I know I should lubricate my chain regularly. I got some lube at my LBS; how should I apply it? Do I just drip some on one spot, and turn the pedals around a few times to spread it out? Drip it all over the chain? Do I clean the chain first? How can I tell if it needs lube, or if I've put enough on?
When should I lubricate the chain?
This depends a bit upon the chain lubricant that your using, how often you ride the bike, how you store the bike and what sort of weather you are riding in. As a general rule of thumb I'd think about lubricating the chain every 100km to 200km.
If your chain is visibly dirty, rusty or squeaking when you ride, then you definitely need to lubricate the chain.
Do I need to clean the chain first?
If it is dirty, yes, otherwise no. If you are in the habit of regularly lubricating your chain, then you don't need to clean the chain each time you lubricate it. If you leave it a long time between lubrication, then its probably worth cleaning it every time.
How do I apply the lubricant?
Pretty much exactly as in Gary.Ray's answer. Start at a spot on the chain you can recognise (e.g. the master link), rotate the chain slowly backwards and put a drop or two on each roller until you get back to your starting link. Finally, give the chain a good few cranks around to make sure the lubricant has penetrated appropriately and wipe any excess off.
If you are feeling lazy, and don't mind getting lubricant on the ground, then you can just direct a thin stream of the lubricant onto the chain as you pedal it backwards a bit. It's more wasteful of lubricant, but faster.
If the chain has a master link I like to start there just so I can keep track of which links I have lubed easier.
Usually you should shake up the lube, especially if it is a 'dry' or 'wax' formula. Then drip 1 or 2 drops on the rollers of each link. Lube on the outside of the chain is basically worthless unless you are applying a 'wet' lube for weather protection. More than one or two drops on each link will be too much, and will drip a lot of lube onto the floor or ground where you are working.
Pedal the chain backwards and get every link. When done run the chain through all the gears. Let the chain sit for a few minutes then using a clean, dry, lint-free cloth, wipe the excess from the chain, cogs and chain rings.
You need to clean your chain and drive components first. Otherwise just adding lube will only provide minimal benefits. It might even cause more problems as excessive lube attracts more dirt.
The only time I may consider just applying lube by itself is if I just rode through some rain. In that case, I will wipe the chain with a rag, add 1 drop of lube per link, and shift through the gears to spread the lube around.
I recommend picking a certain number of miles to do your chain service like 100 to 200 depending on the lube you use. Obviously, it is better to do it on the more frequent side of things to prevent wear and tear, but there is no reason to go overboard on it (e.g. after a 20 mile ride in good weather/conditions).
The only time I use a visual indicator to determine when to clean the chain is if I am trying out a new lube. In that case, I look for the lube drying out or caking up and I listen for the chain and drive to start squeaking. Once I know what the real life of the lube is based on how and where I ride, I default to doing maintenance based on mileage. It just takes the guess work out of it.
Here is quick drive service that I do 100-200 miles depending on the conditions and lube used.
The steps I use when cleaning components are summarized as:
- Shift Into the Big Chain Ring and Small Gear in the back
- Degrease - Chain clean tools made by Park or Finish Line make things easier here.
- Water Rinse Chain - Chain clean tools made by Park or Finish Line make things easier here.
- Wipe Chain With Rag
- Clean Drive Components (i.e. Cassette, Chain Ring, and Derailleur)
- Clean Cassette (See Above) - Something like a rag wrapped around something thin and solid like a CD works well for me and is inexpensive. A example is shown here in this clip:
- Wipe Chain With Rag
- Lube Chain - Only 1 small drop of lube per link. Find the masterlink/quicklink on the chain and use that as a reference to make sure you only lube a link 1 time. Less is more here as unnecessary lube just flings off the chain onto your wheel or braking surfaces and attracts more dust. Some people like to wipe their chain after lubing it, but I have had good luck just sparingly applying the lube to begin with so that after the next step there is not much need to wipe any excess. However, again each person may have their own opinion or preference on the matter. I have had good experience with WD40 Wet Lube (Not regular WD40) and Finish Line Ceramic Wet Lube. I am sure each person will have their own preferences like people do when it comes to motor oil.
- Shift through all gears and chainrings to spread the lube around.
You can spend more time cleaning components, by removing the wheel & cassette, but usually what is shown outlined above is sufficient to keep things clean for most people.
Hope that helps