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Bicycle Maintenance – How Often Should I Lubricate My Bike Chain?

By Jiri Kaloc

It’s a common question not just among cycling beginners. Don’t worry if you don’t know all the signs that a chain is in need of lubrication, you can just do it regularly after a certain number of kilometres. Here is all you need to know about your bicycle chain maintenance.

Why should I care about lubricating my chain?

It might seem like lubricating a bicycle chain is not very important. It works for a really long time even if you never lubricate it. So, what do you get if you make the effort to regularly lubricate your chain?

Reduce friction by up to 50%. Lower friction means less energy is wasted by pedalling, allowing you to ride faster with less effort. At the highest levels of competitive cycling, even a small reduction in friction can lead to significant performance improvements.

Double your chain’s lifespan. Without proper lubrication, a bike chain is likely to only last half as long as it could with proper regular maintenance. On average, an unlubricated chain might need replacement every 2,500 km while a lubricated one could last upwards of 5,000 km, depending on the riding conditions.

Making your chain last twice as long means you only have to buy half as many new chains. Plus, you make your cycling even more environmentally friendly by creating less waste.

Bicycle chain
The chain is your bike’s lifeline, it delivers power from your muscles to the drivetrain. ©  Profimedia

6 signs it’s time to lubricate

Now that you have the motivation to lubricate your bike chain, how do you know when to do it? You can judge a lot by observing and listening to your chain. Here are the top 5 signs you should know about.

Lack of shine: A well-lubricated chain has a subtle shine due to the light coating of the lubricant. If the chain looks completely matte or dry, it’s the first sign it’s time for lubrication.

Dirt accumulation: A chain caked in dirt and grit is not just dirty, it’s also likely dry underneath. Lubrication helps prevent this buildup by creating a barrier that repels these particles.

Corrosion: If you notice rust or a corroded appearance on the chain, it’s a clear sign that the lubricant has fully worn off long ago, and moisture has begun to affect the metal.

Squeaking noises: One of the most obvious signs that a chain needs lubrication is a persistent squeaking or grinding sound when you pedal. This noise is caused by metal-on-metal contact within the chain links.

Difficulty shifting: If you’re having trouble shifting gears smoothly, it could be a sign that your chain is dry. Proper lubrication facilitates smooth movement across the gear cogs.

Stiff links: A chain that feels stiff or has links that don’t move freely lacks lubrication. This stiffness can affect the overall performance of your bike, making pedalling feel harder than it should.

What kind of lubricant should you use?

There are three basic types of chain lubricants. If you’re cycling in wet, muddy conditions, go for a wet lubricant. It’s thicker and sticks to the chain better, offering protection against moisture and rust. For dry, dusty environments, use a dry lubricant. It’s lighter and won’t attract as much dirt and grime, keeping your chain cleaner. If you ride in a variety of conditions or if you’re a beginner at bicycle maintenance, there’s also an all-purpose lubricant which is a great choice.

4 steps to effectively lubricate your chain

  1. Clean the chain: Before applying new lubricant, clean your chain to remove dirt, grime, and old lubricant. You can use a dedicated chain cleaner or a simple solution of soap and water. Use a brush or rag to gently scrub the chain, ensuring you reach between the links.
  2. Dry the chain: After cleaning, thoroughly dry the chain with a clean rag or let it air dry. Applying lubricant to a wet chain can dilute the lubricant and reduce its effectiveness.
  3. Apply the lubricant: Apply the lubricant sparingly to each link of the chain while slowly rotating the pedals backwards. This ensures even distribution.
  4. Let it sit: Allow the lubricant to penetrate the chain for a few minutes. This step ensures that the lubricant seeps into the inner parts of the chain links, providing maximum protection and efficiency. Use a clean, dry rag to gently wipe off excess lubricant to prevent dirt from sticking on.

Lubricate your chain every 200 km

A precise answer to the main question of this article depends on your riding frequency, conditions, and the type of lubricant you used. However, as a good general starting point, you should lubricate your bike chain every 200 km. If you have a road bike and ride in mild conditions, your lubricant can last even 300 km. On the other hand, riding a mountain bike in wet or muddy conditions likely needs cleaning and lubricating a lot more often, probably after every 150 km or even more often.