Two months before, I'd installed a new SRAM PC-971 chain coated with Chain-L. After all those miles the links looked dry, although the chain still ran smoothly and quietly and shifted well. I was impressed.
I was also about to ride a 200K (124-mile) brevet. I didn't want to chance a dry chain squeaking or links becoming stiff, so even though I had yet to hear a telltale chirp say it was time for a re-lube, I did it anyway.
That premature application did reveal something else important about Chain-L. More on that in a minute.
For years I've been a happy and devoted user of ProLink chain lube ($8.70 for 4 oz.). I wasn't looking for another brand. What caught my attention about Chain-L is its promise of "extremely long service life." I'm all for less chain maintenance. I like a clean and quiet chain, but wouldn't it be nice to increase lubing intervals past 350 miles (560 km)? That's been my schedule with ProLink.
Now, I'll never bad-mouth ProLink. It's a great lube loved by many roadies (including most of the RBR crew). It's clean, easy to apply and inhibits chain wear, which in turn extends the life of chainrings and cassettes.
But Chain-L is something else. Unlike other chain lubes it's not thin and drippy. It has much thicker consistency, about like chainsaw oil or gear oil. It's viscous and sticky.
The man behind Chain-L, Frances Bollag, makes no apologies. He terms Chain-L a "blend of extreme-pressure lubricants in a high-film-strength mineral oil base [containing] rust inhibitors and other additives to improve its longevity and wet-weather performance." So, thick it is.
Here's another way Chain-L is different: If you apply it like you would ProLink or any similarly thin lube, you'll have a heck of a mess.
That's what I found when I re-lubed at the 1,418-mile mark. With the chain on the bike, I slowly turned the crank and put a drop of Chain-L on each roller. After all links had been anointed, I kept turning the chain easily to help the lube work in. That's when fine threads of lubricant, like strands of a spider web (Bollag calls them "fans") radiated from the chain onto the chainstay. Very weird.
I kept turning the chain, but now with a rag around it to wipe off the excess. Like with any wet lube, you want Chain-L inside the links where lubrication is needed, with just enough on the surface to protect the metal from corrosion. After a few more revolutions, the fanning stopped.
To avoid this mess, Bollag recommends lubing the chain off the bike. That's what I did when Chain-L'ing the new SRAM chain to begin this test. I stretched the chain straight on newspaper (rollers up like on a bike) on my home shop floor. Then I got on my knees and carefully put a drop of Chain-L on one roller after another. It sat on top for a moment like honey would.
This stuff is never going to sink in, I thought. But after going way for 15 minutes to do other work on the bike, I came back to see that the Chain-L had seeped through the chain, which was now sitting in a long, narrow pool of the stuff, as the photo shows. (Tip: Use several thicknesses of newspaper.) I put on rubber gloves, picked up the chain by one end, held it vertically, and ran a rag down its length several times to wipe off excess lube. It was slippery and hard to hold.
Chains like SRAM that have a master link make it convenient to re-lube this way too. You can do a better job on the floor than on the bike and avoid the fanning. You'll get lots less gooey lube on the rest of the drivetrain.
Bollag says it's fine to apply Chain-L over the factory coating on a new chain. It's also okay to put it on a used chain previously lubed with an oily wet or Teflon-based dry lubricant. The caveat is that on an initial application over another lube, Chain-L might not perform optimally because of the slight contamination. Chain-L is not compatible with a wax lube, which Bollag says will prevent it from wicking into the links.
He recommends putting the Chain-L bottle in hot tap water (130F or 55C) as a way to make it thinner and quicker to penetrate. I did this before my re-lube, hoping it might make Chain-L behave more like ProLink and create less mess. Not even close.
Based on my use, a 4-oz. bottle contains enough Chain-L for at least a dozen applications.
After applying Chain-L and wiping off the excess, there's still a sticky coating on the chain. You'd expect it to attract dust and other road grime, and you'd be right. So after each of the first 2 or 3 rides it's important to spin the chain through a rag to wipe it clean. Then you can pretty much forget about it.
The first thing you'll notice when riding a Chain-L'ed chain is how quiet it is and how smooth the drivetrain feels. It's quite remarkable. Further, there was no discernable loss of performance as this test's hundreds of miles went by. Yes, my chain eventually became dry on the outside, but the continuing quietness and smooth shifting said there was adequate lube inside.
What about chain wear? I kept an eye on this with a ProLink chain gauge. At the 1,418-mile re-lubing point there was 50-60% wear. Interestingly, this was only a fraction more than I measured at half that distance. After re-lubing, I put another 765 miles (1,232 km) on the chain, during which wear increased to 70-80%.
Test conditions were mid-to-late winter in Pennsylvania. The roads were gritty with anti-skid material. On dry days dust was often raised by passing traffic. Roads were sometimes wet with snowmelt, and I rode in sprinkles and snow flurries several times but never in rain. The only time the chain got really wet was when I rinsed muck off my bike. I did it at the 1,418-mile mark to clean up for the brevet. This was well after the time when the links had begun looking dry. The next day, several links had spots of surface rust. They wiped off with a rag, but it's another reason I decided to re-lube.
This bit of corrosion indicates that if Chain-L really is a rust inhibitor as claimed, the chain needs to have a surface film. Solution (suggested by Bollag): "Give the chain a booster shot by putting a few drops on a paper towel and wiping the chain down, after dry wiping any dirt off first. This will restore the water-resistant film."
Bythis test's end, I'd put 2,183 miles (3,513 km) on the SRAM PC-971, a medium-quality 9-speed chain. Again, that's with just 2 Chain-L applications, including the initial one. The chain was still running smoothly, quietly and shifting well, and it had perhaps 20% more life. But I don't like pushing chains to their absolute end -- the increasing cog and chainring wear isn't worth it -- and I typically replace them at 2K. Maybe the initial application of Chain-L could have lasted through the entire test, but I overcautiously spoiled the chance to find out.
On average, I ride 200 miles (322 km) per week. Up to now, this has meant chain lubing 25-30 times a year. Based on this test, Chain-L could reduce this frequency to less than 10 with no loss of drivetrain performance or chain life. Plus, this lube produces the quietest drivetrain I've experienced. I plan to continue applying Chain-L (off the bike) and will post an update to this review if long-term experience reveals anything different.
Riders suited for Chain-L are those that would like less chain maintenance without sacrificing performance. Included are commuters, high-mileage trainers, and endurance cyclists and tourers wanting confidence that their lube will last through extended rides. Chain-L will also be liked by riders who don't know how to maintain their drivetrains or would rather not bother. After the somewhat more involved initial application and subsequent wipe-downs, the chain can be forgotten for many hundreds of miles.