor shifting when used on a 12-speed cassette because of the extra width. If your goal is optimal shifting, it’s recommended to avoid this combination.
Also, an 11-speed chain will accelerate component wear due to the stress on the drivetrain.
Given how expensive and “spoiled” 12-speed components are, it makes no financial sense to experiment with parts from other group sets that “kinda work”. If you have already invested in a 12-speed system, it’s best to stick with it all the way.
FAQ: Can I use a 12-speed Shimano chain on an Eagle drivetrain?
As already mentioned, Shimano 12-speed chains are optimized for Shimano’s 12-speed drivetrains. Combining them with other drivetrains is very likely to cause problems because the inner plates of the chain have a custom design. You can, however, use older Shimano chains that aren’t labeled as HG+.
FAQ: Is my chain tool compatible with a 12-speed chain?
Unless the chain tool is fairly new, it’s highly unlikely that it’s officially compatible with a 12-speed chain.
11 and 12-speed drivetrains are fairly new. Back in the day, most chain tools were designed for 5-9 speeds.
To know whether yours works with 12-speeds, you can search for its specification online if it’s a branded tool.
If the producer is unknown, you will have to experiment or ask online by posting a picture of the tool and its measurements online.
That said, many people have successfully used older chain tools designed for 7/8/9-speeds on 11 and 12-speed chains.
Additional Information On 12-Speed Chains
- SRAM AXS
In general, SRAM AXS parts are not compatible with components outside of the family. The chain rollers are ever so slightly different than “ordinary” 11/12-speed chains.
- 12-speed Chain Whips
Chain whips are not compatible with every cassette. The chains on some models are too wide for 11 and 12-speed cassettes. Consequently, the chain whip cannot fit between the cogs, sometimes even when using it on the largest one.
If you make a chain whip using a 12-speed chain, it will be compatible with pretty much every cassette because 12-speed chains are the narrowest ever.
Summary: What You Need To Know
- 12-speed chains can operate just fine with 11-speed cassettes. The main exception are Shimano’s new 12-speed HG+ models which are heavily optimized for downshifting and thus come with custom inner plates that don’t mix well with non-Shimano 12-speed components.
- The downside of using a 12-speed chain is that sometimes shifting is slow due to the bigger gap between the chain and the next cog. Also, 12-speed chains are inherently thinner and thus weaker than chains designed for fewer speeds.
- Using a 12-speed chain on an 11-speed cassette has two main benefits – a quieter drivetrain + extra mud clearance.
- The opposite, namely using an 11-speed chain on a 12-speed cassette, is a combination that causes poor performance. 11-speed chains are simply too wide for 12-speed cassettes and create rubbing. The result is poor shifting, including ghost shifting, and premature wear of the components.