Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
For the holiday break, we ran an RBR best-of issue which included a rerun of a Tech Talk I wrote on chain care a year ago. That article was titled Basic and Obsessive Chain Care and it included two videos from Silca about super cleaning chains.
There were lots of interesting comments when the piece first ran. And more came in this time with lube and cleaning pointers, product recommendations, and some fun commentary. So we’ll keep the chain chatter going with your new comments and tips. Feel free to keep the comments coming, too. There’s a master’s class in chain care here!
Fred R says use Dawn for dishes
I’m not about to spend $300 for a chain cleaning device [editor’s note: Fred’s referring to what Silca uses], that’s for people who have $15,000 bikes and work on their own bikes. I work on my own bike too, but all I use is hot water, a sponge with Dawn For Dishes (non-citrus) on it, get the sponge soapy, and do the fist thing over the chain, get a good sudsy lather, and then rinse with clear water, wipe with a rag, let the chain air dry for an hour or so (nowadays I use my air compressor and blow the water out of the chain) and the chain sparkles afterwards, and I never have to take the chain off.
I know, people want to spend money for stuff, but it’s not necessary, I’ve been doing it that way for 40 plus years and my chains last an average of 10,000 miles on a modern narrow chain (I used to get 12,000 miles on the old wide chains), and the cassette about 3 times longer than the chain. The chain won’t rust doing that either as long as you apply the lube within 6 hours, but a lot of chains today won’t rust anyway. I had a bike shop that had a racing team that I raced for that taught me to do it that way, and since then I ran into other shops that do it that way as well over the years.
The other strange thing, Sheldon Brown said it’s not good to strip all the oil off a chain, because lube being applied to the outside does not penetrate all the way through, the factory lubed those links as they were disassembled, so all the deep inside areas have lube, removing all that lube is not a good idea.
Larry English asks why not do nothing?
I would like someone to thoughtfully address one approach I have considered and approached. Namely, do nothing until something happens. I mean, also, never changing cassettes or the chain until it skips or something bad.
All this cleaning, if it doubles the life of the chain, it’s only $15 or $20 – for how many hours of dirty labor? And what if you also never changed the cassette until it skipped? How much does that pay per hour, to neglect it?
It depends on the cost of chains and cassettes, but it would have to be like $100 each before I think it’s worth it to change ‘early.. Talk me out of it!
To which, Jeff vdD says
For modern 105/Rival or better 10+ speed drivetrains, I’m not sure that the “do nothing” approach is the best/most cost-effective approach.
- Chains are typically $40+ and cassettes are $60+ … and the pluses go up considerably as the groupset level and number of gears goes up.
- You have to factor in the price of the chainrings as well.
- You’ll be losing a lot of drivetrain efficiency
- From an environmental perspective, better to maintain than replace
- With supply chains being what they are, replacement isn’t necessarily all that easy
- Cleaning a drivetrain can be pretty zen
And, John Griswold adds
For the better part of the thirty plus years I’ve been a cyclist, the chain lube discussion has amused and frustrated me greatly. With a science based education and a graduate degree in Engineering, I have looked for something more than opinion or anecdotes to support this discussion of chain maintenance and the only thing I can remember was one of the bike mags doing a comparison of a number of lubes, only to end up recommending something other than their top performing lube!
I totally agree with Larry. I want to ride my bike, not spend innumerable hours in bike maintenance…besides, I have a her bike, our tandem, mt bikes, cars, yard equipment, two houses, boats, etc. to maintain, too.
Larry, I wipe down my bike if wet or dirty. I wipe down my chain and lube with whatever the current equivalent of White Lightning is, and replace when my stretch gauge tells me. Cassettes, when visually worn or problematic. In other words, not often.
The only bit of advice I’ve seen in this article is Jim’s advice on the enclosed chain cleaner…all excellent reasons to simply use a damp (Simple Green or WD40) rag. Go simple and get back on the road!
And, Rick says to John
Hi John – Laughed when I read what must have been the same article!
Ultimately, simple is right. My maintenance load is similar to yours. Like you I rag my bike off if wet or dusty (chain included). I do take the time, once a week to wash the bike and use my Park Chain Cleaner loaded with Prolink to scrub and lube the chain.
I do the washing because I like to, I know, I know. I get 6,000 miles per chain and double that or more for a cassette.
William Wightman gives the nod to wax lubes or better yet, get a belt drive!
My personal favorite is still waxing the chain. Very clean (no build-up actually), no chain tattoos, no cassette or other chain wheel cleaning required unless you get in some mud. I only reclean/wax it when I hear the subtlest change or squeak during a ride which is about every nine months for me.
Even better on the low/no maintenance for a chain is the always clean belt drive. My off-road bike has a Pinion belt drive system. All gearing is sealed internal, the belt requires no lubrication, and the whole bike can be hosed off after a muddy ride. Wonderful for dirt bikes and all other bikes where perfect chain efficiency is not important. Also the ride is silent except for the hum of the knobby tires.
RAH likes Dupont Chain Saver wax-based lube for his Campy chain
To begin, my chain is made by Campagnolo, and I’ve found that the manufacturer’s original lubricant has many beneficial properties. Campagnolo recommends replacing chains at about 1,500 – 2,000 miles for best drivetrain life (empirical evidence suggests this advice has merit), so my lubrication practices and materials reflect this target mileage. For reference – my typical setting: traditional road bicycle; streets, roads, and highways; mix of flats and hills; dry weather; variable effort; ~160 miles per week.
Over the years (decades), I’ve tried most chain maintenance methods and lubricants. However, I’ve been successfully using some variation of the following procedures for a decade. I consider it most suited for routine bicycle use and settings.
Before installing a new chain, the drivetrain is cleaned. After installing a new chain, the chain’s surface coat of factory lubricant is removed with a durable dry paper towel. I then lightly, but thoroughly, coat the chain surface with a product called Dupont Chain Saver*, a wax lubricant. The chain is rotated around just a few times to ensure even lubricant distribution into the chain’s spaces. This procedure creates an outer barrier of wax lubricant that tends to seal in the Campagnolo factory lubricant and helps provide a barrier to external contamination.
The lubricant’s carrier is allowed to completely evaporate, then the chain and drivetrain are wiped with a dry paper towel to remove excess lubricant. After the next ride, I typically again wipe the drivetrain with a dry paper towel to clean off excess lubricant. That’s it. Quick and easy.
Depending on circumstances, the chain’s lubrication, when prepared this way, tends to last about 500 miles before needing further attention or lubrication. When additional lubrication is needed, the drivetrain is cleaned by wiping with a paper towel and another coat of the wax lubricant is applied – this time, applying more lubricant than the original application, but I do not attempt to remove or flush out the factory lubricant from the chain’s inner surfaces. These secondary lubricant applications tend to last about 300 miles and are repeated as needed.
At about 1,500 miles, the chain is replaced. Empirically, and using accurate machinist-class measuring instruments, the combined evidence suggests that the amount of chain wear, between this method, as described above, and other methods using other materials, to be negligible. The above, seems to provide a good balance between minimizing maintenance, drivetrain wear, and drivetrain losses. The drivetrain spins freely, shifts properly, and performs well under light and hard pedaling loads.
Within the mix of drivetrain components, I consider chains to be the primary consumable item, and have found that attempts at maximizing chain operational mileage are typically not cost effective. As a result, I try to find chains on sale, and purchase them in quantity.
It is acknowledged that, in situations where reducing lubricant hydraulic friction in the chain is the primary factor, other methods of chain lubrication might be preferable.
*Dupont Chain Saver is a wax-based chain lubricant that seems to offer a quality product in design and formulation – it is also relatively inexpensive (I have no relationship with this product or its manufacturer).
Bike shop owner Paul Ahart likes his ultrasonic cleaner
Oh…chain cleaning and lubing…..the controversy continues.
Shortly after opening my bike shop in the late 1980s, I purchased an ultrasonic cleaner, and it has become standard for cleaning nearly all chains, except maybe Campy chains with a peened connector pin. For those, I just clean on the bike with a flood of chain lube and an absorbent rag.
Everything else, after checking to make sure I’m not cleaning a worn-out chain, goes in the ultrasonic cleaner, in which I use a good citrus-based cleaner. Removing it, I then wash it in water with some strong degreaser/cleaner like Purple Power or OilEater. Then a water rinse, blow dry with compressed air, and allow to air dry. Then I lay it out on the workbench on absorbent material, such as a slab of cardboard.
The chain then gets one fat drop of Chain-L chain lube. Using a heat gun, I”ll gently warm the chain, allow it to sit for a while to absorb, then run it through my hands to distribute the lube, then a good wipe down with a clean cloth. Install on the bike, pedal it a bunch, rewipe, and it’s done.
Seems like a lot of work, but I get great mileage from each lube job (600-800 miles), and the chain usually goes about 3000 miles before reaching the “replace” point. That, of course, is dry weather, clean road riding. If my customer desires a different lube, so be it; I have a selection available.
10,235 Daily Rides in a Row
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s cycling streak ended in February 2022 with a total of 10,269 consecutive daily rides (28 years, 1 month and 11 days of never missing a ride). Click to read Jim’s full bio.