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.


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