Lube it or Lose it

I had a chance to hang out with Mike Kaelon, who handles Rockshox Service, as well as Quality Control and Research/Development for KHS Bicycles. We got to talking about chain lube. Check out what he had to say…

Mike Kaelon (left), Vince Calvillo (right)
KHS Visit 2011

BC: Which type of lube is best for chains?

Mike:As long as they are used regularly, most lubes work great. The only exceptions that I’ve seen are wax-based lubes, like White Lightning. Those will work OK, but you really have to work at keeping the wax from building up on the outside of the chain, which can prevent any new lube from getting inside the links. If you use wax lubes like most people do, which is to just apply the lube and forget it (which is why most people use those lubes, because it doesn’t get dirty), the wax starts to build up, and eventually all you end up doing is putting new lube on top of the old build up, instead of getting it worked down inside the links.


BC:Is there a brand you prefer?

Mike:I prefer lighter lubes for most road and dry off-road conditions. I usually use TriFlow, mainly because its cheap, and it also works really well for cables. Other chain lubes don’t work as well on cables, so its just more convenient for me to have one bottle that does both. For wet/muddy conditions, I like thicker lubes that stick to the chain better, and form a barrier that helps to prevent water from getting inside the chain. Finish Line Wet works really well, but most “wet” or “extreme condition” lubes work just as well. Those also work well for dry conditions (and actually make the chain run quieter), but tend to attract more dust, so your chain may get dirtier. So I prefer to match the lube to the day’s expected riding conditions.

BC:How often should we lube our chain and how often should we clean/degrease our drive train?

Mike: For road, I lube my chain every 100 miles or so, while for off-road I lube it every single ride. The best method is to first wipe the chain down, and get it as clean as possible just using a rag. Then put a drop of lube on each link, then spin the crank backwards a few revolutions to work the lube in, then wipe the chain down. If the chain was really dirty, I’ll do this a few times. Its best to do this after a ride, rather than right before a ride, as that will give the lube a chance to flow into all the gaps in the links, and excess can run out. Then before the ride, wipe down the outside of the chain to get rid of any excess. If you do this regularly, the chain never really gets too dirty or gunked up, and removing the chain to clean it, or having to use solvents isn’t necessary. In fact, many of the chain manufacturers recommend never removing the chain to clean it, and to never use strong solvents. Most chain lubes have mild solvents in them, and can be used to clean the chain if it isn’t too gunked up. Nothing except chain lube ever touches any of my chains, and even when they’re almost worn out, they’re almost as clean and shiny as when they were brand new.

BC: What are your thoughts on WD40? Should that be used for chain lube?

Mike: WD40 actually isn’t a lube, its a solvent, and breaks down lube (The “WD” stands for “Water Displacement”). Its best used for cleaning up really dirty chains, but its best to never let the chain get that bad in the first place. If you do use it to clean up a dirty chain, you should immediately use a real chain lube to finish the job. Instead of WD40, I prefer to use TriFlow in a spray can, and spray it onto a rag until its soaked, and use that to clean up the chain. That works almost as well as a regular solvent, but lubes the chain at the same time as it cleans it, instead of removing all the lube.


11 Comments

  1. Vincer June 6, 2011 9:05 pm 

    What lube works best for chains, cables AND suspension pivots?

  2. RL Policar June 6, 2011 9:12 pm 

    On that note, he recommended Triflow.

  3. Mindy June 6, 2011 11:45 pm 

    What a great primer on chain lube/maintenance – thanks!

  4. Raiyn June 7, 2011 1:13 am 

    I’m a Boeshield man myself. I do it just about exactly the way prescribed above.

  5. Dacius June 7, 2011 1:43 am 

    Every 100 miles? That would be every other day for me. HAHAHA I clean and oil mine every week or every 250 miles. My current chain is 11,000 miles into it’s life and it has almost no degradation, so I cannot complain. I do need a new rear cassette soon though.

    It is funny that you mentioned WD40, cause before I started biking to work I thought that it was a good bike chain lube.

  6. Jeroen June 7, 2011 3:50 am 

    Excellent post!
    More of this please!

  7. harry krishna June 7, 2011 8:02 am 

    bit tough on the wax guys. i’ve been doing paraffin for about 25 years – as in drop the chain in the pot. clean and lube all in one.

  8. Elizabeth June 7, 2011 11:18 am 

    Perfect post — perfect timing. Next week is Bike to Work Week in Chicago and I know plenty of new and seasoned commuters that this will benefit.

    @Dacius — 11,000 miles into your chain? I must be harsh on my drivetrains then… :-(

  9. Beerfart June 7, 2011 11:42 am 

    Very nice post, thanks.

  10. Ghost Rider June 7, 2011 7:46 pm 

    @Harry — my grandfather taught me the melted-paraffin method when I was but a wee lad. I used it religiously for years. Nowadays, there are so many easier methods (and better lubes) that this labor-intensive technique isn’t worth it any longer.

    My favorite lube is 10W30 synthetic motor oil cut 3:1 with odorless mineral spirits…cheap as can be and as effective as anything on the market. I use it every 150 miles or so, and use it as both cleaner and lube for my chain.

    @Dacius…you should really check (and replace) your chain more often. Even under the best conditions and maintenance, a chain only lasts 1500-2000 miles before it chews into the more expensive chainrings and cassette cogs. Replace the chain more frequently and you’ll spend far less on other replacement parts.

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