Sunday, April 1, 2012

Product review: Chain-L chain lube

The world of chain lubing and maintenance is one of strong convictions and fervent beliefs: to clean or not to clean? Wet lube or dry lube? Teflon or oil?

During the past couple of years I have almost exclusively used FinishLine Dry Teflon lubricant. My trusted LBS, Swan Cycles, recommended it--and more importantly: sold refills for cheap. The Finish Line lube is great in that it does not leave any dirt-attracting residue on the outside of the chain, therefore keeping it relatively clean. The downside is that it gets washed out pretty quickly, especially when riding in the rain or on wet roads. During winter this would often mean that my chain squeakingly demanded more lube after just a day. And since I'm a bad, bad bike owner, those demands often were ignored for several days...
Retrogrouch-friendly design

Consequently, the idea of a lube that withstands wet conditions without the constant need to re-lube seemed pretty attractive for riding in Montreal's winter. I first read about Chain-L on Kent's Bike Blog, whose writing I appreciate and whose bike-related opinions I trust. He was full of praise for Chain-L and commenters seemed to agree. On the Chain-L website there are also links to a bunch of very positive reviews from reputable sources. So when the accomplice went to visit some friends in Portland, I asked her to stop by at Clever Cycles and buy me a bottle of that wondrous fluid.

This is not chain lube (Image by Dvortygirl under a CC-BY-SA license)

Chain-L is sold in 4 ounce bottles (1 oz trial bottles are available, too) and it costs 12 dollars. This comes out to 10.14 for 100ml, compared to 6.76/100ml for FinishLine Dry or 8.74/100ml for Phil's Tenacious Oil. The lube resembles in color and texture Grade A maple syrup (translation for people from non-maple producing states: dark golden color and fairly thick). The instructions recommend to apply one drop per chain link, ideally on a new or thoroughly cleaned chain. After giving it at least 10 minutes to permeate into the chain and turning the cranks a couple of time you wipe of the excess from the outside of the chain. The stuff really is sticky and when you watch the chain running over the cassette you can see thin oily threads form between cogs and pulley wheels. The manufacturers warns you that due to its viscosity then drivetrain will attract a lot of gunk but I didn't find it as bad as I expected.

So what's my verdict?

Initially I was pretty disappointed. I applied Chain-L on Wolfgang, my all-purpose Cross-Check, some time in February, a time when there was still plenty of snow around and roads were wet constantly. Within just a few days my drivetrain started squeaking and surface rust was clearly visible. I reapplied the Chain-L, and this time around it lasted a little longer, but still nowhere near the hundreds or even thousands of kilometers that other people claimed. The next attempt with the lube was on the following Sunday: the weather was predicted to be lovely for March: 10°C and sunny, and so, after lubing up the chain in the morning, I set out for a 120km, 6 hour ride around half of Montreal Island. There were still plenty of snow heaps around, and thus a good deal of riding was on wet roads. Come next day's commute: squeak squeak squeak. So within just one ride all of the lube had gotten washed out again.

So what's going on? A) I'm doing something wrong. B) There's something about the environment that negatively affects my outcomes; or c) All the positive reviews for Chain-L are written by shills or people who don't know what they're talking about.

A) seems pretty unlikely, as there's not that much you can do wrong when applying chain lube. B) seems more likely. At least in the first weeks of me testing Chain-L there probably was still quite a bit of salt on the roads and it's possible that Chain-L and corrosive salt water don't go together well. I've kept using Chain-L since then and once roads switched from wet to dry and salt-free the lube did stay on longer, but still nowhere near the "1000 miles in the wet" some people have boasted.

Which leads me to C): As mentioned in the introduction, the world of chain lube is an esoteric one and has lots of strong believers and little hard evidence. I find I hard to believe (ha, there we go again!) that any lube will withstand 1000 miles in the wet on a bicycle. And anyone who claims otherwise is probably a little gullible or wants to sell me something. [edit: I must have been in a bad mood when I wrote this paragraph. Since it's already out there, I don't just want to delete it, but say that this doesn't add anything to the review and should have been left out in the first place. Apologies.]

Now this doesn't mean that Chain-L is necessarily a bad lube--in winter it clearly is superior to dry lubes. And who knows if, assuming I reapply it frequently enough, it will prolong the lifespan of my chains and cogs. But I'm very skeptical if it is superior to any other oil-based lubes.

The only comprehensive lab test of lubes I know was done in 2009 by German road bike magazine tour (free registration required for the download). However, performance in wet conditions was not tested. A really nice real-life test was done by Rainer Mai (German only; results table here) but nobody has replicated his results and there doesn't seem to be any systematic relationship between the type of lube and its performance.

So to sum up: in a world belief and convictions it's probably best to be an agnostic. For me, that means that on the commuter I'll use up the bottle of Chain-L (and keep reporting) and on the fair-weather Gunnar I'll stick with the FinishLine Dry. And once both bottles have been used up I'll try the next wonder lube.


  1. I gave up on dry lube. That stuff is just too toxic for me, and doesn't last beyond one ride unless it's perfectly dry out and I stick to paved roads all day (both of which are unlikely scenarios). I think what I was using is FL in the green bottle for "wet." The guys at the Bike Rack cringed when I tried to buy more in the summer, but I told them that my eyes burned last time I tried to apply dry lube, and I wasn't willing to do that again. I've never seemed to notice any downsides to wet lube either, whether that was on the commuter in rain/snow, or on the race bike on a nice day. I just apply it once in a while, and wide off the excess every once in a while. It certainly lasts a while between applications, so long as excess is taken off since otherwise it's just attracting more dirt. I also stopped using degreaser and haven't noticed any issue there either. One less toxic chemical seems good to me.

    I saw Kent's review too and considered trying Chain-L, but I guess I'll wait on that idea.

  2. I'm guessing it's the salt. We don't salt the roads here in the Pacific Northwest. I really go months in wet weather without having to reapply Chain-L.

    Also, apply it to a warm chain & let it soak in. Use "too much", wipe off the excess, ride around a bit, wipe off the "new" excess & crud.

    BTW, no I get no kickback from Chain-L. We do sell it in the shop I work at, but we sell far more of other lubes that aren't as messy to apply.

    1. Kent, I just noticed your comment now. Re-reading my post, it sounds overly harsh. It was not my intention to accuse you of anything. Despite our different experience with Chain-L what I've said in the opening paragraphs still stands: I find your bike-related advice generally useful, trustworthy, and interesting.

      Back on topic: The salt might have something to do with it, but after another couple of months of using it I can say for sure that that's not the only issue. In April, for example, I did a ride from Montreal to Toronto, about 650 km. I had lubed up the chain before I left and there was zero rain on the way. By day 4 or 5 I definitely started noticing that the chain was starting to run dry. And after riding through the rain I still pretty much have to relube immediately to avoid rust and squeakiness.

  3. I read an article in a motorcycle magazine back in the early nineties comparing many different chain lubricants, even plain motor oil. The chain lube that won that shootout by a good margin was PJ1 Black non o-ring lubricant. Like most other motorcycle chain lubes it comes in a spray can and is very tacky when it dries but what seems to set it apart is that it contains molybdenum sulfide, a very slippery powder. I sometimes use Rock n Roll Extreme or Finish Line dry for cleanliness but when I want a chain lubricant that lasts and withstands extreme conditions it's PJ1 Black.