Choosing the Right Chain Lube: Which Is Right For You?

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Picking the right chain lubricant can be one of the more frustrating things you’ll do as a cyclist. There’s a million different types to pick: dry lubes, wet lubes, biolube, waxes, spray on, drip on, poly grease, cable lube, etc… The list goes on. And let’s not even start on all the manufacturer proprietary technology. So what’s the best kind of lube?

Well…that’s really going to depend on what kind of riding you do, and what conditions you ride in.

Different chain lubricants are designed for different environments—because what may protect a chain or drivetrain component in one climate may actually do harm in another.

Before we delve into the different types of lubricants, let’s get two things out of the way:

1. Most chains will come pre-lubricated from the factory. In the old days, this lubricant was merely a rust inhibitor, and cyclists were advised to first remove the grease before installing the chain. Modern chains, however, are a different story. The grease that comes on modern chains is a far superior lubricant to any that can be applied by the user. DO NOT remove the factory grease from a new bicycle chain (although it’s ok to wipe off any excess) until it’s time to really clean the chain. Most factory grease applications are good for several hundred miles.

2. CAUTION: Do not ever, ever, for any reason apply standard WD40, motor oil, or bike poly grease to your chain. Ever. Standard WD40 does contain a light lubricant, but unless it’s applied after every ride it will end up drying out and stripping your chain. Motor oils contain detergents that will corrode your chain and destroy your cassette. Bike polygrease is intended for parts like bolts, pedal spindles and seatposts. It is a high viscosity grease that will completely clog your drivetrain and ruin your nice, expensive bike.

So, now that we have that out of the way, let’s delve into the different types of lubricants.

Wet Lubricants:

Wet lubricants are ideal for wet, muddy conditions

Wet lubricants are ideal for wet, muddy or snowy conditions when rust is the main concern. Wet lube, as the name implies, will stay wet on the chain, instead of drying. It has a medium viscosity, so it’s thick enough to stay on the chain, but thin enough to really soak into all the nooks and crannies to coat all the moving parts. Wet lube forms a protective barrier that prevents moisture from penetrating into your chain and forming rust in between the rivets. Wet lubricant is not advised for dusty conditions, as dust will stick to it and turn your greased chain into a belt sander. Also be advised that wet lube tends to collect a lot of dirt and debris as you ride, so it’s important to A) only use it when conditions warrant, and B) clean your chain often when using wet lube.

Wet lube can also be used for other moving parts on the bike to keep them free of rust and improve performance. Places where it is commonly applied are the rear derailleur pivot points, front derailleur spring, and brake pivots.

For directions on application, click here.

Best for: cyclocross, urban riding, winter cycling, wet climates, long term bike storage

Dry Lubricants:

Dry lubricants are the way to go for everyday riding

Unlike wet lubricants, dry lubes usually consist of a wax-like substance suspended in an alcohol-based solvent. About 3-4 hours after you apply the lubricant, the solvent will evaporate, leaving your chain with a light waxy film. Always make sure you allow sufficient time for the lube to dry before riding. The biggest advantage of dry lubricant is that it won’t collect dirt or dust as you ride, but it doesn’t inhibit rust as well. But for dry, dusty, or otherwise pleasant conditions, dry lube is the way to go.

For directions on application, click here.

Best for: road cycling, mountain biking, dry environments, summer riding

Spray vs. Drip:

Chain lubes generally either come in a spray can or a drip bottle. Which you use is up to you, but they both have their advantages and disadvantages. Spray-on lubricants are very fast and easy to apply, but they can be messy and make it difficult to be thorough. If you’re using a spray-on lube, it can be difficult to keep your frame, wheels, and brake rotors clean.  Drip on bottles on the other hand, make it easy to ensure that each roller and rivet has been lubricated and they are virtually mess-free. The downside is that, compared to spray on lube, it can take longer. In the end though, it all comes down to personal preference. Around these parts, we generally use drip bottles when we’re at home or in the shop, and spray-on lube when we’re at races or on the road.

Hot Wax Bath:

Hot wax is usually considered to be the gold standard of chain lubricants, since it nearly recreates the original factory grease of the chain. To apply hot wax, the chain is usually removed from the bike, and then soaked in a tub of hot wax, which completely coats the entire chain in a completely protective coating. This type of lubrication, however, requires special equipment, a lot of know-how, and quite a bit of patience. If you’ve got the time and gear though, a hot wax dip is legendary for improving chain function and prolonging wear-life. NOTE: while an excellent way to lubricate your chain, hot wax doesn’t particularly last very long and may require frequent re-applications.

So Which One Is Right?

Wet lubes are best for winter riding conditions, both on and off road

Well, we’d have to say that for this time of year (winter in the Northern Hemisphere), if you live in 90% of the U.S., you should be using a wet lubricant on your chain to protect it from the wet roads and corrosive salts you’re likely to encounter. For those folks living in Arizona, Nevada and other desert states, you can probably get away with using a dry lubricant, but remember to apply it more often than you would in summer.

But no matter what type of lubricant you use, there is nothing that will protect your bike indefinitely. It’s important to clean your bike thoroughly, especially if you’ve been riding in bad weather or after roads have been salted, and do preventive maintenance and check chain wear. If you’re the type that doesn’t ride all year, or that hangs up the race bike until Spring, then remember that your bike should be cleaned and well oiled, greased and lubricated before being put up for storage.

6 Responses to Choosing the Right Chain Lube: Which Is Right For You?

  1. Fred Rose says:

    Hot wax mimics the what the chain manufacture uses? Odd because in the old days that’s all I ever did and the hot wax only lasted about 100 miles or so before I had to retreat it. Hot wax did nothing to prevent rust, and once ready to use it looks nothing like or feels nothing like what a chain looks like and feels like brand new. Hot wax, once dried, left a creamish colored waxy layer that felt waxy to the chain that slowly wears off; new chains have none of that appearance and feels oily leaving an oily residue on your fingers. It was a pain in the neck to do the hot wax method, I was so glad when Tri-Flow (the first chain lube) came out, apparently all the bike shops were too as they all switched to it and since then hot waxing a chain went into the ash heap of cycling history.

    • David S says:

      Hey Fred, we’ll definitely add a clarifying note to the article about the lifespan of wax on a chain – other than the hassle of application, that’s why we don’t really recommend it. But in some third party tests wax came out with the lowest friction rating of all chain lubes.

  2. Will says:

    This is very helpful. Can you do another one on how to degrease? There are so many products out there, and I just use the White Lightening degreaser, but I feel like one of those scrubber boxes may work better? Thanks!

  3. Jasmine says:

    Wonderful beat ! I would like to apprentice while you amend your website,
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  4. Marvin says:

    Chain-L is the best. It has lasted 1000 miles for me.

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