Technical FAQ: The ideal way to apply chain lube

Lennard Zinn /
Newer chains have larger gaps to accommodate extreme angles. This also allows chain lube to more easily penetrate.

Dear Lennard,
The 2013 Velo report stated: “The chains were cleaned with an ultrasonic cleaner in odorless mineral spirits prior to testing, and then all three chains were immersed in a 100 F bath of each respective lube and run in the ultrasonic machine for five minutes.”

The test was done very well, and using ultrasonic to get lubricants evenly applied makes sense! I know, of course, that test was not done for all conditions but how much difference does it make if lubricants were not applied with ultrasonic and heat? I have not found that anyone does this. Could the results be dramatically different? Was chain and lubricant put in a bag and then in ultrasonic cleaner?

As you likely have considered, most lubricants (excluding wax) are applied after factory lube broke down, after washing chain with a citrus cleaner and a brush. My guess is that this is how most people use the products.
— Tim

Dear Tim,
Jason Smith, founder of Friction Facts and now chief technology officer for CeramicSpeed, conducted that test for us, and he was kind enough to reply to your question:

“When Friction Facts performed the original Chain Lubricant Tests with Velo, much was unknown at that time regarding the effectiveness of different viscosity lubricants to penetrate the chains. As your reader mentions, for this reason, the liquid lubricants were warmed in an ultrasonic machine and the chain submerged in the lube to ensure equal penetration for all lubricants to achieve fairness in testing.

However, based on the results of several lubricant tests performed since the original Velo Tests, it has been found that higher-viscosity liquid lubricants penetrate the internals of the chain very well with a single drop of lubricant on each link. One test stands out that specifically proves this:

A couple of years ago, a lube manufacturer wanted to know the most effective application method for their new lube, from a frictional loss standpoint. We tested their lube with a “one-drop-every-few-links” vs. a “one-drop-per-link” application method. Alongside this lube, we also tested a couple of higher-viscosity lubricants with “one-drop-per-link” vs. submerged application.

The data showed: 1.) Submerging a chain in a higher viscosity lubricant does not decrease frictional losses further than applying one drop per link. Specifically, we captured a 0.01-watt difference between a chain submerged in lube and the one-drop-per-link method. 2.) The one-drop-per-link method showed lower frictional losses than the one-drop-every-few-links method. This data showed that at least one drop per link was necessary to achieve low frictional losses, but more than one drop per link is not typically necessary.

We also performed substantial testing of the application methods for CeramicSpeed UFO Drip chain coating. We found a 0.08-watt difference between the one-drop-per-link and saturation method. In this specific case, the saturation method was just a touch faster, but not by very much.

It is speculated that liquid lubricants, with the one-drop-per-link application method, penetrate the chain very well because of a few reasons. Firstly, modern “split bushing” chains, in order to allow greater lateral chain misalignment angles (think, heavy cross chaining seen on a 1×12), have slightly larger gaps between the inner and outer plates, as well as between the inner plate and roller, when compared to more traditional, solid bushing designs. Also, because of the split bushing, the lubricant can penetrate to the inner pin via two pathways instead of a single path. Please see a picture (above) of a new SRAM 12spd chain, with factory grease removed to show the gaps.

Note the outer plates are fixed to the pin, yet the inner plates and roller can float to some extent back and forth between the outer plates, creating gaps in different locations at different times as the chain snakes through the drivetrain

Given the relatively generous gaps plus the split bushing, when the chain links snake through the chainring, pulley wheels, and cog, the sliding movement further distributes the lube into the chain internals, beyond the wicking action from the initial drip application. The inboard-outboard lateral bending of the chain due to cross-chaining action also helps distribute the lubricant.
—Jason Smith
CeramicSpeed Chief Technology Officer”

Based on Jason’s research showing that chain lubes easily penetrate deeply into the chain, the method you describe of applying chain lube “after factory lube broke down, after washing chain with a citrus cleaner and a brush” is effective at getting the lubricant into the chain where it can do the most good.

BTW, the “split bushing” that Jason mentions is the inward-protruding tube stamped into each end of an inner chain link.
― Lennard

Regarding patching inner tubes

Dear Lennard,
I also patch tubes!

Excepting the cases you listed in your response to Phil, I will patch road tubes up to seven times, mountain tubes 12 times (arbitrary limits).

To your arguments for patching, I’d like to add that a proven reliable tube, flatted and then properly patched, is (for me) a better choice than a brand new tube out of the box. Furthermore, the replacement cost isn’t four bucks, it’s $28 minus the cost of seven patches (the mini Tip Top — 16 mm — are less trouble for small holes).

I’ve never had a patch fail; if I’ve made a mistake applying the patch, I’ll correct the problem before putting the tube back in service. The most common problems I’ve had with new tubes are: a.) leaking associated with the valve stem, either bad valve or off-centered drilling (which results in breakage or leaking at the root of the thread); b.) tears/leaks associated with mold marks or thin spots. I’m not finding these problems often — about a dozen over the last forty-five years. I’ll mount a new tube at home, however, the replacement I carry with is proven, reliable!

As for flat rates, the sweeping is better here (California Central Coast), and there aren’t any puncture vines, hence my rate is down to less than one a month. By far the most common culprits are tiny bits of wire (steel belt tire shards and paper staples) — very difficult to see and avoid.

I cut the valve out of retired tubes and keep the rubber, which we continue to find useful!
— Tom

Dear Lennard,
Like the previous writer commenting on this subject, I also do not patch tubes (but fine with anyone who wants to do so). I suspect if people are having a number of flats, it is due to failure to inspect their tires after every ride. Based on what I see locally (as well as photos in national magazines), a number of folks must finish a ride and simply toss their bike into a corner somewhere. Then they wonder why they have a problem on the next ride. After every ride, I carefully inspect my tires (and indeed, the entire bicycle) under a good light. Frequently, as I’m sure you know, there are small slivers of flint from the road embedded in the tread. If left there, they will work their way through the tire casing and cause a flat. But if caught immediately post-ride, these objects can easily be removed without taking the tire off the wheel. I faithfully do this, and I believe this is why I only seem to have a flat (using a lightweight name-brand training/racing tire and tube) about every 10,000 to 15,000 miles.
— Robert

Dear Lennard,
I’m a long-time fan of your Technical FAQ column. As an engineer, I appreciate your ability to break down the complexities of the cycling world and bring in deep technical analysis while keeping it readable for the non-PhDs out there. I’ve got to say that while it’s a non-technical subject, the “More on patching inner tubes” topic hit close to home:

I read Phil’s dead-on analysis of the folly of patching and re-using tubes and felt a growing sense of awareness that I might as well get into the shrimp-boating business. Why have I wasted so much time over the years on something with such a low benefit/cost ratio?

Then I read your response and flipped back pi radians (to reference the previous subject) with re-establishing the pride I have in my box of used tubes. Like you have found, it’s a good way to connect with the bike on one of those days that’s unfit for cycling.

I do agree with Phil on one thing, carrying supplies for tire repair is sound practice. I keep a short section of old tire with the beads removed in my bag along with high-quality duct tape wrapped on the pump for repair of sliced sidewalls or big gashes in the tread. Only to get home though . . .
— Kirk

Dear Lennard,
It was great reading your article regarding e-bikes. I really think they are great. They give all of us the comfort to know that we’ll be able to ride around on some of those hillier rides for a longer period of time.

An obvious point regarding your recent response to the inquiry regarding radians and the calculation of wheel flop utilizing MS Excel. If you may not already know, data (in this case a head angle number) can be entered in one cell, linked to another cell that converts it to radians via the=+RADIANS(Cell#), and then utilizing that data to enter into your’ formula for cell U34. Again, I suspect you already knew this but thought I’d pass it along anyway. I’ve aged away from remembering the need to switch from degrees to radians for calculations and simply rely now on what I believe you do, which is to look at a resultant number and say “that doesn’t look right.”

Regarding the contrasting comments between Phil and yourself about patching tubes, wow! I love both comments. I hadn’t thought of the electrical tape for tie cuts either, although I don’t normally use tires once they are cut … unless I’m on a ride and utilize the old folded dollar bill trick. I do patch tubes and will continue to do so. I don’t really mind too much the break that I get from riding when I have a flat and patch the tube; that is unless the temperature is 95°F plus, I’m standing under a douglas fir tree to stay out of the sun, said tree has dripped sticky sap onto the ground that I am now walking on, and the sticky sap has now infiltrated my cleats and my fingers as I try to get it off, and the pump I am using has a failing seal … Oh what a joyous time that was.

As for old tubes, I save them all, cut them longitudinally in half and use them as twine replacements for supporting my tomato plants and for other purposes where an elastic string/rope is needed. Certainly as the bike industry has developed, there are many other uses for used tubes.
— Shawn

Dear Lennard,
Wow, I almost fell out of my seat reading the screed reader Phil unleashed about patching tubes. I too patch tubes and for several reasons. First of all, I repair lots of things or almost always try to and it has little to do with how much it costs to replace it. It is satisfying in a humble way to return something useful to service. Second of all, our planet is overburdened with waste and we need to reduce that, lots of small things add up to big things. Finally, my father, who is no longer with us, taught me to fix bicycle tires when I was a little boy, probably about seven years old. Throughout my years growing up, he taught me how to repair cars and lots of other things. So, I repair bicycle tire tubes, keep them in service, reduce my burden on the planet, and fondly remember and pay tribute to my father with this simple act.
— Robert

Dear Lennard,
Yes, there is something nice about taking the time and the patience to patch a tube. Very Zen like.
My technique involves the following:
1. Locate the hole
2. Clean the hole and a much bigger area with ethanol.
3. Mark the hole with a small sharpie circle
4. Put a large amount of rubber cement (from a big can purchased at McGuckin) on the tube around the hole and a much bigger area.
5. Let it dry, ideally in the sun for 10 min
6. Apply the patch and press it down
7. Wait for the patch to completely set up. Maybe an hour.
8. Install in the tire and inflate.
9. Ideally, do not immediately go for a ride as the tire could go flat for a number of other reasons (failed patch, another hole not seen, high-pressure valve leak, etc.)

Ethanol is non-toxic and available at some drug stores.
The rubber cement should be new-ish, works way better that way. Big new tins of it are avail at the hardware store.
I never re-test the tube in water as that can definitely make the patch fail.
Burnishing before patching is not necessary.
Keys: the chemical cleaning of the tube and lots of new rubber cement + letting it dry before patch application. No touching of the patch.
On the road I don’t carry tubes, but I carry a stash of Park instant patches.
Throw out the rubber cement after about a year and buy a new tin.
— Alan

Dear Lennard,
I’m not going to go on some crazy rant like Phil, but I have been in his situation regarding cuts in tires. I have had flats that cut through the tires and when there is still plenty of tread left, I’ll patch the tire with an automotive repair kit or a combination of electrical tape in the inside and super glue. If the flat is through the side wall, that tire goes in the trash.
— John