When I used to coach mountain biking, I had a young rider who was always into the latest and greatest products. He constantly searched the web for ways to upgrade his bike with components that stood out from the crowd. These included various colorful Industry 9 parts from stem to wheels to hubs. I couldn’t blame him since his upgrades were generally well made, and he had the money to buy them.
But one day, he showed up at our team ride with a brand new shiny gold MTB chain, and that was a step too far for the other riders. They gave him a hard time about it all the way to the trailhead and the ride. Finally, six miles in, my rider’s chain had snapped in half, the rest of us laughing with smug satisfaction that he had been duped with a good-looking but ineffective product.
As the months passed, I kept noticing these bright shiny chains when I would pass riders on the trail. They were generally on really nice, expensive, and even boutique bikes, so I figured it was more of a cosmetic upgrade than something that delivered better performance. However, the more I researched, the more I found that the difference had nothing to do with the actual chain’s materials but the coating on the chain to deliver its lustrous sheen.
Titanium Nitride, or ti-nitride for short, is the material that component manufacturers put on chains to supposedly give it more durability and less friction. This same coating is often applied to drill bits or knives to increase the active life of the tool. The difference with coating a chain is that the actual wear and tear on a chain is not happening on the outside but on the inside. Also, chains wear out not just through friction but also through stretching or breaking, in my rider’s case. Therefore, a coating does not make the chain necessarily stronger since its only purpose is on outside wear and tear. Additionally, this coating will eventually deteriorate and cannot be re-applied.
The main benefit of the ti-nitride chain is its degreasing properties. Some reviews marvel at how little dust and grease adhere to the ti-nitride coating. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that your chain won’t eventually wear down, but you don’t have to clean it as much. Then again, if you are someone who keeps your bike clean most of the time, this really isn’t that great of a benefit.
Overall, it seems like gold or rainbow chain finish is more about cosmetics than the actual performance from a structural standpoint. Some of the boards for the best mountain bike chains over the last couple of years include chains with the ti-nitride finish and chains that don’t. What does seem to be true is that paying more for the finish doesn’t necessarily equate to better results.
I will always maintain that a quiet bike is the fastest bike you can ride, and the chain generally has the highest potential ability to make noise. A gold chain may solve part of that problem, at least at the beginning of its installation, but a new or adequately maintained chain will consistently deliver a smooth shift and quiet hum as you move up, down, or through a trail. However, I do have to concede that many of the finishes on these “bling chains” look incredible, and if you’re looking to maintain the “sexy” factor on the trail, go for it. You may get a few extra watts out of that boost in confidence in knowing you look fresh on your rig.
Matt Chisholm is a data analyst and freelance writer who studies the environmental history of the Southern Smoky Mountain region of North Carolina. He was a contributor to Lost in Transition: Removing, Resettling, and Renewing Appalachia and the 2016 edition of the Journal of East Tennessee History, for which he won the 2017 McClung Award. When not writing, Matt enjoys road and mountain biking, hiking, trail running, and drinking beer around Concord, NC where he lives with his wife, daughter, and twin boys.
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