Best Lubes & Cleaning: Buying Guide For A Healthy Bike
If you want to keep your bike running smoothly you will need to clean and lubricate it regularly, paying particular attention to the moving parts of the transmission, where buildup of dirt and gunk will accelerate rates of wear and leave on the hook for new parts.
A dry or dirty chain will wear a lot faster than a clean, well-lubricated one, and will also wear your cassette and chainrings at a quicker rate and can result in poor shifting performance.
Good-quality lubricants can be pricey, but regular use of a reliable lube will work out much cheaper in the long run than having to replace your chain, cassette and rings long before their life should be up. Meanwhile specially formulated degreasers and bike cleaners are designed to shift old, dirty lube from the transmission and to keep the rest of the bike looking pristine.
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Bike lubricants are designed to keep the moving parts of your bicycle… well, moving. Lubricating key parts – including transmission (chain/chainrings/cassette), pivot points (brake pivots, suspension pivots, derailleur pivots), cables and clipless pedals – will ensure that they work smoothly, and prolong their life.
Bike grease is a type of lubricant but is generally heavier/thicker than lube for moving parts. You will find grease packed into bearings – hub and pedal axle bearings, headset bearings and bottom bracket bearings – to keep them rotating smoothly (non-cartridge bearings will need to be periodically dismantled, cleaned and packed with fresh grease). A light smear of grease is also used on many threaded parts – stem bolts, disc rotor bolts etc – to prevent them from seizing.
Lubes help to prevent friction between the moving parts of the chain – the rollers, plates and rivets that make up each link – which prevents wear and prolongs its life, and also protect the chain from contamination or corrosion (rust).
Lubes work by penetrating deep into the chain’s moving parts and clinging to the metal, providing a protective layer.
They are typically made up of a carrier fluid which contains particles that act to reduce friction.
There are three main types of lubes – wet, dry and all-purpose.
Wet lubes are designed to work in wet conditions and feature a carrier fluid with a higher viscosity. What this means is that they stay wet when applied to the chain, and cling better, being less likely to be washed off. The downside of wet lubes is that they tend to pick up dirt and muck more easily than dry lubes, eventually covering your chain and transmission in that grinding black paste. If you ride in wet conditions you will need a wet lube but remember to regularly tend to your chain, cleaning it as necessary (see Cleaning for using degreasers for a ‘deep’ clean) and reapplying lubricant if needed.
NOTE: When lubricating a chain – ideally a clean one – the key is to allow the lube to penetrate into the inner moving parts, not slather it all over. A drop or two of lube on each roller in a link should suffice – leave for a while to penetrate before using, wipe off any excess and you’re good to go.
Dry lubes are made with a thinner carrier fluid which evaporates after being applied, leaving the friction-reducing particles in place. Dry lubes work well in dry, dusty conditions as they will protect and lubricate your chain without also acting as a magnet for mud, but can easily be washed off once conditions turn damp.
NOTE – To get the best out of dry lubes, apply one layer to a clean chain, and leave to dry. Then apply another, and leave to dry again.
All-purpose lubes, as the name suggests, are a compromise between wet and dry types and suitable for general mixed conditions or for people who just don’t want to fettle with their bike too much (a general-purpose oil such as 3-in-1 is a typical all-purpose lube). They will lubricate your chain but without the condition-specific advantages outlined above, will require frequent re-application.
NOTE – Remember that it is possible to over-lubricate your chain, with an excess of lube eventually turning into a black, sticky gunk as it attracts particles of dirt. How often to apply lube depends on how much you ride and in what conditions, but if your chain is squeaking or showing evidence of corrosion, it’s due a drink. Meanwhile if it continually gets coated in oily paste, lay off the lube.
Finally – when lubing your bike’s moving parts make sure to keep any lubes or grease well away from the braking surfaces. Any oil or lube on brake pads, rotors or rims will significantly impact on braking performance, especially with disc brakes. If you do spill lube on your braking surfaces, use a degreaser to clean it but be prepared for your brakes to take a while to ‘bed in’ again and get back to normal.
As above, bike grease is generally packed into bearings to keep them rotating smoothly and to stop water getting in, or smeared on bolt threads to stop them from corroding and seizing. Bike grease is pretty standard stuff – regular replacement being the most important thing – although some of the more expensive greases use Teflon particles to reduce friction.
Whatever grease you choose to use, be careful not to over-grease bearings or threads as an excess of grease will attract dirt like a magnet. Wipe off any excess after you are finishing greasing or use a grease gun for more precise application.
As well as the above-outlined categories of general bike lube and grease, there are a number of lubrication products for specific applications/parts, chief among them suspension oil for forks and rear shocks.
This oil is used inside the shock or fork (typically in the fork leg lowers) where it keeps the bushes and seals lubricated for smooth, friction-free operation.
Your suspension oil will become dirty over time and regular replacement will help prolong the life of your fork/shock and improve performance. As with motor oil, suspension oil is characterised according to its viscosity or ‘weight’, with a 5wt oil being thinner and more free-flowing than a 15wt oil. The weight of the oil used in your suspension will also affect characteristics such as rebound damping (thinner oil will flow quicker through the holes in the rebound cartridges, speeding up the rate of rebound, and vice-versa) so many riders regard the type of oil they use as one more factor in the fine-tuning of their suspension performance.
If in doubt on which type of oil to use in your fork or shock, consult your manufacturer’s manual or an online oil chart.
Carbon paste is similar in look and feel to conventional bike grease but is not designed to lubricate or reduce friction – rather, the opposite. A light smear of this paste is used when putting together carbon fibre components (for example a carbon handlebar/stem combo or a carbon seatpost) as it helps to improve grip between the two surfaces. This helps to avoid the risk of over-tightening, which could damage the carbon, and prevent parts from slipping under load.
Bike cleaning fluids are generally divided into two types – degreasers which act to break down and remove old grease and gunk from moving parts prior to reapplication of lube or grease; and general cleaners which are used to bring non-moving parts (frame, wheels etc) up to a nice shine, and which are specially formulated to be kind to modern frame materials such as carbon fibre.
Your chain and other transmission parts (chainrings, cassette, jockey wheels) should be clean before any lubricant is applied. Dried mud can be brushed off with a semi-stiff brush and surface grime removed with a clean, dry cloth. One this is done regularly you should avoid the need to ‘deep clean’ your chain too often – removing the old lube and the dirt it has gathered – but if you do, you will need a degreaser to break up the old, gunky lube/dirt paste, after which it can be rinsed away.
Degreasing liquid is strong stuff so make sure to keep it well away from bearings in the headset, bottom bracket and wheel hubs, and from the disc brake rotors. Do not spray indiscriminately – use a brush or cloth to apply to where it’s needed – chain, chainrings and cassette – leave it to do its job, and clean off. You can use a cloth to clean down a degreased chain, or a hose to rinse it off, but be careful when hosing. Never direct high-pressure washers or hose jets directly at bearings as they can wash out the grease.
Degreasing liquids when used as bike cleaners can damage paintwork and anodizing on frames and parts. Some concentrated products are used neat as transmission degreasers, but are intended to be diluted for use as as general bike cleaners. Look for cleaners that are formulated without the use of sodium hydroxide, other acids or solvents – or at the very least do not leave cleaning on your frame for too long before hosing off.
For chain cleaning you can also buy a special chain cleaning device to make the job easier. This is a small plastic box which fits around the chain and contains a series of rollers and brushes. Fill the tank with degreaser, rotate the chain through the device and the result should be a sparking chain and a box of dirty degreaser to dispose of.
Speaking of disposal – most bike lubes, degreasers and cleaners historically contained nasty ingredients such as heavy metals and chlorine that were harmful to the environment – not nice stuff to be pouring down the drain or depositing in your local stream as you splash through it.
Some still do, but thankfully there are many more manufacturers offering ‘green’ bike lubes and liquids which are made from non-toxic, biodegradable ingredients that protect the environment without compromising performance.