Adding chain lube is one of the easiest maintenance tasks. It’s also one that many, many people are doing wrong.
Proper technique for applying chain lube isn’t trivial, either. It’s one that can have the biggest impact on your bike’s performance and longevity. In the age of $300 cassettes and impossible-to-find chains, that simple task seems pretty important. Plus, nothing is more annoying than a squeaky chain.
How to lube a chain properly
1) Clean the chain
Adding more lube to a dirty chain is just an invitation for more grit to cling to the chain. This causes wear faster. It also leads to those gross chunky bits of grease and dirt between the links and on derailleur pulley wheels. If your chain has hit this point, the first step is to fully clean the entire drivetrain.
If you’re chain is already reasonably clean, you can get away with quickly wiping off dust, dirt or any excess fluid on the chain using a rag.
2) Single drops, not a spray
This is not a “more is better” situation. Apply a small drop of lube to the chain where the links join together. You’re not trying to coat the whole chain in lube, just the parts that need to rotate and contact the teeth of the chainring and cogs.
It might sound annoying, but it honestly doesn’t take that much longer. Sure, it’s not as fast as the 4-10 seconds of flinging lube all over the chain (and bike) while back-pedalling the cranks. But will take maybe a minute? And you have less to clean up later.
Tip: Start at the master link, so you know when you’ve done the whole chain. Some SRAM chains even have a fancy different coloured master link to make this even simpler.
3) Wait, wipe excess
Next, wait about 10 minutes while the lube works into the chain’s moving parts. Then use a clean rag to wipe away any excess fluids. Again, any excess fluid just gives dirt something to cling onto.
Don’t want to wait 10 minutes? Make lubing your chain the first thing you do when you show up at a trailhead or pull the bike out of the garage. Then check your tire pressure, put your shoes on or whatever other faffing you’ll be doing anyway before you ride. Then give the chain a quick wipe clean, and you’re good to go. That pre-ride routine not be quite 10 minutes (or it might be more, depending on how disorganized you are), but it’s probably enough.
Tip: Get in the habit of cleaning and lubing your chain after rides. Then it’s ready when you’re running late for your next ride.
When to lube your chain
When, and how often should you lube your chain? That depends. Some lubes last longer. Others, including some of the high-efficiency ones, need to be applied more often. Weather conditions will also change how often you need to lube your chain. If you’re riding in rain, mud, thick dust or anything else that can cling to your chain, it might be an every-ride type deal. Or at least every other ride. In dryer conditions, it can be a few rides between, especially if you’re in the habit of giving your chain a quick wipe after rides.
If you hear your chain crunching, or so dry its squeaking, it’s definitely time to re-lube!
Why lubing your chain is important
Modern drivetrains are, well, expensive. With the ongoing supply chain crunch, they can also be hard to come by.
Lubing your chain properly, and keeping it clean, helps make your drivetrain last longer. Way longer. Wear is caused in part by friction, so keeping the interface between chain, cassette and chainrings clean, clear of grit, and slippery will reduce how much friction your drivetrain has to deal with compared to the same amount of riding on a dirty drivetrain. A clean drivetrain sounds better and costs less. Seems worth the minimal time to keep it clean, right?
As a bonus, it’ll make those “Cat 5 tattoos” less indelible.