The Art and Philisophy of Bicycle Lubricant


I went for a ride this morning on a singlespeed road bike and I guess I haven't paid enough attention to the maintenance of this bike because the chain squeaked and grinded the whole ride. It reminded me of an article I wrote over ten years ago called The Art and Philosophy of Bicycle Lubricant for a now-defunct website called (this is not the same site as t was ten years ago). I found the article in my archives and thought I'd share the advice I forgot to take.

When I told my wife I needed to test a bunch of different lubrications, her eyes grew wide. But I saved from her the horror of her imagination and told her what I meant was that I was working on a review of bicycle chain lubes for

The job turned out to be tougher job than I anticipated. The problem was that I wasn’t sure how to go about it. Lubricating your bike’s moving parts is as essential to riding as the correct air pressure in your tires but how do you review lube? Applying a bunch of different products and riding with them didn’t seem to yield more than an anecdotal feel for how one might be different from another. I mean, they all stopped my chain from squeaking. I needed to come up with another was to measure one lube against another. Something that could tell you which one to buy. But what else could I do? Rub it between my fingers? Taste it? Research the chemical composition of each and run it by some engineer friends of mine to write up the characteristics of each that make it superior?

The problem with a more scientific approach is that I’m neither engineer nor chemist. Besides, how relative would that be to a general audience anyway. You guys are cyclists, not rocket scientists. I wanted an approach that was relative to you. I did two things.

First, I went to the Slippery Pig Bike Shop in downtown Phoenix to talk to Erik Angermeier, the shop’s owner and the single greatest behind-the-counter cycling mind I know. “Show me the lubes you carry,” I asked figuring he would carry one, the one he was sure was the lube to end all lubes and I’d get an instant shortcut. Unfortunately, he carries a shelf load. Several different kinds. And had no relevant preference. In other words, he was no real help.

So I decided to go to the source for you. Call the manufacturers themselves. Ask them to tell me the truth behind bicycle lube. I talked to Brent at Phil about their Tenacious Oil, Karl at Pedro's and Andy at DuMonde Tech among others. One told me that theirs was the standard, the traditional, superior, clean and simple bicycle lube used in better shops all over the country. And it was. Another explained their use of a wax base and the benefit of how it helped their lube stay applied to the chain and threw off dirt through intense use. And it does. Another told me about how their synthetic lubricant polymerizes into a plastic coating somewhat similar to Teflon and, after it has been properly applied, only needs to be reapplied when the sound of the chain changes. And it does.

What I didn’t hear  form anyone was “Use our lube and you’ll get 11,000 additional miles from your drivetrain vs. using the other stuff.” They claimed only a more intelligent approach or a superior chemistry. No one made the stand that their product, in and of itself, was by far superior to any other bike-shop stocked bicycle specific lubricant.

And the realization that came to me after all this talking, questioning, and sampling lubricant was that the thing to know about proper protection of your bicycles moving parts is not so much which product on the market to use, but how to master the art of lubrication itself.

To that end, and gleaned from the collective knowledge of the Slippery Pig Bike Shop and several extremely passionate and educated lubricant industry specialists (I wonder what it feels like to tell the family that’s what you chose for a living), I submit these lessons. These are the keys to getting maximum performance from your drivetrain while preventing the premature wear and tear of every link and cog along the way. And we all know what happens when the metal stuff wears out right? We’re dropping half a rent check at the bike for chainrings, chain, cassette, and derailleur pulley wheels.

The Rules of Lube:

  • Don’t mix lubes: The various lubrications available at your local bike shop are not all based on the same substances. Some are petroleum-based, true oils. Others are based on Wax. Others on synthetic material. Many different manufacturers use unique mixtures of additives for this and that reason. When mixed, some combinations of product work completely against each other. DuMonde Tech’s lube, for example, contains a synthetic polymer, a coating that bonds to your chain only when it has been properly applied. Put DuMonde Tech on a chain that already has an oil coating and it will never penetrate to the metal or polymerize (their term) correctly. Apply oil over White Lightning’s wax-based lube and you’ll get nothing more than oil being thrown from your chain, unable to work its way past the wax. So pick a product and stick with it. Let it do the job it was chosen for by the manufacturer and don’t work against it by mixing it with something else.
  • Clean the chain thoroughly: This rule applies even for a brand-new chain. Lube, no matter which form, is a clingy substance. It needs to be. It has to stay on your bike’s chain in order to continue to provide the friction relief that will ease long-term wear. Because it’s so sticky though, lube is also a great collector of dirt. Dirt which traps moisture close to the precious metal you’re trying to protect. So before lubing the first time, and before any subsequent reapplication, wash the dirt off your chain with soap and water. Or clean with a degreaser the solvent the manufacturer of your lube recommends. This way there will be nothing preventing your lube from getting to where it needs to be.
  • Apply by the rules: You buy lube to protect your drivetrain. There’s a reason why there are sets of instructions on every lube bottle. I know you might say that the lawyers make them do it, but if you’re ever dissatisfied with the performance of your lube, I would tell you to first read the bottle and see if you’re the reason why it’s failing. There is a precise science to lubrication. It protects only when it is applied a certain way. That certain way is not the same for every product. In fact, follow the rules for one when applying another and you just may be doing the one thing that guarantees your lube will not perform for you. If you’re not applying lube exactly and specifically as the label says, you can’t expect it to perform the way it should.
  • Wipe off the excess: Okay, you have a clean chain. Apply an even flow of lube on the links of chain, spinning the crank backwards, until the chain is evenly coated. Wait a moment to think about what you have just done and let the lube settle into the chain. Then, rag cupped in palm, gently roll the chain through your hand, wiping away the excess. The metal needs a fine coat of lubrication, not a bath. Any more than what is needed becomes a magnet and glue for corrosive dirt, dust, and moisture.
  • Reapply only by the rules: Many people do not lube their chain enough, waiting until the poor drivetrain is squeaking like a mouse with his hindquarter caught in a trap before putting it out of it’s mercy with a few ounces of precious oil. There is a temptation, and maybe even habit for many seasoned cyclists, to lube up before every ride. It might be something you do just as often as checking the pressure on your tires. Resist this temptation or cure this habit. Each brand has, written most likely in plain language on the label, a guide for when you reapply lube. For some brands it may be frequently, every few rides, weekly even. For others, like DuMonde Tech, the rule is to only add lube when the smooth sound of the chain begins to fade and the pinging of links can once again be heard. Whatever their rules, follow them closely. When reapplying, wash with soap and water first. Dry everything next. Strip the chain with a solvent or cleaner only if the chain has become overwhelmingly grimy or the lube’s instructions tell you to.
  • Keep your shifting adjusted: Nobody’s perfect. Gear’s slip. Cables stretch. It’s almost impossible to never have a shifting problem on an engineered system as precise as modern bicycle gearing. But know that when you’re getting a clacking noise from the cassette while ‘in’ a gear, you’re accelerating the pace of wear on your drivetrain components. Proper lube and care will only take you so far. All your hard work and attention to the Rules of Lube can be tossed to the side by a few weeks of riding on improperly tuned gears. Take a moment to make the adjustment as soon as gears get out of whack. If you don’t know how, learn. Or better yet, take a ride to your nearest and friendliest bike shop.
  • Replace all worn parts together: When you either ride your chainrings to nubs, stretch your chain beyond the tolerances allowed by its design, or neglect the simple and reasonable Rules of Lube, replace all the parts in your drivetrain together. A new chainring or cassette will be prematurely worn by a stretched chain. A new chain can just as easily be ruined by worn cogs. Replace them as a set, no matter how much it hurts financially. Long term, it’s the only investment, besides the $10 bottle of lube and cleaner of course, that makes sense for dealing with the problem of a worn drivetrain.

That’s it. Seven simple rules. Follow them and your expensive drivetrain components will outlast your legs. All that’s left is for you to pick the lube that’s right for you. You want one that’s compatible with your climate, simple enough to understand and apply, and carried or recommended by your friends or your bike shop.



Get stuff done!

Empty_Mailbox_ScreenshotI was at lunch with a sales rep the other day and the subject of how we each manage our daily work in a world where communications are coming at us from an ever-growing number of tools. I mean, I get emails, phone calls, texts, Facebook messages, Direct messages in Twitter, Instagram notifications, and I am forwarded the contact requests through our website. But I was able to show my rep that I have an empty email inbox - meaning that I am able to stay on top of the flow of work coming at me as it comes.

I manage myself mostly through email and to-do lists and as new opportunities to work come up, be they reactive (me replying to or work being triggered by communications coming to me through all the methods listed above) or proactive (tasks generated from meetings, discussions with employees, reps, partners, thoughts and ideas about the business I have in either intentional sessions of off-work hours), I stay ahead by making an immediate, momentary decision from one of four possible dispositions with each opportunity.

Do It Now: If I can, I reply, resolve, or do the thing right then. A customer emails me with a question I can answer quickly, I send a reply right then. A phone call comes in from a customer, I answer if I am able and deal with the call right then An employee has a question, I answer now if I can answer quickly and without a major disruption to the flow of whatever I am working on at the time. For the things I can or don't need to deal with right then, I...

Delegate it: I get an email from a customer about a shipping or a billing issue - something not directly related to my direct mission of driving sales - I pass it along. We sell an order to a customer and it's time to put the final paperwork together, I turn over all the information I have and the team takes over to make sure we deliver. A customer calls with an issue with a product, I ask them to email me the details so I can refer it to someone who takes care of product issues. As soon as something crosses your desk that requires action, that is better handled by someone else, pass it along immediately. If it can't be delegated...

Schedule it: I schedule work that I need to take care that I cannot attend to immediately. Rather than let these items pile up in my email or other inboxes, with no through to when they need to be taken care of, I use free or very inexpensive technology to schedule them. First, I keep a folder in my Gmail called 'Pending' to hold emails that I need to reply to but can wait until I have time to batch-process them. Second, I use ToDoIst to schedule things that are time sensitive but don't need to be done at a specific time (make sense - meaning I need to take care of it tomorrow but not at 9am tomorrow). Third, I use Google Calendar for things that are specific-time sensitive. Simple tools for a simple organizational work-flow system. For everything else that comes across my desk, that can;t be done immediately, can't be delegated, can't be scheduled...

Throw It Away: Sometimes, that email., that Facebook message, that Twitter DM, is not worth the time it would take to reply. Not every opportunity to do work should be taken. In fact, working smart means separating the work that advances your agenda from the work that detracts from your agenda. Time is a finite resource. Spend too much of it on work tasks that don't advance your professional goals work against your future. Do not be afraid to simply throw away work you don't need to take or pass along.

That's it. A simple but effective set of rules to filter opportunities to work through that allow me to end every day with the beautiful empty inbox and to-do list.



Safety (and speed) in the peloton

photo by Jonathan Devich -

photo by Jonathan Devich -

Cycling can be a very social act. All across the world, groups of cyclists gather together at predetermined times and locations to spin away a few hours in the name of our passion for the sport. It's safer on the roads if you're in a group - you're more visible and less vulnerable to motor vehicles. Sharing the energy it takes to push a human body on a bicycle through the air can (you need something like 20% less energy to ride behind someone than in front of a group) can mean faster, more fun rides too. But riding in a group is not for the inexperienced.

A couple of years ago, I entered El Tour de Tucson, a 108-mile ride with several thousand participants. I had been riding for some years and had ridden in a number of large groups but the thought of the risks involved in race speeds surrounded by strangers had me up a night weeks before the event. The only way to work through the jitters was to take the time to write out a manifesto of the traits I knew keep me safe in a large pack of riders (and avoid being dropped).

Leading the group at the start is impressive, but dumb – Too often, I get excited to start a big ride and put myself near the front of the group. The problem with that is that before I know it (and usually just before the ride really heats up), I end up on the very front, nose into the wind, wearing myself thin for no other reason than to avoid looking like a wimp by dropping back to the shelter of someone else’s draft. Too much work too early is a recipe for losing grip when things get fun and fast. I am better to either take the very first pull so I can have enough time to rest before the speed picks up or sit in the back of the pack until the real ride begins.

Six inches is close enough – Staying close behind another rider’s wheel can be unnerving but I know that it provides the best possible shelter from the wind. The best approach to following, for me, is to focus on getting to within six inches of the rider in front of me; to find the position directly behind or off to one side that shields me the most from the elements, and avoid overlapping wheels with the rider in front. Closer than six inches and any change in my leader’s momentum (they get out of the saddle, move to avoid an object in the road, or hit their brakes) and I could be on the ground before I can react to the danger. Six inches is the Little Red Riding Hood distance - not too far, not too close, but just right.

Get in the drops – I sometimes forget that the lower extensions of the handlebars on my road bike can be held while riding, giving me a more aerodynamic profile, saving even more energy when riding behind someone else. This is especially important to remember when riding behind a shorter person or getting close to the front of the group (where the cumulative effect of multiple riders blocking the wind is lessened).

Look three riders ahead – I’m scared to crash. I’ve seen minor wheel overlaps result in massive carnage. Although there’s no ultimate assurance against crashing while riding, I can see trouble forming much better by keeping an eye three riders up the line than just zoning out on the wheel in front of me. This also lets me react to changes in the group’s momentum sooner.

Have an escape route – I get really nervous when there is more than one rider on my left and a curb or other riders on the right. I am always conscious of having an escape out of the group should I need to make it. So I try to position myself on so that I'm never boxed in on both sides at the same time.

Take smart pulls – When it’s time to go to the front, it is important for me to remember to keep my speed consistent (look at my bike computer before I get to the front and hold the speed I see when I hit the wind). Then, ten turns of the pedal (15-30 seconds) then it's okay to roll off and drift to the back.

Call out road debris and upcoming traffic instructions - If the rider at the front of group sees a rock in the bike lane twenty feet away, he can adjust his line and avoid it. The rider five-people deep sees only the wheel in front of him. That rock will be under his wheel before he can react. Without stoking too much of your imagination, you can just imagine what kind of damage can be done if you launch over your handlebars in the middle of a pack of fifty riders at twenty-five miles per hour. Which is why all riders, especially the leading rider, need to call out any road debris the group is about to encounter. Hand signals pointing out what side debris is coming are good. A clear shout for riders to keep their "heads-up" or that there is a "hole" in the road is what's needed. Same goes for upcoming turns in the road. Let the riders behind you know if the group is soon to be turning right or left to avoid nasty, and completely preventable, collisions.

Catch the caboose – I get dropped so many times by missing the tail end of a riding group after taking a pull. If I am smart about my pull and don’t overdo it, the best way for me to survive in a fast paceline group is to catch the back of the line right as it passes. Don't let my speed drop too much when I come off the front then keep an eye for the back of the line and start accelerating when there are two or three riders left to pass me. That way, I can usually slot right into the back of the group and recover.

Close gaps without blowing up – Sometimes, no matter how well I stay with the wheel in front of me, speed changes in the group cause gaps to open. If I'm not careful, I get dropped by surges then quit in frustration from not being able to keep up or blow up trying to hook back on. What I need to remember is that if I avoid panic, get in the drops, and focus on ramping up my speed consistently, I can usually close gaps before they get too far away from me.

You will not die if you sprint to close a gap – But when pulling a gap back gradually doesn’t work, it is better to shift into a harder gear and sprint across the gap than simply fall away and get stuck riding without the shared energy and protection of a group. It will hurt. Your heart rate will spike. You'll need to recover a bit. But you would be surprised what a momentary fierce burst of effort will reward you with.

It’s okay to drop out ¬ Fast group rides are super fun. And if you can hang, and you follow the rules, they are mostly safe. But if for any reason, you find yourself in over your head, so overworked you're not focusing, you can't hold a line, you're unsure of your ab there's no shame in slipping off the back and spinning home solo. Who knows, you may even find others who had to drop off and form a new, second group.


The close call

CloseCall Artwork

You see a line of cyclists
On the road ahead of you
Annoyed to touch your brakes
They are taking too much space
They have no right to ride like that
A pack
A gang
Rolling through intersections
When you have to stop
Why don't they stay
Inside the white line
That marks the lane
That was built just for them?
Wont they let you pass?
Shift over?
Get out of the way?
Who do they think they are?
Squeezed into that god-awful Lycra
Lance Armstrong?

You'll show them
Throttle up
Swing wide
Tires bark
Engine screams
Cut back
Onto the shoulder
Jam the brake
Spray gravel everywhere

In your rear-view mirror
You see their coordinated line
They howl
Red faced
Swing their arms
You laugh

Who do they think they are?

I can answer for one

I am Stephen
I am 48
I am a husband, a father, a grandfather
I am a business owner, employer, taxpayer, contributor
I am an artist, a writer, poet, communicator,
With dreams for my future

I am a cyclist

I try to put myself in your shoes
To understand what led you
To make a split-second choice
That could have ended
With my death

I can only shake my head
And hope to never
Cross your path again


Social Media Mastery


When a simple picture
Of my motorcycle
Got more likes
And comments
On Facebook
Than any mention
Of my many
Great Accomplishments
I learned my lesson
And now
Post only
Pictures of my motorcycle