Dirty Bicycle Chain Image by hlaricca
For those of you that don’t know, when I’m not praying or meditating on the meaning and worth of pain, I work in a bike shop. Selling, maintaining, riding.
One of the questions I get asked a lot in the shop is ‘what is the right lube to use on a bike?’
There are as many types of lube as there are applications for it, and with good reason. Most of the time people are using the wrong lube for the wrong application and directly or indirectly bugger everything up.
Who hasn’t seen a chain laden with sludge, with slop dripping off the jockey wheels and cassette?
That’s not lube – it’s dirt. Dirt that’s stuck to the lube.
Who hasn’t seen a completely rusted chain, or a headset so gone that there’s rust dribbling down the fork? That’s caused by water ingress past the grease.
All of these parts have been lubed, but what has gone wrong is either the quantity, the quality or the regularity of the greasing has gone wrong.
I guess I’m going to go over parts of the bike, starting from the inside out and try and explain what each part does, what the function of the grease is in that scenario, and therefore how much lube, and what thickness of lube to use.
Before we start, we need to talk about assembly grease. Most parts on a bike that require a screw thread are made of aluminium alloy. One of the important things to note about aluminium is that similar to iron, when exposed to oxygen it forms an oxide, which unsurprisingly is called aluminium oxide. When alloy and alloy screw or press into each other, in time the separate pieces oxidise, much like rust, and ‘dry weld’ themselves together. Cue new chainset when someone hasn’t put a dash of grease on the pedal screws before fitting them. Cue new frameset when someone hasn’t greased the bottom bracket threads before tightening the cups.
Grease provides a barrier between the alloys, stopping them seizing. It also serves to keep air (and therefore oxygen) and water away from the greased part.
Assembly grease is cheap, and you don’t need much, but whenever you are fitting two pieces of alloy together, you *must* use it. Lecture over.
There is also carbon paste, for putting carbon things together. This contains tiny particles of carbon, which act like a grit and bite into the parts to stop them slipping. If you’re putting a carbon seat post into an alloy or carbon frame, be sure to use carbon paste. Else your seatpost will slip and you’ll find your groin slammed into the top tube. And that’s not pleasant. I can testify.
So, bearings and internal greasing:
First up, my go-to lube for internals and bearings is Finish line Teflon Grease. It comes in a tube to which you can attach a Finish Line grease gun, which makes greasing hubs and bearing internals an absolute doddle. It also works great as an assembly grease. When I say grease, I mean this stuff unless I specify otherwise. The grease is about a fiver, the gun about 20 quid, but should last forever. This stuff shouldn’t be used on rubber seals though. The lithium in it eats rubber. If you’ve got a part with a rubber seal, I’d recommend White Lightning Crystal Grease.
Bottom brackets, like the hubs, are an axle spinning in a ring of bearings. The BB bearings come in three main types – cartridge, threaded cups and press fit sealed bearings.
In a cartridge system (such as Square taper, Octalink, PowerSpline), the axle and bearings are contained in a single unit. The axle sticks out either side to provide space for the cranks to be fastened to. To get to the bearing we must (once the BB is removed) peel back the weather seals and apply the lube directly onto the bearings which are just inside the shell of the BB.
As they’re so close to the surface, and the BB gets a regular dosing of road spray, the lube we use needs to concentrate on keeping water and other solvents out, keeping the bearing running smooth and must be thick enough to stick around for the long term. Even the most die hard of us won’t strip the seals off a BB more than once a year – else we’ll knacker them through our over zealous intrusions.
To perfectly fulfil this purpose must be *thick*. Wayne Rooney thick. Almost solid.
So on your cartridge BB and hub internals, you want to have the thickest, most water resistant grease you can get your paws on. I tend to use lithium grease because it’s thickish, water resistant and messy, and a BB service isn’t a BB service without your clothing being covered in greasy smears.
Threaded cups are a lot more simple. They’re sealed, you can’t get in. When you bugger them because you were careless with where you were spraying degreaser when cleaning your drive train, you chuck them out and replace them. Good thing is they aren’t expensive. Bad thing is, you really need to be taking your bike to a shop to get it changed. However, assuming you have a Hollowtech II tool, a torque wrench and a work stand, you just put a bit of assembly grease on the threads and whack it in.
Press fit bearings (BB30, BB90, PF30 etc) are when the sealed bearing themselves are just pressed into the frame with no cups, either by hand or with a pressing tool. The benefit is that the BB shell (the tube in the frame through which the cranks pass) can be much wider, and therefore stiffer. The bearings are sealed, so once again the internals are ‘fire and forget’. For some ungodly reason, some manufacturers are now fitting these into alloy frames (as if they need improved stiffness) which means that the metal shell and the metal bearing rub against one another causing the whole frame to creak with every stroke. The trick here, to stop the creaking, is not to buy an alloy frame with a BB30. Or a carbon frame with an alloy BB shell and a BB30. Seriously. A thick pasting of grease, applied regularly to the inside of the shell, might help the situation if you’ve already bought said Boardman/Cannondale.
Headsets also come in different types, notably integral (often 1 1/8″, sometimes tapered to 1 1/2″ sealed bearings pushed directly into the frame) or external (usually 1″ cups screwed onto a threaded fork). For integral bearings, just apply a thin coat of grease to the inside of the shell and gently press in with a headset press. For external cups, these should be cleaned and repacked with grease annually, similar to hubs. Lithium grease, again, works wonders.
The only other internal part that springs to mind is the freehub body. There may or may not be another guide on servicing these, but in here we need to ensure that hub, pawls and springs can all operate smoothly. We *have* to have a clean, dirt free environment. I tend to use Shimano Mineral oil in here, because it’s so thin, but then again I service my freehub every couple of months. If you’re not that keen, a wet chain lube or a thin coat of White Lightening Crystal grease can work. Under no circumstances should any thick grease be applied in here. Stuff like ‘tenacious’ chain lube and lithium grease can gum up the whole sensitive apparatus and stick pawls in ratchets/stop star ratchets disengaging from the hub body. It has to be thin. And it HAS to be clean. Remove all the bearings, degrease thoroughly [with a degreaser naturally]. Clean with a clean cloth, remove any remaining degreaser, dry either with cool air or time (don’t use a hairdryer, you risk warping parts), and put a droplet of mineral oil on each pawl. Massage it in to ensure good coverage. Put a couple of drops on the ratchet inside the freehub body, then slip it together. Give it a spin until you can hear each pawl engagement as a distinct ‘click’. If you can’t, take it apart, clean it better, and use decent lube like I just told you to, you numpty!
Cables need lube when putting on. An oil based thin lube, like wet chain lube or mineral oil can smooth cable actuation and keep the outers from rusting. Just put a small amount on when fitting, don’t worry about redoing it. For those of you with high end groupsets, consider a polymer cable system. Shimano’s coated Dura Ace cableset is pretty damn good.
Now, lets talk about Chain lubing:
Use Lube image by Angela Richardson
Whatever you’re doing, chances are you’re doing it wrong. I had one gentleman storm out of my shop giving us all abuse because we suggested that WD40 was not a suitable lube for his chain. He’s been doing it wrong for 35 years, apparently, and got quite attached to doing it wrong, and was enraged when a qualified mechanic thought he should know that there was a better way.
So, if you’re reading this, don’t take offence. Just know that there are a lot of lubes for a lot of riding styles and conditions – and while there are compromises, GT85 and WD40 are not suitable lubes under any conditions.
So as we’re here, lets start with WD40. ‘Water Displacer 40’ was the 40th iteration of it’s inventors (you guessed it) Water displacement formula. In order to push water out of tight spots and prevent it’s reentry, WD40 is very thin and has a deep penetrating effect. It’s highly flammable and a volatile solvent. This thin, solvent property provides its most useful cycle related application – cleaning.
While to remove thick, encrusted dirt (like on old hub bearings) a stronger degreaser is needed, for chains and other minor degreasing jobs WD40/GT85 works a treat. Spray it on a cloth, then grab hold of your chain and watch the gunk wipe away. GT85 is basically the same stuff, but it leaves a teflon coating which does serve to provide a long term lube for things that don’t move a huge amount. Like door hinges. And drawers. That is the limit of it’s usefulness. Is you bike chain a water filled crevice, a door hinge, or a drawer? No? Then don’t use a solvent intended for that, then.
WD40 also serves to help us unseize stuck parts. You know, when you didn’t use assembly grease, like I told you to.
So what lube should you be using?
Wet: Oil based, Wet lube is ideal for wet and muddy conditions where a water based lube would get washed away.
Dry: This is kind of like a talcum powder suspended in solvent. It penetrates deep into the chain, then the solvent evaporates, leaving a layer of slippery solid behind. Ideal for long dry rides or sandy/dusty conditions where wet lube would be turned into a sand paste.
Ceramic: These can be wet or dry, ceramic lube has nanoparticles that leave a protective coating on the chain, enhancing it’s life and making shifting smoother and quieter. It is sometimes branded as ‘Stealth’ lube.
Chain lube usually comes in two containers: a spray can and a bottle.
Spraying lube around tends to cock up brake surfaces, pads, internal greases etc, so stay clear. Buy bottled lube or not at all.
When applying lube to the chain, we don’t just throw it on. To do so would likely overlube, meaning that road debris is more likely to stick to it, and any dirt already on the chain is going to get carried into the rollers and booger them pretty quick. First grab that WD40 that you’ll never need and spray it liberally onto a bit of cloth. Grab hold of the bottom of the chain with the cloth and turn the crank backwards, pulling the chain through the cloth. This should really be done after every wet ride, but compromises exist for a reason. I don’t even bother with my Ultegra 11-speed chain. Do it before every lubing though. While you’re there, just touch the cloth to the jockey wheels of the rear dérailleur as the chain is moving to clean the gunk off there.
When the chain is clean(ish), apply the bottle of lube to the bottom of the chain, just in front of the lower jockey wheel and turn the crank backwards. You want a thin line of lube to form down the centre of the chain – not too much. Turn the crank backwards for a minute or so after you’ve lubed it – this helps the lube sink into the rollers – then wipe of the excess with your rag – again grabbing the bottom of the chain and running the crank back.
Do this every couple of weeks or every 200 miles, whichever is sooner.
Every 600 miles or so, take the chain off and clean it thoroughly. Follow a guide from Sheldon Brown or something on Youtube on how to do this. Dry and lube thoroughly afterwards.
What not to lube:
Tyres. Yes, people can be that silly.
Brake discs. Seems obvious, but you’d be surprise how many people try to resolve a squealing disc brake with a touch of lube. The squealing is caused by glazed pads leading to a lack of friction, not by too much friction. If you have lubed the disc, you’ll need new rotors and new pads.
So there you have it. The right grease, in the right place, in the right amount. Simples.