Unless you run a belt drive, the chain is one of the hardest working components on your bicycle.
A good chain lube can smooth the chain’s engagement with the cassette sprockets and chainrings, and maintain proper shifting performance. It also helps prevent corrosion and reduces friction and drivetrain wear.
While an under-lubricated chain increases friction by enabling too much metal on metal contact, an over-lubricated chain will attract dirt and grit, which will increase friction and drivetrain wear as well. The trick is getting it just right.
However, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to chain lubes – with countless brands offering a range of different types of lube and formulas – so finding the best chain oil isn’t always easy.
Whether you’re a racer looking for a performance edge or a commuter who simply wants a fuss-free solution, we’ll lay out all the chain lube options and explain the positives and negatives of every approach.
Efficiency and drivetrain wear
When most cyclists think about lubrication, they likely think about decreasing friction and increasing efficiency. It’s not all about efficiency though, friction and drivetrain wear are closely associated too.
Under clean, laboratory conditions, more viscous lubricants would be expected to decrease drivetrain wear rates.
In the real world, however, dirt and other contaminants enter the equation. If these get in your drivetrain they essentially form a paste (think ‘liquid sandpaper’) with the lubricant literally grinding away your gears.
What is drivetrain efficiency?
Drivetrain efficiency describes how much of the energy (usually described as ‘power’ because it can be measured in watts) you put through the pedals reaches the rear wheel, to drive you and the bike forward.
Under laboratory conditions, geared bicycle drivetrains have been shown to reach above 98 per cent efficiency, meaning just 2 per cent of energy inputted is lost to friction.
Real-world conditions don’t usually mimic those of a laboratory though.
As well as correct lubrication, drivetrain efficiency is dependent on things such as cleanliness, chain line, and the size of the chainrings and cogs in your drivetrain.
With that in mind, avoiding a contaminated drivetrain is key to optimum efficiency and ensuring long-lasting parts.
Doing so is a challenge, though. When you ride in wet or dirty conditions, your front wheel sprays huge amounts of contaminants onto your chain (although good mudguards can mitigate the effects to a degree). From there, the only way to reset the balance is to clean your drivetrain thoroughly.
For non-racers, for whom peak speed and efficiency isn’t the ultimate goal, reducing drivetrain wear – and therefore extending the life of your components – can potentially save you a fair amount of money.
Types of chain lube
There are many different types of bicycle-specific lubes, including wet lubes, dry lubes, ceramic lubes and wax lubes. Each has its own pros and cons, and intended use, which we’ll come on to.
Most lubes contain synthetic oils, along with friction-reducing additives such as PTFE (Teflon) and carrier fluids that evaporate after application.
Recently, partly thanks to the increased availability of independent testing data, waxed-based lubricants have risen in popularity among performance-minded cyclists.
The key with bicycle chain lubrication is to get it in the internals of the chain (among the rollers and pins). Before lubricating, you also need to clean it as thoroughly as possible, to remove contaminants.
Chain oils range greatly in price, from a few pounds/dollars at the very low end, to more than £70 at the very top end.
Budget-conscious cyclists ought to consider the full cost of maintaining a drivetrain when making lube purchasing decisions, though.
A cheap lube could end up costing you a lot more overall than an expensive one, for example. If your lube leads to poorer efficiency and increased drivetrain wear, having to replace worn parts of your bike more often will undoubtedly cost a lot more in the long run than an efficient lube.
That said, just because something costs more, it doesn’t mean it’s automatically better.
If you want to maximise performance and value, it’s worth paying close attention to testing by independent companies such as Zero Friction Cycling (ZFC) and, of course, BikeRadar.
Dry lubes, so-called because they’re designed for riding in dry conditions, are often made up of around 10 per cent lubricant – synthetic oils and additives – and 90 per cent carrier fluid.
Some companies label wax-based lubes as ‘dry’ too, but we’ll cover them separately shortly.
As a lower viscosity lubricant, dry lubes promise greater efficiency through lower friction and by attracting fewer contaminants.
The downside of dry lubes is they are often very easily washed off by rain or puddles.
Zero Friction Cycling (ZFC) suggests dry lubes typically appear cleaner because they lack enough actual lubricant to be effective. This has the knock-on effect of meaning they usually result in high levels of friction and wear, according to ZFC’s testing.
If that’s to be believed, you could also make an argument that you’re spending your money mostly on carrier fluid that’s designed to disappear into thin air.
Wet lubes are designed for riding in wet or year-round conditions and, as such, generally contain greater quantities of higher viscosity synthetic oils, as well as additives such as PTFE.
You get more lubricant per millilitre with this type of lube and the increased viscosity of the oils means this type of lubricant should last longer and is much less prone to getting washed off your chain if you encounter water.
The downside of wet lubes? These same properties also make it a magnet for dirt and grime (especially if applied excessively), and the extra viscosity also means lower outright efficiency compared to thinner lubes, due to the added viscous friction.
Best practice for this type of lube is to apply sparingly to each link in the chain and wipe off any excess before riding.
You’ll need to clean your drivetrain regularly, possibly even after every ride if you want the maximum benefit and to maintain peak performance and optimise drivetrain life. Once a wet lube becomes contaminated it can begin to cause drivetrain wear.
Ceramic lubes have started popping up over the last few years, with bold claims about increased performance, alongside increased prices. It’s not always clear what they contain or what benefits they offer over other types of lubricants, though.
It notes these lubes are more expensive, but also points out the decreased friction it claims ought to lead to increased drivetrain longevity, saving you money overall.
ZFC, however, says there is limited publicly available data to substantiate the claims that ceramic lubricants actually provide the purported effects, and thus doesn’t recommend them.
All thing’s considered, until they have been definitively proven to work as advertised, it’s hard to recommend ceramic lubes over more affordable options.
Lubricants based on paraffin wax (yes, the stuff they make candles with) have grown massively in popularity in recent years, as independent testing has shown them to score extremely well on efficiency, longevity and in resistance to contaminants.
Waxed-based lubricants are usually a mix of highly-refined paraffin wax particles, mixed with additives such as PTFE and a carrier fluid.
The key to wax’s good performance is that, when applied correctly, it settles to form a hard, almost dry layer of low friction lubricant on the chain.
This increased dryness is key because it prevents friction-increasing contaminants from sticking to the chain and working their way into the internals of the chain or coating your drivetrain parts.
A downside of wax lubricants is that they require a fastidiously clean chain prior to the initial application, otherwise the wax won’t stick to the metal or dry out correctly.
This means you’ll have to completely strip even a brand new, box-fresh chain of all grease and oil.
You also need to leave enough time before you ride for the wax to completely dry and harden on the chain (overnight, ideally). If you ride in wet conditions the chain will also need to be cleaned, dried and lubricated soon afterwards to prevent corrosion.
If you’re after the fastest, most efficient drivetrain possible, immersive waxing is currently king. Look around any professional race or time trial and you’re bound to spot more than a few waxed chains.
This process involves taking a scrupulously clean chain and immersing it in a heated vat of highly refined paraffin wax and other additives. We published a detailed recipe back in 2013, but it’s also available commercially under brand names such as Molten Speed Wax.
You can source the ingredients separately yourself, but ZFC says that commercial blends such as Molten Speed Wax use more highly refined paraffin wax than what is normally available to consumers, for optimum performance and cleanliness.
The heat helps the chain parts expand, allowing the lubricants to fully penetrate all parts of the chain and flush out contaminants. Once the chain is removed, the wax also dries to a completely dry, solid layer of lubricant over every part.
If you’re thinking, “That sounds like quite a lot of hassle…”, you wouldn’t be wrong. It is, at least initially.
In our experience, the hard part of immersive waxing is usually the initial chain cleaning process.
The factory grease can be hard to completely remove from the inside of even a brand new chain. You need strong degreasers or solvents to get the job done properly, and you’ll be left with a fair amount of waste chemicals that you’ll need to dispose of carefully.
Once it’s been properly cleaned and treated though, waxed chains have, in our experience, an incredible ability to shrug off dirt and grime.
Because they’re so dry, there’s nothing for dirt to stick to. This means you essentially don’t have to clean any part of your drivetrain at all for around 300 to 400km, unless you do a wet ride.
Because highly refined paraffin wax contains practically no oil, waxed chains are prone to rusting after wet rides. You’ll have to be prepared to dry, clean and re-wax the chain, or top it up with a wax-based drip lube, as soon as possible after riding.
A little extra legwork then, but the potential rewards are substantial.
ZFC says immersive waxing and re-waxing at 300km intervals, or after every wet ride, can extend a chain’s lifespan to around 15,000km – about three times as long as what is typically achieved with standard drip lubes. This also helps massively extend the lifespan of the other, more expensive drivetrain components such as cassettes and chainrings.
Waxed chains and drivetrain parts like cassettes and chainrings can also be cleaned using boiling water – no degreaser required. Arguably, this will save you time overall, but you do have to put in the work up front.
For watt-conscious racers who don’t fancy themselves as chain cookers, companies such as Ceramicspeed, Watt Shop and Zero Friction Cycling now sell pre-prepared waxed chains.
They generally don’t come cheap and will need to be re-waxed or topped up with wax lubricant after 300 to 400km of dry riding, but it certainly saves on the initial hassle of stripping factory grease from new chains at home.
What about grease?
This section is really here to advise against using grease to lubricate your chain.
While grease is great for bearings and threads, it won’t penetrate the gaps between the rollers and pins where you really need the lubricant because it’s far too thick. The viscous friction will be much higher too.
It’s also going to attract every bit of grit, dirt and grime you come across and will be a nightmare to clean off properly afterwards.
Unless your bike ride is planned to take place underwater, we’d recommend steering well clear of using grease on your chain.
Do aerosol lubes work?
Some lubricants are also sold as aerosols, but we wouldn’t recommend these for lubricating chains because they’re very difficult to apply precisely.
The risk of getting lubricant on your brake track/rotors or worse in the pads is much higher than with drip lubes, and you really don’t want that happening because it can seriously affect brake performance.
Best chain lube for road and time-trial bikes
As things stand, immersive waxing or waxed-based chain lubes are best. The efficiency and cleanliness make them clear leaders in this category.
According to ZFC, the difference between a good and bad lubricant can comfortably amount to five to ten watts at a 250-watt load. These losses increase in magnitude as the load increases, too.
For wet conditions, the winner is slightly less clear cut, but we’d still recommend waxed-based lubricants for their efficiency. Crucially, however, you’ll have to be prepared to clean your chain immediately after wet rides to prevent corrosion.
ZFC says the easiest way to avoid this is to have two waxed chains with quick-release links, which you can swap on and off your bike as needed. You can then clean and re-lubricate whichever one is currently not on your bike at your leisure.
If that sounds like too much hassle, a wet lube will help prevent corrosion between rides and provide lubrication in a wide range of conditions.
If you don’t keep your drivetrain clean though, your parts will wear out much more quickly from the extra dirt and grime that gets stuck to the lube.
Best chain lube for mountain, gravel and cyclocross bikes
Because of the massively increased level of contaminants, a dry lubricant that prevents dirt and grime from entering the drivetrain will perform best. It’s for this reason we’d recommend waxed-based lubes, either in drip form or immersive waxed chains.
Again, having multiple waxed chains on rotation is the best solution, according to ZFC.
According to its testing, a drivetrain lubricated using wet lube will attract so much contamination it could be costing you 15 to 20 watts, and causing significant amounts of wear.
Mountain bikers who really don’t want to clean their bike after every wet ride may be happier with a standard wet lube, but remember that not cleaning your drivetrain regularly is likely to have a long-term impact on your wallet in terms of component life.
Best chain lube for commuting
For commuters, we’d recommend a standard wet chain lube and good mudguards, with effective mud flaps.
We would always advise keeping your bike as clean as possible, and topping up the chain lube after a wet ride will at least prevent corrosion.
ZFC, however, is adamant this isn’t optimum and that the benefits of waxed-based lubricants, and of immersive waxing in particular, far outstrip the negatives even for commuters.
It’s fair to say not everyone will have the inclination or patience for it though. After all, outright efficiency and cleanliness almost certainly matter less to most commuters than the ability for your bike to last a couple of weeks in all weathers without cleaning it.
Commuter bikes are also likely to have cheaper parts that are less costly to replace, but we wouldn’t advocate waste, in both monetary and environmental terms.
If you do want to save money, save the planet and save watts, and are prepared to clean your chain after wet rides, wax lubes may be the best answer here as well. However, for all-weather convenience, a wet lube will still come up trumps.
What’s your favourite chain lube? Let us know in the comments below.