AMB's great chain lube test put seven lubes to the test.
As much as our bikes change, they stay the same. We're still using cranks to turn a chainring, which turns a chain that drives a number of sprockets in the back. This is an exposed system, and one that requires lubrication – and clean lubrication to prolong the life and performance of the products. Given a new chain, chain ring and cassette could set you back up to $1000 on a top spec group set – getting the right chain lube for your conditions, your riding and your maintenance know how can really make a difference.
Our chain lube test:
We don't have an AMB lab, and nothing here was done in a controlled environment or in triplicate. We used 7 brand new Shimano M7100 chains, all but one were completely degreased, dried, then cleaned in methylated spirits and dried again. Manufacturer's specifications were followed for application, and reapplication if necessary. Each chain was tested on a clean Shimano 12-speed drivetrain across summer in south-east Queensland. The aim was to get to about 20 hours where possible, but this is nowhere near enough to test wear. Just application, use and reapplication – and how user friendly that all is. So data? That needs an expert.
Introducing Zero Friction Cycling:
While using the right chain lube is important, it's not exciting. Unless you're Adam Kerin, from Zero Friction Cycling. Adam has made a name for himself with a test lab and protocols devised to test chain lubricants and their mechanical efficiency, as well as their wear rates. He tests in clean environments, and dirty ones, for thousands of kilometres. His test rigs use smart trainers, motors and gearboxes to get the kilometres done in a repeatable and consistent manner. He's recently gone past 300,000 kilometres of testing. But... why?
“Just about every bottle of lube you pick up will claim it repels grime and cleans as it lubes,” said Adam when I contacted him about this feature. They can't all be magic, and as a committed cyclist Adam was always interested to know where the truth lay behind performance claims. Recently, chain lube options have improved dramatically.
“There have been a lot of high profile, next generation lubricants released in the past 12 months. We have some choices now that we might not have had even 18 months ago,” explains Adam. His lab runs tests for many global brands who want to get hard data on wear rates and friction – and benchmark themselves against their perceived competitors.
For you and I, using a good chain lube is imperative for efficiency and reduced wear. There might be less time maintaining your bike with the right choice, and certainly a large saving of money as well.
“The chain is responsible for the lifespan of the rest of your drivetrain,” explains Adam. “Some people don't realise how much money they can save by making a good lubricant choice, and following the maintenance for that lubricant.” Adam has done his own calculations based on typical ride times, “the cost to run per year difference is quite enormous. It can be well past $1000.” And he points out, that could be a new wheel set or riding holiday instead – just by using the right chain lube.
The question of chain waxing:
Adam is a fan of chain waxing, where you remove your chain and cook it in wax to coat it with a low friction wax. It sounds like a lot of bother, but after seeing it done in late 2020 to test the Silca Secret Wax – it's not that involved, and it worked really well.
“One of the biggest myths out there is that immersive waxing is difficult. It's just different. You spend time at the front end, but not at the back end. Every time the chain comes out of the wax pot it looks brand new.” Additionally, any grime that has penetrated is gone, so you've reset any contamination issues. Using wax tends to let your cassette and rings run clean, cleaning is as simple as melting wax with boiling water. There's no harsh (or expensive) cleaning products required.
“For most people, a re-wax is four minutes of labour time, on average. But we see 2-3 times the lifespan for a chain and drivetrain.” Of course there is some time in there waiting for the slow cooker to do the work, and you do need a dedicated workspace. But it's a good point – the time spent hands on is minimal.
Adam is a wealth of passionate knowledge on chain lubrication and maintenance, and if you want to find out more, and see the data he has collected, head to his website: zerofrictioncycling.com.au
Type: Water based wax emulsion
- Easy application
- Long lasting
- Runs fairly clean
- Build up on teeth
- A full clean is involved
Squirt has been very popular due to a long running life and the ability to keep lubricating your chain, and letting the wax build up. The dirt is said to shed off. Like Smoove you need to apply to a thoroughly clean chain and let it dry before use after letting it seep in with backpedalling. It sets up nice and clean, and ran smoothly and quietly for 21 hours of trail time – way longer than expected.
Topping up was good to extend the use, but the drivetrain did progressively get dirtier. Partly on the chain, mostly on the chain ring and jockey wheels. A full chain clean should be done off the bike if you want a good reapplication.
Silca Secret Chain Blend – Hot Melt Wax:
Type: Hot melt wax, drip and immersion
RRP: $79.95 – for Hot Melt Wax
- Super clean running
- Good lubrication life
- Application options
- Very fast to clean
- Moderately pricey
- No added corrosion resistance
Silca's Secret Chain Blend could be one of the most versatile products in this mix, as you can get the wax to melt into your chain, a tub to immerse it in, or a drip lube option. We tested the hot wax application, with the drip lube for top up.
After the initial application the chain looked amazing with none of the build up of wax that some waxed chains have. It ran smoothly and silently, repelling dust. After about 17 hours of trail time it was clearly very dry, and a wipe down and drip application had it going again, albeit not quite as clean as the hot wax, and it ran for a further 8 hours. A final clean up with boiling water in a dish had the chain completely clean very quickly.
The initial waxing does need some specific application but this chain lubricant ran the cleanest of the lot, however light surface corrosion did occur on the outer plates of the test chain. The immersion tub ($115.95) is going on our request list, as it will let the lubricant penetrate thoroughly, without the need for melting wax and the equipment involved.
Type: Water based wax emulsion
RRP: $24.99 (125mL)
- Very good value
- Long run time
- Very clean
- Good penetration
- Day before prep
- Thorough clean up is best
Smoove is popular due to longevity and running really clean. It has a high viscosity (it's thick) and needs to be applied in advance, so it can penetrate and set. You don't need to wipe excess off. This one did run cleanly and quietly for 23 hours before a reapplication was needed.
A quick top up afterwards was ok, but best results will be achieved with a full chain clean and reapplication, Zero Friction Cycling has a huge resource online for optimising this. Based on longevity and the ability to top up to an extent, this one would suit those wanting a long use window from each application. It's easy to use and great value, but to make it truly great the application and clean up can get pretty involved.
Ride Mechanic Bike Mix:
Type: Drip lube
RRP: $19.95 (185mL)
- Easy application
- Cleans and lubes
- Australian made
- Runs quite clean
- Doesn't last as long as some
- Can attract build up
Ride Mechanic is an Australian brand, and as such their product range works well in our conditions. Bike Mix is their mid-weight lube designed for endurance mountain biking. The lubricant is mixed with a solvent, so on application the solvent penetrates into the links very well. It needs to be pedalled in and left. The solvent will also help flush contaminants out on re-application.
We got 13 hours trail time on this, just over the stated 12 hours use, and a reapplication and wipe off of excess had the bike running nicely again. While the chain itself does run quite cleanly, the chain ring and jockey wheels do build up over time with repeated reapplication. A thorough degrease is recommended after a few applications. For heavier duty use and wet environments (hello e-bikers, hello Tasmania!) try their Bike Syrup.
Weldtite Dry Wax:
Type: Drip feed dry wax emulsion
RRP: $15.99 (100mL)
- Easy application
- Easy re-application
- Runs quite clean
- Not the longest lasting
I didn't taste any of the chain lubes but this one is vanilla. It has no wild promises and no big surprises. While application suggests coating each side, it does set up in a similar way to Squirt and Smoove, although a little less viscous.
The Weldtite lube ran very cleanly for about 8 hours of trail time before it needed a top up, but two of those rides finished with extended fast, rainy road descents – perfect for washing chain lube off! It is still a light lube and one that is recommended to apply regularly and remove excess. There has been mild build up on drivetrain parts, but in general it's a slightly lighter wax emulsion that suits more frequent application and dry conditions for a nice and clean drivetrain.
Type: Hot melt wax
- Runs very quietly, feels fast!
- Easy wax to 'break'
- Very fast clean up
- Shorter run time than expected
- Some build up
After their GraphenLube in 2020, AbsoluteBlack have launched their chain wax. It is said to be a cleaner looking option to the GraphenLube, and after melting some down to apply, I agree. It runs a lot cleaner, although not as clean as the Silca wax. The chain is very pliable after the wax has set, and shifting through the gears it feels great!
While GrahpenLube lasted for ages, I only ever got 4-6 hours from the wax. It's very quick to clean up by dropping the chain in a dish of boiling water. The application does involve a fair amount of agitation during the process, so it's not as fast as some waxes. You can drip feed the GraphenLube on instead for a longer run time. There was some build up on the drivetrain after 2 reapplications, but it was easy to clean off. It's claimed you can get over 60 applications from the wax.
Shimano Factory Grease:
Type: Factory Grease
- Comes on your chain
- Easy setup
- Corrosion resistance
- Can attract grime
The elephant in the room – what's wrong with the grease that comes on a new chain? Essentially, it's there to protect the chain from corrosion after production. It's a thick lubricant, and one that can attract dust and grime quite quickly.
This ran really nicely for the first few rides, about 7 hours. It did start to get pretty dirty after that, including on the outer plates. This increased after a couple of wet rides, although it didn't sound dry. This suggests the thicker lubricant keeps working, but is at that point contaminated with trail grime that the lubricant has attracted. Zero Friction Cycling claim it dramatically reduces chain and drivetrain life due to this.
Is there a perfect chain lube? Who knows – this is a small snap shot of what's on the market. However this is an indication of the types of chain lube available. The hot wax melts really did feel incredible on the bike, and while the clean up is fast, it does require removal of your chain, boiling water, and of course hot wax for reapplication. If you don't have a dedicated space for bikes, it's likely to be hard. Factor in investing in re-usable quick links as well, as stock SRAM and Shimano quick links are single use.
The drip feed wax emulsions are easy to get along with, but to get the most out of them you need to be very thorough with your chain cleaning and preparation – and then you'll get incredible run times. For ease of use I really liked the Bike Mix and Weldtite Dry Wax. And if you're the kind of rider who likes to do a little maintenance more often, this could be a good place to start. These are similar to popular lubes like Rock'n'Roll Gold.
Keen on some standalone chain lube reviews? See below:
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