Spend $12 And Save Yourself Hundreds.

Whoa! I bet that kinda got your attention. No, Service Course Velo isn’t going down the late night infomercial route with big claims and three easy payments of anything. It’s just time to talk about lubing your chain. It’s like adding air to your tires. It’s an essential part of riding a bike unless you are one of those folks whose chains I can hear from inside my car, across three lanes of traffic, windows up, and with my stereo on, or worse you’re one of those belt drive freaks. (Just kidding belt drive fans, you aren’t worse than those other types. I just wanted to yank your chain a little. You guys are tied.) Unfortunately, almost every single rider out there doesn’t lube their chain the right way. They use too much and pus it on at the wrong time for it to work it’s best.

Here’s the dirty little secret on chain lubes. They all basically boil down to two components. (Not literally. Please don’t boil your chain lube.) One part is an evaporative carrier. It makes the chain lube thinner so it can get in all the nooks and crannies. The other part is the actual lubricant. It’s thicker and heavier and designed to keep the metal bits that make up your chain from scraping against each other. Dry lubes use more of the carrier and less of the lube. Wet lubes use more of the lube and less of the carrier. Wax based lubes pretty much work the same way, except they leave a wax residue that is designed to fall off and “clean” the chain as you ride. Except most of their lubricant is suspended in the wax, so once it falls off the chain, no more lube. Basically, don’t use wax lube.

Really quick, here’s a diagram of a chain, so you have an idea on what I’m talking about when terms like pins, rollers, and plates are thrown around.


There’s not really much too them, is there? You know where your chain needs lube? Inside the rollers where they spin on the pins, or rivets. That’s it. Nowhere else. Any lube on the outside of the chain, whether it’s on the plates or the outside of the rollers doesn’t do anything but attract dirt and grime. Dirt and grime on a chain are bad. Look at this.

Dirty Bike Chain

Yuck. That grime and grit does two things. The first thing it does is combines the dirt and oil to make an excellent cutting compound that wears out the chain faster. This is where the saving money speech starts to tie in. When chains wear, they also start to wear out the more costly parts of your drivetrain, like chainrings and cassettes. If you let a chain go too long between cleanings or replacement and it wears out those other pieces, when you put a new chain on, it will skip under load, cause chainsuck, and generally cost a ton of money. The other thing that dirt and grime does is actually pull the lube out of the rollers and pins. Think of putting kitty litter on an oil spill on your driveway. It soaks up the spilled oil. Well, that’s what the dirt on the outside of your chain is doing. It’s wearing your chain out faster and making the parts that need lube become dry sooner than they should.

Sometimes it’s not even the over lubing of chains that cause problems. Do you know about those chain cleaners that clamp around the chain and you fill them full of solvent and then run the chain through them until it’s clean? These handy dandy things that just about everyone of us has gotten for Christmas or our birthday at some point? (If you haven’t gotten one yet, be patient, you will. Mom’s and wives love buying these things).


The problem with these is twofold. One is you are “cleaning” your chain with some pretty dirty solvent as soon as you pull about three inches of grimy chain through it. The other is that almost all of the solvents you use leave a residue that gets inside the rollers and continues to do an excellent job of removing any new lube you put on the chain. If you are going to use one of these to clean off your dirty chain so you can start fresh and go about things the right way, remember to use something like White Lightning Clean Streak or even generic disc brake cleaner to flush out any left over solvent residue. Whatever it is you use should evaporate almost immediately and leave the chain dry to the touch.

So lets get down to brass tacks on how and when to lube a chain. First, the how. Shift into the big ring up front and the small cog in back. Now take your dropper (NO! Not an aerosol lube! NEVER an aerosol lube!) and apply one drop to the top of each roller on the chain below the chainstay. Rotate the cranks slowly backwards and keep going until you’ve gone all the way around. I like to start at the quick link if the chain has one, otherwise I’ll take a black sharpie and mark the chain so I know when I’ve made the full way around. Don’t just squeeze the bottle and spin the cranks around as lube drains out. That’s too much. Trust me, you’ll only need a tiny amount.

Lubing A Chain 2

Ok, the lube is on, now take a rag and grab the chain with it and give the cranks a few spins around to wipe off any excess lube on the outside of the chain. Don’t worry about wiping off to much. You can’t do it. The only lube the chain need is on the inside of the rollers.

Wiping chain down

From now on, to clean your chain under normal conditions will be to give the chain a quick wipe just like this before you lube it.

OK, now on to the when. This is definitely where almost all riders get it wrong when it comes to lubing a chain. The best time to lube a chain is right after your ride. Yup after. That gives whatever evaporative carrier your chain lube uses the most time to get the lubricant into the rollers and pins and then evaporate away. If you put it on right before your ride, the lube never has a chance to set up inside the chain. It will be thinner than it was designed to be and the pedaling forces will fling it to the outside parts of the chain, making the plates dirty and the rollers and pins that need the lube dry. Almost every single lube gets put on too frequently as well. This is not a routine that you need to repeat after every ride. Of course different lubes have sorter and longer life spans, but the rule is to only lube your chain when you can hear it starts to sound dry. No more unless you are riding in some pretty extreme conditions or washing your bike after every ride like the pros. I personally like a wet lube. Using it like I described, I never have issues with a black, oily chain, even in super dusty conditions like Bend or in wet slop like Portland cross races. My personal favorite is Motorex Wet. Motorex is a huge, Swiss based lube manufacturer that makes lubes and greases for just about everything under the sun. But unlike most lube companies, they actually set their engineers to design a lube for bikes, instead of re-labeling another product made for motorcycles or go-carts or whatever.

Motorex Lubes

So spend a little dough on some good lube, use it right, and save yourself time and money. Taking care of your chain is like cleaning your bathroom. It’s easy and quick if you do it regularly, but it’s an awful and disgusting chore if you put it off and wait too long.

One response

  1. Pingback: A little bit often: a simple way to look after your chain | BikeWise

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