How often do you think about your bike chain? Do you methodically clean and lube it after every ride? Or do you only notice when it dries out and squeaks in protest?
A well-cared-for chain makes for a happy bike (and rider). Any competent home mechanic should understand how chains work, how to clean and lube them properly, what lube to use, and how to tell if they are worn. Here’s what you need to know.
- Bike chain anatomy
- Cheap chains vs. expensive chains
- How to clean and lube your chain
- What’s the best chain lube?
- How to tell if your chain is worn
A bike chain is comprised of four basic components:
- Outer links
- Inner links
Each chain link has two link plates. Rollers are sandwiched between these link plates where the inner and outer links meet. This is all held together with a pin. The rollers are the main part of the chain that interfaces with chainring/cassette teeth. Along with the pins, they allow the chain to articulate as you pedal. When you lube your chain correctly, the lubricant gets into the rollers to allow them to move freely.
"It’s mostly down to the surface treatments." — Nick Murdick, Shimano
“When you look at the differences from low-end to high-end chains, it’s mostly down to the surface treatments, with hollow pins added for top-of-the-line chains like XTR and Dura-Ace,” explained Nick Murdick, MTB Product Manager for Shimano North America and an expert in chain tech.
Shimano’s two main surface treatments are “SIL-TEC” and “Chromizing.” SIL-TEC is a nickel plating that’s infused with fluorine. Chromizing diffuses chromium into the steel. Both create a more durable surface that also reduces friction. Entry-level Tiagra and Deore chains will have untreated links and rollers. Mid-level 105, Ultegra, SLX, and Deore XT chains will have a mix of SIL-TEC and chromizing treatments on the inner and outer link plates. Then top-of-the-line chains like Dura-Ace and XTR get a full SIL-TEC treatment on links and rollers.
This KMC X11 chain has a gold Ti-Nitride coating applied to the link plates.
For SRAM, top-tier chains like Red, Force, XX1, and X01, feature “Hard Chrome” on the inner and outer link plates. This requires more stringent control of the plating process compared to the simple “Chrome” finish used on entry-level chains.
KMC’s range-topping chains use a gold “Ti-Nitride” coating or DLC, a hard “diamond-like coating.” The pricier the chain, the more advanced the coating.
Top-of-the-line chains like Shimano Dura-Ace/XTR and SRAM Red/XX1 also use hollow pins, which reduce weight. Hollow pins also increase strength because they require extra peening.
So if you want a chain that’s coated and constructed to run faster, quieter, and last longer, it might be worth spending the money. Otherwise, by properly maintaining your chain and replacing it when worn (see below) you can still get great performance.
At the factory, individual chain pieces are greased before assembly so chains come out of the box lubed and ready to go.
“Factory grease is best for the durability of the chain." — Murdick
“If you could keep your chain lube with anything, factory grease is the best choice. Unfortunately, chains can only be greased before they are assembled,” explained Murdick.
The factory grease will wear out, so to reduce wear and improve efficiency, you need to clean and lubricate your chain. Your maintenance schedule depends on how much you ride, what conditions you ride in, and your own obsessiveness. Personally, I lube and wipe my chain after every ride and only give it a thorough clean if it looks especially grimy. But I live in a dry and dusty place, so muddy conditions might require different care.
Clean your bike chain
Before lubing, chains should be clean so they are free of abrasives and contaminants that will accelerate wear. With light dust, a thorough wipe with a dry rag may be enough. But to fully clean a chain you’ll need some water, a degreaser, and a brush.
You can use any gentle degreaser or dish soap and an old toothbrush. Bike-specific degreasers can reduce the chance of corrosion on your bike, and chain-cleaning brushes like the Finish Line Grunge Brush can make the job quick and easy.
Our mechanics like to use the Park Tool Cyclone Chain Scrubber. You fill the reservoir with water and a tiny bit of degreaser, clamp it around the chain, then backpedal the chain through the scrubber. Wipe it dry and you have a perfectly clean chain in seconds.
Lube your bike chain
Make your chain is dry before applying lube. There are two basic steps:
1. Apply lube to the chain rollers.
2. Wipe away all excess lube.
Two popular methods for applying chain lube: at the cassette and at the pulley.
The correct method for applying lube can be controversial. Some apply lube at the cassette, some at the pulley wheels, and some to the underside of the chain between the chainring and pulley wheels. Some methodically apply a single drop of lube to every roller while others squirt lube with reckless abandon. Many seasoned mechanics have honed their personal methods and will swear it’s the “best” way to lube a chain.
"The chain lube is going to get where it needs to go." — Murdick
“It’s the kind of question that can start an argument,” said Murdick. “My main response would be that it doesn’t really matter very much, the chain lube is going to get where it needs to go. Putting on too much could be messy but won’t cause harm as long as you follow a regular cleaning and lubrication regimen.”
Here's Murdick's preferred chain lubing method:
“I put the chain in the middle of the cassette. That keeps the chain straight when backpedaling,” Murdick explained. “Apply lube to the top of the chain while backpedaling. You can rest your hand and keep it steady against the seat stay as you drip the lube onto the chain. Drip it on just before the chain hits the cassette. What I try to do is let the rollers pull the chain lube out of the bottle. That gives me less than a single drop of lube on each and every roller. Basically, I’m trying to apply as little as possible as quickly as possible.”
I’ve started using this method myself, with good results. As mentioned in the chain anatomy section, the only part of the chain that requires lube is the rollers. Excess lube on the links, cassette, pulleys, and chainrings should be wiped away because it will attract dirt, dust, and grime.
Murdick added an additional tip for keeping your chain pristine:
“Liquid lubes will always work their way out, even if you aren’t pedaling. Wipe down the chain with a rag before every ride. Make it part of the pre-ride routine after pumping tires. This will considerably reduce the amount of chain cleaning you need to do later.”
Like chain lubing methods, the “best” lube is a source of contention. Some gear geeks will point to efficiency tests while others simply choose lubes based on experience, cost, and ease of use. Lube choice is not as important as regularly lubing your chain.
“Everything out there works." — Murdick
“I don’t want to tell anyone what to use on their chain,” Murdick said. "Everything out there works. Some prioritize friction reduction where my philosophy is generally about increasing chain durability. People are free to choose whatever fits their needs the best.”
Dry vs. wet lubes
Most chain lubes can be described as “dry” or “wet.” Dry lubes tend to stay cleaner because they attract less dirt and dust. Wet lubes last longer but can get grimy since they’re designed to handle wet conditions.
“It’s important to understand what is and isn’t compatible with the factory grease,” explained Murdick. “For the most part, anything dry or wax-based isn’t going to live up to its potential unless the factory grease and any other chain lube are completely removed first. These also tend to need more frequent application and can be washed away easily in wet conditions. But they will do a good job of reducing friction when fresh and they can stay very clean.
“Wet lubes can mean lubes meant for wet riding or simply oil-based lubricants that stay liquid. Some of those oils work great in dry conditions so it’s a bit of an unfortunate term. They are completely compatible with the factory grease so you can simply apply them on top of a fresh chain.”
Our favorite chain lubes
Our mechanics prefer Rock-N-Roll’s Gold and Extreme and Muc-Off Bio Dry. These are best applied after thorough degreasing. They keep chains very clean on dusty Colorado roads and trails but need to be reapplied regularly.
“Dumonde Tech is in a bit of a category of its own because it is a liquid that polymerizes under pressure,” he explained. “It’s compatible with the factory grease because it will bind to the metal underneath so it’s a great lube on its own for wet or dry conditions or used as a back-up alongside another wet lube.
“If you go out for an epic ride or have unexpected creek crossings that wash away your lube, the Dumonde Tech is still there to get you home. It’s not quite as good at reducing noise and friction, so my personal bikes use a combination of Dumonde Tech with wet lube on top.”
Your chain will run well as long as it’s clean and lubed, but eventually, it will wear out. As a chain wears it will “stretch,” meaning the distance between pins increases because the pins have worn down. A stretched chain won’t shift well and accelerates wear on your chainring and cassette teeth.
Chains usually need to be replaced at .75% stretch. You can check chain stretch with a simple chain wear tool.
The two-pronged Park Tool CC-3.2 Chain Wear Indicator is the classic chain checking tool. But newer three-pronged chain tools like the Park Tool CC-4 and Pedro’s Chain Checker Plus II are more accurate because they measure rollers from the same side to isolate roller wear from pin wear.
“Many chain wear indicators work by pushing two rollers apart and measuring the distance between them several links away,” Murdick explained. “This method assumes that all chains have the same roller dimensions and tolerances, which isn’t the case. This [three-pronged] design preloads a section of chain so that we can measure against two rollers pushed in the same direction, canceling out everything but true chain elongation.”
"Shimano and a few other brands that offer a tool that measures rollers from the same side. Since all chains have a common pitch, this is the best universal chain wear indicator." — Murdick
Riders using a traditional chain wear tool on SRAM Eagle chains may have noticed that the oversized rollers prevent them from even fitting the tool in between the links. In that case, a newer three-pronged tool is preferable.
Again, the tool you use isn’t as important as regularly checking and replacing your chain. Replacing a chain too early is always preferable to replacing it too late. If you keep tabs on your chain, then you can expect your entire drivetrain to last longer.
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