Sunday, August 15, 2010

Best Bicycle Chain Lubricants: Comparison & Conclusion

What is the best lubrication to use on your bike chain? You can find lots of facts, opinions and fiction about the "best way" to lubricate and care for your bicycle chain in books and on the Internet. It's pretty difficult to find tests that go beyond anecdotal observations.* After years of experimenting and over a hundred thousand miles of riding, I will now present my own opinion as immutable fact. (As a parent, I'm quite accustomed to this approach.)

Let's start with a True/False quiz to kick things off. We'll see how much the masters of marketing have lubricated our brains.

  • Oil additives like Slick 50 help extend your car's engine life.
    (Answer: False. They make things worse by clogging up your oil filter with loose, particulate Teflon that will never adhere to the inside of your cylinders. This impedes the flow of oil. Don't worry…well-established facts like this won't stop anyone from selling it to people who buy the marketing hype.)
  • You should take your bicycle chain off the bike to clean it.
    (Answer: False. Unless you have a VERY old bike with a 5-speed cog, removing your chain every time you want to clean it will dramatically improve your chances of breaking your chain. Manufacturers provide such warnings, but not everybody is listening. Even if your 10-speed chain has a master link, opening and closing it will weaken your chain. If you regularly lube and wipe your chain with an appropriate oil mix, you won't ever need to attack your chain with solvents. Sure, it will look brighter, but that's about it.)
  • "Self-cleaning" wax-based lubricants like White Lightening, Squirt, and Dupont's Chain Saver work as well as oils but also help your chain stay clean because any old residue will just "fly off" your chain.
    (Answer: False. Well-respected author and mechanic Lennard Zinn is very blunt about how you can expect fewer miles out of your chain if you use this type of lube. Yes, lots of residue will fly off, but in the process it will also get dirty and find a way to stick to other parts critical to smooth shifting like derailleur jockey wheels. I've had lots of black gunk on my bikes from using this "self-cleaning" solution. )
Now let's move on to my opinion the facts regarding bicycle chain maintenance.

  • This information is based upon generally dry, clean road-riding conditions that are quite common here in San Diego. If you live elsewhere, you need to move here first. (If the weather sucks where you ride your bike, you have a more pressing problem than what chain lube to use.)
  • The general principle here is that we need to give our chains some TLC on a regular basis for the best results, i.e. smooth-shifting, low-friction, long-lasting bicycle chains. Depending upon how big your rides are you should consider lubing your chain for every other ride if not every ride. This frequent lubrication scheme allows you to use thinner/lighter oils that will not attract quite as much dirt. If you want a lube that "really lasts" you're going to lean toward tackier oils that gather dirt…and you may quite possibly be a little bit lazy.
  • If you're using the right lube and wiping off excess with a rag, you won't get too much buildup on your chain. Ideally, allow some time between initial oil application (with spinning of the crank to work the oil to interior parts) and wiping the chain exterior clean with a rag.
  • Yes, you'll still want to check/clean your jockey wheels, cog and chain rings so that buildup of little dirt+oil chunks doesn't cause problems.
  • The idea of minimizing lubrication to avoid attracting dirt to the chain doesn't apply here. Just be sure to use an old terry cloth rag to help get oil out of the nooks and crannies. With the relatively thin oils recommended here, your oil is also part of the cleaning solution, helping to flush out dirt that has worked its way into the chain.
  • If you're trying to keep your chain so dry that no dust or dirt sticks to it, you're probably not getting enough lube to the interior parts of the chain that you actually need to be concerned about. This frequent TLC lubrication approach does not work well with the thicker wax lubricants
Best choices for bicycle chain lubrication:

  • THE BEST: Park Tool CL-1 Synthetic Blend Chain Lube with PTFE (Teflon). The "blue" bike tool company from St. Paul, MN knows a thing or two about servicing bikes. Their CL-1 lube has a perfect viscosity for the dual role the lube should play: flush out old dirt and lube when applying new lubrication. You can find this for as low as $4.29 for a 4-ounce bottle (August 2010), so don't pay twice that much just to be nice to your LBS (local bike shop). My chain stays much brighter and cleaner since I switched from ProGold to Park’s lube. 
  • BEST BUYS: DuPont™ Teflon™ Multi-Use Lubricant and Giant Liquid Silk LPD-9. I don't have as much experience with these, but some people swear by them. These are thin and light, but the DuPont product is tough enough to use on motorcycle chains, too. Both brands are available in aerosol and small squirt bottle containers to satisfy your personal preference. Giant's lube sells for as little as $1.98 for a 4.45 oz bottle. Dupont can be found for as little as $4.99 for an 11-ounce can. All sorts of experts will tell you to avoid "general purpose" lubricants…especially the experts who have something more expensive to sell you. This has the right characteristics for use on a smooth-shifting, frequently lubed-and-wiped bike chain. Note: This is NOT Dupont's "chain saver," which is the thicker, waxier spray similar to some other motorcycle chain lubricants.
  • Finish Line Teflon-Plus Lubricant is cleaner than Tri-Flow [below] but costlier than the two mentioned above.
  • Tri-Flow "Superior Lubricant with Teflon" is a bit wetter and tackier, which invites more dirt to stay on the chain. It also costs a little more than the two favorites mentioned above. If you have this in your tool box, consider using it for cable housings, jockey wheels, and other parts that you might not think of lubricating as often. It will "stick around" longer.
  • ProGold "ProLink" typically costs twice as much as the ones mentioned above. I used this for years but sadly it ultimately has nothing to offer over the two favorites mentioned above other than a really strong chemical odor. Higher pricing and cycling-specific marketing makes many cyclists feel they're getting a better product. ProGold is very popular which probably explains why they can charge so much for a 4-ounce bottle in your local bike shop.
I hope better lubricants and radical new improvements in drivetrain technology will cause this article to be completely outdated soon. But as things stand, we're still using the same principals in chain construction and lubrication that we were when I first learned to ride a bike almost 50 years ago. Until those radical new improvements come along, I hope this article is helpful to those who don't want to experiment quite as much as I have.

*If you know of a test that is focused on bicycle chains (which pose challenges that are different from motorcycle chains and any other mechanical or environmental scenario), please feel free to post that here.