A Beginner’s Guide to Cycling, Part 8: Chain and Chain Lube Basics

The last item in the beginner series has to be about lubing your chain. We have covered just about every other important topic: handling the bike, riding in traffic, air pressure, and basic training ideas. Maintaining your drivetrain is essential for every cyclist, and in my opinion it is something you need to do yourself just like tires and tubes.

Your new bike has a new chain on it that should last you thousands of miles if you maintain it well. When you neglect to properly clean and lube your chain, it will cause wear on your chainrings and cogs which in turn will result in costly replacements when compared to the cost of your $50 or less chain. A dirty chain attracts grit and grime which it then drags through your drivetrain and wears on those expensive parts. By the time the cassette and chainrings start to wear, it is probably too late. Your shifting will start to suck big time. If you maintain your chain, it will allow you to keep using the same chainring and cassette for quite some time, years even.

Chain basics

Your chain has hundreds of moveable parts that need to roll and slide through your derailleurs and cassette. Over the course of many miles, it will start to stretch as grit wears out connectors between the individual links. The chain stretch will naturally cause your bike to shift a little worse until it has finally stretched too far and needs to be replaced.

You can buy a chain checker or have your local shop look at your chain if you feel it is getting old. The checker goes between the links and measures the stretch. I have the Park CC-3.2 tool, and it is a useful gadget that costs about $12 tops. I do check my chains regularly, but I also just pony up and buy a new chain every July for the road bike no matter the wear. That usually puts me at about the 2,500 mile mark on a chain.

Lube basics

There are three types of lubes readily available at your local shop: dry lube, wet lube, and ceramic lube. Ceramic lube is a product I have no experience with, so I will not discuss it here.

Dry lube is often a wax based lubricant which is applied to the chain, left to dry, and then wiped off. Dry lube is great in dry and dusty areas as it tends to keep your chain clean. It provides excellent lubrication. but can be washed off by a good rain shower or a muddy day. Use dry lube if you are in a dry warm climate, as it tends to keep your chain nice and clean once it dries. I like a dry lube, but find I need to reapply often.

Wet lube goes on wet and stays wet. It is best in muddy and wet riding conditions, as it is harder to rinse off. It is excellent for spring and winter riding. Your chain just needs to be wiped off after a ride, and this will last for a couple hundred miles. If you only want one lube and ride all year round, give wet lube a try.

I prefer to use dry lube in the summer and wet lube in the winter and spring. Your mileage may vary. You can ask a dozen cyclists what they use and all have their favorites. The important thing is that you use something and use it the right way.

Three great lubes to try out

My favorite lube is the NixFrixShun NFS lube. It is a simple wet lube. Put 10-12 drops on a clean chain, run the chain through by turning the cranks for a few seconds, and wipe it clean with a rag. Go out and ride, and then wipe it off when you get back home. It is that easy. Add a 6 drops every hundred miles. It really goes and goes.

Another good lube is Squirt. It is a wax based lubricant that mimics the practice of people coating their chains in hot paraffin wax. Apply a drop to every link and let it dry before wiping off. They recommend that you re-apply every 6 hours of road riding time. I would add that you should relube anytime this product gets wet also.

The WD-40 dry lube in the dropper bottle is pretty good stuff as well. I use it just as described above and reapply every week or two. I am not a huge fan of the aerosol spray bottle WD-40 lube, as it gets all over the place. The dry dropper bottle (third from left above) works well and I use it on my bike in the summer. I like it so far.

Application basics

  1. Read and apply using the manufacturer's recommendations

  2. Let the lube settle into the chain

  3. Wipe the side plates clean

  4. Listen for noise on your daily rides

  5. Re-apply as needed

I would highly recommend that you always wipe your chain off with a clean rag after a ride and that you always use lube sparingly. It is the overapplication of the stuff that causes grit and grime to attach itself. Try to always go light, and use "less is more" as your chain lube mantra.

I recommend you stop by your local shop and see what they recommend. Ask them for some tips in picking out and using the right lube for you and your bike.