There was a time when keeping your bicycle chains lubricated was blissfully simple. If you lubricate the chain at all, and most kids who rode bikes for fun didn’t, you might use a few squirts from a can on all-purpose mineral oil or maybe some of your grandad’s WD-40.
Or maybe you went to a bike shop, if you could even find a bike shop, and bought a can of whatever brownish, blackish, greenish, yellow, or blue greasy lubricant they happened to have for sale. You sprayed or rubbed enough of the goop on your bicycle chain until it was black and your wheels turned more easily. But now there are many, many more choices.
Let’s take a look at your choice in bike chain oil in terms of the way they became commercially available.
Wet or dry?
In the 1990s, the makers of bicycle chain oil began offering wet bike chain lubricants and dry bike chain lubricants. The choice was self-explanatory. You were supposed to use wet bike chain lubricants in wet weather and dry bike chain lubricants in dry weather.(The terms “wet” and “dry” refer to the chain, not to the lubricant.)
Serious bikers looked at the choice a little differently. Wet chain lubricants keep your chains moving even when they are exposed to splash from the pavement and moisture from rain, drizzle, ice, and snow. Wet chain lubricants also protect your chains in dry weather, so if you are only going to have one bike chain lubricant, it should be the wet variety.
The conventional wisdom is that dry chain lubricants only work well when the weather is dry and bike chains are clean. If you only ride your bike when the weather is nice, and you don’t get your bike chains very dirty, then a dry bike chain lubricant is a good choice for you.
What’s the real difference between wet and dry bike chain lubricants?
Decades ago, the products you could get in bike shops were really water-repellents, not lubricants. You sprayed the product on your bike chains, and they would be less likely to rust out. There are still bicycle-chain protection products that remove moisture from the surface of your chains before you apply other lubricants.
About 30 years ago, bicycle product makers started offering spray-on lubricants that were formulated something like the oil you would put on your car. The oil repelled water and could keep chains operating smoothly on a 100-mile bike ride. They greatly reduced drive chain noise. And they protected chains from the corrosive effects of road salt in the winter.
Road cyclists weren’t satisfied. They started taking the chains off their bicycles and dipping them into frying pans filled with hot wax they heated on the stove. The wax both repelled water and helped the chains move much more efficiently over derailleur gears. It also reduced drive chain noise and protected chains from road salt.
Bicycle product manufacturers realized that they could mix wax with solvents that would dry after their lubricating product was sprayed on chains. That’s how we got dry bike chain lubricants about 30 years ago. But which one is better?
Comparative advantages of wet and dry lubricants
Serious bicyclists stock both wet and dry bike chain lubricants. Both kinds of lubricants have specialized applications. Neither kind of lubricant is a substitute for keeping your bike chain clean.
Wet bike chain lubricants require extra attention to keeping chains clean.
Wet chain lubricants repel water but attract dirt. If dirt is allowed to build up, it can create a greasy grinding paste that quickly wears out components. Wet lubricant holds dirt and grime so tenaciously that it can oxidize to form thick black gunk. If you use a wet chain lubricant—and many cyclists will only use wet chain lubricant—you need to clean and degrease your drive chain at least every 100 miles, and preferably every day you use your bike, to prevent premature wear and tear on your bike.
Dry bike chain lubricants require additional applications if you are riding in wet weather.
Dry chain lubricants are lighter. They don’t attract as much dirt. Even if you don’t use a degreaser between applications (and you should, whether you use a wet chain lubricant or a dry chain lubricant), they won’t build up black goo and gunk. This makes them a better choice for biking on gravel or off-road.
Another advantage of dry bike chain lubricants is that they penetrate parts where wet chain lubricants will not go. The outer plates of your drive chain are not the parts in the greatest need of lubrication. It’s the inner faces, rollers, and pins in your drive chain that have the greatest need for lubrication. Modern derailleurs don’t need as much assistance from lubricant when they are shifting from sprocket to sprocket as the smaller parts in your bike’s drive chain.
The problem with dry chain lubricants is that even a light rain shower or a few minutes of riding in drizzle or snow will wash the dry lube off the chain so it operates less efficiently. Grinding gears on long rides that begin in the rain may be a problem unless you take a small bottle of dry drive chain lubricant with you when you go out for a ride.
Another consideration is that part of what you are buying in a bottle of dry bike lubricating oil is solvent. The solvent evaporates after you spray the product on your bike. You get more protection from the same size bottle when you buy a wet bike lube product.
Summing up, wet bike chain lubricants won’t wash off in wet road conditions, but they can cause premature wear and tear on your chains if you don’t make a special effort to keep them clean. Dry bike chain lubricants don’t attract dirt and grime and keep the smaller parts that need lubrication the most moving smoothly, but they are easily washed off.
Wax, ceramic, and “advanced” bike chain lubricants
In recent years, more and more people have been riding bikes. Markets for niche products have opened up. Consumers have become more specific and more demanding about their expectations for biking and the products they want to keep their bikes in prime riding conditions. Every few years researchers in white lab coats come up with a new product that promises to be the end-all for all our drive chain maintenance woes.
Wax bike chain lubricants
About 20 years ago interest in iron-man and iron-woman triathlons (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.22-mile run, in that order) took off. A favorite location for iron-man and iron-woman competitions is the Kona coast on the west side of the island of Hawaii, which, totally unlike the other side of the island, is a tropical desert. Bicyclists who made the investment in training and travel for these competitions demanded the very best performance possible for their bikes, and ordinary dry lubrication just wasn’t going to do.
Ordinary dry bike chain lubricants are fine if you are an ordinary bicyclist. I’ve biked the Kona coast of Hawaii, in about a day, not in a couple of hours, and I didn’t suffer by using dry bike chain lubricant in the least. But if you anticipate winning a race with a $650,000 prize by just a few minutes or even just a few seconds after eight hours of grueling athletic competition, you look for every advantage you can find.
The same principle applies to the Tour de France or any other high-stakes cycling competition. Even tiny differences in performance count. To shave just a little time off a long bike ride, engineers came up with “dryer” bike chain lubricants made of wax.
Wax chain lubricants promise easier shifting and no “chain suck.” They are easy to apply. They are green and completely biodegradable. And, most importantly, they add about 8 watts of power to a well-trained athlete’s bike performance. The winner of the Kona Coast Iron Man competition typically generates about 300 watts of power through most of the race. To get another 8 watts, more than a 2 percent boost in power, during the biking part of the competition is a huge advantage.
Of course, all of the competitors in all of the major cycling races quickly find and adopt the latest products to enhance their performance. Wax lubricants for bicycle chains were just one more. They may not offer a competitive advantage, but there’s a serious competitive disadvantage in not using them.
Wax chain lubricants are no longer the “latest thing” in bike chain performance enhancement. But they work well for long rides in hot, dry conditions.
Ceramic bike chain lubricants
The next-generation bike chain lubricants that came after wax lubricants were the ceramics. One of the attractive features of ceramic lubricants is that they are self-shedding. There is no need to clean the bike chain to keep dirt and grime from building up. Teflon and molybdenum make the paraffin spray slipperier so dirt slides off the chain, while a solvent keeps dirt and grease particles in solution rather than stuck to the chain.
Ceramic wet lube has microscopic boron-nitride balls that roll against the chain so it slides over the derailleurs, and ceramic dry lube gets into microscopic pores in metal to get the dirt out. Together, these products form a clean film on the bike chain so it looks clean and operates smoothly with minimal maintenance.
The makers of ceramic lubricants claim that they increase drive chain longevity after exposure to water, saltwater, sand, high temperatures, low temperatures, and long rides outdoors in varying conditions. They reduce noise from drivetrains. One manufacturer of a ceramic bike chain lubricant, Ceramic Speed, claims that using it results in a 46 percent lower reduction in drivetrain wear and 83 percent less drivetrain friction. But competitors of companies that make ceramic lubricants claim that they are abrasive, and any “Teflon” they contain is in the wrong form to prevent wear and tear to bicycle chains.
“Advanced” bike chain lubricants
There are also “advanced” bike chain lubricants that claim to be neither wet nor dry. What’s really in these products is a proprietary secret. What we know about these products is that they are thicker than dry lube and thinner than wet lube. They don’t wash off in the rain, but they don’t accumulate dirt and grime to cause damage to bike chains, either. They are applied after a ride, not before, and they have to be applied in three or four coats to be effective.
Is any bike chain oil better than no bike chain lubrication at all?
It’s more important to use “something” to oil and lubricate your bike chains than it is to choose the one best product, at least if you use your bicycle for fun in good weather. But if you choose wet lubricants or old-fashioned mineral oil to maintain your drivetrain, you need to clean your chains about as often as you use your bike to prevent damage to your drivetrain.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I know my bike chains need oil or lubrication?
When your bike drivetrain makes loud, squeaking noises, especially if they are so loud other bicyclists can hear them, your chains need lubrication.
How do I apply lubrication to a bike chain?
Lubricating your bike chain is not necessarily as easy as it sounds. Here is the process step by step:
- Choose wet or dry lube. As a simple rule of thumb, use wet lube if you are going to be riding in wet weather conditions and dry lube if you are going to be riding in dry weather conditions.
- Place your bike upside down on a convenient work surface at a height not requiring you to reach up or down.
- Next, have your drivetrain as clean as possible. Wipe away any excess lubricant. Use a degreaser to get your bike chain absolutely spotless.
- Then, find your joining pin (also known as a connecting pin). Rotate the wheel so the joining pin is at the bottom of the chain.
- Apply lubricant on each individual roller in the chain, turning the bike pedal backward until the joining pin comes back around, so you know you have oiled the entire chain.
- Allow the lubricant to set for approximately 30 seconds, and then turn the pedal backward for about a minute so the lubricant can work itself fully into the smaller rollers and pins in the chain.
- Leave your bike where it is for at least two hours. Then come back and wipe any excess lubricant off the drive chain. The only place you need lubricant is inside the rollers and pins.
Isn’t it easier to use a spray-on (aerosol) lubricant?
It’s important not to get aerosol lubricant on disc rotors, calipers, or brake pads. It is especially important to avoid getting lubricant on a rim brake, so you don’t have poor braking after you have lubed your chain. Because of the extra time needed to protect other parts of your bike from the spray, many people find it easier to use a bike chain lubricant from a bottle.
If you are going to use a lubricant spray on your bike chain, it’s much easier to work with a friend. Get them to rotate the pedal backward while you grasp the chain with a cloth and spray each individual roller with the cloth protecting other parts of your bike. When you have finished, let the lubricant set for at least 30 seconds, spin the chain around, and then wait a couple of hours before you go out riding again.
Why not just cover disc rotors and brake pads and then spin the wheel around, spraying as you go?
Spraying lubricant on a moving chain will use half a bottle or more while spraying each roller individually, one at a time will use much less product. The roller-at-a-time method will save you money on maintenance supplies and help your rotors, calipers, and brakes last longer. Apply lubricant carefully, and the bottle will last a lot longer. But if you use a bottle product with an oiling pen, you will only use one drop of lubricant at a time.
How do I apply hot wax to my bike chain?
Take the chain off your bike. Clean it thoroughly. Heat paraffin in a pan over low heat just until it melts and turns off the heat. Immerse the entire bike chain for a few seconds and lift it out of the hot wax, allowing excess wax to drip back into the pan. Let the chain cool to room temperature and put it back on your bike.
Do I lubricate my chain before or after I wash my bike?
Always apply oil or lubricant to a clean, dry bike chain. First, wash your bike, then use a degreaser, then rinse off the degreaser, allow your bike to dry, and finally lubricate the chain. It is important to wash your bike after using a degreaser. Otherwise, the degreaser and any debris it dissolved will just drive on the surface of the chain.