Everyone knows that bike chains need oiling but, as Cyclist
discovers, you can have too much of a good thing
Despite huge technological advances in almost every area of bicycle development, something that remains fundamentally unchanged from the ‘Safety Bicycles’ of over a century ago is that forward propulsion is achieved with a chain and sprockets. And the first thing everyone learns about bicycle maintenance is… chains need oil.
Back when you were a kid, you made do with pinching your dad’s 3-In-One from the shed, but things have moved on a long way since then. Chain lubes now come with advanced corrosion and friction-inhibiting additives such as Teflon fluoropolymers, ceramic nanoparticles and boron nitride compounds, to name a few.
Some can even be viewed under ultraviolet light, should you feel the need. But the fact remains that chains require a form of lubrication between their many mating metal surfaces in order to function at their mechanical best.
The field we’re delving into here is called tribology – the study of how surfaces interact when in motion. Tribology derives from the Greek word tribo, meaning ‘I rub’, and (innuendo aside) it includes the elements of friction, lubrication and wear, which are the three most important considerations in the development of a bicycle chain lube. Any time you have two materials sliding over each other you have a tribological interaction. In this case, the chain, while the bicycle is being pedalled, is constantly interacting with the teeth of the chainrings, cassette and jockey wheels.
‘Where the lube comes in is reducing friction to minimise the wear and tear and increase the longevity of the chain, but also ensuring efficiency is maintained,’ says Philippa Oldham, head of transport at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. The first part of that statement is fairly obvious but maybe the latter is less often considered, even though it stands to reason there is a potential energy-saving benefit that comes with a well prepped and maintained drivetrain. In an era where marginal gains are constantly being sought, the effort required to rotate the chain is highly relevant. Brands such as Muc-Off are taking this very seriously and are already using a special test rig to quantify the potential wattage savings.
In truth, you may not save very many watts by focusing on your lube, but you can certainly save a chunk of money, as badly lubed parts will wear faster and need replacing more often. As Muc-Off’s head of product development, Adam Goudge, says, ‘You have to see good-quality lube as a sound investment. It will save you heaps of money in the long term to properly look after your chain.’
So, what are good chain lubricating practices?
Juice Lubes founder Will Miles says, ‘We get phone calls and emails every day from people asking how they should be lubing their chain. That depends so much on where you ride, in what conditions and for how long. It’s variable, and that’s why we make several different products, but I’d say the biggest misconception is that people think if they can’t feel the lube on the outside of the chain they haven’t oiled it enough. We advocate a “less is more” approach. Lube on the outside of the link is doing very little good. It needs to penetrate into the inner parts of the link to be most effective. Plus, if there’s lots of surface oil it will pick up dirt from the road, eventually creating a grinding paste and accelerating wear.’
Miles adds, ‘The single best piece of advice I give is to thoroughly clean chains before applying any new lube, otherwise you will only ever end up with a dirty, messy chain. We also tell people to apply oil well in advance of the next ride, not right before they leave, because this gives it time to penetrate and adhere and dry off.’
Goudge at Muc-Off agrees, saying, ‘It’s like decorating. It’s all about the preparation. Everything needs to be thoroughly clean before applying any fresh oil, and that includes the sprockets – and don’t forget about jockey wheels. Oil applied onto dirty components simply seals the dirt in, and will eventually cause damage.’
Too much of a good thing?
A mechanic that Cyclist knows once told us it was better to run a chain dry and clean with no lube at all (in terms of wear and tear) than to over-apply lube and create a filthy paste. We put that suggestion to those in the know.
Hank Krause, president of Finish Line Technologies, says, ‘It’s kind of like asking, “Which form of torture do you like best?” Tribologically speaking, both lead to the same point – namely parts not performing optimally and parts wearing out prematurely. In the end, I would choose the “over-oiled” option, as this provides assurances that there is at least some film of protection in place. With no lube, there’s no chance that wear is being avoided. Raw metal rubbing against raw metal equals wear and tear.’
Goudge takes a slightly different perspective, saying, ‘I just hate noise on a bike and so I couldn’t stand to run a chain dry and squeaky. I want it quiet and the shifting to feel smooth and slick. But I agree there can be too much of a good thing and oil that has spread all over the place due to over-applying is just a waste of product.’
Right tool for the job
There’s a myriad of chain lubes to choose from, and making the right selection might appear tricky.
‘There’s no such thing as a do-it-all product,’ says Krause. ‘We listened to cyclists who rode all sorts of bikes in all sorts of conditions and it became clear that one size does not fit all. Our pros want a feel of confidence from thicker oil, which also creates silent drivetrains for stealth attacks. They don’t need to worry about grime building up as their entire drivetrain is cleaned daily. Contrast this to recreational riders – their priority is often cleanliness. They don’t want chains that soil the inside of their cars. They don’t want their hands getting greasy if the chain derails. They also don’t have time to regularly clean and degrease chains.’
If you ride a lot of miles in the wet common sense suggests a lube that’s water resistant and has good longevity and corrosion protection is best. A light, dry formula would be the option for a rider doing infrequent, short outings and only in relatively dry conditions.
The key message appears to be: clean frequently and apply a quality lube well in advance of your next ride. As Finish Line’s Krause, says, ‘Even the most expensive of bicycle lubricants are inexpensive compared to the parts they’re protecting and very inexpensive on a per-use basis. There are no awards given to the person who goes the farthest between applications of lube. By the time your drivetrain is talking to you in its language of squeaks and shrills, the damage has long been done.’
How to perfect your lubing technique
1. Get a good chain cleaner. A decent one (we like Park Tools CM-5 Cyclone) will get your chain ‘fully’ clean – that’s inside the link as well just the outside. Dry off the chain thoroughly and make sure it’s spotless before applying fresh lube.
2. Put the chain on the small chainring and smallest sprocket at the back. This will force the chain to go through the tightest curves when you turn the crank and help the lube to work well into the links.
3. Apply lube the night before your ride. If you wait until you’re about to head off, you risk the lube not having had a chance to soak in properly, and the lube could fling off as you ride.
4. Lube along the bottom of the chain (the section between the bottom jockey wheel and chainset). This will apply the lube to the inside of the chain where it is most in contact with sprockets and jockey wheels as you turn the cranks.
5. Don’t over-apply. A couple of full rotations of the chain with a steady stream of oil is ample.