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How to Properly Apply Oil to Bicycle Chains

A close look at the bicycle chains of a mountain bike.

While every cyclist can agree that bike lubricants are necessary to keep bike chains moving smoothly, some consider them as just that while others are a bit more obsessive. These types of cyclists think of oil for bicycles like how a connoisseur thinks of wine; demanding only the finest quality lubricant for their bicycles.

No matter what type of cyclist you are, when it comes to lubricants for bicycle chains, it’s important that you use it to avoid any issues with how your bicycle performs. Beyond being imperative for the performance and longevity of your bike’s drivetrain, oil allows bike chains to retain flexibility and decreases the amount of wear and tear.

In this article, were going to dive deep into how to properly apply oil to bicycle chains and how frequently this should be done to ensure an enjoyable riding experience:

When Should You Clean & Apply Oil to Bicycle Chains?

Consistent, On-Bicycle Cleanings

Finish Line DRY Teflon Bicycle Chain Lube 1 Gallon Jug

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You should regularly check and clean your tire chain. Stand to the side and lift the back wheel. Rotate the pedal slowly and look closely at the individual chain links checking for dirt and rust. Listen for squeaks while riding, this will indicate a need for lubrication and cleaning.

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To spot clean your chain: use an old toothbrush to brush the links, use a chain lubricant, wipe off excess lubricant with a dry towel. If you want a deeper clean you can attach a chain cleaning tool.

Occasional Off-Bicycle Cleanings

Oumers Universal Bike Chain Tool with Chain Hook, Road and Mountain Bicycle Chain Repair Tool, Bike Chain Splitter Cutter Breaker, Bicycle Remove and Install Chain Breaker Spliter Chain Tool

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Depending on how often you ride (usually every few months) it is best to use a chain removal tool and take the chain off for a deeper clean. Brush it thoroughly and soak in a chain solvent. This will help remove built-up dirt and grime.

Bicycle Chain Cleaner with Solvent Reservoir

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Soak it until most of the dirt has been removed. Thoroughly dry the chain with a clean towel. Make sure all of the solvents are evaporated and the chain is dry and then lubricate and put back on the bike.

What Types of Oils & Lubricants Should You Avoid?

Never use something like WD-40 to lubricate your bike, only use a product designed for bike chains. They usually contain Teflon and will repel water and dust.

The most important properties of bike chain lubricants are that they are durable to minimize chain wear and they discourage the build-up of dirt which will also wear out the chain faster.

A close look at the bicycle chains with a tensioner.

Issues to Watch Out For When Cleaning Bicycle Chains

Tight Links

To spot a tight link ( a link that doesn’t blend smoothly) move your pedal backward slowly and watch how they move through the rear derailleur.

Tight links are usually caused by corrosion between the plates or dirt. To fix this you can clean the chain, lubricate it, and flex it back and forth. Tight links can also be caused by poor pin installation or major damage to the chain.

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These can sometimes be worked back into position by moving them back and forth. A damaged chain should be removed and replaced.

Chain Stretch

Through the process of chain wear, they can become longer, which is called a stretch. This happens as wear happens between the rollers and link pins.

This can cause the gears to skip and extra wear on chainrings and rear cog teeth. In this case, it is more economical to replace the chain. You can also use a chain wear tool to see if it needs to be replaced.

The Cleaning & Lubrication Process

Bicycle Chain

Dry chains will rust and can snap while you are riding it. They also will shift very rough and make a loud squeal.

To oil, your bicycle chains properly, use a good degreaser on a clean rag to grasp the chain. Backpedal while you use the rage to remove dirt from the rollers and side plates. Keep going until it is clean.

AmazonBasics Blue, White, and Yellow Microfiber Cleaning Cloth - Pack of 24

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Take another clean rag and dry the chain. Now you can use a lube on the bike chain by dropping a bit on each link as you slowly backpedal a few turns. The lube will work itself into the chain. Wipe off the excess to prevent attracting more dirt.

BOESHIELD T-9 Rust & Corrosion Protection/Inhibitor and Waterproof Lubrication, 12 oz.

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For good lubricants use something light and waterproof like Boeshield T-9 Waterproof Lubricant. If you ride in wet conditions try Pedro’s Chainj.

Pedro's CHAINj Bike Chain Lube (4oz/120ml)

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Clipless Bike Pedals

Without oil, clipless pedals could be difficult or impossible to remove. The engagement and disengagement will be noticeably less smooth.

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Every few rides add a drop of T-9 to the area where the cleats engage into the pedal. This will help keep it rust-free and in top condition. Use grease on the pedal threads each time you install the pedals. This will help when you go to remove them later.

Bike Cables

Without oil, you will have poor shifting performance because the cables won’t glide through the housings smoothly. In the long run, they will be more prone to rust.

Don’t use WD-40 since it is a cleaner and not a lubricant. If you get to the point where you need a strong solvent it is better to replace your cables and housings.

To lube them shift the rear derailleur to the largest cog (the front derailleur to the big chainring). Without using the pedal upshift to the hardest gear. Now you will have cable slack and should be able to slip the housing out.

Coat the cables thoroughly with T-9 on your fingertips. Slide them along the cable until well covered. Clean any dirt and look at neglected areas. Use this same method on the brake cables as well.

A close look at a clump of bicycle chain that is being oiled.

Brake & Derailleur Pivot Points

Individual pieces of the brakes and the derailleurs pivot will invite rust and not move smoothly. Avoid using a lubricant on the brake pads, rotors, and rims, this can cause problems with actually stopping. If you do get lube on them buy new ones.

To lube, the pivot points use T-9 and drop a small amount on each of them every few months. This will protect them and keep them working smoothly. Always wipe off any excess.

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Derailleur Pulleys

Without oil, the pulleys won’t rotate freely, you will also notice an annoying squeaking sound that seems impossible to find.

Don’t use grease here, it is too heavy and will gunk up the pulley bearings. The grease can also attract dirt and grime. To lube, the pulleys wipe off excess dirt with a rag with a degreaser.

Apply a drop of lube to the bearings. Backpedal a few turns to work it in and use a clean rag to wipe off the excess. Use the lube sparingly here.

Seat post

Although it doesn’t move much you will really want to be able to move your seat post when you need to. Keeping it greased will prevent it from getting stuck in place.

When lubricating the seat post doesn’t use too much grease otherwise it could slip when you sit on it. Remove the seat post, wipe off any grime from the post and inside the frame.

Using a clean rag applies a very thin layer of grease. Standard bike grease will work fine for this application or you can use an anti-seize or anti-slip formula.