The Lubes Blues, Baby
by Richard Risemberg

I've got the lubes blues baby, grease my links, and I'll still be yours tonight
I've got the lubes blues ,baby, yeah, grease my links and I'll still be yours tonight
You want a long-term relationship, you know you gotta treat me right....

The most complicated mechanism on your bicycle is certainly one of the most important, but also the least glamorous, taking second (or third or fourth) place to shining hubs, gleaming derailleurs, and brightly- painted frames; yet without it you'd be making your bike go by pushing your feet against the ground in a mad, futile waddle that would feel as painful as it looked ridiculous. Yes, all those muscles bunched up between your knees and your hips are useless if you can't get their power from the crank to the cogs, and it's your chain that does it: one hundred fourteen itty-bitty little metal links, each one no bigger than a thumbnail, and each one containing a very hard-working miniature bearing.

Now, it's true that shaft-drive bicycles have been built now and then over the last hundred-fifty years, but how many have you seen lately? A shaft drive has one advantage: it is not susceptible to damage from dirt and rain. It also has several disadvantages: it is expensive, it is heavy, it does not readily allow for gearing changes, and, finally, it simply isn't as efficient as a chain. A well-lubed chain transmits about 98% of the energy input to it.

There's the catch: it must be a well-lubed chain.

There are dozens and dozens of chain lubes on the market; how do you tell which one does a good job? After all, think of what a chain lubricant must do: it must get inside the bearing through the tiny gap between the side plates of the link, and it must stay there while the power of your mighty legs pulls the chain tight and spins it around cogs and pulleys in two directions at high speed; it must keep water out when it rains or you go through puddles or streams; and it must also lubricate the interface between the cog teeth and the outsides of the rollers without causing dirt to stick there, which would grind away the metal. How many chain lubes really do all this? I'll tell you: almost none.

Chain lube is cheap, and so am I: so I'd rather buy a new chain lube than a new chain, which has given me the excuse to try them all. Here's a summary of what I've learned:

Then there is wax. Wax is great, wax is good, wax is a pain in the rear. But it does the job. It's slippery, it sticks to the chain, and dirt can't stick to the wax. The second-best chain-wax formula I know of is Grant Peterson's: about 80% paraffin wax and 20% beeswax, both available at your local hardware store. That's where you can find the double boiler you'll need as well. You put water in the bottom of the double boiler, chunks of wax in the top, heat till the latter melts, add chain, and stir. After a few minutes you take it out and carry it dripping across the kitchen floor while your Significant Other screams and throws heavy objects at you, and you hang it to dry outside. When the neighbors ask what you are doing, you tell them you are waxing your bicycle chain, thereby erasing all doubts as to your mental condition. But you will have a chain that is thoroughly lubed inside where it matters, and that will stay lubed for four to five hundred miles, rain or shine. At which time you will have to crack it off the bike and do it again. I have found that a chain treated this way lasts about 25% longer than a chain treated with the best chain oils available.

So why is this the second-best wax formula I know of? Because I made it even better. Many years ago, in my motorcycle days, I used to buy a mixture marketed by Carl Shipman of New Mexico, for lubing motorcycle chains. This mixture contained about equal parts molybdenum disulfide powder and Teflon microspheres. Teflon is of course slippery; moly disulfide is even slipperier and tends to stick to metals. Shipman advised mixing this with gear oil and a little gasoline (to thin it for penetration). I have half a bottle left, and I mix it with--the wax! A chain treated with this combination lasts about 20% longer than a chain treated with the plain stuff. And, because the additives are trapped within the wax, you still don't get dirty hands when changing a rear tire!

There is one drawback to this formula: Mr. Shipman, so far as I know, no longer markets the additive combination. But I am sure one could find a chemical supply house that carried the two ingredients. A little goes a long way. I have been using the same bottle for three years now.

If you use this on a European-style commuter bike, with an enclosed chain, you might never have to rewax. But chain covers don't work well on derailleur bikes, and one speeds don't work well in the red- blooded West (Los Angeles, where I live, has a mountain range running through the middle). Internally-geared hub transmissions, which can be used with enclosed chains, put the higher gears farther apart and the lower ones closer together, exactly the opposite of what you need. So you will have a derailleur, and you will have to rewax regularly.

Then what do you do if you're too lazy to boil chains in wax? Quite simple: use White Lightning, available in most bike shops. It appears to be wax (or a wax analogue) in a solvent base. I use it instead of the hot-wax treatment on one of my bikes. Once you add Mr. Shipman's magic powders, it works almost as well as hot-waxing, though it doesn't resist rain for as long. And you have to drip it on about every hundred miles, where a good hot-waxing will last five hundred. A compromise is to hot-wax a new chain before putting it on the bike the first time, then use White Lightning thereafter.

A dry and dirty chain will not only wear out faster, it will wear your chainrings, cogs, and pulleys faster too. And it's you who'll be putting out the extra effort needed to bend those stiff links around all those corners. Be good to your chain. You may not want to admit this in front of all your friends, but you know you can't really get along without it.

Get me hot and greasy, spin me round and round all night
Yeah, get me hot and greasy, spin me round and round all night
I've got the lubes blues, baby, I won't put up no fight....

Richard Risemberg