At first glance, bicycles are basic machines. But when you get into cycling, you begin seeing mechanical factors that were invisible before.
Suddenly, the game changes and pushes you into a whole new world – that of cycling engineering and design.
At that point, the bicycle is no longer as simple as before because you’re looking at it from the perspective of an experienced person; you’re no longer an outsider. You know that every detail and component has its purpose.
A chain guide is a good example. To a beginner, the function of that piece of plastic may be unknown. After all, many people are unaware that a bicycle’s chain can fall. But you are not one of them, because it has happened to you.
Nonetheless, sometimes even experienced cyclists are surprised by the cost of non-complicated components. I was one of them.
Back in the day, when I was considering switching to a 1x drivetrain, I kept looking at the prices of chain guides with surprise, asking myself – why do they cost more than a top tier front derailleur? Why are they so expensive?
Eventually, I learned the answer.
Chain guides are expensive due to two main factors. First, the demand for the product is small. Second, the potential customers are cyclists who really want the item and thus agree to pay the asked amount.
What Is The Purpose of a Chain Guide
To better understand the market forces behind the price tags of chain guides, the functions of the chain guide has to be specified first.
What does a chain guide do? The main purpose of a chain guard is to prevent the chain from falling off the chainring.
There are three main types of chain guides:
The first one simply covers the chainring without influencing the chain’s tension.
The second one is installed on the chainstay and acts as a chain tensioner preventing unnecessary bouncing of the chain.
The third type combines the previous two types and is usually found on mountain bikes designed for extreme downhill.
When Low Demand Results in High Prices
Chain guides are needed primarily by bicycles running 1x drivetrains.
Models with double or triple chainrings do not require a chain guide because the front derailleur plays the same role when adjusted properly.
Single-speed bicycles don’t need a chain guide either. The single-speed specific chainring, the absence of shifting, and the chain tension prevent the chain from dropping.
In consequence, chain guides are absent from most cycling categories including the biggest one of them all – the beginner’s segment.
Logic may tell you that if a product isn’t highly sought (low demand) then people do not want it, and its price should drop due to the lack of interest.
This is precisely what happens during discount sales – the owners/stores are trying to get rid of less desired products by attracting the customers with lower prices.
The case of chain guides is different, however. The demand for them is low among most of the cycling population, but there are also small segments (e.g., downhill, enduro, freeride) where the interest in the product is high.
This peculiarity makes chain guards a niche item rather than undesirable. There are people who really want them, but the percentage is small in comparison to the cyclists who don’t care about the product simply because they have no use for it.
Ultimately, chain guides are an example of low demand combined with a strong desire.
Similar items are always priced a little higher than what one may expect.
I can give you another example that would clarify the described dependence even further.
The threading on a skateboard’s trucks (the metal part to which the wheels are attached) is smaller than that of the nuts found at regular hardware stores.
As a result, you have to go to a skate shop to find wheel nuts because the ordinary ones don’t fit. Believe it or not, skate shops charge premium prices for a simple nut. At least, that was the case back in the day.
The principle, in this case, is once again – low demand + high desire.
Regular people would never buy nuts from a skate shop because they don’t need them. But skaters have to unless they use a tool to re-thread the trucks to make them compatible with regular “hardware store” nuts.
Note: I am talking about the past. Things may have changed. But the example still stands.
Not All Bikes with 1x Drivetrains Need a Chain Guide
Not all bicycles running 1x drivetrains need chain guides.
A combination of a narrow-wide chainring and a rear derailleur with a clutch ensures adequate chain tension and prevents the chain from falling off.
Moreover, the terrain that some bicycles (e.g., gravel bikes) cover is far less extreme than a downhill track. This peculiarity diminishes the need for extra chain security even further.
The result? An even lower demand for chain guides.
The Psychological Profile of Potential Chain Guide Buyers
The target audience of chain guides is very important too. After all, a product is only worth as much as people are willing to pay for it.
A few questions can easily outline the psychological profile of a chain guide buyer:
1. What style does the potential customer specialize in?
In general, the disciplines requiring a chain guide are downhill, enduro, and freeride.
However, sometimes people buy chain guides simply to do a 1x conversion without necessarily participating in extreme riding.
2. How much money is the customer willing to spend on a bike or an accessory?
All forms of mountain biking are expensive, but those the most likely to benefit from a chain guide are on top of the pyramid.
Even a low end “budget” downhill bike costs around 2k which is more than most outsiders would expect. Truth be told, people in those disciplines ride a lot more expensive bicycles.
But the price of the bicycle isn’t the only expense. To effectively ride a downhill mountain bike, you need a vehicle to transport the bike to the trails, and then you have to pay for lifts all day. The sport isn’t exactly cheap which is why the people involved in it tend to be wealthy.
Of course, not every mountain biker is rich. Some have modest budgets but afford to ride by prioritizing the sport when partitioning their financial resources. Their extreme dedication encourages them to keep riding.
In conclusion, the potential buyer of a chain guard is either a rich person or someone who doesn’t make crazy money but is willing to invest a lot of resources into the sport through sacrifices.
3. How important are the aesthetics of the bicycle for the rider?
How much value does the potential customer see in the aesthetics of their cycling machine?
The answer is a lot. Dedicated cyclists care about the looks of their machines more than one might think. Some buy new handlebars simply because they don’t match the colors of their frame or even saddle.
Why are looks important as far as chain guides are concerned?
Because chain guides are professionally made and add to the futuristic appearance of a mountain bike. Also, they’re more aesthetically pleasing than many of the cheaper, homemade solutions.
For example, a simple front derailleur can be effectively used as a chain guide when doing a 1x conversion, but many cyclists stay away from this approach because they don’t consider it aesthetically pleasing. Instead, they prefer a dedicated chain guide.
Summary of the psychological profile
The most likely candidate for buying a chain guide is a mountain bike or a street rider who participates in extreme cycling disciplines or someone who wants to try a 1x drivetrain because it’s fashionable right now.
The customer is probably addicted/dedicated to cycling and pays great attention to the appearance of his/her machine.
If the person isn’t financially secure, they may hesitate a while before making a purchase. But more than likely, they will buy a chain guide sooner later.
Maximization of the Profit Margins
When the demand for a product is low, there are two main ways to boost the revenue that it generates:
a. Increase the demand
Higher demand will result in more customers and sales. However, in the case of chain guides, this isn’t really possible due to the low overall interest in downhill, freeride and enduro. Not to mention, that the barrier to entry is high because those sports are expensive and technical.
b. Higher price
The other option is to increase the price of the product and receive more money from fewer customers. This method works best when the desire for a product is great. Chain guides fit these criteria.
Low Production Volume = Lower Efficiency (potentially)
It’s also worth mentioning that the low production volume prevents companies from reaching maximum efficiency and receiving discounts from material suppliers and distributors.
Those peculiarities make it difficult to streamline the manufacturing process to the point where it’s possible to reduce the price for the end customer without losing too much profit.
Are Chain Guides Mechanically Complicated?
When I first learned how much chain guides cost, I began searching for a technical explanation behind the price tag.
To my surprise, many chain guides turned out to be basically a plastic front derailleur that doesn’t even move.
I can honestly say that those models do not showcase any technical reasons for their price. A front derailleur does exactly what they do plus shifting.
Having said that, the more sophisticated chain guides that you see on downhill bikes deserve more credit since they combine three products in one – a chain tensioner, a chain guide, and a bash guard.
Those models are clearly more refined, but even they aren’t all that complex, and yet some cost over 150 bucks.
Ultimately, chain guides are very simple and do not have much going for them. If they were mass-produced and put on entry-level bikes, they wouldn’t cost much.
Is a Bash Guard the Same Thing as a Chain Guide?
A bash guard and a chain guide are two different products.
A bash guard has two main functions:
- To protect the chainring from external hits that may bend it.
- To protect the rider’s legs from the teeth of the chainring. There are some horrendous stories of riders who’ve gotten their shins sliced to the bone by the chainring after a fall.
Having said that, a bash guard does have a chain retention function too. It’s bigger than the chainring and prevents the chain from falling to the outside of the chainring.
There are also bash guards installed on the inner side of the chainring. Those models protect the chain from falling on the inside and thus can be seen as a form of chain guides too.
What is a “bashwich”?
Some people put a bash guard on each side of the chainring as a way to create a chain guide. The end result is a sandwich of bash guards or a “bashwich” for short.
This method looks very clean but has a few downsides:
- The “bashwich” cannot be used on every bike due to the possible lack of chainstay clearance. (The frame may be unable to accommodate the inner bash guard.)
- The chain may rub against the outer or inner bash guard when shifting towards the ends of the cassette.
Is a Chain Guide Necessary?
In general, a clutch derailleur in combination with a narrow-wide chainring at the front greatly reduces the chances of dropping the chain.
However, if the terrain is extreme and includes lots of rocks, a chain guide, and a bash guard could be a good idea, especially if the chainring is big (e.g., 36 teeth).
A smaller chainring offers better ground clearance and thus has a smaller chance of getting hit. However, it can still injure the shins of the rider during a fall. Hence why a bash guard is a good idea even in that case.
But if the bicycle isn’t used for extreme riding, a clutch derailleur, and a narrow-wide chainring will be sufficient.
FAQ: What is a narrow-wide chainring?
Narrow-wide chainrings have teeth of altering thickness. One is thin, the next one is thicker. The thin tooth is designed to fit into the inner links of a chain, hence why it’s thinner, whereas the thicker one fits into the chain’s outer links.
The thicker teeth prevent the chain from moving around. In consequence, there’s a smaller chance of dropping the chain when running a 1x drivetrain.
Why Chain Guides Will Remain a Premium Product
The prices of chain guides will not drop unless extreme mountain and street riding become the most common cycling segments.
The chances of that happening are close to zero because most people ride a bicycle to commute or exercise.
In consequence, chain guides will remain a niche product highly desirable by a small group of cyclists specializing in the aforementioned segments.
What Are The Possible Options?
1. Just buy a chain guide despite the price.
If money isn’t an issue, you can just buy the chain guide you want and need. The good thing about chain guides is that they last a long time. Chances are that you will use it for years.
Also, let’s be honest, it’s hard to match the looks of a proper chain guide.
2. Run a bash guard + a cheap “mini” chain guide.
Many people buy a small chain guide which acts as a wall preventing the chain from falling towards the bottom bracket. Those chain guides are usually cheaper because they don’t encapsulate the chain.
A simple bash guard is also added to protect the chainring and prevent excessive movement of the chain to the outside.
To save bucks, check your local shops and the second-hand websites.
3. Buy a clutch derailleur + a narrow-wide chainring
A short cage clutch derailleur and a narrow-wide chainring greatly reduce the need for a chain guide.
4. Don’t convert your bike to 1x drivetrain
Most people don’t really need a 1x drivetrain. I’m serious. We’ve lived without it for a long time just fine.
A 2x drivetrain comes with a front derailleur which acts as a chain guide and is perfectly sufficient for most people’s needs.
5. Use an old front derailleur as a chain guide
You can use a front derailleur as a chain guide provided that your frame is designed for one. You can adjust the position of the derailleur’s cage by playing with the limit screws.
Most of the time, the default screws will be enough, but if you find out that they can’t move the derailleur far enough to align it properly, you can use longer ones too.
The downside of this option is the extra weight. Also, some people don’t like the look.
6. Make it yourself
At the end of the day, chain guides aren’t ultra-complicated tech. With a little imagination (tip: google “homemade chain guides”), you can come up with something yourself. Also, if you have access to a 3D printer you can print one or at least some of the needed parts.