Wednesday, April 21, 2021

B.O.G. Series: How To Lubricate Your Chain

  Welcome to the Basics of Gravel Series (B.O.G.)! In this series I will attempt to bring a very foundational knowledge of gravel and back road riding to anyone reading that may be curious or a beginner in riding off-pavement, but not wanting to be mountain biking. There will be a new entry every Wednesday until the series is complete. To see the schedule, click this LINK. Thanks! 

In this installment of the B.O.G. Series I am going to show an effective and easy way to lubricate your chain. But first- Chain lubrication can be a religion for many "serious cyclists" and please note- This is for beginners! So if you feel the urge to tell the world about how you do things or about how 'such-and-such' chain lube is best, please don't fill the comments with it. I will warn y'all right now, I'm not going to publish those comments. Helpful hints? That's welcomed as long as you understand, this is for beginners. You'll note the statement in bold which will appear throughout this article. This will serve as a reminder.

One of my favorite chain lubes, and some tomatoes!

As I say, chain lubes are a religion for many, and we are not going there. So, what do you do in this bewildering jungle of products and opinions? Easy.....don't sweat the overwhelming amount of advice and products. We're going to keep this super-simple. 

First, gravel and dirt roads are dusty/dirty. 'Captain Obvious' there, but that guides us in lubrication choice. There are basically two types of bicycle chain lube- "Wet" and "Dry" types. We're going the "Dry" route here because wetter lubes tend to grab more dust/dirt and we are trying to avoid that. 

Secondly- Don't lubricate a dirty chain. What's the point? You aren't going to penetrate the goo already there, and you are just making things worse if the chain is dirty. So, we'll be looking at a super-simple, fairly effective way to get most of the dirt/grunge off

Thirdly- Don't lubricate immediately before a ride. The chain motion while riding will just sling off most of what you just put on, making a mess and making your efforts ineffective. Always do this the night before a ride, or after you are done riding, so the lubrication has a chance to soak in, the carrier of the lubricant has a chance to off-gas, and the lubricant can bond with the metal of the chain. 

Okay, with that all out of the way, here are the items you will need for this operation. 

  • Dry chain lube (Pick yer poison here, most are good. I like Muc-Off C3 Ceramic lube or DuMonde Tech)
  • A couple rags
  • Nitrile gloves or equivalent
  • Safety glasses
  • WD-40 (NOT a lube! You'll see in a minute....)
  • A Flat blade screw driver
  • A room to do 'dirty work' (ie: NOT your significant other's kitchen, bedroom, etc)
  • A place to lean your bike or in a perfect world, a bike stand.

Okay, after you've assembled your stuff here, get to the place you are going to do the deed. Lean your bike, drive side toward you, by placing one side of the handlebar and the rear tire against the wall in such a way that you can back pedal the bike freely. (Or put it in a bike stand, if you have one)


 NOTE: This process will get the majority of the dirt, gunk, and old lube off your chain, but not all of it. It's okay, because we're more concerned about making this process less about technicalities and having to buy and know how to use tools and more about quick, easy ways to help you get the most out of your bike.  


Holding a rag wrapped around the chain like this is one of the main techniques to learn here.

Next- With your gloves on and safety glasses on, grab a rag (I like a terry cloth rag, like an old bath towel)  and place it underneath the chain in such a way that the rag will catch any gunk and lube that happens to come off the chain and derailleur. Secondly, grab the flat bladed screw driver, and back pedal the bike with one hand slowly. Then holding the flat bladed screw driver in such a way that the blade scrapes the sides of the lower jockey wheel, you should be able to get any build up of gunk to scrape off that jockey wheel. Kind of like a lathe, if you know about that. You may have to apply a small mount of pressure here, but not much. Do the same with the upper jockey wheel, being careful not to jamb the wheel while you pedal backward. It can be tricky at first, but you should be able to manage it, and once you get the hang of this, it goes faster. 

NOTE: You can spend the time to do this with your front chain rings and cassette, but I find rear derailleur jockey wheels get far more stuff stuck on them than do the chain rings and cassette. 

The back pedaling of the drive train and a screw driver held like this will peel off gunk from jockey wheels.

 Next- Grab the WD-40, make sure that little red tube is in the spray nozzle to make sure that you can direct the spray where you want it, grab the other rag, and cup that rag under the lower run of the chain. Now spray the lower run of the chain with the WD-40. Follow the spray with your rag in the other hand to prevent your wheel and the rest of your bike from getting WD-40 on it. This helps to loosen grime and dirt from the chain. Back pedal to a new section of chain, repeat the process, and continue until you've gone all the way round the chain. (About 4 sections on most bikes, maybe a bit extra.) 

Next- Use that rag you have and clamp down on the chain in the middle of the lower run, being careful to avoid the crank set and jockey wheels. Back pedal the drive train. You'll note a black streak on the rag. Move to a cleaner section of the rag and repeat as necessary. 

Your rag will get pretty grimy. Repeat the process until you are satisfied, but remember, you won't get ALL the dirt out this way.  It's okay!


NOTE: This process will get the majority of the dirt, gunk, and old lube off your chain, but not all of it. It's okay, because we're more concerned about making this process less about technicalities and having to buy and know how to use tools and more about quick, easy ways to help you get the most out of your bike.  


Next: It's time to lubricate. Grab the lube you have, (I like drip bottles of lube versus spray. Less waste and less chances to foul wheels, braking, and paint jobs) Start at a quick link on a chain for reference, or if you don't happen to have a quick link on your chain, mark a link with permanent black marker for a reference point. Then apply one drop of lube on each roller on each link. Work your way around the chain until you come back to your reference point by back pedaling the drive train so that you are always applying lube to the lower part of the chain run. This is important because when you lubricate this way, gravity pulls the lube down into the inner workings of the chain, and as you back pedal to a new section, the chain ring teeth help push this lube into the chain as well. 

One drop on each roller is enough lube. This is the lower run of the chain, and I am applying the lube from above, letting gravity pull the lube into the chain links.

Once you've made it all the way around, you are done with the lubrication. Now grab the rag, using a clean portion, and hold it around the chain, as you did when cleaning the chain, and back pedal the chain through the stationary rag position to wipe off any excess lube. Then that's it! 

Let the bike sit for several hours, preferably overnight, for best results. Then ride. 

 Now- when do you do this again? I check my chain by rubbing my finger across a few links, if I do not get any wet residue on my finger tip, it is time to re-lubricate. Also, if you happen to ride in some wet weather, through snow, streams, puddles, mud, or the like, you will likely need to re-lubricate right away. 

Tip: If you have that WD-40 handy, spray it on a chain right after a wet ride. The "WD" in the name means "Water Displacement", so this product drives water out of your chain and helps prevent rust. I also like it for its grime-dissolving properties. Thus my suggestion for it as a cleaner for beginners. Besides, many people have this already, so it could be one less thing to buy. 

I geek out on lube often here on the blog (Example here) but for the B.O.G. Series, my intentions are to 'make things as easy as possible- not perfect!'. In the case of bicycle skills and maintenance, the minutiae often espoused by the bike geeks is a huge turn-off to those not so personally invested in whatever nuances are being discussed. So, as far as lubricating chains, is there a 'better way'? Sure there is! But 'Perfect is The Enemy of the Good' in this case where I am aiming to get beginners out and doing things instead of becoming overwhelmed by the 'ya gotta do it THIS way, with THIS lube!' mentality. And even this tutorial may be too much! 

So, keep that in mind. 

Next Week: An effective way to clean your bike without using water.


NY Roll said...

I have been developing and working on implementing a Women's Bike Clinic, and I will refer the ladies to your blog in the class, and at least let them know this is a resource out there. Granted I am focusing on building their bike maintenance skills, there are a lot of pearls of wisdom in your B.O.G.

Guitar Ted said...

@N.Y. Roll- Thanks!

Nooge said...

I don’t know if you plan to cover it elsewhere, but a simple guide to knowing when (not necessarily how) to replace a chain would be good. Beginners often find out the hard way that it would have been much cheaper to replace a chain than a whole drivetrain.

Tman said...

Pretty good basics for beginners!

baric said...

As long as we're on this subject; when you do a deep cleaning of any chain, do you remove the chain and soak it or use one of those Park tool type brush and reservoir things with a cleaner? I've always done the remove and soak method on my motorcycle or bicycle chains with WD40 and use the spray can method as you state when the chain is still on. WD40 always seems to work fine and be a great degreaser cleaner moisture displacer but not as a lube which brings me to my question. When used does WD40 completely dry and dissipate? I've never had a problem but always wondered if when it penetrates deep into the rollers whether some of it still lingers in there and dilutes the new application of chain lube. In what I consider your expert opinion any thoughts on this or am I just over thinking all of this?

Guitar Ted said...

@Nooge - That's probably an "Advanced" rider topic. Most beginners/casual cyclists will likely rely on their mechanics for that sort of knowledge. (At least that's my feeling from a shop mechanic's perspective)

@Tman - Thanks!

@baric - Yeah, I'll pull a chain off and start with WD-40 and finish up with Dawn dish soap mixed with hot water and then rinse in really hot water and air dry for "deep" cleaning. You are right to suspect that WD-40 is lurking inside the rollers when you use it and will mix with lubes put on afterward. (Not a super-big deal in my opinion, but it does do that) You can help mitigate that by using a "dry degreaser" like Muc-Off sells, or equivalent, which will blast that residue out and then evaporates leaving little residue at all. That is- when you leave a chain on to clean it. This is what I usually will do in cases where I do not want to disturb the "quick link" if it is a single use type, as Shimano's is.

Chris K said...

Instead of wiping the excess lube off after applying it, I like to let it sit overnight and wipe the excess off right before my next ride. I believe, perhaps mistakenly, that this allows the excess to further penetrate the rollers. YMMV.

Nooge said...

IMO the ruler quick check, while not perfect, is fairly simple. But it’s your blog, not mine.

A bike shop should certainly check this, but then I guess you should recommend an annual tuneup. (Maybe you already did and I forgot)