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Tech & Wearables

Technical FAQ: Should you leave the factory lube on a new chain?

The final word for optimizing your chain for low friction and longevity from industry experts.

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Have a question for Lennard? Please email him at veloqna@comcast.net to be included in Technical FAQ.

Dear Lennard,
In response to the recent thread regarding factory chain lube, I have heard that once you get the factory chain lube out of the bushings and rollers you will never successfully get it back in. Is this not true, or worth consideration when cleaning factory lube?
— Tim

Also read the Technical FAQ: Factory chain lube, elliptical subcompact chainrings

Dear Tim,
This idea that you should leave the factory lube on your chain is so deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of cyclists that I’m addressing it again for the second week in a row. Adam Kerin, owner/founder of Zero Friction Cycling also gave me an answer to this question, and his answer is so thorough, well-researched, and well-thought-out that there will be no question about it in the future. The only reason to leave the factory lube on will be to save work or lube, while sacrificing chain life in the process.

Here’s Kerin’s answer:

Ah, factory grease…. Honestly, it is like a zombie apocalypse that won’t die.

This is one of the worst bits of information on chain lubricants that is still too pervasive despite my and others’ (like Josh Poertner, Jason Smith) efforts to correct it.

Factory grease is a) pretty slow, b) gathers contamination rapidly and thus quickly becomes much slower again and much higher wear, and c) most top lubricants do not mix at all with factory grease (or dispel them). Especially wax lubricants; that is trying to mix two completely incompatible products. Some wet lubricants will do not terribly with factory grease, but still their performance will be impacted quite a bit vs. if one applied them to a properly cleaned chain. However, with wax lubricants you just get a goopy gunky mix; the wax lubricant cannot work as it is designed to work, which is to bond to clean and clear chain metal and have very low friction, highly contamination-resistant wax coating on all parts of chain metal.

Some of the misinformation can definitely come from the penetration issue concern. On the one hand, some lubricants (like Squirt) have significant initial penetration issues, but many more have zero penetration issues – such as Silca SS drip, UFO drip, and pretty much all wet lubricants – so overall the belief that no lubricant can fully penetrate a derailleur chain and so one should leave on factory grease…that is just flat out incorrect. A derailleur chain is pretty far from watertight; it has decent spaces for most lubricants to get in without issue. Even for the lubricants that definitely “struggle” — like traditional wax emulsion lubricants, Squirt/Smoove/Grax/AbsoluteBlack Graphene — all tested within two percent of each other re having initially around 20 percent wear in block one, versus under five percent if applied via an immersive application. SS drip/FO drip are less than five percent applied just as drip-on, which is extremely low-wear, but even factoring in the high initial wear due to penetration issues of Squirt (the lower friction and wear from Squirt being able to work as designed will well outstrip the result for if factory grease is left on) always just ends badly.

I have covered this section in detail, with data, in my latest key learnings update — key learnings from over 300,000km of controlled testing to date now. I hope this helps, and I always greatly appreciate being able to help to get the best information out there and combat poor information!

Key learning – remove factory grease before use
Apologies on behalf of chain manufacturers claiming their factory grease is amazing stuff, and for some major media channels that have been happy to pump out terrible information, in the full knowledge that it is terrible information (in my opinion) – because they were paid by manufacturers to do so.

Terrible information: the biggest mistake you can make is to remove factory grease (thank you again KMC & GMBN for the early deaths of countless tens of thousands of drivetrains). Shimano’s head chain tech guy has not helped the knowledge cause either on this front.

So, this one is a bit like a zombie apocalypse that will not die. If you hear or read information from the head tech guy from one of cycling’s top manufacturers, and he says you should leave the factory grease on because it is amazing, why would not believe that? The same can be said of the world’s biggest cycling YouTube channel advises that removing factory grease is the number one mistake you can make with your chain – why would you think they have it wrong?

Is factory grease terrible?
Honestly, it is typically better nowadays than it used to be, but compared to the top lubricant options, it is just not even a competition.

Outright efficiency for the best factory greases is typically around the 6 to 7w loss, whereas the fastest lubricant options are in the 3 to 4w loss. Some of the worst factory greases are around 10w loss. And that is in a clean, lab test.

Have you noticed how dirty factory grease becomes oh so quickly? Hopefully, obviously, this rapid contamination absorption does not make it faster. So, the performance gap between factory grease and top lubricant options, which stay vastly cleaner for vastly longer – grows very quickly indeed.

The wear rate in the ZFC test had Shimano factory grease recording almost five times the wear rate versus the average of the top five drip lubricants tested to date – and nearly 10 times if I include MSpeedwax and Silca hot melt in the average.

And as above, due to rapid contamination absorption, things do not improve even if you move to start adding a quality wet lubricant like NFS. The wear rate with NFS over factory grease in dry contamination tested at 27.4 percent, whereas the average of the top five drip lubricants in this block is 6.1 percent. And it is 2.6 percent if I include MSpeedwax and Silca hot melt in the top 5 average.

It’s pretty safe to say, that factory grease is not your best option and it’s also pretty safe to say that removing it will not be the number one mistake you make with your chain, but one of the best things ever that you can do for your chain.

It gets worse
The best lubricants are known to work best if they are able to bond to clean chain metal, especially chain coating and wax lubricants.

They do not mix or work well at all if applied over the top of factory grease; it is like mixing water and oil. It is just a fail. You will end up with a gunky mess doing nothing great for your chain and drivetrain as well as your chain’s efficiency.

If you spend the money on what you think to be a top lubricant because you saw it recommended by ZFC, or you simply hope it is a top lubricant – you are just throwing lipstick on a pig and wasting your money on that product if you are just going to apply it over the top of your factory grease. Don’t do that.

It gets still worse
If you go to clean factory grease off your chain when it is new, it takes relatively little solvent and effort: normally, three baths at 250ml of mineral spirits and two baths of denatured alcohol. The last two mineral baths and final denatured alcohol bath can be saved for the first baths of the next chain. (Refer to the chain prep guide on the ZFC website for full prep instructions, as it can vary slightly by brand.)

Once you ride that factory grease though, be prepared to literally put multiple liters of mineral spirits through your chain to get it properly clean.

Those of us in the business of making fully optimized race chains do a break-in run with factory grease as part of full race optimization prep – but that is a very different process to going and riding your bike with factory grease on the chain. It is a controlled run (power and time) in an extremely clean environment, for a specific purpose as part of the prep.

Outside of that very specific process: DO NOT — I repeat DO NOT — leave on factory grease unless your specific aim is for your chain to have a dramatically shorter lifespan vs if you had cleaned it off to run a proven top lubricant choice.

If you see anyone, anywhere promoting leaving on factory grease as the best thing, or that removing factory grease is a mistake – please help me kill this zombie that just won’t die, and diplomatically refer them to this column.
—Adam Kerin, Zero Friction Cycling

I think Adam Kerin just answered that question once and for all.
― Lennard

Dear Lennard,
Is there a reason paraffin would not work well for factory lubrication if the chain comes hermetically sealed?
— Greg

Dear Greg,
None that I can imagine. That would seem like a perfect way to do it. Of course, it would be more costly to make and package. It would require not only soaking every chain in molten wax and hermetically sealing it up in special packaging, but it would also require the manufacturer to completely clean off the oil used during sorting of plates, pins, and rollers and their subsequent assembly before dipping it in the wax. Otherwise, the wax could not penetrate, and it would become immediately contaminated with the assembly oil.
― Lennard


Lennard Zinn, our longtime technical writer, joined VeloNews in 1987. He is also a custom frame builder (www.zinncycles.com) and purveyor of non-custom huge bikes (bikeclydesdale.com), a former U.S. national team rider, co-author of The Haywire Heart,” and author of many bicycle books including Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance,”DVD, as well as Zinn and the Art of Triathlon Bikesand Zinn’s Cycling Primer: Maintenance Tips and Skill Building for Cyclists.” He holds a bachelor’s in physics from Colorado College.

Follow @lennardzinn on Twitter.