TechTips: Lubricating Your Chain


Susan Lindell, the shop manager at Recycle-A-Bicycle in DUMBO, Brooklyn, provides an in-depth look at chain lubrication in the first edition of TechTips.


With spring just around the corner (hopefully!) it’s time to talk about a basic but essential part of bike maintenance: lubricating your chain! Whether you’ve been riding your bike all through the winter or you’re just thinking about dusting it off and heading out for the first ride of the season, this is an easy and useful skill to add to your bike owner toolbox. Let’s go over the basics.


Why should you lubricate your chain?

Bicycle chains are made up of many moving parts—pins, plates, and rollers, to be specific. Keeping your chain lubricated can greatly improve the quality of your ride as well as increasing the lifespan of your chain. Think about that one time you did the TD Five Boro Bike Tour without stretching or drinking water. How did your muscles feel the next day? A dry chain is feeling that pain. Or that other time you did the TD Five Boro Bike Tour and you ate 12 bagels and 10 energy drinks at each rest stop. How did you feel after the ride? That’s an over lubricated chain!


With chain lubrication, less is definitely more.

Your chain will tell you when it needs to be lubed. If it’s dry and squeaky when you’re riding, it’s time to lubricate. This is likely going to be after riding in heavy rain or if you’ve never ever oiled your chain. Over lubricating your chain, on the other hand, is also bad for your chain and will annoy your bike mechanic. Excess lube attracts dirt and dust and creates gross buildup on your drivetrain. This can actually wear out your drivetrain faster than a dry chain!


To properly lube a chain you only need a couple supplies.

1) A clean rag and 2) chain lube. There are many brands of chain lube on the market and all of them work. Just make sure you use something that is made specifically for bicycle chains. Can’t I just spray WD40 on my chain? Nope. It’s not a lubricant. Head into your local bike shop and ask them what they recommend. For less than $10 you can have a bottle of lube that will last nearly a lifetime. The procedure is fairly simple. 

The first step is the pre-clean.

Lean your bike up against a wall with the chain side facing out. Grab your rag and hold it loosely around the bottom section of the chain while turning your pedals backwards with your other hand. This cleans dirt off the chain before applying the lube. Be careful when doing this to not suck your hand into the chainrings! Pay attention and hold the chain loosely.



Next up is lubing.

Hold the chain lube bottle so that it is dripping on the rollers in the center of the chain while pedaling backwards like you did for cleaning the chain. Do this for a few rounds to ensure that you’ve applied lube to all sections of the chain. Spin the pedals around a few more times to make sure the lube has worked its way into all the parts of the chain.



After this do a post-lube clean.

Grab the rag again and repeat the chain cleaning step. It may seem counterintuitive to clean the lube off the chain right after applying it but really you are just removing excess lubricant. Chain lube is very thin and has already penetrated into the small moving parts that need to be lubricated. Now head on out for a ride and enjoy your freshly lubricated smooth and quiet chain!