CHEAP AS CHIPS CHAIN LUBES? MYTH OR MAGIC?

Motor oil is commonly touted as THE thrifty riders’ chain lube of choice. Indeed, some pro team mechanics used to recommend it for winter bikes. 10w/40 was a staple for Michael’s winter/training bike, during his university years. Other riders have a favourite year-round bike tipple but want a hell ‘n’ high water “Oh sh*t I’ve just run out” standby.

We’ve known a few super-tight tourists, scrounge it from garage forecourt bins. If you must go this far, have the sense (and courtesy) to ask the owner first.

Please note, we aren't saying that these are a first choice compared to cycle specific lubes. We are just curious to see how things turned out and if they are viable if push comes to shove.

Conditions

So, with autumn giving way to winter, we thought it was high time he revisited two favourites, to see if they really were credible, “in a pinch” alternatives to bike specific wet lubes.

 

There are other options (including gearbox oil) and some folks swear by mixing these with solvents, for a cleaner running, four season, middleweight potion. However, we’ve gone strictly off-the-shelf. Besides, these would be the most likely choices, mid tour/big ride.

Motor Oil

Motor oils are an old favourite but not all are suitable substitute chain lubes. As modern car engines have become increasingly sophisticated, so have their lubricants. Many fully synthetic blends are fortified with equally complex detergents. 

These are designed to keep the engine clean and are regenerated within the oil pump. Being as bicycles don’t have oil pumps, these cleansing chemicals will simply strip the lubricant. Some chains have only hit 35 miles or so, before that faint tinkling strikes.

Other fully synthetic types, such as two-stroke motorcycle oils, can also prove a lottery.

Oils are a dissertation sized topic to themselves, so I’ll keep things simple.10w/40 is a relatively stocky formula and basic blends are cheap as the proverbial portion of chips. 5w/40 semi synthetic counterparts have a slightly faster flow rate. 4 litres will typically give change from a fiver. 

Chainsaw Oil

Chainsaw bar oil is another, popular budget conscious alternative, to bike specific formulas. On paper, it’s easy to see why. Chainsaws idle at 2,500rpm, so lubricant needs to be relatively thick and sticky.

Testing

I was interested in seeing just how many late autumn/winter miles, we could get from a single application of basic motor and chainsaw oils. Similarly, their pros/cons, compared with bike specific wet formulas.

 

How much contaminant did it collect? How frequently did we need to clean the side plates, jockey wheels etc and ultimately, what was the (approximate) cost per application?

In both instances, test bike’s transmissions were thoroughly stripped of any pre-existing lubricant.

5w/40 Motor Oil

Pros: Miserley cheap, ubiquitous-can be found anywhere, good staying prowess.

Cons: Very messy, attracts dirt and similar transmission chomping contaminant.

I had a budget brand's 4 litre bottle sitting at the back of my garage, which seemed an obvious choice. The viscosity also makes an ideal base for my home brewed internal frame preserves. I decanted 60ml into an empty bicycle chain lube “dropper” bottle.

Tested between November and late December, a single 10ml application was delivered to my Univega’s electroplated 9spd chain and fixed gear winter trainer’s stainless steel KMC Z1X  Inox chain.

Cleanliness

Purging the side plates of excess lubricant required three attempts. 80 miles later, the outer plates had once again, cultivated that familiar grimy, contaminated beard. 

Cleaning these and jockey wheels was a weekly ritual, for four weeks. Messier than, but similar ritual to, bike specific wet lubes, including Weldtite TF2 Extreme Wet chain lubricant and Nasty Lube Siberian chain lube.

 

Lubrication/Staying Prowess

From the first few pedal strokes, both chains felt super slick, stopping short of syrupy. The song remained consistent, at least on traditional, electroplated chains.  As the miles racked up, the cassette cultivated a relatively thick, congealed, gungy layer. 

Embedded grit, straw and similar contaminant was dismissed, weekly, with a cassette comb. The remainder reclaimed by the chain, with regular shifting. Given the changeable conditions, I reckoned 550 miles. 

Vastly superior to more basic Mineral oil/PTFE blends but less durable than some high-tech ceramics, including Muc-Off's Hydrodynamic. By 400 miles, the chain was looking parched, but a filmy layer kept it taint, and tinkle free, for another 80 miles. 480 miles, all told.

By contrast and despite this tenacity, it was no match for the shiny, slippery texture of my fixed’s KMC Z1X. The first fortnight (160 miles) staying prowess was looking favourable and aside from giving the fixed sprocket a quick cat-lick, maintenance was negligible.

However, in similar conditions, lube was progressively channelled to the side plates.  all lubricant was spent. On paper, very poor compared with a lubricant such as TF2 Extreme Wet, yet still superior to the bog- standard mineral oil/PTFE types. This signalled chain replacement and a switch to the chainsaw oil.

With chains and cassettes clinically stripped, using Green Oil Chain Degreaser Jelly  and Crankalicious Gumchained Remedy.

Chainsaw Oil

Pros: Closest to bike specific wet blends in terms of characteristics and staying prowess. 

Cons: Needs to be applied very sparingly.

This was more tenacious, and sticky … the consistency mimicked that of White Lightning Wet Ride and Weldtite TF2 extreme wet, although honey coloured. Initial clean up (having rotated the cranks several times) was pretty involved.

Three attempts later, I’d wiped the side-plates (not to mention, chainstays) clean enough for riding. Start to finish, re-lubricating and clean up, took 15 minutes. Less convenient than some, if you’re running late for work. 

Lubrication/Staying Prowess

The chainsaw oil took marginally longer to penetrate the links. Especially those on my fixed gear winter/trainer’s galvanised chain. Nonetheless, from the first few pedal strokes, both felt slick and well lubricated.

Galvanised chains tend to run a little rougher than electroplated models, due to the zinc coating. The chainsaw oil closely matched that of Weldtite TF2 Extreme Wet, in terms of viscosity. Even under load-accelerating, climbing or slowing, the chain felt more refined, and silent.

This remained so, for the duration of testing and, for the most part, I couldn’t differentiate between this, and the bike specific blends. Durability impressed, and I wasn’t surprised to find it eclipsed the motor oil.

I returned 520 mixed terrain miles, on my Univega through late December and January-from a single application. Much the same story for my fixed gear winter/trainer. However, by the 500mile point, it’s galvanised chain was looking decidedly parched.

It’s worth noting that I have frequently washed, the bikes, during this period.

Cleanliness

To my surprise, accumulated contaminant has been modest. On par with, if not less than Weldtite TF2 Extreme Wet and Finish Line Cross Country Wet. This despite predominantly tackling, lonely backroads, caked in a seasonal, greasy carpet of dung and slurry. Provided you’re meticulous in removing the excess, tell-tale side-plate or chain ring prints were a moot point; but I’d still be extra careful, if scooting to work/other formal contexts in smart trousers. 

Scores on the Doors

If the queen attends the opening of your wallet, then the 5w/40 has a definite edge. Even though it didn’t return the same miles per application, in comparable conditions. A single helping of bargain basement motor oil cost 1.5pence per 480 miles (based on a full 4 litre bottle and seasonal conditions), whereas the chainsaw oil worked out at 6p per application. Obviously, I haven’t been cruising through snowy, slushy roads.

Post-delivery clean ups aside, chainsaw oil was also, to my surprise, less seductive to grit and similar contaminant. A moot point, on the fixed, but my Univega’s side-plates needed quick, weekly cat-licks to remove accumulated, cassette chewing grot.

No more time consuming than the extremely stoical bike specific blends discussed.  Since we’re talking money, it’s worth noting that direct price comparisons, with bike lubes are a bit skewed. Aside from pro teams, most of us aren’t buying chain lube in litres, where the economies of scale, work their magic.

Conclusion

There is a lot more to lubricants, than price alone. We like bike specific formulas, since they are task specific and generally deliver. Some are also much kinder to user and environment alike. The purpose of this experiment was to test some old folklore. Big tour, and out of lube, miles from a bike shop, what’s your best bet … night before a big ride and you’ve run out of lube ....

PUBLISHED JANUARY 2019

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