OIL: FACT VERSUS FRICTION

Michael Stenning weighs the options for winter and early season riding ….

Until recently chain lubes fell into two basic categories - wet, or dry. Then along came the chemists with ever more complex formulas designed to satisfy all tastes and riding contexts. Most are pretty good these days but choosing the correct type is crucial to avoid unnecessary expense/disappointment.

Old School Alchemy, Standbys & Motor Oils  

 

Years back, competitive riders often brewed their own formulas - chain lubes and greases for optimal race day performance. However, they would also think nothing of stripping and rebuilding their machines afterwards.

can relate but recognise this is taking owner involvement to extremes. Cycle specific product was once simply repackaged versions of automotive blends, so a healthy sense of consumer cynicism is perfectly understandable.

10w/40 mineral motor oils designed for relatively simple 8 and earlier 16 valve car engines have long been a favourite - especially in winter. Long-lived, cheap and with decent lubrication properties, it’s easy to recognise their appeal. Read Michael's Motor v Chainsaw Oil Chain Lube Challenge.

Tenacity is certainly on par with some wet, petrochemical brews and they’re both highly toxic to organic life. Immaterial when carving through city streets perhaps, but undesirable for mountain biking or rough stuff touring.

 

They also attract a fair bit of component chewing contaminant-silt, grit, salt and traces of aluminium oxide from alloy rings etc. Less of a concern on fixed/single speeds or internal hub gears, but be prepared to scrub the chain’s outer plates, rings and derailleur cages-weekly, more frequently in bad weather.

Semi/synthetic variants are also perceived as good substitutes since they have to cope with extremes of temperature and contemporary 16Valve petrol/diesel engines work to extremely specific tolerances. Consequently, their oils are impregnated with equally sophisticated detergents designed to wash away combustion deposits and regenerate under oil pump pressure.

 

Bicycle chains don’t feature pumps/gizmos; hence those detergents strip the lubricant properties very quickly. I’ve known the metal on metal symphony to strike within a few hours.

Bicycle Specific Formulas: Longevity v Low Friction

This needn’t be mutually exclusive and distinctions are becoming increasingly blurred. However, there remains a polarity between simple, stodgy “wet” stuff that clings on but demands better housekeeping, or the lighter, low-friction mineral oil/Teflon types. Gun to my head, I prefer something thinner and faster. However, things are increasingly "grey". For example Silkolene's Premium Wet Lube has remained remarkably clean and is part of a range including Dry and Everyday versions. Then of course, there’s a “third way” combining in various mixes oils or synthetic oils with other ingredients, such as Weldtite's TF2 Advanced Ceramic Chain Wax.

 

Miles per application varies; although Btwin Teflon lubricant has amazed me with its longevity-I managed 1,000 miles last summer-admittedly by this stage, it had become a thin grimy patina!

 

Low viscosity (runny) PTFE preps work wonders on cleat mechanisms, pivot points, jockey wheels, trailer hitches and even cables. Wet stuff also doubles as a fairly convincing assembly paste on stem/seatpost/bottle/cantilever bolts and similar fasteners.

Emulsion-esque waxy formulas work to this principle, although contaminant falls away in scabs as you ride. Double or even triple layered, some are very effective in road biased winter rides/commuting contexts. Aside from periodic top-ups they remain dinner-plate clean too. Prepare to reapply more frequently than fluids, mind.

 

Old school maintenance sprays remain something of an institution but PTFE and their solvent carriers aren’t particularly kind to seals, composites and similar materials. Depending on composition, these can also soften hard paste waxes and other welcome barriers.

Hence modern “all surface” types use a slightly refined mixture to counteract this but thin, lubricant films aren’t robust enough for chains. That said; some people use them to flush gunge from wet lubes, or to pep them up.

 

Convenience versions aimed at commuters who want to clean and lubricate their chain in one, rapid hit work reasonably well-to a point. In my experience, most contain a fair bit of propellant and lack the sort of bite needed for harsher weather.

This solvent carrier technology has crept into dribble-on blends too, which tend to involve a curing period between one and four hours; Fine for organised folks who do things overnight but hardly convenient when a friend drops by inviting you out for a Sunday morning blast!

 

There’s compelling argument for keeping just two types- wet for winter, or similarly filthy weather and something friskier for spring, summer and autumn. Wet lube economy is varies a lot, ranging from 230 and 600 miles plus. Bought together, wet and summer weight lubes can give change from £6 whereas some exotica cost considerably more.

Hence modern “all surface” types use a slightly refined mixture to counteract this but thin, lubricant films aren’t robust enough for chains. That said; some people use them to flush gunge from wet lubes, or to pep them up.

 

Convenience versions aimed at commuters who want to clean and lubricate their chain in one, rapid hit work reasonably well-to a point. In my experience, most contain a fair bit of propellant and lack the sort of bite needed for harsher weather.

 

This solvent carrier technology has crept into dribble-on blends too, which tend to involve a curing period between one and four hours; Fine for organised folks who do things overnight but hardly convenient when a friend drops by inviting you out for a Sunday morning blast!

 

There’s compelling argument for keeping just two types - wet for winter, or similarly filthy weather and something friskier for spring, summer and autumn. Wet lube economy is varies a lot, ranging from 230 and 600 miles plus. Bought together, wet and summer weight lubes can give change from £6 whereas some exotica cost considerably more.

Weldtite TF2 Performance All Weather lubricant and Fenwick’s Stealth have also made me sit up and take notice. In many respects, these are two very different blends, the Weldtite comprises of mineral oils, PTFE (Teflon) and other additives.

Fenwick’s by contrast are extremely coy about exact composition and while all new lubes should be fed to clean chains, we’re talking operating theatre sterile in this instance.

 

Unusually, Stealth is metallic grey, applied via a pipet style dropper and only requires a single coat (remembering to wipe away any excess). An hour’s curing time might frustrate those of the pour and go persuasion but cures clear and remains so for several hundred miles.

 

Bio formulas, such as Green Oil's Wet Chain Lube,  eschewing retro-chemicals are another extremely viable option, especially for those who venture further afield and won’t damage delicate finishes, or present a threat to the wider environment. That said; steer clear of household vegetable oils. In the literal sense, they might “work” for a very short period whereupon they’ll become a grungy, gummy rat’s nest.

 

Carbon fibre is now a decidedly mainstream frame material. Wander round the web and within minutes you’ll be convinced it’s vulnerable to every conceivable element and needs regular MRI scans to confirm its integrity. No surprise there’s a wealth of dedicated washes, polishes and lubes.

 

Framesets/forks tend to be painted or sealed under protective lacquer topcoats that offer excellent defence against everyday nasties - spilt derv, dung and residual engine oils being prime examples. Similarly, as with steel, aluminium, titanium etc.; there are different grades/qualities.

 

Regardless of material or finish, sticking to manufacturer guidelines, avoiding unnecessary/prolonged exposure to strong solvents, holding rag beneath the chain when degreasing/re-lubricating renders most issues pretty academic.

Bottom line; I’ve had some extremely positive experiences with carbon-friendly cleaners, polishes and oils but have no qualms about standard petrochemicals where chains are concerned.

 

Within certain parameters and beyond “horses-for-courses”, there’s a fair bit of scope for experimentation. Some products make the transition from other industries surprisingly well, others don’t.

There's no sign of a let-up in development of lubricants promising improved performance in some or all circumstances. Some, like Nasty Lube's Siberian Lube claim special resilience, whilst Smoove's Universal speaks for itself.

The Smoove Universal comes in toward the upper end of the lube price bracket. Similarly, Muc-Off's Hydrodynamic is more costly than most, but has a lot to offer.

Currently under test, Chain L lube makes a virtue of returning to more primitive times. Although distinctly old school, it's currently showing great tenacity and, on a diet of gravel and mucky winter roads, is not proving as mucky as it threatened.

Cautionary Case Studies

 

Back in the late 90’s, there was a quiet movement advocating spurning specialist elastomer greases in favour of 1950’s automotive brews. We were all being “ripped off”. Until of course, those bargain preps ravaged their relatively expensive hosts…Others were known to service Magura Raceline hydraulic brakesets with DOT brake fluid (as distinct from Magura blood, Citroen LM or, in dire emergency- water). Hoses, olives and paintwork…ruined. *On the subject of brakes in particular, do not deviate from recommended grades or manufacturer guidelines. Consult a competent independent dealer if in any doubt as to these, or servicing procedure*

Recaps & General Rules

 

Those who reduce everything to crude economics will find simple 10w/40 engine oils the most long-lived and suitable solution. Not everyone does, hence in my view; it’s worth experimenting with more responsive, bike specific formulas to see what suits. I often apply a drop of waxy/emulsions to derailleur jockey wheels, cleat mechanisms and other metal on metal interfaces, feeding chains something stouter.

 

Avoid mixing two types, since they can have very adverse reactions. Even when sticking to a specific genre of lubricant, always cleanse the chain in solvent thoroughly before introducing another brands’ as their ingredients are sometimes mutually incompatible!

PUBLISHED 2015

UPDATED JANUARY 2019

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