Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bike Mistakes - Part 2.5: Chain Lubrication

This is part a series on common mistakes on your bike...  and is a follow-up to Part 2: Chain and Gears
And hopefully by now I'm not referring to this series of posts...

We are all guilty of it at one time or another in our "cycling career". If some chain lube is good - then more chain lube is better; right?

Or perhaps you're on the other end of the spectrum: "You mean I'm supposed to put something on that thing that goes around and around when I pedal?" (I've been there too...don't worry.) Since we didn't talk at length about the specifics of lubrication in the last post; I figured that would be a good subject to cover before we move on to other topics.

...and this is important for several reasons as you'll soon discover.

First, what not to do:
Don't use WD-40.  This has long been a "go-to" which gets applied to bicycle chains often because we've been trained to think of it as a lubricant since we put it on anything that squeaks around our house. The truth is it's not a lubricant;
it's a solvent - a high-powered cleaner - designed for removing contaminants and water displacement (what the "WD" stands for) as developed for the aerospace industry. What this means is that it's reasonable for cleaning your drivetrain (although I still don't recommend it) but then like any other solvent you need to wipe it and the grit it displaces off your chain and drivetrain elements before applying an actual lubricant.

It works on door hinges around the house because of it's displacement properties but displacement alone is not what we need on bicycle chains. Ultimately; some of the driest, creakiest, worst performing chains I have seen roll through the shop have been treated solely and religiously with WD-40. The fact it is wet in it's natural state allows it to lubricate but only until it evaporates - which it tends to do quickly. This is also why you may find yourself having to apply it more frequently than you may think reasonable.

Second, general application guidelines:
If you've received or overheard my directions on lubricating your chain before this is going to sound very familiar; and you'll notice my method is the same, regardless of the variety of lubricant. I've found this to be an effective and clean method of thoroughly lubricating the chain while helping to maintain the general cleanliness of the entire drivetrain.
  1. Place your bike in a repair stand or lean it against a wall - or anywhere really that allows you to freely spin the cranks backwards without obstruction. For the sake of your floors - do this in a place where dripping lubricant (and the grit and grime that tends to come with it) will not cause staining or damage. I'll often do it over a piece of scrap cardboard in the garage.
  2. If possible, shift your chain into some combination of gears that laterally flexes the chain. You know; the combinations you're supposed to avoid when riding: big ring & big cog; small ring & small cog - anything that puts a severe angle on the chain. This opens the joints in the chain; where the plates, pins, and bushings rub against each other and allows the lubricate to penetrate this area where all the friction resides - this is the goal after all.
  3. Grab your lubricant of choice and drip - somewhat liberally - onto the chain while backpedaling the chain through the drivetrain. Keep the drips focused at the center - along the cylindrical bushings as this is where the lube really needs to go. I like to apply in one of two different locations: a) on the lower rear derailleur pulley or b) directly in front of the cassette at the top of the chain. These areas are near a flex point in the chain so the lubricant is likely to penetrate well and they're out of the way of the turning cranks. Complete at least an entire rotation of the chain - about 5 complete turns of the cranks. I usually complete somewhere around 2 full chain rotations or probably 8 to 10 crank rotations.
  4. Continue backpedaling and rotating the chain through the gears after you have stopped applying the lubricant. This allows the lubricant to continue to penetrate while flushing out grit from inside the chain. At least two more complete chain rotations if not 3 (for those who must count: 10-15 complete rotations of the cranks).
  5. Take a rag (one that you don't mind getting irreversibly and disgustingly dirty and oily) and while continuing to rotate the cranks in reverse, wipe the chain to remove the excess lubricant as well as the dirt and grime that was on and inside the chain. You probably will not be able to wipe until the rag comes off the chain "clean"; but get as much off as you can. You don't need lubricant on the chain outer surfaces of the chain after all - only on the inside. This is why so many of our chains get caked with nasty black grime.

    You see, it's the inner surfaces between the plates, pins, and bushings that receive all the friction and need the lubricant. And, if we don't wipe our chains off - the lubricant still reaches those surfaces and flushes the grit from within, However, in the mean time whatever hasn't been wiped off the exterior of the chain it tends to quickly attract grit, grime, and dirt; seemingly from as far away as a neighboring time-zone, and semi-permanently adhere it to whatever surface it contacts.
Probably more appropriate at the beginning of these directions: I also recommend doing this after a ride rather than before. It's hard to feel like doing this when you're tired and just want to take a shower and begin recovery; but your chain will be cleaner and run more smoothly for it. Also; many lubricants need time to set-up or dry and this allows them to do just that. Ever gone on a ride after lubricating your chain and had it fling nasty oily stuff all over you and your bike? Yeah - that's why we don't do it before the ride: the lube hasn't set-up.

We've established that WD-40 is a solvent - and solvents have their place on bicycle drivetrains - but that is for another post. Let's talk lubricants. This is a complicated issue because it depends on a bunch of different factors. For the sake of simplicity (and brevity; which regular readers will know is a challenge for me...) I'm going to break this down.

I'll list a variety of lubricants; which I have lumped into 4 categories: "Dry", "Wet", Petrolium-based, and Wax-based. I'll list examples by brand and then also outline what sort of conditions they work well in and make some suggestions for application. Understand though that this post is not intended to list every brand and variety of chain lubricant nor are my suggestions hard and fast rules that are fail safe. Individual factors, habits, and conditions will influence the outcomes.

So without further adieu:

"Dry" Lubricants - 
     Examples: Finish Line Dry, Muc-Off Dry, Rock N Roll Absolute Dry

     -These are not called "dry" lubes because they aren't wet. They are referring to the type of conditions in which they are designed to be used. They tend to be extremely thin, often include teflon, and intended to attract as little dust and dirt as possible while still reducing friction. I used a lot of Finish Line Dry while growing up in SW Idaho - a good climate for that variety. More frequent application will help the chain stay dry and remove old teflon to keep it from caking around the links.

"Wet" Lubricants -
     Examples: Finish Line Wet or Ceramic Wet, Muc-Off Wet, ATB "Heavy"

     -Much like the cousins above; these lubricants are named for the type of conditions for which they're intended. This is the only category I consider for my die-hard Pacific Northwest commuter clients. In wet conditions these lubricants cling to your chain longer keeping it lubricated when lesser lubes would have washed away. If you've seen pro-tour mechanics applying grease to the chains in preparation for a rainy stage: this is one step on the side of sanity from that measure. More frequent application maintains lubrication and cleans road grime off. If ridden in dry or even mild conditions though this lube will cake up quickly with dust and grime reducing the life and performance of your drivetrain.

Petrolium-based Lubricants
     Examples: ProGold ProLink, much of Pedro's (synthetic or organic petrolium alternatives)

     -Good, all purpose lubricant except for the wettest of conditions. This is my personal favorite. Frequent lubrication (seriously; every 1 to 2 rides depending on conditions and duration) with diligent wiping off of the excess is the key here; but your chain will remain very clean and smooth if that is the case. A wet ride will likely wash it all off - reapply immediately.

Wax-based Lubricants      Examples: White Lightning, Finish Line "Krytech", Pedro's Ice Wax

    -Probably the category with the most loyal following (although I've never understood why personally) as they claim to be "self-cleaning". The wax can cake up around the bushings and plates without diligent wiping of excess or frequent enough lubrication. These lubes can be a little noisier than other varieties but can stay clean in a variety of conditions when properly applied. Also probably the most versatile category with the capability to be effective in wet and dry conditions and last longer with proper application.  As mentioned before; more frequent application with diligent wiping of excess from the exterior is the key.

If you're still reading and I haven't bored you to death (who knew a post on lubrication could be so dry...) you'll notice that the overwhelming theme here is that the biggest mistakes we make are either:
  1. Not lubricating our chain often enough (if at all) or;
  2. Using too much lubricant or failing to wipe off the excess.
  3. Using the wrong type of lubricant for the conditions we are riding in or for our personal maintenance habits
It's really quite simple - but knowing the details is helpful as well. I hope this deluge has proven to unravel some of the enigma surrounding the best practices for lubricating and caring for your chain and drivetrain.

Questions? Feel that I missed something? Have different experiences to share? Leave a comment.


  1. Thanks, really enjoyed your write up!

  2. Thank you - I hope you find it helpful!

  3. What about green alternatives? Biobased lube is the best choice for the environment and there are products that work wonderfully for this application!

    1. Lisa-

      Good point.

      Honestly, I think that category slipped off my radar for this particular post because I have very limited experience with them. That said; it is a rapidly growing segment of the lubrication market with more choices all the time.

      Any more thoughts to enlighten the readers with? What is your favorite and why? I'd love a recommendation from someone who has personal experience.

      Thanks for commenting!

  4. Thank you for sharing excellent informations. Your web-site is so cool. I’m impressed by the details that you have on this website. It reveals how nicely you understand this subject. Bookmarked this website page, will come back for more blogs.



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