Oil for Bike Chain: The Dos and Don’ts
Keeping your bike chain in good working order should be a priority. The average chain will give you between 3,000 and 8,000 kilometres, depending on use.
It does a straightforward job, but there’s a lot happening to ensure it synchronises with the chainrings at the crank, and sprockets at the back of your machine. There are up to 116 links in a stock chain, so it has more moving parts than any other component.
A bike chain is a mechanical tool, and the interaction with the chainrings and gears creates friction. This metal-on-metal action is the cause of wear and tear. There can be as many as 44,000 chain pieces in motion for every minute of sporty pedalling. That’s a lot of friction.
The chain is also very susceptible to the elements due to its proximity to the ground. Grit and muck will wear it down more quickly if you don’t take care of it.
Cleaning and lubricating a bike chain is essential. This is a once a week job if you ride daily in normal conditions, and should take no more than 30 minutes each time.
Do You Need to Oil a Bike Chain?
You must lubricate a chain to ensure a smooth and efficient running of your bike. The chain is essential for converting the effort you put in through the pedals into forward motion. The energy-sapping inefficiencies of not using lubrication sees you throwing money down the drain too.
A grinding, squeaking chain is easy to listen out for, and feel through the vibrations hitting the pedals, then your feet. Cycling can be a blissful pursuit, especially when everything around you is quiet. It’s not helpful to your mood when your ride is interrupted by a noisy chain.
Your pedalling will be less effective when your chain is not lubricated. Only by one or two percent, but enough to make a difference. Add this to the psychological impact of knowing you could go faster for the same effort only makes matters worse.
A poorly lubricated chain will also wear down other parts more quickly. Your chainrings, jockey wheels and sprockets will wear more rapidly, and your bills will get bigger.
Lubrication is a term more frequently used than oiling in the 21st century. That’s because of a modernisation of the synthetic products on offer, in most local bike shops or online. No longer should you need to look in a shed for a motor oil can with a spout and pump handle.
As cycling has evolved and top race teams have improved their times and speed, in part through lubrication, we’ve seen an oil slick of that R&D trickling down to our day-to-day bikes. Different bikes use different chains but they all need lubrication.
Unfortunately, any oil attracts and accumulates dirt from the environment around it and those particles form a paste which attacks and eats the chain links. Inevitably as the metal wears, particles from the sprockets and the chain itself add to this sticky, grinding paste which speeds up the wear further.
What Kind of Oil Should I Use on a Bike Chain?
There are many types of specific bike chain lubrication designed for the different demands placed on chains. Most use synthetic oils, materials which limit friction, and evaporating carrier fluids. Choose depending upon use, riding conditions, and budget. Wet lubes perform differently to dry lubes.
Cleaning, or degreasing your chain is as important as lubricating it. Removing the grit-gathering oil from the previous week’s rides, as well as flushing out that packed-in muck which is caught between the links and gears is absolutely necessary to give you a more reliable journey and prolong the life of your components.
After degreasing, you can then begin to apply lubrication. You should be aiming to cover each link in a measured way without under or over-applying. Ideally you want to apply as little as is necessary. You also need to get inside the chain links to the pins and rollers.
There are hundreds of kinds of oil and independent testing results should help your decision-making. The main types of lubrication come in wet and dry formulas.
Wet lube is designed for chains used in wet or all-round conditions. It’s a bit thicker which is good for a longer-life on the chain but bad for attracting muck. This means you might need to clean the chain and replace the oil more frequently.
A dry lube is designed for riding in the dry, and has lower friction which attracts fewer nasty bits of grit. But they are more easily washed away on contact with water.
Ceramic and wax based lubricants have also entered the market in recent years, but seem to be aimed at the sportier, racing side.
Some riders will keep one dry and one wet lube for when the seasons change. Never use motor-oil on your bike chain.
Best Oil for a Bike Chain
The best oil for a discerning cyclist should keep a smoothly running chain for as long as possible. It should also avoid attracting muck which could find its way onto our skin or commuting clothes. It should be easy to apply as part of a regular regime of degreasing and cleaning for a prolonged life.
A competitively priced product as you would expect. This is suitable for all riding conditions, the spout helps with link-by-link application. It should be easy to pick-up in store or order online. You could leave this on overnight and then wipe off any excess in the morning.
Although this is a dry lube the manufacturer claims its formula is designed for extreme conditions. This is a biodegradable product and is a wax based formula. It comes in different sizes.
Another dry lube which I use on my road bike and gravel bike. It’s the most expensive here and I am a slave to the single drop application per link, so I don’t waste a single drop. The difference in smoothness is noticeable for at least 250 kilometres of training in the summer. This might suit those with a more sporty approach to riding the bike.
Bike Chain Oil Substitutes and Alternatives
I look forward to your letters and comments!
Water Displacement, 40th formula – WD40 to you and me, ironically causes more friction amongst chain aficionados than any other product. Many would not have it anywhere near their bike’s drivetrain. Some say it’s a solvent, some say it’s a lubricant. It’s cheap, versatile and likely to be found in any toolbox or under any sink.
The company has taken the step of launching some bike-specific lubricants, which is a clear guide from them about the relevance of their standard product for your bike.
3-in-1 oil is a good substitute. It’s a traditional oil with roots in the 19th century. This is a general household product which can work on the bike. It is a light oil, but will clog your drivetrain if overused. Therefore it might take a bit more to degrease a chain after applying this product.
Some people might be tempted to use the grease used for bearings or cabling, but it’s very sticky, and should not be recommended.
Cooking oil, olive oil or coconut oil are considered by some to be better than nothing and are accessible, at least, to most. However, these are a serious bodge-job, will attract muck and will degrade too. Use them twice, for the journey to and from the bike shop to buy a bike-specific lubricant.
Two alternatives are a bit more radical. You could try a belt-drive bike – no chain involved. Or invest in a chain guard, at least for a longer-life and reduced chain-management programme. You might need to go a bit retro – at least this will please the hipsters. This one from 1927 has an oil bath included.