If you don’t know how important it is to keep your bike chain lubricated, your bike is probably not performing to its best. A well-lubed bike chain ensures your bike moves through the motions smoothly.
However, there are a lot of different lube options to choose from. Some established brands have purpose-made bike lube, but there are plenty of other alternatives that will yield excellent results. Here are some of the best, and worst, options you can use for bike chain lube.
Why Use Bike Chain Lube?
Bike chains need lubrication from time to time in order to keep the rust away and reduce friction. Chains are also prone to breaking due to wear and tear, so taking care of them ensure the optimum performance from your bike, as well as reduces the chances of your chain breaking. Purpose-made lubricants range from grease-based lubricants, light oils, spray-based ones, and wax-based lubricants.
When you buy a bike, the original chain comes greased which, if maintained, ensures longevity. However, some of the lubricant options will actually degrade the lubricants.
So, aside from brand bike chain lube, the most common options people opt for include olive oil, household greases, and cooking oil. The main reason being they are all easy to access at home.
Household grease is regularly used in small doses when replacing brakes and gear cables. However, some people also use grease for lubricating their bike chain. Unfortunately, although it does provide some protection, it lacks the fundamental qualities of top-performing bike lube.
Different types of grease are also available, some of which should not be used on your bike at all – for instance, automotive grease. The main problem with using grease on your bike is it risks gunking up the components and actually causing more friction.
If you end up using bike oil and chain lube, use it in small quantities. Don’t be tempted to absolutely coat your chain in it.
Ones to Avoid
While I don’t think either grease or bike oil performs better than proper bike chain lube, they can still work some magic. Other alternatives are less advisory.
For instance, motor oil is used by some but will actually wear away your bike’s components because of its acidity. Similarly, petroleum jelly might look like it would do a good job but it isn’t durable enough to do anything useful.
When your bike is going through the motions, petroleum jelly simply won’t offer any protection, and in wet conditions, it will very quickly disappear.
Elsewhere, cooking oil might provide a tempting option as it’s a common household product, but it’s not suited at all for mechanical parts.
It chemically changes over time, contains too much acidity and doesn’t last long. Cooking oils have no graphite, which is one of the fundamental components of good bike chain lubricants.
Because of this, cooking oils easily degrade and any benefits are short term. Cooking oils, in fact, can attract dust to your chain, which creates more friction.
Both olive oil and coconut oil fall into the same bracket and will have the same challenge. Olive oil is lighter and natural, but it will still degrade quickly and wash away when wet and windy.
So, on the one side, the heavier bike chain lube alternatives of bike oil and grease will offer more protection than alternatives such as cooking oil, which degrades too quickly, but then on the flip side you need to be careful you don’t use too much and end up gunking up your chain.
The Benefits of Bike Chain Lube Alternatives
The main benefit of using an alternative to a purpose-made bike chain lube is the accessibility. Most of the above are common household products, so you can easily find one and be tempted to use them on your chain. For a purpose-made bike chain oil, you obviously need to find one and order it.
The Negatives of Bike Chain Lube Alternatives
As you can tell from the above, there are some negatives when it comes to using bike chain lube alternatives. Purpose-made bike chain lubricant is made to deal with the elements. That includes handling various types of weather, pressure and other external factors.
It’s very hard to know what kind of lube will work best in wet conditions, as well as dry conditions, which does add a risk factor for the alternatives.
Some will attract more dust, meaning more grinding and friction which will result in more wear and year. Some will simply wash straight off. Some will degrade quickly. Some will degrade the original manufacturer’s chain lube. Another factor to consider is that they aren’t specifically made to prevent rust, which is one of the main causes of damage to bike chains.
Equally, although accessible, alternatives aren’t necessarily cheaper. Cooking oils and grease will cost around the same as a purpose-made bike chain lube. You’ll also need to use it more regularly as they degrade faster than a purpose-made bike chain lube, which all adds to the cost.
Using Purpose-made Bike Lube
Purpose-made bike chain lube is specifically designed to ensure your chain moves over the gears well and avoids gunk, rust and corrosion. You can also buy quite specific bike chain lube depending on what type of cycling you are doing.
For example, mountain bikers who ride in tougher, more rugged conditions, would be better off with a specific wet bike chain lube. But for road cyclists off plan on using smooth roads, a dry bike chain lube might be more appropriate.
The dream bike chain lube would be applied like water, but be able to penetrate deep into the chain and components, with a thicker, wax-like element to not attract dirt and prevent rust.
Obviously, that is the dream mix which nothing truly does. Wax-based lubes don’t attract dust or dirt but they don’t last very long. Grease-based lubes penetrate deep into the chain but they attract dirt.
I don’t think anything is better than the purpose-made bike chain lubes available, but some of the options will do the job. Remember, the best lubricants will not only protect and enhance the chain, but also be appropriate for the weather. It should be easily applied and easy to clean up.
Bike chain lube alternatives lack in most of these aspects and will prove expensive and inadequate in the long run, but as a short term fix they do the job.
Founder of Vivi Nation, the cycling, running and active living brand. Chris is a sports enthusiast, occasional triathlete and experienced cyclist, having led multiple cycle tours across Europe.