Updated: May 22, 2021
Everyone knows that a clean drive train lasts longer, right?
Yet conventional wisdom, or maybe very good, intense marketing, or both, has most cyclists convinced that coating their chain in soap-suspended crude oil enhances the life of their drivetrain. I’m not here to argue that it isn’t the case, however, like everything, its relative. Of course, any oil offers protection against the elements when compared to a bare un-oiled chain but, is it the best lube you can get for your bike? I would argue no, and here’s why.
Before I present the crux of my argument though, I must point out that, as a long-time rider of both Mountain and Road bikes, I have always been fastidious in my cleaning and re-lubing routine. After almost every ride, and certainly after a wet ride, I would get out my trusty chain cleaner, fully degrease the chain, dry it as well as possible and then carefully drip a drop of oil on every roller, followed by an external wipe with an old rag. Still, I'd only average around a thousand miles before having to replace the chain, and every other chain replacement usually involved replacing the cassette and rings.
Then, around a decade ago I began to use “Squirt”, which is essentially wax suspended in a carrier liquid that evaporates after application, thereby leaving behind a hard wax shell. It was at that point I started researching lubes and finding ways to stretch, no pun intended, the life of my bikes transmission.
Let me take a step back here and explain why I began to think that oil was simply not the best lubrication of choice for the modern bicycle chain. Firstly, oil manufacturers generally give you two options, wet and dry. The dry lube they want you to use is, for the most part, some sort of wax-based affair, so we’ll discard those dry options- for now. Wet lube, on the other hand, is usually a synthetic, or semi-synthetic oil, in many cases, light motor or chainsaw oil with additives and pretty colours. Cycle specific lubes generally have low anti-fling properties and low viscosities. The problem, when it comes to bicycles, is the engine, as the average human being produces an average of ¼ brake horsepower (bhp) and turns the full length of chain between 10 and 60 full rotations every minute. Therefore, the lube manufacturers have to strike a balancing act with the viscosity and the anti-fling properties of the oil – too high, like that used for motorbikes, and the chain becomes sticky, too low, resembling that used for chainsaws and the water repellence is affected.
However, even if viscosity is disregarded, the chemical structure of oil is open to environmental contamination. Even the hardiest wet lube, once drenched begins a process of emulsification, it starts to breakdown and separate into its base elements – this is the creamy white ooze often witnessed on your chain and, while it is still lubricating, it most certainly isn’t optimal. On the other hand, MTB and gravel bikers chasing through gritty, muddy puddles, add another dimension - calcification. Once the chain gets contaminated with dust and dirt and then dries the oil begins to morph into a thick, black gunk which, over time, hardens and becomes incredibly difficult to remove. Again, the chain is being lubricated but this paste also causes vastly accelerated wear. Either of these processes allows and, in some cases, attracts contaminants into the interior of the chain, creating a grinding effect which wears the internal rollers. This internal roller wear translates into greater movement within the external cross tubes and is commonly know as "chain stretch". The only logical way around this is to ensure your chain and cogs are forensically clean before every ride and they stay that way throughout. This is, as you know, simply not possible, the first puddle, whether infected with road diesel or trail grit, commences the emulsification/calcification process. Not only does this process affect the internal workings of the chain, but anything which gets trapped externally in the oil acts like sandpaper on the rest of your transmission. Once these microscopic dust particles get trapped inside the roller/tubes of the chain, it is unlikely that even the best chain bath will remove all of them.
So, lets return to the dry lube and ask, is liquid wax the answer then? I would contest that dry lube is almost there, but not quite. Read the instructions on your bottle of liquid wax and they recommend thoroughly cleaning your chain, chainrings and cassette. Unfortunately, they don’t explain how thoroughly. As I have already noted, a chain bath, no matter how good, cannot usually remove all of the internal contaminants. Even if the chain is brand new, there will most probably some residue packing grease clinging determinedly to the inside of the roller tubes. Any residue oil will therefore prevent the drying wax from adhering, giving you less protection than lube itself. Let’s assume then, that the whole drivetrain is forensically degreased and cleaned – the packing grease from the factory is thoroughly removed and the metal which remains is foundry fresh. For the liquid waxes to work you must firstly ensure that the wax itself is warm and, for best results, the chain should also be warm. Putting warm wax onto a cold chain will just encourage the wax to solidify before it penetrates internally. Even if both of these factors are in play, there is still no guarantee that over-applying the wax to the outside of the chain will penetrate the internal rollers fully.
So, what’s the solution?
I’m expecting that right about now, if you’ve managed to stay awake till this point, your eyes are going to roll.
Hot Immersion Waxing!
There, I’ve said it (or rather written it). But hot waxing is not the whole story. The process must begin with that militarily clean drivetrain and the process must be followed up after a couple of rides with the liquid wax to keep the whole drivetrain in the best of conditions.
However, put simply, immersing a clean chain in hot wax and gently agitating will penetrate and protect the internals of the chain for far longer than any oil lube or liquid wax. The hard wax shell which then coats the rollers will slow the “stretching” process as very little grinding contaminant can find its way in and, according to Friction Facts, wax will also save you watts – allowing you to go a little faster, for a little longer, with equal, or even less effort.
Wax is also easy to infuse with additives, and akin to some of the larger manufacturers I have experimented with those additives and finally settled on combining two friction reducers. The wax blend I created has added PTFE to aid molecular adhesion and tungsten disulphide (invented by Nasa for the space shuttle) to reduce friction.
Once wax is embedded within your chain the whole drive train is kept cleaner and runs quieter, for longer, as wax is a natural water and dirt repellent. What's more, the washing process is vastly simplified. There is no more need for a chain bath, toothbrushes or degreaser, you simply rinse with cool or cold water, soft brush or wipe any mud away, allow the chain to dry and finally, add your choice of dry/wax lube to top up any worn off wax internally. As the space between the rollers and tubes is already filled with a hard wax, it is unlikely that water, dirt and dust will find a place to latch onto.
Each immersion generally lasts around a thousand miles, a little less with lots of wet riding, and most people offering a hot wax will re-wax at a vastly reduced cost as the cleaning process is not as involved – boiling water, dry, immerse in wax.
One user, on the Friction Facts forum, claims to have had the same chain/cassette combo for over 10k miles and still has not reached the 0.5% stretch which would necessitate a new chain.
Research has shown that a waxed chain generally lasts an average of at least two to three times longer than a traditionally lubed chain, in essence, cutting down your servicing bills.
Of course, I haven’t just hammered out a thousand words without a pitch, so please consider having a look at my “ultimate drivetrain clean” which includes the full degreasing and ultrasonic clean of your chain, cassette, jockey wheels and chainrings and a full immersion wax in my PTFE/WS2 wax mix.
Check it out here
If you decide to have the Ultimate Drivetrain Clean then, for the month of May and June, I will also replace your inner cable and index your gears at no extra cost, just mention this blog when you book.
Thanks for making it this far and, on a final note, let me point out that I accept cash, card, PayPal, apple/google pay, Government Vouchers and BACS. Also that all my work is 100% insured and guaranteed.