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Learn to Love to Lubricate

and who doesn't?

An informative guide for a simple, yet mission critical set of maintenance tasks for your two-wheeled human-powered conveyance.


Compared to an automobile or a SH-60B/F Seahawk helicopter, your bicycle has relatively few moving parts, and is pretty simple to maintain. But, like almost every mechanical system with moving parts, lubrication is critical. Not only will keeping your bike lubed extend the chain life and help keep your shifting and braking systems in tune, but it also helps get more power from your ass to the rubber to the road. And that folks is the name of the game.

It's simple. The average cyclist generates about 350 watts of motive power at peak output. Lance Armstrong gins out around 700+ watts. With a lot of training (like several hours a day), you might be able to get half-again as much output from your shanks. What I'm getting at is this: You can't get a bigger engine for your bike. Every gain in efficiency you can wring out of the drivetrain counts. I'm talking about the cranks, bottom bracket, hubs, chain, and derailleurs. A 5% gain from keeping your chain properly lubricated is basically free power. Rusty chain? Too lazy to lube? Think about it this way - you can have that 5% push you down the road, or you can convert it into heat somewhere in your drivetrain. I'd prefer to have it translate into motive force. Beside, lubing your bike puts you and your machine in a state of communion. It has no metabolism, so you must animate it with your love and care. Take care of your gear, and your gear will take care of you...

So, without further preamble, delay, or dissimulation, here's how to grease up the old velocipede.

Overall Estimated Time to Completion:

  • FAST and by the numbers: 25 minutes
  • SLOW because you've never done this before, or are having a couple beers and bullshitting after a good ride 45 minutes

Prep the area

You're going to be working with grease and solvents, flushing things with water, and generally wrecking shop. Don't work on your grandfather's bear-skin rug, or use original copies of the US Constitution as a drop cloth. I work out on my back deck, and drag the hose over. Get everything in one place so that you won't be running around like a Kansas City prancer. If you've got long hair, put it up, cause you don't want to get it caught in the chain when you're cranking.

Prop your bike up with the chain facing you (I know this sounds obvious, but it sucks to have everything at hand and then have to flip the bike). You are ready to begin your lubricating adventure!

You will need the following:

START

1. Get rid of the Big Stuff.

This is it. The first job is to get the crap out of your drivetrain - chain, cranks, rear cogs. YOU CAN SKIP THIS STEP if the machine is not monster muddy/dusty. Otherwise, it's Hose Time - hit it G E N T L Y. Remember the love. Also remember that your bottom bracket and rear wheel hub use sealed bearings, and you will be in a world of shit if you blow one of those seals goofing around with the hose. Set the hose to mist, spray parallel to the orientation of the drivetrain (that is to say "front to back," folks) and remove the "gross filth". Wipe off the frame with one of your towels.

2. Clean the chain, first pass.

We'll do this in two tracks. a)I don't have a chain cleaning machine. b)I do have a chain cleaning machine.

  1. "I don't have a chain-cleaning machine." You have finally discovered a use for those old toothbrushes. Park and Pedro both make special-purpose chain brushes, but what's the point? I think the toothbrush works just as good. Get the soapy water. GRAB the chain between thumb and forefinger in one hand, and BRUSH it down with toothbrush in the other. Do not be shocked when a torrent of black, filth-filled crud slops forth from your chain. Keep scrubbing, be sure to hit the sides, and more importantly the bushing down around the link pins. Do each link individually. I know this sounds like Mickey mouse obsession, but remember what they say about that weakest link. ADVANCE the chain backwards until you can see that you've soaped everything.
  2. "I have a chain-cleaning machine." Your lot in life is easier than your toothbrush saddled friend. FILL the top reservoir of the machine with the soapy water. SEPARATE the two halves of the machine as per the manufacturer's directions. CLAMP the machine around the chain. ACTIVATE the machine (if not automatic) and ADVANCE the chain backwards by counter-rotating the crank (that is to say, use your hand to move the pedals backwards). The chain will becomes sudsy as the brushes and scrubbing bubbles go to work. Crank her till the well runs dry. A word of caution: the lower well of the chain-cleaner is now filled with a noisome slurry of filth. Move and dispose of with caution.
  3. FLUSH the chain by hitting it with the hose, or slowly pour the fresh water over the chain while COUNTERROTATING the crank. The point of this is to get the soap off.
  4. DRY the chain with a clean towel, then let it air dry for a couple of minutes. If you're in a hurry, don't be ashamed to use a hair-dryer. Once it feels mostly dry to the touch, you're ready for the next step.

3. Clean the chain, second pass.

We've removed two levels of crap from your chain: big and small. Now it's time to get serious.

  1. Grab your can of degreaser. You know the drill - COUNTERROTATE the crank while you SPRAY down the chain with the degreaser of your choice. Be careful! Even the friendly citrus degreaser will hurt like a mother if you get it in your eyes. Might I suggest wearing eye protection? I know, it's crazy. The Purple Magic is so fucking powerful that it will leech the lipids out of your skin and respiratory tract, so wear gloves and a respirator if you use it (I shit you not). It works like black magic, but is nothing to treat lightly. As far as the gasoline, well, it does a fine job, but don't smoke while you're working with it. Everything but the citrus stuff doubles as a defoliant, so mind the lawn. If these degreasers are so dangerous, why are we messing with them, you might ask? Well, we've got to blow out the munged-out old lube, now a metal-grinding slurry of silicate dust, metallic junk, and soured lubricant. It's actually more like a grinding paste than a lube at this point. It is also water-insoluable, which means we need hardcore surfactant to get in there and sluice the stuff out. It's important.
  2. With the degreaser now applied across the chain, COUNTERROTATE the chain for 30 seconds to really work in the degreaser. Now you know old Igloo never misses a chance to stick his hand in a sock. This is your chance to stick your hand in a sock. Get an old athletic sock, keep it right-side-out, insert hand of your choice, and grab the chain between thumb and forefinger. Thumb on top of chain, forefinger on bottom. COUNTERROTATE the crank to buff down the chain. You will be shocked to discover yet more black crud coming off the chain. SPRAY down the chain again.
  3. LET STAND for 5 minutes.
  4. FLUSH the chain with the hose.
  5. DRY the chain with a towel. Let air dry a bit, or use hair-drier.

4. Lube Chain.

Take a moment here to appreciate your work. The chain is now gleaming before you. If you turn the crank, the chain will clatter like a pair of funny teeth. This is because you have removed every single speck of crud from the chain. It's nothing but metal on metal, and now aching to receive anointment.

  1. Get your towel and clothespins. CLIP the towel over the bottom part of your back wheel, and dress the towel right up under the back cogs. Why? You are protecting the lower rim of your wheel from getting splattered with lube. The rim is where your brake shoes interface with the wheel to arrest forward motion of the bike. This is the one place on your bike where you DON'T want lube. A sloppy chain job, and you may find yourself in a tight spot once you hit the road. Trust me, I learned this one the hard way.
  2. Get out your White Lightning. This stuff is liquid bike sex in an injection-molded bottle. It's a wax-based lube, very water resistant. It has the almost magical feature of capturing dirt as it enters you drivetrain, and then floating it out. It's basically self-cleaning. There is no liquid lubricant like this on the planet. The wax is a particulate suspended in the mineral spirits of the solution, so make sure and SHAKE IT UP real good before applying. Fully emulsified, it looks milky white - good to go.
  3. APPLY to chain. I drip a fat drop onto each link pin and bushing, slowly COUNTERROTATING the chain as I apply it. When the chain is milky white, you're done with this step.
  4. LET STAND for 5 minutes.
  5. WIPE down with towel or sock. You're almost done.

5. Lube the pivot points.

Get out your PTFE based lubricant. The Teflon seems to hang around the metal and not seep or collect too much dust. A quick word here about WD-40. I am not going to knock the WD. It occupies a place in American handcraft just below duct tape. Of the many things it is: ubiquitous, indispensable, a field expedient flamethrower, the one thing it is not is a lubricant. It's a solvent. It's great for breaking open rusty hinges, or cracking a stubborn bolt, but it's really got no place being used on your bike. I say this because a lot of folks like to use WD for point lubrication because it's handy. It's just not a good choice.

  1. INSERT the point application tube into the nozzle or spout in question.
  2. APPLY a drop or two of lube to the following. Be careful careful as you do this, so you don't wind up lubing the rims or brake pads (see 4a):
    • The pivot points on your front derailleur
    • The pivot points on your rear derailleur
    • The guts of your shifters
    • The pivot points of your brakes and brake levers
    • The exposed cable near the cable sheathing.
  3. REMOVE AND STOW the applicator tube from your point lube. Use a rubber band or piece of tape to secure the tube to the lube container. Trust me on this one, do it RIGHT NOW. Lose the tube and you'll be cursing your laziness later. You can fold over a tab on the tape to make it easier to pull off later. Now you know all my secrets. You won't need me anymore.
  4. WIPE down the area around the points you lubed. Neatness counts.
  5. STOW the rest of your crap.
  6. CLEAN your hands with the GOJO.

6. Have a beer or a cup of coffee.

You're done! Take a deep, soul searching look into you bike's eyes. Feel the love, the radiant machine love.

Questions? Comments? Have a better way? Let me know...

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