Why are there so many different types of chain lube?

What’s the difference? When should you use what? Is there any real difference anyway? Is any lube better than no lube at all?

juice lube range

Lubricating your chain used to be a simple affair. You went to a bike shop and bought whatever brand of brown Fairy Liquid-style oil that they sold. Your chain went black and your drivetrain went sluggish and draggy. That’s just the way it was.

Wet versus dry

Then at some point in the late 20th century we took a big step forward and introduced a bit of choice. Okay so it was a choice of two – wet lube or dry lube – but at least it was something.

The choice was pretty self-explanatory. You used dry lube when it was dry weather. You used wet lube when it was wet. Well, in the real (UK) world most people just stuck with wet lube for everything and put up with permanent black chain syndrome.

Wet lube

Wet lube is thick and resistant to being washed or splashed off. But consequently it can also act a bit like glue and keep hold of grime and dirt. It can actually cause premature wear and tear on your drivetrain because it holds this grit and grime so tenaciously.

It’s tempting to use it all the time because it doesn’t need re-applying as obviously but the reality is it makes your gears perform poorly and wears out your bits quicker.

Wet lube really should only be used for proper wet and winter conditions.

Strengths: won’t wash off in very moist conditions.
Weaknesses: impairs drivetrain performance and causes premature wear.

Dry lube

A lot of people don’t trust dry lube. How can something so watery possibly be any good? Dry lube works by penetrating into things extremely well.

Contrary to what a lot of people assume, it’s not the outer plates of your chain that need lube the most. It’s the pins, rollers and the inner faces of the link plates that need the lube most. As derailleurs get better and better this is more true than ever; shifting doesn’t need much assistance from lube when moving the chain from sprocket to sprocket so much these days.

Dry lube should be used a lot more and by a lot more people. A good tip is to sort yourself a small dropper bottle and take some lube out with you on longer rides just in case.

Dry lube needs to be applied to a cleaned, de-greased and dried chain. Which is more faff than a wet lube but pays dividends.

Strengths: keeps the lube where it’s needed most and doesn’t attract grime.
Weaknesses: gets washed off if exposed to prolonged bouts of water.

Wax, ceramic and secret stuff

The turn of the millennium saw cycling technology go through the roof. Loads of different niches started up. Lots more people were riding bikes. People began to be a bit more demanding and specific about their riding.

The lube market was no exception to this boom. Every few years the men in white coats formulate another new wonder fluid in their labs that promises to solve all of our oiling woes.

Wax lube

Sometime around the turn of the century wax lubes were the new thing. It was something of an American phenomenon that never caught on much over on this side of the pond.

Its strength is in durability on really long rides in dry conditions. It’s a bit quieter and longer lasting than a dry lube. Some riders swear by it and it works for you then that’s great. These days ceramic based lubes have sort of stolen some of its thunder.

Strengths: stays quiet and effective on long, hot rides.
Weaknesses: long hot rides are a bit of rarity in the UK!

Ceramic lube

Ceramic lube is kinda like a next generation dry lube. It penetrates very well and it coats pretty well too. It’s generally a bit more expensive (the cost of new technology) but it offers a quieter ride and also helps keep shifting smooth.

Now then, I know we just said that shifting doesn’t need much assistance from lube these days and that it generally true. BUT if you’re doing a lot of shifting or a lot of panic shifting or clumsy shifting – ceramic lube might be for you. Rolling terrain riders or crit racers will appreciate the qualities of ceramic lube.

Ceramic lube is a bit more resistant to being washed off than trad dry lube so it is becoming a popular choice for UK road riders and racers.

Strengths: quiet, clean, helps keep shifts sweet.
Weaknesses: price tag, can be washed off in filthy wet conditions.

Advanced lubes

‘Advanced’ is just a term that we’ve come up with. It refers to the very latest breed of chain lubes that claim to be excellent all rounders. They all seem to have funny, weird names that don’t really explain what the product is for (I guess they still need to sell their other existing lubes right?). ‘All conditions lube‘ would be a good name for them though really.

What’s in them is a closely guarded secret. All we can say is that general consistency is a liquid that’s thicker than dry lube but nowhere near the viscosity of a wet lube. It’s a dry lube that doesn’t wash away or start to squeal.

Perhaps the biggest market for these types of lube are mountain bikers and winter road riders. These riders don’t want messy, draggy, black drivetrains but they do want the practicality of a do-it-all fit-and-forget lube. And they’re prepared to pay a bit more for it.

You also have to apply quite a lot of it (3 or 4 coats with a couple of minutes wait between coats) and it works best if you do it after you finish a ride (rather than before you start one).

Strengths: one lube to rule them all at last?
Weaknesses: cost, bit faffy, still a smidge more dirt-clingy than a dry lube.

Is any lube better than no lube?

Pretty much. But if you put some manky old lube on your chain and go for a ride you must clean, de-grease and dry it out before putting a proper lube on for next time.

Shop for bike lubes and fluids on Merlin Cycles

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One Comment
  1. I use muc-off ceramic , like you said it takes an age to clean the chain realy well , then once you’ve cleaned and lubed your chain its best left over night to let it set , to say the gear changes are slick after the faff is an understatement …… well worth it though 🙂

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