The Great Lubrication Debate

Once again the cold, wet and possibly snowy months are upon us and that leads to the great cycling debate, wet or dry lube? There seems a very obvious answer but dig a little deeper and you may start to question the very fabric of gained lubrication knowledge.

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As we know, weather conditions at this time of year can lead to vast quantities of salt, known locally as grit, being added to our roads. Not only does this substance cause a detrimental degradation of components but it also tests the properties of your chosen lubrication to the limits. As morning frost starts to thaw or snow slowly melts, salt combines with surface water leaving puddles of ‘salty sludge’, combine this with the grime and contaminants naturally found on every road surface across the UK and you have a solution that will break down the hardiest of lubes. Of course there are a few precautions that can help eliminate some of the problem, fitting mudguards will help keep the drivetrain getting saturated but it won’t stop the problem completely.

Rusty Bike Chain

The main issue with drivetrain contamination is rust; chains are manufactured from steel and therefore prone to rusting, even in light drizzle. Hopefully you are now getting an idea of how much more corrosion is caused when you bring additional elements into the equation. This is where lubrication comes in, a good lube will not only eliminate friction between metal to metal surfaces but it will also provide a barrier between the chain and grime picked up on your winter cycle.

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At this point you are probably thinking what more is there to know, just go out and buy a good wet lube. Is it really that simple? Well no actually. There are a plethora of lubrications available, not only wet and dry but wax based, ceramic variants and everything in-between. Wet and dry lubes have a very different composition, the viscosity increases substantially with wet lube. Have I lost you yet? Basically a wet lube will be much thicker and stickier than a dry lube, why is this a bad thing? Let me ask you, what colour is your chain? Unless you degrease and re-lube on a regular basis my guess would be black. A fundamental problem with all wet lubes is that the lubricant attracts dirt, grim and pretty much everything that gets left on the road. This in turn gets stuck to the tacky lube, deposited between the plates and eventually covers the entire chain in a black, wax-like crud. So yes, initially there will be a little more protection for the chain and the lube by its nature will stay on longer but the detrimental effect of picking up all that grime will eventually lead to a chain that feels like its grinding and will wear much quicker never mind clogging up the entire drivetrain.

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Contrastingly, dry lube-treated chains have a low viscosity therefore attracting much less grime, they are not as prone to turning black by just looking dirtily at them. A dry-lubed chain will run more smoothly than their wet counterparts with less of a gritty feel. Of course over time dirt will eventually work its way into the plates and rollers but this is much easier to flush out. The big problem with dry lube is that word again, viscosity. They are much less tacky, in fact when applying dry lube you really need to squirt a very liberal amount of the stuff all over the chain in the hope that a wet weather forecast won’t scare it off even before you leave the house.

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So what can we conclude other than there is no ‘one lube does all’ currently available, actually it’s pretty obvious. Wet lubes give a much more effective initial barrier in wet conditions, so if you are one of those cyclists who ride your bike, park it, forget about it and don’t even look near it until the next ride perhaps the wet option is for you. But for those amongst us who maintain their bikes and don’t mind re-lubing after a wet ride it seems dry lube will keep the drivechain running more smoothly over a prolonged period.

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