With the exception of a few conspiracy theorists out there, I think most people would agree that a chain is an important part of a bicycle. I mean as far as the building blocks that come together to create a fully functioning mountain bike, a chain is pretty crucial to the whole ‘riding’ thing. As KMC themselves eloquently state: “no chain, no bike”.
“Ok. So why are you stating the blatantly obvious Wil, you banana?”
Well compared to sexy carbon handlebars and loud buzzing rear hubs, the bicycle chain is a rather an unglamorous component, and I don’t think it gets enough praise for the important jobs it undertakes. In most cases, you probably only pay attention to your chain when something has gone wrong, leaving you to curse your stupid chain that has ruined a ride and destroyed hundreds of dollars worth of rear wheel. Bad chain. Bad.
In reality, you should spend most of your ride marvelling in your chains brilliance and sleek efficiency. For a component that weighs just 250 grams, it’s a damn tough little piece of metal that can withstand the thousands of Watts being delivered by a rider such as Paul Van Der Ploeg. But while delivering your pedalling torque to the rear wheel, a chain can also seamlessly pass up and down a 10-sprocket cassette within a split-second, helping you achieve just the right cadence for a steep pinch climb. What I think is most impressive about a chain though, is that it can do all this while operating smoothly and quietly. In exchange for these duties, a chain merely asks of some occasional maintenance to keep it clean and lubricated.
But while a chain is a both a fundamental component for the modern mountain bike and an engineering marvel in its own right, most riders wouldn’t give it too much thought as to what type of chain they’ve got hanging off their crankset. There are a lot of different brands out there producing different versions of what appears on the outside to be the same thing. So what exactly should you look for when treating your steed to some new links?
KMC Chain Industrial Co
KMC is a manufacturer that has been producing bicycle chains for over 30 years. Compared to other companies such as SRAM and Shimano, KMC is unique in that all they manufacture is chains. That’s it – just chains. They’re based out of Taiwan, where they employ some 4500 staff to create most of the bicycle chains in the world. They’re licensed to produce chains for a bunch of other brands, including Shimano. Big-name brands like Trek and Specialized spec KMC chains as stock items on their complete bikes, and you’ll find a number of high-profile Pro Tour teams utilising KMC chains on their race bikes.
They make a dizzying array of different chains, including specific models for BMX, geared bikes, singlespeeds, and even a chain just for electric bikes too. That said, they don’t make specific chains for mountain biking or road cycling, and their chains are cross-compatible with other brands groupsets. If it’s a 10-speed chain, it’ll work with a 10-speed Shimano Deore XT groupset just as well as it’ll mesh with a Campagnolo 10-speed Record groupset. Or so KMC claim anyway.
KMC have also pioneered a number of patented special coatings to increase the surface hardness and friction coefficient of their chains, resulting in smoother shifting and stronger durability. In the case of this X10SL Ti-Nitride chain, there’s a fair bit else going on too, so I’ll do my best to break it down for you;
- The X stands for the ‘Double X Bridge Shaping’, which uses grooves on the external plates to assist guiding the chain as it passes up and down the cassette.
- The 10 denotes that it is 10-Speed compatible.
- The SL abbreviates Super Light, which essentially refers to the cut out inner and outer plates, as well as the hollow pins. KMC also offer an Extra Light version (without the hollow pins) and a Light version (with only cut outs in the inner plates)
- The Ti-Nitride refers to the Titanium Nitride gold coating.
The X10SL is only one step down from KMC’s flagship chain, the X10SL DLC, which uses the expensive diamond-like coating for extra surface hardness. The DLC chains also come in some pretty cool colours too, but otherwise it’s structurally the same as the chain I’ve been testing. If you want those DLC colours, expect to pay an extra 30%. Weight wise the X10SL comes in a handful of grams lighter than a Shimano XTR chain, at just 252 grams. But despite all of those technologies and claimed enhancements, does KMC have what it takes to ween riders off using their stock SRAM or Shimano chain?
I’m not going to lie. Testing a mountain bike chain is a relatively uneventful process. I peeled off the Deore XT chain I had originally fitted to my test bike, and replaced it with the shiny gold KMC chain. I’ve been riding the chain for 6 months, which has involved periods of time where I haven’t touched it at all (no cleaning, no lubricating, no nothing), and periods of time where I’ve experimented with dry lubes, wet lubes, wax lubes and degreasers.
My longterm test bike is setup as a 1×10 with an 11-36t Deore XT cassette and an FRM narrow-wide chainring up front. However, I have also had the opportunity to review an X11SL Ti-Nitride chain on a SRAM 1×11 X0-1 groupset, in order to put KMC’s shifting claims to the test.
In terms of results, it’s also been a relatively uneventful process. Which is a good thing. For sure I’ve marvelled at how well the KMC chain glides up and down the rear cassette sprockets, and I’ve gushed over the quiet performance. I’ve also given it the thumbs-up for the lack of breakage or any stiff links throughout testing, and the tools-free quick link is brilliant. In short, the X10SL has carried out all of its respective duties with minimal fuss.
How much different in performance is the KMC chain from its competitors? Well in regards to shifting, there isn’t a huge difference there. The main difference I noticed was how little degreasing the Titanium-Nitride coating required to stay clean, as it’s slippery surface seemed to be less susceptible to grease build up. The less you have to degrease your chain, the less of the internal grease you’ll strip away and therefore the quieter and smoother your chain will be. In my opinion, this is a very big advantage.
As for resistance to stretching, the X10SL hasn’t registered a great deal of stretch after 6 months of riding, clocking in at less than 0.5 on my Park Tools chain checker, putting it ahead of comparable Shimano and SRAM chains I’ve used in the past.
The Bottom Line
Although the X10SL Ti-Nitride might cost more than a comparable chain from SRAM or Shimano, it does offer benefits in durability and shifting. The gold coating doesn’t just look good, it also reduces the amount of dirt build up on the chains surface, making for less maintenance overall.
If anything, the X10SL has reminded me just how impressive a modern bicycle chain can be. While it offers up great performance and durability, it certainly doesn’t ask for much in return. So you can spend less time cursing at your chain, and more time concentrating on the ride.