Saturday, November 12, 2016

A slippery subject

Uncle Larry was overhauling a Campagnolo rear hub this afternoon and reached for something to lube the freewheel cassette pawls. You know, those little things that click when you stop pedaling? In fact, Italians call them cricchetti, which reminds Larry of crickets.

You don't want heavy grease on these as it's too easy for them to stick, resulting in a really free freewheel- in both directions! Larry can still remember years ago a client pulling his freshly overhauled bike out of the bag and his confusion as the same thing happened whether he pedaled backward or forward - NOTHING!

Larry's go-to for this has always been Phil's Tenacious Oil if there's a bottle handy. Reaching up to the shelf where the lubes are in the CycleItalia shop, he pondered the assortment of lubricants there. After choosing Phil, he decided to describe a few of these lubes and make some recommendations to help with your choice next time you need lube - in this case for your chain.

 Above: NixFrixShun, Finish Line Cross Country, Finish Line Pro Ceramic

A few drops were "applied" to the workbench in front of each container and left for a few minutes. Note that ALL of these are oils of some sort. Larry thinks wax-based chain lubes are rather silly and yes, he's heard all of the proselytizing of the wax cult for years. He thinks products like the infamous White Lightning wax were created to cash-in on the ritual pre-ride lubing of the chain cyclists practice (same as inflating their tires) way-too-often. It works so poorly you almost have to apply it before every ride! And note the stuff they sell labeled "EPIC" (which I assume means heavy-duty use under poor conditions, which for bicycle chains is pretty much all the time) contains... OIL.

Above: Phil Tenacious Oil, Larry's Secret Blend*, Tetra Bike and Castrol Chain Lube

You'll note some are clear while others have various hues. They all feel pretty slippery whether pushing a finger around in the puddle on the workbench or rubbing them between the fingers. Tetra Bike seemed the least viscous, probably due to a solvent that might have evaporated if we'd left the samples longer? NFX and Phil were the most viscous with Larry's Secret Blend* and Finish Line Cross Country close behind. Finish Line Ceramic, with a beige substance that sinks to the bottom of the bottle after it sits awhile (ceramic particles?) seems mostly a gimmick to cash-in on the ceramic bearing craze as Larry can tell no difference in performance with this lube vs Finish Line Cross Country. In fact it seems to need more applications rather than less compared to Cross Country. Castrol stinks! Not that it's not an OK lube, it just smells awful. I'm not sure it's even sold anymore. Worse, the plastic bottle is brittle and prone to cracking.

Larry's been using Finish Line Cross Country for many years despite being offered various free samples of other brands. He'll try 'em for awhile, notice no real difference or improvement in shifting performance or wear, so when it comes time to grab another bottle, Finish Line's "green" is usually the choice. In some ways it might be the bottle design more than anything else? Larry likes the size, shape and applicator "nipple" and screw-on cap vs the flip-up spouts of many others. Flip-up spouts tend to allow too much product out with just a gentle squeeze vs the nipple style.

NFX is interesting enough that Larry might give it a long-term test despite the flip-top bottle. Of course there's no way to know whether the actual product is superior until you try it, but their application suggestions are unique. Most of the lubes suggest you apply a drop to each and every link in the chain, something Larry's always believed to be a big waste of time (and lube). He prefers to turn the pedals backwards and drip a few drops of lube along one side of the rollers, then the other side. Spin the cranks around a few times to let the lube penetrate and then wipe off the excess.

NFX's instructions are basically the same, the first time we've ever seen this practical recommendation. They also caution against applying too often, something we see all the time. Finally, they suggest wiping the collected gunk off the chain regularly, something else cyclists need to do more of!

Finally, an amusing anecdote about chains and lube - years ago, while working a tour following the Giro d'Italia, our clients (this was back with the "other guys") were caught in a brief rain shower and arrived at the hotel in a large group - and they all wanted to lube their chains PRONTO! Larry was working with another mechanic and since we'd just arrived at the hotel ourselves, had other things to do just then. Nobody was willing to wait and let us take care of the lubing once we'd checked in, so we each reluctantly handed over our 4 oz bottles of chain lube (enough to last each of us a full tour season) and went about our other chores.

We returned to find completely empty bottles of lube! All gone! Almost a half-pint of chain lube used up by perhaps 30 ten minutes? As you might guess, there was a rather drippy mess down in the bike room the next morning...but worse was that both of us were now out of lube! On tour we rarely have time to visit bike shops unless we're searching for a part to repair a client's bike, so what were we gonna do for lube until we could stop by a cycling shop?

Larry's idea was simple - pull the nipples out of our brand-name chain-lube bottles and refill them - using the quart of motor oil we kept in the van! Nobody was around when we did this and we said nothing about it, other than the usual mechanic grumbling about how these folks had wasted our season's worth of lube in 10 minutes.

We used that "chain-lube" for the rest of the season, never getting around to replacing our supply. Amazingly, most of the clients who asked us to lube their chains then inquired as to what brand the lube was, exclaiming that their bike had never ridden so quietly or shifted so smoothly! All we could do was smile.

*Larry's Secret Blend is Mobil 1 75/90W synthetic automotive gear oil. Find a good applicator bottle, buy a quart for less than $20 and you'll have a lifetime supply of chain lube. Don't overlube and do wipe your chain frequently.


  1. I used gear oil for years too and like you found it did the job pretty effectively. But a few years ago at Interbike I got a sample of ProGold Lubricants ProLink Chain Lube and never looked back. A small amount goes a long way, chain runs very smooth and quiet and I don't re-apply until after ten rides or so. I don't remember what it costs, but I don't care anymore. I think the last bottle I bought was two years ago and I'm just now running low.

    1. Someone gave me a sample of ProGold I think, but I can't be sure. If they did it failed to impress enough for me to remember. I'm starting to believe "oil is oil' for the most part and what makes me like one vs another is the container more than anything. I just placed an order for some plastic squeeze bottles that look a lot like the ones Finish-Line uses which I'll fill with Mobil 1. Someone told me awhile back a whole lot of lubes on the market are little more than bulk Mobil 1 anyway. I forgot to include the famous Campagnolo 08TH, which I like, but the aerosol spray can means I don't use it much these days. Should have shot some of thatinto the freehub pawl but it's on a different shelf so I forget all about it!

  2. "There's power to gain from the free running chain", so was the slogan of 'Landy-Lube.' Never used it but the slogan stuck.
    Today I use common wheel bearing grease thinned with paint thinner.
    The clean and lube process takes a while. But I don't have to do anything to the chain for weeks or several hundred miles. Or, when the chain gets noisier than I like.

    Like Uncle Larry, I use Phil's oil on free hubs, too!

    1. I remember that slogan very well. I think ol'Landerfield was the guy who cautioned against throwing your chain into the solvent tank and cleaning ALL the lubricants out of it - which then made it difficult to get it back in! I think chains last a lot longer if you brush or wipe the gunk off, then relube and carefully wipe the excess off. With our rental fleet the chains get cleaned with a bit of diesel and then lubed perhaps once during a week of cycling under our clients - maybe twice if they spend a lot of time on the van roof on the highway - the wind up there seems to dry 'em out a bit faster.