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When you buy a new chain, it comes lubricated with a factory-installed grease-type lubricant. This lubricant is similar to hot wax. (Reliable sources — including Sheldon Brown, Shimano, and others — seem to agree that you should not deliberately remove this factory lube.)

Imagine that you own a low-end 21-speed bicycle, which you bought second-hand. You use it for commuting in a big city — in warm, dry weather only. You've bought and installed a brand-new chain. If you never clean or lubricate your chain, what will happen?

(In my experience, the bike seems to keep working for numerous miles without squeaking. But I wonder what's really going on behind the scenes, and what the results might be.)

Please assume that you do replace the chain whenever it's stretched by more than 0.5% (1/16"), and that you complete most other recommended bike maintenance on schedule. The only maintenance you skip is chain cleaning and lubrication.

  • Squeaking/noise is just one symptom. Friction is a loss of energy that could otherwise drive you forward. Lubes decrease friction, therefore a well lubed chain is faster than a poorly lubed or dry chain. – Criggie Jan 3 '18 at 12:44
  • Not sure if this counts in the 'what will happen' .... My sister -in-law had her squeaky chain squirted with water from my drink bottle on ride last weekend.... a 'small' amount got on her (accidentally, honestly it was an accident...) - – mattnz Jan 3 '18 at 19:40
  • Basically, if you don't service it regularly it will wear out faster, and cause more wear on the cogs -- just like a "used" chain (which it is, after 200 miles or so). – Daniel R Hicks Jan 4 '18 at 2:13
  • Do you mean a conventional derailleur system or a single cog system (single speed or IGH) And does your bike have a chainguard? Is it partial or fully enclosed? – Criggie Jan 15 '18 at 19:12
  • @Criggie: A conventional derailleur bike. I know it's possible to install a chain guard on a derailleur bike (see here), and I know this would likely help, but I haven't bothered installing one. – unforgettableid Jan 15 '18 at 19:34
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  1. Higher friction (comparing to properly lubricated chain) between chain pin and inner plate will make groove in pin surface faster, resulting in chain prolongation (a.k.a. chain "stretching").

  2. Non-lubricated chain will be more exposed to corrosion.

  3. Higher friction between the chain rollers and the chainrings will make the chainrings wear down faster.

  4. Higher friction between all chain components will add avoidable resistance.

  5. People on the street will look at you with embarrassment and compassion because of noise.

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    Higher quality chains are typically nickel plated which makes them very corrosion resistance even without lube. – Rider_X Jan 3 '18 at 17:21
  • I think your points are correct, but they all assume the factory lubrication wears off. Interesting would be to know the mechanism behind that since the OP asks what goes on behind the scenes. The wax doesn't just fall off the chain in large chunks, right? Does it mean it gets ground into finer particles which eventually do fall off? – stijn Jan 3 '18 at 19:05
  • Oh the look of daggers for riding a bike that makes noise! Its horrible to be on the receiving end of that stare and glare! – Criggie Jan 4 '18 at 8:13
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    @Rider_X right, but OP has low-end bicycle, which will probably get low - to -middle end chain without superb coating. – krzyski Jan 4 '18 at 9:31
  • @krzyski - I was simply pointing out an implicit assumption. I would simply caveat the statement with “lower end chains.” The OP seems to be interested in a general discussion as much as cost savings. – Rider_X Jan 4 '18 at 18:18

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