Chain maintenance advice from the experts

How to care for the most often neglected part of your bike

How To Interviews Parts
Proper chain maintenance is easier than you think and will keep you bike shifting better while saving you money. No need for lasers or fancy jigs like Campagnolo uses here to quality control a newly minted chain. Photo by Campagnolo

Proper chain maintenance is easier than you think and will keep you bike shifting better while saving you money. No need for lasers or fancy jigs like Campagnolo uses here to quality control a newly minted chain. Photo by Campagnolo

The bicycle chain is a wonderfully effective means of transferring mechanical energy from one place to another. With good engineering, modern materials, and regular maintenance, it is extremely efficient, with only minimal system power losses. But with abuse or negligence, a drivetrain can quickly devolve into a quagmire of resistance.

Knowledge, though, is power. So RoadBikeReview enlisted experts to educate us lowly cycling sinners on how to take better care of the most neglected part of our bicycles. Starting with the big three component makers, Campagnolo, Shimano, and SRAM, we asked them what to do with a new chain and how to care for a chain as it sees a lot of use. We also tapped two lube/degreaser manufacturers to get their advice on maintenance, cleaning, and the best lube based on how and where you ride. Read on for best practices that can improve your bike’s performance and save you money in the process.

Here’s a great look at the different parts of a chain. It’s the darkest inner rollers that need lubrication. Try to keep the rest of the chain as clean as possible. Photo by SRAM

Here’s a great look at the different parts of a chain. It’s the darkest inner rollers that need lubrication. Try to keep the rest of the chain as clean as possible. Photo by SRAM

Part One: The Chain Manufacturers: Campagnolo, Shimano, and SRAM

RoadBikeReview: Should a new chain be degreased before use?

Campagnolo North America’s Dan Large: We suggest to never remove the Campagnolo chain lube that is applied during the manufacturing process. Once this lube is removed from the inner surfaces of the moving parts it is very difficult to replace it. You will greatly reduce the life of the chain in normal use. Unchecked wear of the chain can cause premature wear of sprockets and chainrings, especially titanium and aluminum alloy.

Shimano’s Nick Murdick: It depends on what kind of chain lube you plan to use on the chain. Our general recommendation is to leave the factory lubrication in place. We use very durable grease on each individual piece before the chain is assembled. It does a great job of protecting the inner parts of the chain against wear and it lasts a long time. As that factory grease does start to wear out, wet style chain lubes can be added to keep the chain running smooth. Most dry lubes don’t mix so well with the factory grease though, and you might just end up with a messy chain if you apply it without removing the factory lubricant first.

SRAM’s Nate Newton: No. Our factory lube is the highest quality chain lube available, not just a coating for shipping. Because it is applied with a sophisticated industrial process, it does not come with the inherent compromises of chain lubes in a bottle that have to balance performance properties with ease of application.

The Take Away: Leave that new chain alone! Install it on a clean drivetrain and go ride your bike.

The side plates of a chain don’t require much lubricant. If fact, wiping the side plates of your chain after every ride will help dirt and grime from accumulating. Photo by Campagnolo

The side plates of a chain don’t require much lubricant. If fact, wiping the side plates of your chain after every ride will help dirt and grime from accumulating. Photo by Campagnolo

RoadBikeReview: What is the biggest contributor to chain wear?

Campagnolo North America’s Dan Large: The biggest culprits are a dry, un-lubed chain, and/or a dirty, contaminated, over-lubed chain, and improper gear selection (riding in a crossed gear selection, mashing big gears).

Shimano’s Nick Murdick: Metal on metal friction between the rollers, pins, and plates of the chain are what cause the chain to wear. Every time the chain articulates to wrap around a gear those pieces are rubbing against each other. Lubrication helps them slide easily without wearing the metal down so much. Dirt inside the chain acts as a polishing compound that accelerates wear, so cleanliness is just as important as lubrication.

SRAM’s Nate Newton: Dirt and grime in the rollers. Keep your chain clean!

The Take Away: As a chain moves it has to overcome friction. Lube decreases it while dirt and grime increase it. So like Newton said, keep your chain (and entire drivetrain) clean.

Shown here is proper procedure for lubing a chain. Take your time and remember that it’s the roller in the center of the chain that requires lube. Avoid putting lube on the outer plates as it will only attract contaminants that wick lube away from the rollers. Photo by Muc-Off

Shown here is proper procedure for lubing a chain. Take your time and remember that it’s the roller in the center of the chain that requires lube. Avoid putting lube on the outer plates as it will only attract contaminants that wick lube away from the rollers. Photo by Muc-Off

RoadBikeReview: What can a cyclist do to prolong chain life?

Shimano’s Nick Murdick: There are three pillars to maximum drivetrain wear: Cleaning, lubrication, and periodic chain replacement. Cleaning and lubrication are the best ways to make a chain last a long time, but eventually the chain will elongate and start wearing down the teeth on the chain rings and cassette cogs. If the chain is replaced before it gets that stretched, the gears will last much longer.

SRAM’s Nate Newton: Don’t leave your chain dirty. Don’t simply lube without removing dirt and grime first. Clean and re-lube immediately after a wet or muddy ride. Don’t forget to wipe off excess lube.

Campagnolo North America’s Dan Large: Keep the chain clean and lubed at every possible chance.

The Take Away: You need to regularly clean, lube and replace your chain for best performance.

SRAM’s PowerLink chain connectors are great if you like to remove your chain for cleaning, though most of our experts encourage on-bike cleaning. Photo by SRAM

SRAM’s PowerLink chain connectors are great if you like to remove your chain for cleaning, though most of our experts encourage on-bike cleaning. Photo by SRAM

RoadBikeReview: What lube to you recommend? Any lubes that should be avoided?

Campagnolo North America’s Dan Large: We do not recommend any certain brands. As our factory lube is a petroleum based lube, a petroleum based or “wet” lube works great in wet/humid conditions. A dry lube is preferred in dry dusty conditions.

Shimano’s Nick Murdick: Since we generally recommend that the factory lubricant be left on the chain, we would also generally recommend a wet style lubricant, or a dry lubricant that doesn’t require the factory grease to be removed (like Dumonde Tech). Of course, some people are very passionate about their choice of chain lube and they will absolutely all work on a Shimano chain.

SRAM’s Nate Newton: Use a lube that is well matched to your conditions and environment. More important than the exact brand or type of lube is adherence to application instructions, wiping excess lube and grime, and reapplication at appropriate intervals.

The Take Away: If you left the original lube on your new chain, roll with a wet lube until the first degreasing. After that use a lube that suits the conditions in which you ride.

Continue to page 2 to hear what the lube makers have to say about proper chain maintenance »

About the author: Nick Legan

Nick Legan is happiest with some grease under his nails and a long dirt climb ahead. As a former WorldTour team mechanic, Legan plied his trade at all the Grand Tours, Spring Classics, World Championships and even the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In recent years, gravel and ultra-distance racing has a firm grip on Legan’s attention, but his love of mountain biking and long road rides hasn’t diminished. Originally a Hoosier, Legan settled in Boulder, Colorado, 14 years ago after finishing his time at Indiana University studying French and journalism. He served as the technical editor at VeloNews for two years and now contributes to Adventure Cyclist, Mtbr and RoadBikeReview.


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  • TRS says:

    The chain manufacturer applies the lube inside each roller during assembly, but some of the lube gets displaced during the process. Take an old piece of terrycloth towel and rub down the outside of the chain before installing it on the bike. The factory grease “inside” the rollers will protect the chain from wear much longer than any other lubricant you can apply externally.

  • D.Eldon says:

    I agree with Michael. The manufacturers’ advice to leave the factory lube on the chain is crazy. My experience is primarily with SRAM chains—I use mostly 1091′s but I’ve also used some of the lower end chains from SRAM. In all cases, the factory lube is super sticky and covers not just the rollers, but also the plates. It is an absolute dirt magnet!!! The first thing I always do with a new SRAM chain is degrease it with a “safe” citrus degreaser. Then I wash it with a high-quality dish washing liquid. Then I dry it. If the weather is not sunny and warm, this means 20 minutes in the oven on a very “low” warming temperature. As soon as the chain is dry and the ambient temperature, I install it on the bike and lube the chain rollers with synthetic Park Tool CL-1 wet lube. Then I run the chain for several minutes while shifting through all the gears. I ride between 5,000 and 6,000 miles per year and clean the chain about every 300-400 miles as needed (or immediately after use in wet weather). I take the chain off the bike each time I clean it. I always clean the chainring and cassette when I clean the chain but I never use degreaser on them because I don’t want to risk getting any on my bottom bracket, rear derailleur or rear freewheel hub. I typically touch up the lubricant at 100 miles intervals when the chain doesn’t need a full cleaning. I do this for all the bikes in my family. Once you’ve done it a few times, you get very fast with it. None of the on-bike cleaning contraptions come close to doing as good of a job.

  • Danny Davisson says:

    I Degrease the factory chain and use a 1qt Crook-pot with a secret blend (80/20) of paraffin and Bees wax. Soak the chain in the molten was for about 5 minutes remove and let dry for 10 minutes. The Chains feel like butter, last forever and need only an occasional wipe down with a dry cloth. Same process for Mountain and road. Wet and dry conditions. Not surprised that neither chain nor chain lube manufacturers recommend this method. Annual lube cost is about $10.

  • OK says:

    I have never left the lube that the chain comes with on the chain. It might make the chain last longer but it will be a black mess in no time. Which means that my hands will be a black mess when ever I have to touch it. On a new chain I remove all of the factory lube then I use Rock N Roll gold to lube it. reapplying about every 100 miles. I rarely clean the chain. I only use a shop towel to run the chain thru to remove grime and any excess lube. My chains have lasted about 5,000 miles or more using these procedures. I think that is pretty darn good.

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