In any bike shop, you’ll see many different types of chain lubricant on the shelf. Finding the right one for your bike can be tough. Most lubes are formulated with a specific task in mind each with its own benefits and limitations.
A chain link is made up of an inner and outer plate, and
two pins, which are each within a roller. A chain wears (and squeaks) as those components rub against one another. You may have heard the term “chain stretch.” A metal chain does not actually stretch. Instead, it’s the rollers and pins that wear down. As they wear, the distance between them increases. If left too long, the worn chain will wear the teeth on your cassette and chainring. If you install a new chain on worn cogs and rings, it won’t mesh with the teeth. Your new chain will skip under tension. The only fix is new gears. You can avoid replacing your gears if you spill a few drops of lube and give the chain some TLC.
Chain lube is designed to coat your chain with a slippery film of oil mixed with additives that prevent the costly wear from happening, or at least, it slows down wear considerably. To get the most of a lube, you need to know for what conditions it’s made. No matter what conditions you ride through, however, a clean drivetrain is always best as dirt will diminish the efficacy of the lube and accelerate the wear process.
Wet lubricant is designed to stick around when your ride gets messy. It has a thick, sticky oil laced with anti-friction elements, such as Teflon or ceramic particles. The thick oil coats and sticks to the chain and keeps the pivot points covered in an oil bath that acts like a force field against water, muck and grime. Although it does a great job keeping your chain lubricated, it definitely doesn’t keep your drivetrain clean. As the lube wears and mixes with dirt, it turns into a black, sticky goo that is responsible for wrecking those pants you forgot to roll up, or giving unwanted chainring tattoos to your calf. Cleaning with solvents between lubrication is the best way to prevent an unnecessary mess.
Dry lube is designed for dusty, dry conditions. Just like the wet lube, it is made up of oil and anti-friction compounds, but the oil is less viscous. This is the cleanest stuff to use to lube your chain; the lack of thick, sticky oil prevents the dust and dirt from sticking to the chain. However, dry lube is not nearly as durable as a wet-style lube and requires frequent application to be effective. You also need to have a very clean chain when applying dry lube, otherwise you are lubricating the existing dirt, not the chain. This fluid is also great for all other pivots and cables on your bike as its low viscosity penetrates down to where it is needed to keep everything moving like new.
Wax-based lubes are designed give you longer lasting lubrication, such as wet lube, but in a formula that dries after application. The benefit is a longer lasting coating that remains dust-resistant. The main downfall is that the wax tends to build up in the nooks and crannies of the chain and pulleys. If not cleaned frequently, your chain will be sluggish when shifting and you will have noticeable drag.
The best way to apply lube
I like to replace my chain at the end of the wet season. I find it easier to start the clean, summer months with a new chain and a clean drivetrain. I then take my old, worn chain covered in thick black stale lube and recycle it instead of trying to clean it. To lubricate your chain, shift into the middle cog and chainring. Either place your bike on a stand, upside down or bribe a friend to hold it up for you. Turn the cranks backwards slowly. You can run a steady stream of lube on the chain, but I prefer to place a drop on each pivot on the inner side of the rollers. If you apply the lube one link at a time, there will be minimal waste. Once you get through one full run of the chain, stop applying lube and pedal backwards at a faster rate, the lube will work its way to where it is needed. After 10 to 15 seconds, grab a rag and wipe excess lube from the outer face of the plates, the derailleur pulleys and the chainring teeth. Finally, pedal forward and move the chain through various gears. The chain is now protected and ready to go.