Choosing the right type of chain lube can make a big difference in your ride. It effects everything from noise and cleanliness to efficiency and drivetrain longevity. Everybody who has been around the sport for a while has their preferred type of chain lube but might not even know why that is what they use. Unfortunately a lot of people are getting this decision wrong because it is based on their local bike shop mechanic’s opinion that was passed down from another mechanic, rather than based on any kind of research or technology. We will dive into where we think each type of lubricant belongs and the benefits and drawbacks of them.
Dry Chain Lube
Dry lube has long been a favorite recommendation for riding in dry conditions because it is “cleaner” than other options. Dry lube is perfect for the garbage can and just about nowhere else. Dry lube picks up less dirt that a wet lube because it is typically 90%+ carrier and less than 10% lubricant. Even then the lubricant is typically not great. It is often just PTFE powder that is hopefully left on the chain. You can read more about our thoughts on PFAS chemicals like PTFE on our blog.
This “clean” ride is really because once all that carrier flashes away, there is virtually zero lubricant on the chain, so you are getting an awful lot of metal-on-metal friction. This leads to premature wear, short longevity, it is loud, and extremely poor performance in friction testing. Dry Lube has no place in cycling and the cleanliness promised can be had in much better ways.
Wet Chain Lube
Wet lube has long been recommended by your local bike shop for when you ride in wet conditions, hence the name. It is the best oil-based option out there. Wet lubes are not all created equal and can range from a low-quality oil with PTFE powder all the way to high quality synthetic oils with some of the lowest friction additives known on the planet and everywhere in between. If you want to see some of our head to head tests, you can check out our Chain Lube Shootouts.
The benefits of using an oil-based lube are that you can simply drip in on the chain, wipe off excess, and go ride. The cleaner the better, but there is no need to do any in depth cleaning and you can get a lot of riding between application cycles. The downside of oil-based lubes is that it attracts dirt. Dirt will stick to oil (no matter what a marketing department tells you) and will ultimately turn that oil into a grinding paste of sand, dirt, and oil.
Wet lube is the perfect option if you are going to regularly ride in the rain and don’t want to spend a ton of time cleaning after. You can simply wipe down the chain with a bit of degreaser and re-lube after a wet ride. It is also a good option for somebody who doesn’t want to mess with the cleaning process required for wax.
Melting down paraffin wax has been around for quite a long time but has always been looked at looked at as way too much work for no real gain. A recipe was published by a major media outlet some time ago and a company was born. There was still not much of an adoption outside of some really dedicated cyclists because the barrier to entry was cleaning and removing the chain from the bike. It wasn’t until the last couple of years that more independent testing of chain lubes came out and highlighted how much faster wax was than any other option we had.
We knew here at SILCA that we had a formula that would be even faster than what was out there, and we had customers asking us to release the hot melt wax version of our SuperSecret Chain Lube, so we did. We knew it was great at reducing friction and keeping the chain clean, but we were surprised how many other people would be willing to clean their chain to a necessary level. Hot Wax is the best lubricant for an hour record which says it is the absolute lowest friction option when there is no contaminant present. It is also great for dirty conditions as the additional wax on the chain will flake off and bring that dirt with it, so it stays clean for a very long time. This eliminates the grinding paste that you can get with oil-based lubes.
While hot wax is certainly the preferred lubricant in almost every single scenario, it isn’t without some downsides as well. The biggest one is the cleaning process. Removing the chain and multiple baths of harsh chemicals are required to strip the chain then you must melt the wax and dip the chain. Previously you would have to have a dedicated slow cooker to melt the wax and SILCA has overcome that with a Sous-vide bag that allows you to melt the wax repeatedly without having a dedicated kitchen appliance, but the cleaning has still been a hesitation point for some.
Cleaning is often looked at as a barrier to wax or downside, but after the initial cleaning it is very much a positive. Ride on a dusty trail with oil and it will take a ton of work to get the chain clean, but with wax all you need to do is wipe with a clean rag. It might not even need to have more lubricant applied since you didn’t have to remove the lubricant to clean the dirt off the chain. This is a huge plus in our opinion and very much worth the little extra effort up front. That up front work is something we are working on as well, so stay tuned!
With the rise of these ultra-endurance events, we are getting a lot of questions about relubing a chain in the middle of an event. If you have an extremely dirty 200-mile ride wax will struggle to make it the entire distance. Some will recommend applying our next type of lubricant with emulsified wax, but we recommend applying a wet lube over wax because the emulsifiers in drip wax can bring any remaining wax out of the chain and make any issues you are having worse. This longevity is probably a downside for some ultra-endurance athletes, but we think the efficiency advantages are certainly worth applying a new lubricant if that is needed.
The other downside of wax is that it doesn’t get along with water all that well. Since there is no oil to repel water from the metal, it can lead to rust if you ride in the rain and leave the bike overnight. A waxed chain needs to be cleaned post ride if there is much water then re-lubed. You can clean it off with a gear wipe or clean rag, then drop it back in your hot wax or use an emulsified wax like we will touch on below.
Drip wax is a new category as something that we would recommend. SILCA was the first company to be tested by independent testing company, Zero Friction Cycling, to be able to successfully penetrate the chain to prevent friction. This opened a whole new world and now there are a few different options for riders who want to drip wax on their chain.
The benefit of drip wax is that you get most of the cleanliness of a hot melt wax without having to take the chain off your bike for application. It is extremely low friction when done correctly and keeps your chain extremely quiet. It is also perfect for riders using hot melt wax to top up their chain between hot melt applications.
The downsides of drip wax are that they aren’t quite as clean as hot melt, not as quiet, and still requires an intense cleaning, and you still have the slight issue with water. In our opinion these are small downsides for the benefits of lower friction, cleaner drivetrain, and the silence on the bike, but they are certainly worth noting.
Chain lubrication is certainly a rapidly evolving topic that we are looking at differently than we did 10 or 15 years ago. We are certainly fans of wax here at SILCA and would recommend it for almost every application and are working hard to continue developing new formulas that are better and better than we have ever seen before.