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Knowing how to oil a chain is a valuable skill that any bike enthusiast can and must know.
Good chain lubricant is equivalent to fine wine. A couple of drops, and you can keep your bike parts moving like clockwork.
Although the process can be messy, it’s an easy bike maintenance job. How often you should do it will depend on different factors.
This guide will walk you through how to oil a chain, including how to clean it.
Bike Chain Maintenance
A bike chain consists of a series of links, primarily of side plates, pins and rollers. These roller chains transfer the power you put into your pedals to the wheels.
The chain gets raided by road dirt the most and is usually one of the dirtiest parts of a bicycle. If overlooked, it can affect the bike's longevity and performance, specifically:
- Increased rate of chain wear
- Reduced flexibility of chain links
- Impaired shifting performance
- Added wear on derailleur assemblies and drivetrain cogs
To perfectly clean all the dirt from the inside is quite impossible, but oiling does help. A modern cycle chain has small gaps that allow the oil to flow and flush out the dirt.
These small openings also leave a residue to keep the rollers running smoothly. At the same time, it causes minimum friction, ensuring the chain doesn’t wear as quickly.
Without the proper chain lube applied to the right places, your ride will come to a screeching halt. That applies to grabbing an affordable option or high-quality bike oil.
Degreasing, Cleaning and Lubing
Before applying oil to the chain, spot-clean it from time to time. This is also a good opportunity to check for wear.
Riding with too-worn roller chains can erode the teeth on the gear. In turn, this may cost you more by replacing the gears.
But reducing wear through chain cleaning is a factor that’ll help you save money. Not only that, but it also guarantees an efficient drivetrain and smooth ride.
Drivetrain efficiency is the energy you put through the pedals to drive the bike forward. It’s usually described as ‘power’ as it can be measured in watts.
Overall, drivetrain efficiency depends on things such as cleanliness and chain line. Thus, avoid getting it contaminated to achieve optimum performance and long-lasting parts.
Sure, grease is great for bearings and threads. However, it won’t penetrate the gaps between the rollers and pins where a drop of lube is needed.
For one, it’s too thick. The vicious chain friction will be much higher, and it’ll attract every bit of grit, dirt and grime as a result.
It’ll be a nightmare to clean them off afterwards, so keep away from using grease on your chain.
A step-by-step guide to chain degreasing and cleaning:
- If your bike is disc-brake equipped, consider removing your wheel. Apply degreaser where the chain meets the chainring teeth under the side chainstay.
- Spray the degreaser on the chain, back-pedalling to coat the entirety of the rollers. If using a chain-cleaning product, pour the degreaser until it reaches the fine line.
- Rub the degreaser into the chain using an old brush or rag for the drivetrain and a clean one on the rest of the bike. This trick helps avoid getting black marks all over the parts.
- Wait for at least five minutes or so before washing off the degreaser with soapy water. At that time, feel free to clean the rest of the bike with a pressure washer (if possible).
- Once washed, wipe the chain with a clean cloth until it’s no longer black. You may need to repeat the degreasing process if it’s particularly dirty.
- See if there’s no more black residue coming off the chain. If so, allow it to dry either using a dry cloth or an air compressor. Don’t leave it overnight to prevent rust build-up.
- Apply the oil to the chains. (A thorough bike lube application is explained below.)
Note: A common mistake of many riders is not degreasing their chains prior to lubrication. In this case, the chain will continue to attract more contaminants.
You also run the risk of having a ‘chain tattoo’ if your leg comes into contact with it while on a ride.
Applying the lube to the chains
To oil the chain, deposit a drop on the top of each link as you slowly backpedal for a few revolutions. That way, the lube can work its way in and, at the same time, it allows you to inspect and catch any issues.
Less is more. As small a drop as possible, you can always add a bit more if necessary. Once you have been all the way around, spin the cogs a couple of times to push the oil between the rollers.
Wipe off excess lube, or else it can attract more dirt to your chain roller. You’ll also want to avoid getting the lubricant on the disc brake rotor or calliper.
Now your bike is good to go!
Top tips: You may also consider putting the bike in a stand or leaning against the wall. This will help you spin the cranks with ease. Shake the bottle of lube first in case some ingredients have separated.
Never use a motorcycle chain lube, as it contains acids that can affect the chain’s strength.
When Should You Lube Your Bike Chain?
- Generally, every 100-150 miles or once a week if you’re “dry riding” most days on pavement. Aim to clean your chain every two to three lubrication jobs.
- If you’re riding in wet, snow, or muddy conditions, clean and lube your chain after every ride.
- For biking in sandy or dusty conditions, use a dry lubricant, which doesn't attract abrasive dirt as much as oil-based.
Recommend Bike Chain Oils
Oils that are specifically marketed as bicycle-chain lubricants are superior to non-bicycle ones. Always use a chain cleaner and lubricant designed for bike drivetrains.
Below are the recommended types of lubes for bike chains and the ones you should avoid using:
1. Wax-based lubricant
Paraffin wax-based lubricants score well on efficiency, longevity and in resistance to contaminants. They have grown massively in popularity in recent years for that reason.
Wax-based lubes are usually mixed with additives such as PTFE and a carrier fluid. When applied correctly, it settles to form a hard, almost dry layer of low-friction chain lubricant.
A downside is it requires a fastidiously clean chain prior to the initial application. Otherwise, the wax won’t stick to the metal or dry out well.
You also need to leave enough time for the wax to dry and harden on the chain completely - overnight, ideally. If you ride in wet conditions, clean and lubricate the chain afterwards to curb corrosion.
2. Wet lubricant
The wet-based type is designed for riding in wet and dry conditions. The “wetness” refers to the viscosity of the oil.
It contains greater quantities of higher-viscosity synthetic oils and additives such as PTFE. This makes wet chain lube last longer and is less prone to getting washed off the chain.
But the caveat is it also magnets dirt and grime, especially when applied excessively. For best practice, apply sparingly to each chain line and wipe off any excess before riding.
3. Dry lubricant
Designed for riding in dry weather, dry chain lubricants consist of 10% lubricant and 90% carrier fluid. They promise greater efficiency through lower chain friction and fewer contaminants.
The quirk is that dry lubes are often easily washed off by wet weather like rain or puddles. What’s more, dry lubes also appear cleaner as they lack enough lubricant to be effective.
4. Ceramic chemicals
Ceramic lubes have bold claims about increased performance. They usually contain tiny ‘ceramic particles’ that help reduce friction over synthetic oils.
This bicycle-specific lube is on the costly side. But the decreased friction it claims leads to increased drivetrain longevity. This helps you save money in the long run.
5. Immersive waxing
If you’re after the fastest, most efficient drive chain possible, go for immersive waxing. This process involves immersing a clean chain in a heated vat of paraffin wax and additives.
The heat helps the bicycle chain parts expand. This allows oil to penetrate and flush out contaminants fully. The wax also dries completely and in a solid layer over every part.
The initial chain cleaning requires extra legwork, but the potential rewards are substantial.
What to avoid
Besides grease, the following aren’t recommended for oiling your chain:
The power from your legs when you pedal doesn’t move your bike on its own. Thank the chains for that!
They’re often under serious tension when you ride. As they’re low to the ground, the chain picks up every road grime.
But with regular cleaning and lubing, the chain will be safe from the dreadful squeaky noise.