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This may sound like a dumb question -- I know how to oil a bike chain, but apparently not how to do it correctly.

I have a relatively new gravel bike, a Giant Revolt, which I ride (on tarmac) about 25 km a day and whose chain I've been oiling regularly, about every 2-3 days, just as I'd done with my previous bike, a mountain bike. I took my gravel bike in for maintenance and they said I was overdoing the oil, that in fact it was better too dry than too wet. What they said I should do is -- after every ride -- clean the chain with a towel and then oil it "lightly". What's "lightly"? "One drop" they said. For the entire chain? I doubt it -- but I'm not sure what they meant exactly. (I should have asked when I was there, but now, given Covid, it's very hard to get in touch with them again -- we have to make scheduled appointments to see them).

I'm looking for 'easy daily' maintenance -- not 'thorough' chain cleaning, as I've read about in other posts. Just enough to keep things clean and well-oiled, that is, getting the chain clean with a towel and then lubricating it again. I guess the crucial question is "how much oil?"

Again, in some ways this is a very simple question, but the devil lies in the details, and that's what I'm not clear about.

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  • 3
    For an off-road bike you should use "dry lube". And invest in a chain scrubber. Feb 11 at 13:24
  • 1
    @DanielRHicks My personal experience with chain scrubbers is they're no better than wiping the chain with a rag while being a lot messier and harder to use. IMO the best way to clean a chain is to take it off and drop it into solvent, let it sit there for a month or two, shake it every now and then, and then fish it out, dry it off, and lube it. Feb 11 at 19:27
  • 3
    Enter the various religions of oiling chains. The mere act of putting oil on the chain regularly puts you in the top 5%. As a guide, after wiping the chain down, you should be able to touch a chain and not get oil on you. I would not expect to wipe the chain with my business tie and be able to walk into a meeting with a million dollar customer, but I might be able to... If the oil that comes off is black, the chain need a clean.
    – mattnz
    Feb 11 at 19:32
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    @AndrewHenle - Actually, a chain scrubber is quite easy to use, and avoids the damage to the chain that removing the chain does. Feb 11 at 19:40
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    @AndrewHenle some chains lack master links, so disassembly requires pin removal, which slogs out the hole in the side plates a little. Over time the chain gets sloppier and eventually fails, faster if you hit the same pin more than once. Master/quick links for the win.
    – Criggie
    Feb 11 at 22:32

10 Answers 10

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  1. Wipe the chain down with a rag to remove dirt and old lube.
  2. Apply lube while spinning the chain. I tend to use quite a bit (a small drop on every second chain link or so). It’s cheap and the next step takes care of any excess.
  3. Wipe down with a rag before the next ride.

In dry weather it can be sufficient to do step 1 only and skip applying new lube for a couple hundred kilometers. It can also be a good idea to use “dry” or “wet” lube depending on the season.

Edit to answer the comment: “Dry” lube is less sticky and good for dry environments where sand and dust sticking to the chain is your main concern. “Wet” lube is stickier and more viscous, best for wet weather because it’s not so easily flushed out of the chain.

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  • What is 'dry' vs 'wet' lube? I assume they say it on the label? I've never noticed that before...
    – Cerulean
    Feb 11 at 14:55
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    Yes, if its bike specific bike lube, the label will clearly say so Most labels also give a guide as to the range of conditions (Wet to dry) its suitable for. Many dry lubes are great for damp conditions.
    – mattnz
    Feb 11 at 19:26
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I'll preface this with the fact that I ride in a cold/wet climate and prefer riding bikes to cleaning them, so this is purely what works for me.

On my winter bikes, I use cheap components, a thick/heavy wet lube and then largely ignore maintenance, otherwise i'd spend half my life cleaning bikes. I accept this is wearing components more quickly, but a winter of riding for the cost of a cheap chain and maybe a chainring works for me.

On my summer bikes I do attempt to keep them relatively clean - but even then, not overly enthusiastic about it. On these bikes I use a lightweight lube that generally lasts ~100miles. So typically I use the single drop technique you mentioned (more below) twice a week. On top of this, roughly once every two weeks, I run the chain through an old hand towel (the fibres help pull the dirt/oil out of some of the recessed areas) before applying new lube. If the outer plates are more dirty than usual i might spray a little WD40 on the towel before using it to help degreasing. I spray it on the towel rather than directly on the chain as I don't want it getting deep into the rollers. Finally, once every 4-6 weeks I give the chain a proper clean with a chain cleaner and degreaser before rinsing, drying and relubing.

The 'single drop' technique refers to using a dropper bottle and slowly rotating the chain to put a single drop on each chain roller.

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You do not need to oil after every ride. Depending on the type of lubricant you use, you may only need to lube every 500 miles/800 km.

There are two general categories of lubes: dry and wet. Wet lubes are oily, dry lubes are waxes suspended in a liquid carrier that evaporates. Wet lubes typically last longer but can wash off in the rain; dry lubes are intended to flake off as you ride. Check the label on your lube for expected re-lube distances. It's important not to mix them: if you want to switch from one to another, you need to clean the chain very thoroughly. New chains comes with a heavy wet lube that should be stripped if you want to use a dry lube. My own thinking is that it's more important to clean the chain before lubricating than to wipe it down after. There are chain-cleaning gadgets that you can clip onto the chain and only take a minute to use.

In any case, the only part of the chain that needs to be lubricated is the interface between the rivet and the roller, which obviously is not exposed. Dripping a single drop on each roller is the best way to get it in there.

With dry lubes, you typically do not wipe down the chain after lubricating it, you just spin the drivetrain to work it in and let the carrier evaporate before your next ride. With wet lubes, ideally there won't be much to wipe off, and some lubes come with syringe-like tips for measuring out tiny "doses" of lube.

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  • I don't see why it would be necessary to “clean the chain very thoroughly” when switching from dry- to wet lube. In fact, I'd say the only situation where it makes sense to apply lube without cleaning the chain at all is when the chain is still sufficiently dry-lubed but you find yourself having to ride in the rain. In this case, the wet lube doesn't fulfill any lubrication need at all, but just a protection one. Feb 11 at 22:21
  • @leftaroundabout — I make that recommendation based on my own experience.
    – Adam Rice
    Feb 11 at 23:05
  • So, you've had adverse effects from applying wet lube directly on dry lube? Feb 11 at 23:20
  • The other way around, but yes.
    – Adam Rice
    Feb 12 at 2:14
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    @Adam Rice I think leftaroundabout is trying to make a distinction between the two. Applying dry lube to an oily chain obviously won’t work very well, but applying oil to a dry lubed chain shouldn’t be as big an issue.
    – MaplePanda
    Feb 12 at 4:47
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Just to add a bit to this: I would recommend wiping your chain off after every ride, regardless of lubrication. Just grasp the chain in a clean rag, then backpedal a few times. As you ride, airborne dust or dirt from road spray mixes with the oil. You're wiping off the stuff that's on the outside of the chain. This means that less dirt will eventually work its way inside the chain, i.e. between the pins and rollers. That is where your chain actually wears - those metal items rub against each other, and the more dirt gets in, the faster they wear out.

The store probably meant one drop per roller, as others have said. You backpedal the chain slowly and you target each individual roller - use the master link as a reference point to know when you've lubed the whole chain. In my opinion, one drop per roller after every ride seems like a fair bit of lubricant. If you want a lesser option, just keep backpedaling the chain and release a light stream of oil onto the rollers. Keep that up at least two or three revolutions.

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An alternative answer - use wax instead of oil. Doesn't collect as much grit, doesn't leave as much mess and keeps everything lubed for longer in almost all conditions.

Refer:

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  • This is great for hot dry australia where Oz is from, however with even just a sprinkle of rain your chain is now useless and can only be restored after an hour or so of waiting for the wax to melt. Your sprocket will now be rusty because it has no protection and will take even more time to make look rust free than the chain. Wax is great for racers and weekend mountain bikers, but for OP it's likely that if they ride every day they will at least run into some puddles. Apr 4 at 18:05
  • Wax protects against water better than oil. It's thicker and stickier so doesn't wash off like wet lube. Not sure where you got the idea it was bad in the wet, but couldn't be further from the truth.
    – throx
    Apr 4 at 21:30
  • It might be the case for a single speed with a very straight chainline. But over my 6 months of testing in midwest summer on a derailleur bike, I ruined a chain in 3 months (>.1% stretch) of wet to dry weather when only riding 5 or 6 miles a day. It seemed that with my multi-speed bike, there is generally more force on one side of the rollers at a time, and shifting back and forth along with water getting underneath the wax is enough to push the wax out. I always used full submersion of the chain to wax in paraffin without additives except graphite on the last test. Apr 5 at 19:33
  • Interesting. I've been using a paraffin with PTFE without any issues, maybe 50 miles a week or so. Have a friend who does the same but with a blended wax and more additives with about 20 miles a day riding and has chains last longer than previously with oil. Be good to understand the benefits and limitations more.
    – throx
    Apr 5 at 21:26
3

There's a great discussion of chains and lubrication at https://www.sheldonbrown.com/chains.html

His cleaning method, water and citrus-based cleaner in a soda bottle, is fast, convenient, neat, and highly effective. It gets grease off and grit out of the chain. The dirty water and cleaner can go down the drain. Then you can drip dry or heat if you're in a hurry.

As for lubricants... The bottom line, for me, is that plain paraffin wax has lower friction AND attracts less dirt than liquid/oil lubricants. (references to actual studies on the Sheldon Brown site)

I bought a Novena candle, which is just wax in a tall pyrex glass cylinder, at the dollar store. Five minutes in the microwave melted the wax without any drama, and I could suspend the chain from a piece of wire, immerse it in the wax until no more bubbles come out, then slowly pull it out so most of the liquid wax drains out.

The chain retains a generous internal wax reservoir and a coating on all the surfaces, so it's protected against rust and water, not sticky, so it doesn't pick up grit, and magnificently lubricated.

Cheap, easy, fast. Hard to beat. Does require getting removable links and a tool to remove them.

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If you don't remove old oil and dirt, then when you add new oil it all just mixes together and soon it all becomes a horrible think mess.

After every ride or once a week do the following:

  1. Clean chain with water (no soap, maybe degreaser if you have it)
  2. Dry a little with cloth
  3. Use a GT85 style oil lubricant and penetrator (must have PTFE or similar, do not use standard WD-40)
  4. Clean with brush and wipe excess off the chain with cloth
  5. Add new oil on the inside of the chain and spin for a few minutes to make sure oil penetrates
  6. Wipe excess oil of the chain by running a cloth on the sides and outside of the chain, this is just to get extra oil off, do not fully clean the chain.

This method can be done on the bike and takes about 5-10mins.

Do not clean chain with water and leave for a long period of time ("I will oil it in the morning...") as oxidisation can happen.

There are other methods and some people prefer some liquids over other but this is the method I prefer.

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Use a chain washer if you want to wash your chain really thoroughly, especially if you used a wet lube before.

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You do not really need to fill it with 100% degreaser even if the manuals tell you so. Most often you can either strongly dilute it or you can use a dish-washing liquid in some reasonable dilution.

After wiping the wet chain with a dry rag you must let it dry - you can speed it up with a stream of air from an air compressor. Do not lube a wet chain.

Apply the lube of your choice. Do not believe people telling you that there is only one particular good lube that you can use. That is NOT true at all. There is place for both wet lubes and dry lubes. There is place for racing lubes and for ordinary lubes.

You might want to use different lubes depending on the weather and the time of the year. With the extremely dry springs in the past few years in Central Europe it would be nonsensical to use oil-based wet lubes. There was way too much dust everywhere. The main concern was always to wipe all the dust from the bike. But in this years autumn the weather was very wet and a wet lube was in order. Simply ignore people who tell you that there is only one good lube. Even very cheap mineral oil can often work well.

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This is the process I use and I documented it in another answer. It is quick and pretty through without having to remove the wheels, cassette, etc.

https://bicycles.stackexchange.com/a/73794/54110

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The easy maintenance is as follows:

  1. Wait until your chain start to squeak. Yes -- you won't want to oil an already oily chain. The reason for this is that it's hard to get the dirt out of an oily chain because the oil holds it there, whereas dirt readily falls off a squeaky chain. The only ways you can clean an oily chain is to first remove all of the oil, which requires using solvent, either removing the chain from the bicycle and putting it to a solvent bath, or using one of those chain cleaning machines that make a huge mess and thus can't be used indoors.

  2. Now your chain is clean from oil and dirt on the inside because the motion of the squeaky chain has pushed dirt out, there being no oil to hold it in. You can take a look at the chain rollers and observe how clean they are -- they are very shiny! The only dirt on the chain is on the outside.

  3. Use a rag, rotate the cranks backwards and clamp the chain inside the rag, letting it run through the rag. The outside dirt on the chain should be removed then. Note the rag won't hold all of the dirt, so some of the dirt falls to the ground or the floor, so do this outside unless you want to clean your floor immediately afterwards.

  4. Now your chain is clean on the inside, and nearly clean on the outside. Now it's time to oil the chain. Use thixotropic motorcycle chain lubricant in a spray bottle. Spray the lubricant on the top of the lower run of the chain, and rotate the cranks backwards to expose new lengths of the chain. It is important how you spray the lubricant: if you spray it on the side plates, it won't get to the chain innards very well, and it picks up some of the remaining dirt from the side plates. If you spray it on the top of the chain, on the rollers, it can easily penetrate to the innards of the chain, and the path to the innards of the chain is relatively clean from dirt.

  5. After the chain is oiled, use a new clean rag (not the dirty old one!) in a similar manner you used the old rag, but this time the purpose is to remove the chain oil from the surface. You don't want chain oil on the surface as it attracts dirt. You only want chain oil in the inside of the chain. This removal of the surface oil can't be completely done so do it until you feel not much oil can be anymore removed. There will still be a very thin layer of oil that will attract a small amount of dirt.

The worst mistake you can do in chain maintenance is to put chain oil on a chain that doesn't squeak in a "preventive maintenance". A chain that doesn't squeak is dirty, and all the new oil does is carry the dirt to the inside of the chain, leading to rapid chain destruction. The ones who believe such "preventive maintenance" is a good thing see their chains wear early, whereas the ones not doing such "preventive maintenance" see a long chain life.

The second worst mistake you can do in chain maintenance is to not wipe the excess oil away. The excess oil will attract dirt that soon will be carried to the inside of the chain, leading to rapid chain destruction.

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