Durability of Unusual Finishes: Chrome Plating and Clear Powdercoat
This winter I've been riding some bikes with unusual finishes. My main ride is a clear powdercoated Brompton. There are also two chrome-plated bikes in my possession at the moment: a vintage Raleigh Tourist and a modern Bella Ciao. The idea of riding these bikes on salted winter roads has been met with some concern, and I've been asked to comment on how they are holding up.
To start with, I just want to say that chrome plating and clear powder coat are entirely different finishes, and I am by no means placing them in the same category. But the one thing they have in common is that they are unusual, which invites curiosity about their durability compared to paint. Unfortunately, I cannot address that question meaningfully. I didn't have the heart to experiment with the beautiful finishes, so I've been cleaning the bikes after every salty ride this winter. But in truth I am not sure how much this extra care is warranted.
When it comes to the chrome plated bikes, I am actually surprised by the concern for their durability. Chrome plating might be pretty, but its real purpose - as I understand it - is to make the frame more resistant to corrosion. Therefore, a chrome plated frame should require less, not more maintenance than a painted or powdercoated frame. Issues of cost aside, chrome plating should make for an excellent and entirely appropriate winter bike finish. For what it's worth, my chrome Raleigh Tourist is a 33-year-old bike that was well-ridden by its previous owner. The chromed frame shows less wear than a typical painted frame from that era, though a similar degree of component wear.
Clear powdercoat is a different story. Generally speaking, powdercoat is considered to be a more durable finish than liquid paint, which makes it a preferred choice for winter bikes. But clear powdercoat is tricky and may not be reliably rust-proof. Owners of clear-coated bikes have reported problems with corrosion. Rivendell used to offer clear-coated frames, but no longer does. Brompton at some point reformulated their raw lacquer finish to address corrosion issues. Today there are owners of clear-coated Bromptons who ride them in winter, and dealers seem to feel this is perfectly fine to do. I do not see any signs of rust on mine so far, although again - I've been cleaning it. I would not intentionally choose a clear powdercoat finish for a winter bike.
All things considered, I feel that (pigmented) powdercoat and liquid paint are more practical choices for a bike finish. Chrome plating is expensive and difficult to do properly. Clear powdercoat is reputed to be less durable.
Then again, there are bikes that do perfectly well with no finish at all. As an experiment, Henry Cutler of WorkCycles left his personal Fr8 frame unpainted. For three years the bike was stored outdoors in Amsterdam's rainy saltwater climate. Over time the frame has developed a patina of surface rust, but it remains structurally fine. Go figure!