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What every rider should know about chains and lube

By Bruce Lin


Best bike chains and lubeHow 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

Bike chain links plates rollers and pinsA bike chain is comprised of four basic components:

  • Outer links
  • Inner links
  • Rollers
  • Pins

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.   

Cheap chains vs. expensive chains

"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. 

KMC X11S gold bike chain ti-nitrideThis 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. 


How to clean and lube your bike chain

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. 

Bike chain cleaner degreaserYou 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. 

Park tool cyclone chain scrubber bike chain cleanerOur 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. 

Finish Line Grunge Brush - $10.10
Park Tool CM-5.3 Cyclone Chain Scrubber - $26.95
Park Tool CG-2.4 Chain Gang Cleaning Kit - $37.95

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.

How to lube your bike chainTwo 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.”

How to lube your bike chainI’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.”

What’s the best bike chain lube?

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

Best bike chain lubes Rock n Roll Muc-off Tri-Flow Dumonde TechRock-N-Roll Gold dry lube - $7.95
Rock-N-Roll Extreme dry lube - $7.99
Muc-Off Bio Dry lube - $9.99
Tri-Flow Superior Lubricant Drip wet lube - $10.18
Dumonde Tech Original lube - $11.15

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.

For wet lubes, our go-to is classic Tri-Flow Superior Lubricant, which is long-lasting in all conditions. Murdick, who favors durability, likes combining Dumonde Tech with a wet lube. 

“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.”  


How to tell if your chain is worn

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. 

Chain checker stretch measuring tool for worn bike chainChains usually need to be replaced at .75% stretch. You can check chain stretch with a simple chain wear tool. 

Park Tool CC-3.2 Chain Wear Indicator Tool - $10.75
Park Tool CC-4 Chain Checker - $15.55
Pedro’s Chain Checker Plus II - $16.18

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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  • I would appreciate a discussion with Nick Murdick. This is not the first time i have heard him pushing factory grease. Whilst their factory grease is not a poor lubricant in itself, compared to the top lubricant choices on the market it falls well short re efficiency losses, and is also a contamination attraction magnet, so it becomes very abrasive very quickly. This has been control tested and field tested proven ad infinitum.

    Coatings such as Ti-N and DLC are an external coating applied after chains construction. As such they are cosmetic only. Their is no Ti-N plating or DLC coating on any key wear surfaces such as pin, inner plate link bore, inner plate link shoulders, roller bore – which bear the vast brunt of rider load and wear. They are a cosmetic coating and have zero impact on performance or chain longevity.

    Thats just a start of the poor info here (ie Tri flow was good choice in 1990, vs the proven top known lubricants, it is well behind now, and dry lubes like muc-off dry lube deliver a clean looking chain but horrific wear rates as so little lubrication is actually part of the lubricant, it is mostly carrier that evaporates, same as finish line dry and other traditional dry lubes of this type.

    It is past time for information that genuinely saves cyclists a huge amount of drivetrain wear beings to be delivered by cycling media. Some are doing a much better job now than others (ie cycling tips, have really stepped up their lubricant reviews) – but to many media outlets are putting out extremely outdated and often proven incorrect information. And its not like it has been recently proven – it has been proven in some instances (like factory grease) since independent friction facts in 2013. And re-enforced over and over .

    I would suggest a good read through the resources at zero friction cycling, and i would appreciate nick murdocks email – it is past time we had a proper discussion re factory grease and chain coatings.

    Adam Kerin on

  • Enjoyed the article. Also a big fan of Silca Synergetic. Just started to use and Very Happy. Also have super secret but saving that for the new Colnago 😊

    Robert Brabant on

  • Ultrasonic clean and hot wax dip; it’s the only way… I will easily get 8,000 – 10,000 miles out of a chain with this method. Oh, and Wipperman; FTW… Shimano D/A or XTR come a close 2nd.

    advcyclist on

  • There are numerous videos on YouTube testing, reviewing, comparing chain lubes. Here’s one:
    Dry, wet, wax: opinions & results vary. It’s no wonder Murdick did not want to answer.

    Andy on

  • Pro Gold Prolink bath. Solvent base so it removes factory goop. Best balance of properties for dry conditions MTB. Sold in bulk too.

    JD on

  • Maybe everything work, but not necessarily well. VElo News commissioned chain lube friction and longevity studies maybe 5-10 years ago, two years running. Molten wax with molybdenum and PFTE came out on top both years. Yeah, it takes time to do right, especially the first time, but it’s a lot easier now with power links than when we did it in the shop 45 years ago. Bonus: The bike stays so much cleaner, and no more hash marks on your calves.

    Randal Bladel on

  • Back in the early 1980’s bike racers and nerds learned to use the Paraffin method to extend chain life. Pull off the chain, clean and soak in molten paraffin wax for 10-15 minutes, pull out and let hang to dry. Flake off excess wax and re-install. I’d get 10,000 happy miles doing this on a single chain. Each application would last 250-300 miles without issue. If caught riding in the rain, then the wax would slowly disappear and at best would be good for 100 miles.

    Fast forward to modern times. While this paraffin method still works, it’s much easier to get the same effect with wax based solvent lubes like Finish Line Ceramic Wax Bike Chain Lube. Wipe your chain off, apply wax lube to the rollers when rotating the chain. Let dry, re-wipe if you wish. If not it won’t attract much dirt anyways. The chain stays very clean. I’ve gotten 5,000 miles out of 11s chain no issues and it’s still going.

    Frank Haas on

  • The best lube I’ve ever used is a molten wax soak. One pound of canning paraffin to 50 grams of powdered teflon plus an old crock pot and you’re off to better, cleaner days. Road or mountain. The hardest part is getting all the viscuous, watt-robbing factory goo off prior the first waxing. Subsequent waxings are a breeze.

    Steve on

  • Absolutely, 100%, never ever ever leave the factory grease on a chain. It’s only slightly better than grinding paste.

    Degrease a new chain.
    Use a good lube: One that wears your chain as little as possible (especially since chains are in short supply these days). If you want the easiest and cheapest good oil lube, use Nixfrixshun. If you want the best oil lube, use Silca Synergetic. Wax drip lubes are better (they’re cleaner): Silca secret drip or True Tungsten Bananaslip All Weather. If you like tinkering, immersion waxing is great.

    Noah Schabacker on

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