The chain is one of the hardest working components on your bicycle, Even when pedaling at a normal cadence, a huge amount of metal on metal contact is continuously created by the interaction between the chain and the rest of the drivetrain components.
A good chain lube can smooth the chain’s engagement with the cassette sprockets and chainrings, and maintain proper shifting performance. It also helps prevent corrosion and reduces friction and drivetrain wear.
While an under-lubricated chain increases friction by enabling too much metal on metal contact, an over-lubricated chain will attract dirt and grit, which will increase friction and drivetrain wear as well. The trick is getting it just right.
However, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to chain lubes – with countless brands offering a range of different types of lube and formulas – so finding the best chain oil isn’t always easy.
Whether you’re a racer looking for a performance edge or a commuter who simply wants a fuss-free solution, we’ll lay out all the chain lube options and explain the positives and negatives of every approach.
EFFICIENCY AND DRIVETRAIN WEAR:
When most cyclists think about lubrication, they likely think about decreasing friction and increasing efficiency. It’s not all about efficiency though, friction and drivetrain wear are closely associated too.
Under clean, laboratory conditions, more viscous lubricants would be expected to decrease drivetrain wear rates.
In the real world, however, dirt and other contaminants enter the equation. If these get in your drivetrain they essentially form a paste (think ‘liquid sandpaper’) with the lubricant grinding away your gears.
With that in mind, avoiding a contaminated drivetrain is key to optimum efficiency and ensuring long-lasting parts. Doing so is a challenge, though. When you ride in wet or dirty conditions, your front wheel sprays huge amounts of contaminants onto your chain (although good mudguards can mitigate the effects to a degree). From there, the only way to reset the balance is to clean your drivetrain thoroughly. Racers will find easy gains to be made from a properly cleaned and lubricated drivetrain because a dirty, poorly lubricated chain can decrease drivetrain efficiency by a few percent, for example.
TYPE OF CHAIN LUBE:
There are many different types of bicycle-specific lubes, including wet lubes, dry lubes, ceramic lubes and wax lubes. Each has its pros and cons, and intended use, which we’ll come on to. Most lubes contain synthetic oils, along with friction-reducing additives such as PTFE (Teflon) and carrier fluids that evaporate after application. Recently, partly thanks to the increased availability of independent testing data, waxed-based lubricants have risen in popularity among performance-minded cyclists.
Dry lubes are so-called because they’re designed for riding in dry conditions and are often made up of around 10 percent lubricant – synthetic oils and additives – and 90 percent carrier fluid. Some companies label wax-based lubes as ‘dry’ too, but we’ll cover them separately shortly. As a lower viscosity lubricant, dry lubes promise greater efficiency through lower friction and by attracting fewer contaminants.
The downside of dry lubes is they are often very easily washed off by rain or puddles. Zero Friction Cycling (ZFC) suggests dry lubes typically appear cleaner because they lack enough actual lubricant to be effective. This has the knock-on effect of meaning they usually result in high levels of friction and wear, according to ZFC’s testing. If that’s to be believed, you could also make an argument that you’re spending your money mostly on carrier fluid that’s designed to disappear into thin air.
Wet lubes are designed for riding in wet or year-round conditions and, as such, generally contain greater quantities of higher viscosity synthetic oils, as well as additives such as PTFE.
You get more lubricant per milliliter with this type of lube and the increased viscosity of the oils means this type of lubricant should last longer and is much less prone to getting washed off your chain if you encounter water.
The downside of wet lubes? These same properties also make it a magnet for dirt and grime (especially if applied excessively), and the extra viscosity also means lower outright efficiency compared to thinner lubes, due to the added viscous friction.
The best practice for this type of lube is to apply sparingly to each link in the chain and wipe off any excess before riding.
You’ll need to clean your drivetrain regularly, possibly even after every ride if you want the maximum benefit and to maintain peak performance and optimize drivetrain life. Once a wet lube becomes contaminated it can begin to cause drivetrain wear.
Ceramic lubes have started popping up over the last few years, with bold claims about increased performance, alongside increased prices. It’s not always clear what they contain or what benefits they offer over other types of lubricants, though.
Muc-Off, which makes both wet and dry ceramic lubes, says its ceramic lube contains tiny ‘ceramic particles’ that help reduce friction over the synthetic oils found in standard dry and wet lubes. It notes these lubes are more expensive, but also points out the decreased friction which ought to lead to increased drivetrain longevity, saving you money overall.
ZFC, however, says there is limited publicly available data to substantiate the claims that ceramic lubricants provide the purported effects, and thus doesn’t recommend them. All things considered, until they have been definitively proven to work as advertised, it’s hard to recommend ceramic lubes over more affordable options.
Lubricants based on paraffin wax (yes, the stuff they make candles with) have grown massively in popularity in recent years, as independent testing has shown them to score extremely well on efficiency, longevity, and resistance to contaminants.
Waxed-based lubricants are usually a mix of highly-refined paraffin wax particles, mixed with additives such as PTFE and a carrier fluid.
Popular wax lubes include Smoove and Squirt, both of which scored over four-and-a-half stars in the testing stage.
The key to wax’s good performance is that, when applied correctly, it settles to form a hard, almost dry layer of low friction lubricant on the chain.
If you’re thinking, “That sounds like quite a lot of hassle…”, you wouldn’t be wrong. It is, at least initially.
In our experience, the hard part of immersive waxing is usually the initial chain cleaning process.
The factory grease can be hard to completely remove from the inside of even a brand new chain. You need strong degreasers or solvents to get the job done properly, and you’ll be left with a fair amount of waste chemicals that you’ll need to dispose of carefully.
Once it’s been properly cleaned and treated though, waxed chains have, in our experience, an incredible ability to shrug off dirt and grime.
Because they’re so dry, there’s nothing for dirt to stick to. This means you essentially don’t have to clean any part of your drivetrain at all for around 300 to 400km unless you do a wet ride.
Because highly refined paraffin wax contains practically no oil, waxed chains are prone to rusting after wet rides. You’ll have to be prepared to dry, clean, and re-wax the chain, or top it up with a wax-based drip lube as soon as possible after riding. Immersive waxing and re-waxing at 300km intervals or after every wet ride can extend a chain’s lifespan to around 15,000km – about three times as long as what is typically achieved with standard drip lubes. This helps in massively extending the lifespan of the other, more expensive drivetrain components such as cassettes and chainrings.
These are some very popular ways to lubricate your chain for friction-free rides and also provide a good life to your chain. If you still have any questions or suggestions, please mention them in a comment below because we would love to help you out.
MEANWHILE, RIDE HARD & RIDE SAFE!!