Whether you’re a beginner or you’ve been cycling for years, you’re probably aware that lubricating your bicycle chains is a common maintenance task. But, is bike chain lube really necessary?
Bike chain lube is essential for a number of reasons: it reduces friction in your drivetrain components, reduces dirt and grime buildup and prevents rust and wear. It also lubes every other component your chain comes in contact with (the chainring, cassette and derailleur) to keep them all running smoothly.
This really just scratches the surface of the bike chain lube debate, so I’m going to jump straight into more details below.
If you’re skeptical of the benefits of chain lube, then you’ll want to pay special attention to my section on WHY bike chain lube is important.
Let’s get started!
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Can You Ride a Bike without Chain Lube?
Technically, you can ride a bike without chain lube. You can also ride one without tires, brakes or a seat. Just because you can, doesn’t mean it’s a great idea.
So yes, a bike will usually still function, even if you haven’t lubed the chain. BUT, if you continuously ride without chain lube, you could be causing long-term damage to your bike’s components.
With that said, let’s take a closer look at what that lubrication is actually doing for your bike.
Why Bike Chain Lube is Important
1. It Reduces Friction
Lubrication’s main purpose is to reduce friction. Anywhere metal comes into contact with metal on your bike, you want to apply some form of lubricant to keep things running smoothly. The drivetrain is one such place, and probably the place that generates the most friction and heat.
In this case, we’re talking specifically about the friction that’s generated between your chain and the rest of the drivetrain. Excess friction causes poor shifting performance, which negatively impacts ride quality. Friction also causes heat buildup, which increases the stress placed on your chain.
A properly lubed chain minimizes the effects of friction and heat on your drivetrain.
2. It Prevents Dirt Buildup
Aside from reducing friction, the other main role of chain lube is to keep dirt and grime from building up in your drivetrain. No matter the riding conditions, it’s inevitable that your drivetrain will get dirty. Chain lube attracts that debris and then flakes off of your chain, carrying the grime with it. This keeps your chain and drivetrain clean so they can work as intended.
3. It Prevents Rust and Wear
When your bike’s metal components are exposed to moisture and oxygen (so pretty much anytime you’re outside), there’s a potential for rust to form. Rust can ruin the structural integrity of these components and cause them to wear much faster.
Lube blocks oxygen and moisture from corroding your chain. A bike chain properly coated in lubricant will resist rust better.
4. It Lubricates the Whole Drivetrain
Chain lube doesn’t just benefit the chain…it benefits every other component that makes up the drivetrain. A lubed chain “shares the wealth,” coating the other components in lube as well. This aids in keeping them all interacting smoothly, improves shifting performance, and prevents rust and wear.
Is Bike Chain Lube a Waste of Money?
By now it should be clear that bike lube is an essential component of your maintenance kit.
Chain lube is also inexpensive and can actually save you a lot of money in the long-run, by extending the life of your bicycle’s components. Most chain lubes can be purchased for $10-15 per bottle…and these bottles last quite a while, even if you live in a climate where you can ride all year.
In case you need further convincing that $10-15 is a small investment, let’s look at the average prices of your drivetrain’s components.
A new bike chain starts at roughly $30 for a base model and can get up around $100 depending on how well you want it to perform.
An entry-level cassette costs about $100 (depending on the number of gears), but many come in at $200-400 or more!
The average derailleur is about $150-200: a mid-range model for a 12-speed bike (one of the most common gearing options these days) will set you back a few hundred at least.
Chain lube isn’t a miracle worker: it won’t save these parts from catastrophe should you have a crash, but it can prevent them from wearing out and getting rusty before their time is up. Seeing how a whole new drivetrain is incredibly expensive, a $10 bottle of lube isn’t looking so bad now, is it?
Alternatives to Bike Chain Lube
Maybe you were an anti-chain luber before reading this article and now you’ve seen the light. Or maybe your bottle of lube just ran out, but you have a ride with some friends tomorrow and don’t have time to get more. What a dilemma!
You probably have a lot of other lubes, greases and oils in the garage or around the house…can you use any of them in place of bike chain lube in the meantime?
Possibly, but it depends on what you have: not just any old lube will do the job properly. For a detailed look at some of the most common types of lube you may have on hand and whether they’re appropriate for a bike chain, check out our analysis of 9 Bike Chain Lube Alternatives.
How to Tell if Your Bike Chain Needs Lube
So how often should you lube your chain? Does it need to be done on a regular basis, or only when your chain starts to look like it needs it (and how do you even tell)?
It depends on two main factors: how frequently you ride, and the conditions in which you ride.
The more often you ride, the more often you should be applying lube. Chain lube is a consumable good: the more it has to work, the faster it will be depleted.
As a general rule of thumb, you want to reapply lube after every few rides. So if you ride a few times a week, that would be once a week. If your rides are limited to one day each weekend, then you can probably go a few weeks in between applications.
If you mostly ride in dry conditions, you won’t need to apply lube as often as if your local roads or trails are wet and muddy. If conditions are especially poor, you may be cleaning your drivetrain and reapplying lube after every ride.
These guidelines are a great place to start, but if you ever notice your shifting loses its crispness in between applications, a little extra lube won’t hurt. And it may solve your shifting issue before you consider replacing those expensive drivetrain components.
Tips for Applying Chain Lube
No matter how frequently you decide to apply lube, here are some tips for doing it most effectively.
First, lubricant needs time to set before it’s actually effective at doing its job. Applying lube right before your ride is like washing a dish before you use it: it doesn’t make much sense! Apply lube after your ride, so it can set and be ready to go before your next adventure.
Second, always thoroughly clean your chain and drivetrain before applying lube. Lube is meant to prevent your chain from getting dirty…but it can’t get rid of the dirt that’s already there. Adding lube to a dirty chain will just create a goopy mess and make your drivetrain function worse, not better.
Third, apply a drop of lube to the inside of each chain link (the side that touches the cassette and chainring), not the outside. This is something I think is often overlooked, but it makes perfect sense. If you want chain lube to provide a smooth ride, it needs to come in contact with the other drivetrain components.
Finally, a little lube goes a long way. You don’t want to over-apply, because excess lube will collect excess dirt and grime. Just like applying lube to a dirty chain, over-applying will prevent your drivetrain from functioning the way you want it to.
Check out the video below for a guide to applying lube the right way so you can maximize your drivetrain’s performance every time you ride!