Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 12/21/2016 we’re republishing to help riders keep their drivetrains in working order as we head into the winter riding season.
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.
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 has 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.
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.
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 chainrings 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.
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.
Part Two: The Lube Makers: Muc-Off and White Lightening
For the next round of questions, RoadBikeReview asked lube makers how best to care for a chain and what products they recommend (obviously bearing in mind that they’ll each recommend a product they make). Both shared great advice on caring for your chain and encouraged riders to create a routine to keep things running smoothly.
RoadBikeReview: Do you recommend different lubes for different applications? Mountain bike, road or cyclocross? Dry conditions, wet conditions?
Muc-Off’s Managing Director, Alex Timnell: Absolutely! It’s crucial you pick the right lube for the occasion and cycling discipline. If you’re riding in wet weather, it’s best to ride with an oil-based formulation that repels water and sticks to your chain so it won’t get washed off. We’d recommend looking at our C3 Wet Lube. It’s perfect for tackling the mud and grime you can pick up on the road or trail while riding in bad conditions.
When it’s dry, look at using a lighter lubrication that is wax-based and will repel the dirt that would otherwise stick to a wet lube. Our C3 Dry Lube can resist water wash-off in light rain showers, but for deep winter we would recommend you switch to a wet lube.
White Lightening’s Derek Goltz: We always recommend picking lubricants based primarily on conditions. If you live in a dry area, it is best to use a dry lube and best to use a wet lube in wet areas. The exceptions to the rule would be to use wet lube even if you live in dry conditions but are going on long rides or always using a dry or wax style lubricant because you prefer the cleanliness.
With our products we recommend Clean Ride for extremely dry, dusty, sandy areas and for the riders who prefer a clean to the touch chain. Epic Ride lube for variable conditions (some rain, some mud, and some beautiful dry, sunny days) and longer rides. And our Wet Ride lube for wet conditions and extremely long rides. Every lube can be used on any type of bike, it is really best to choose based on weather conditions.
The Take-Away: Wet or dry refers to the conditions in which you’re riding. Use a “wet,” petroleum-based lube for rainy or wintry conditions. Go with a “dry” lube when it’s dusty or nice out.
RoadBikeReview: How do you know when your chain needs lube?
Muc-Off’s Managing Director, Alex Timnell: It’s important to only lube your chain when it’s needed, unless you’re willing or able to completely clean your bike in-between each ride. Too much lube and you risk causing excessive debris build-up on the chain. Too little can cause excessive friction. In both cases, you’re shortening the lifespan of the chain, which can lead to unnecessary costs. There are a few cues you can take as to when your chain needs to be cleaned and re-lubed. That includes if it’s making a lot of noise as you’re pedaling, and after riding in the rain or snow once you’ve cleaned your drivetrain. You can also apply a few drops if you’re planning to go on a long ride. In an ideal world, it’s best to completely degrease and lube the chain after every ride.
White Lightening’s Derek Goltz: The short answer is when it starts to make noise (although that is a little late). The best thing to do is to apply lubricant at regular intervals. At White Lightning we recommend reapplying every 50-60 miles with Clean Ride, every 120-150 mile with Epic Ride, and ever 250-300 miles with Wet Ride. It is always dependent on weather (the more rain/snow/sleet and bad weather, the more frequently you need to reapply), but the above is a good rule of thumb. At a bare minimum, just remember to apply once your chain starts making noise.
The Take-Away: Lube your chain when it begins to sound dry. Develop a condition-based or mileage-based lubing routine.
RoadBikeReview: How do you know when it’s time to clean/degrease your chain?
White Lightening’s Derek Goltz: When you start to get a solid build-up of grit and grime that is not easy to wipe off with a rag. This will happen faster with wet style lubricants because they will attract and trap all sorts of contaminants. Dry style and wax style lubes will have to be degreased less frequently because of their tendency to run dry and not attract contaminants. At a minimum, you should degrease every 4 months to prevent excess wear.
The Take-Away: When you begin to develop residue that isn’t easily wiped off with a rag, it’s time to degrease. Degreasing more frequently is great too.
RoadBikeReview: What regular chain maintenance do you recommend?
Muc-Off’s Managing Director, Alex Timnell: Cleaning your bike can be complicated, especially if you want to do it properly. That’s why we developed our easy-to-follow 3-step bicycle care program – Clean, protect, lube.
The first step is clean. Spray some Bio Drivetrain Cleaner directly on to your chain and cogs, or use a chain-cleaning machine to speed up the process. Give the solution a few minutes to activate, agitate with a brush if needed, and rinse.
Then you move on to protect. It’s incredibly important to disperse any water from the chain before applying lubricant – you risk trapping moisture in the links otherwise, which can rust it from the inside out. Spray some of our MO94 spray over your cassette and chain to achieve a completely drive chain.
Finally, it’s time for the lube. Rotate the pedals backwards as you apply the appropriate lube on the inside of the chain link. For the best results, leave the lube on the chain overnight before riding; this will give it plenty of time to coat the metal and provide all-over coverage.
White Lightening’s Derek Goltz: The best daily chain routine is to wipe off any excess lubricant with a clean rag or paper towel before a ride and wipe off any grit, grime, or contaminants with a clean rag or paper towel after each ride. People often forget that the lube needs to be inside the chain, on the pins and rollers, not the outside of the chain. You want to keep the outside of the chain as clean as possible to prevent anything from getting inside the chain. Because of this, it is important to wipe off excess lubricant and wipe off the chain after a ride. It is a 30-second task that will help your drivetrain run smoother and last much longer.
The Take Away: Develop both daily cleaning and lube habits as well as routine, in-depth cleaning procedures. Put together a kit that works for you and stick with it and your chain (and bike) will run smoother, faster, and longer.