Six watts from lube? Boulder lab separates fact from friction fiction

VeloLab has teamed up with Jason Smith's Friction Facts independant lab in Boulder, Colorado, for drivetrain efficiency testing

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BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — Jason Smith was an XTERRA athlete, a father, and a desk jockey. Now, using his intimate knowledge of materials science and engineering, he’s an entrepreneur, father, and jockey tester.

It’s an odd job title, jockey tester, but one that Smith has come to happily. Friction Facts, Smith’s brainchild, is a lab dedicated to separating friction fact from fiction, taking a keen look at the forces determined to slow your forward progress. Using more $50,000 worth of purpose-built, self-funded testing equipment, Smith is analyzing everything from bearings to bushings, jockey wheels to pedal spindles to chain lubricants.

Little gains made big, and a little teaser

Each test Smith performs shows the ability to garner modest gains out of a given component. A bit of a watt here, a watt-and-a-half there; taken individually, the differences can seem minute.

But the sum total is significant. Testing everything at a 250-watt constant load, Smith has discovered 1.5-watt savings between various derailleur pulley wheels, more than a watt from switching pedals, and up to three watts between chains. He also found more than a six-watt difference between chain lubes — a test he performed exclusively for the March issue of Velo magazine, which has just hit newsstands. The best and worst in our own lube test turned out to be very surprising.

Smith’s process for testing the lubes is time-consuming, involving a multi-stage stripping and lubing procedure before each chain ever hits a piece of test equipment. He is meticulous; each lube is tested on three different chains under exactly the same load, always in the same direction, and every chain is identically impregnated with each lube thanks to the use of an ultrasonic machine.

Sensitive equipment is able to measure the force required to turn the whole system, thus measuring total efficiency. When not testing lubes, Smith is able to swap out one or another part of the faux drivetrain system to test the efficiency of that individual part.

Add up the drag savings gained from just a few drivetrain parts and the lube that keeps them all running quietly and you end up with more than 10 watts of savings. We’ve spent entire seasons trying to bump our thresholds up by 10 watts; to be able to buy those gains, likely for far less than a set of pricey wheels or similar, is certainly intriguing.

To avoid any perception of impropriety, Smith buys all the items he tests. He purchases every single chain, pedal, lube and jockey wheel. That means he is a true third-party source, his results completely unfettered by outside concerns. In fact, the companies involved rarely even know they are having items tested.

Adding a lab to the repertoire

Now allow us to toot our own horn, at least a bit. At Velo, we take our testing seriously. No “laterally stiff and vertically compliant” nonsense here — unless something actually is. And we like to practice excellence by association, which is why we use top-tier, third-party facilities like the A2 wind tunnel in Mooresville, North Carolina, for aerodynamics testing and the the Microbac lab here in Boulder for our VeloLab stiffness tests. It’s why we’re pleased about our collaboration with Smith, who is also based in Boulder.

Cycling is an equation: forces for and forces against. We’ve spent thousands of dollars over the last few years in an effort to uncover and quantify a few of those opposing forces, no matter how small. Taking a close look at drivetrain efficiency is simply the next step along that line.

In the March-issue lube efficiency test, we published efficiency figures (measured in watts) for more than 30 lubes, as well as the results of longevity tests for a number of the top performers in each lube-type category. The results were sometimes surprising to us: six watts between best and worst under ideal conditions, and over eight watts after an hour spent covered in water, mud, and sand. Some very popular lubes did quite poorly, and some odd ones did very well. But it is important to keep in mind, as you read through the results, that we were testing for a single parameter: efficiency. Our goal was to find the best “race day” lubes, not the best every day lubes. In many cases, the two likely overlap; but not always. We weren’t testing for long-term durability, or a lube’s ability to prolong the life of your drivetrain; efficiency was our only concern.

After exploring Smith’s lab, it is clear that this lube test is only the start. Smith is measuring, or will be soon, the efficiency of various pedals, chainrings, chainlines, hubs, bottom brackets and more. It’s a goldmine of incredible data, and it’s a safe bet that you’ll find more of it in the pages of Velo going forward.