There was a time that Tri-lube or WD-40 was considered standard bike chain lube for bicycles. The light penetrating oil was used for all moving parts on bikes. But things have changed. Walk into a bike shop today and the selection of bike chain lube is almost overwhelming. Some expensive, others affordable. Wet, dry, synthetic, wax, Teflon, polymerizing or a combination of everything. What’s the difference?
Maximum Performance Bike Chain Lube
The point of any lube is to get maximum performance from your drivetrain while preventing premature wear and tear on your bike. The majority of bike lubes typically focus on chain maintenance and most of them work just fine on the chain, no matter the formula. The key to keeping your chain running smoothly and quietly is to use lube regularly, but not excessively. Too much lube allows dirt and grit to collect on your chain, and the abrasive debris is what causes premature wear.
No Stand Alone
The truth is, none of them have a better formula, or more intelligent approach to lubricating your bike. No single product stands alone as the Queen or King of bike chain lube. The choice of any lube depends on what you want from it, and there are specific products for your type of riding and the conditions that you ride in.
Wet bike chain lube is recommended for wet riding conditions. The formulations are oil-based and are not easily washed off by water. They attract significantly more dirt and grime than dry bike chain lubes. Wet lubes require a more thorough cleaning between applications than dry lubes. Wet lubes are typically used more often on mountain bikes than dry lubes, as your much more likely to be riding through slop conditions than on a road bike.
Dry bike chain lube, no brainer here, is recommended for dry riding conditions. The formulation is a dry lubricant with a liquid carrier solvent. Dry lubes work through evaporation. Most manufacturers recommend applying dry lube generously and letting the carrier solvent evaporate for about two hours or more before riding. The leftover dry film is what actually lubricates the chain. Dry lubes attract significantly lower levels of dirt than wet lubes. The downside is a loss of durability, especially in wet conditions. Dry lubes typically wash off in a light rain, or if you’re on a mountain bike, a single water crossing.
The thicker the lube is, the longer it will last in wet conditions, but the messier and stickier it is. If you live in a rainy environment, you’re best off using a thicker lube. It lasts longer and doesn’t require as many reapplications. If your roads are dry and dusty, such as a desert environment, then you’re better off with a thinner lube that won’t collect as much dirt that gums up your drivetrain.
Even though the plethora of products on the bike shop shelves are varied, there are only a few basic chemicals in most of them. They may be blended formulations but can be broken down into smaller categories as follows:
Teflon-based lubes are the most common type of bike chain lube, and for good reason. It’s not only for bicycles, but used industrially to lube much more demanding machines than simple bicycle chains. Teflon has an incredibly low level of friction. Teflon penetrates into the pins and plates of a bicycle chain and sticks around long enough to be useful while still retaining self-cleaning properties. It can be mixed with many kinds of solvents and oils depending on the conditions it has been designed to perform in.
Wax-based is another common bike chain lube. Just like Teflon, wax lubricant comes in different formulations depending on the conditions it’s intended for. Wax-based lubes are generally thought of as a cleaner option to Teflon but they do have drawbacks. While they collect less dirt and dusts, wax lubes have a tendency to build up and create a mess. Take care of how much you apply to your chain. Big globs of wax between your pulley wheels and derailleur cage are unapplealing. Wax lubes also require proper chain cleaning before application. Wax lubes don’t have the longevity of a Teflon-based product and wear off sooner.
Polymer-based bike chain lube is different.They offer protection to your chain in both wet and dry conditions. Polymer-based lube is similar in appearance to the old-fashioned penetrating oil but with significant differences. When riding, the pressure, motion, and friction of the chain causes polymers to morph from a liquid into a hard plastic coating or plating, which is considered a dry lubricant. Plating means it is bonded to the pins, plates, and rollers of the chain; it can’t be washed off with water. And since it is a dry lube, it doesn’t attract dirt and grime at the same rate as other lubes.
When to Lube
There is no regular maintenance schedule for applying lube. It depends on your style of riding, the weather and what lube you are using. Some manufacturers suggest re-applying lube based on chain appearance, riding conditions, distance ridden, time since last application and after the chain has been cleaned. But many cyclists simple rely on the sound of the chain. Sound is a good indicator of whether a chain lube is doing its job. A clean, quiet, smoothly shifting chain, is well lubricated. Listen to your chain. It shouldn’t be making much sound. If it’s making noise, it likely needs lubed.
If your chain is black, it needs cleaned. No amount of lube is going to penetrate through all that gunk. You can have a mechanic take it off and submerge it in solvent, or if you’re mechanically inclined, do it yourself. If you don’t have the time, or just don’t want to tackle it, use a good quality chain cleaner and wipe it down yourself.
The choice of any bike chain lube is personal. And just like personal lube, what some love, others hate. The best advice is to try each king od bike chain lube if you’re curious. If your chain is quiet, your bike shifts smooth and clean and it’s been a while since you lubed, you’ve got a winner. If it sounds like a freight train after a few weeks, switch to something else and give it a try.