It’s well-known that you should oil your chain to get the best performance out of your bike, to keep the drivetrain running smoothly and quietly and to prolong the life of the chain, cassette and chainrings. But with a bewildering choice of lubes in any decent bike shop, which should you buy?
We’re going to tackle one common question we get asked an awful lot: wet or dry lube? Knowing the difference between these two common types of lubes can help you in making the right decision when you’re shopping for chain lube.
And if you’re wondering why you can’t use WD40 or GT85, they’re water displacement products and should only really be used after cleaning your bike and before correct lubrication. As with any products, you should follow the instructions because generally it’s recommended to start with a clean chain before applying lube, rather than just layering it up.
Do I really need to lube my chain?
Aerodynamic, or wind drag, is the biggest obstacle to going fast. Friction in the drivetrain also contributes to overall drag but a modern drivetrain is in the region of 90-98% efficient, depending on the condition of the chain and several other factors.
In a study of the efficiency of bicycle chain drives by James Spicer in 2000, it’s suggested that chain lubrication has a negligible effect on efficiency under laboratory conditions, and that friction can account for only a few percent of the overall losses in drivetrain efficiency.
That said, we’d still advise ensuring your chain is correctly lubed because while it might not help you go any faster, it'll certainly prevent the chain from going rusty and squeaking, and there's nothing more annoying than a squeaky chain. Okay, maybe a creaking press-fit bottom bracket...
The ceramic option
There is a third way. Ceramic lube has gained a lot of popularity as one of the most recent advances in chain lube technology. It’s available in wet or dry versions and contains nanoparticles that form a protective barrier on the chain and often comes with big claims of reduced friction and increased efficiency. It can also provide good longevity, reducing lube reapplications, ideal if you want minimal servicing needs. The downside is that ceramic lubes are often quite a lot more expensive than regular wet and dry lubes.
So what’s the difference?
Okay, so the dry lube comes out of the bottle wet, commonly a fast-flowing liquid but once it dries it leaves a wax film on the chain. It’s this wax that provides the necessary lubrication, the liquid is simply the carrier for the wax.
A wet lube is, as its name suggests, is a wet lube and is typically a thick consistency that flows slowly and sticks to everything it is applied to (and sometimes parts that the bottle isn’t aimed at). It remains as a liquid on the chain, unlike dry lube which dries out leaving behind a waxy residue.
Which to choose?
Which lube you choose comes down to the riding conditions. A dry lube doesn’t attract dirt and for that reason it’s a better lube for dry conditions, but the downside is that it often does not last as long as the more durable wet lube. So if you’re doing short rides in sunny weather on dry roads, a dry lube is a good pick. It has the benefit of keeping your drivetrain nice and clean too, you just have to remember to reapply it more frequently.
If you prefer to keep your bike in pristine condition and are happy regularly cleaning and servicing your bike, a dry lube might be the right choice. Because it doesn’t attract grit and dirt like a wet lube, you can simply add a new application of dry lube to keep the drivetrain running sweetly.
Where wet lubes have the trump card is in sub-optimal conditions. The wet lube is more durable and sticks to the chain better when riding in the rain, and it’s a good year-round option for UK cyclists. Because it’s more durable it needs less frequent applications and is good for very long rides.
The downside is that it can be messy and leave your chain thick with gloop if you put too much on, and because it’s wet it can attract road dirt and grit. You’re going to need to wash your bike more regularly. Wet lubes suit cyclists that don’t want to have to inspect and lube the chain on a regular basis, as you can go many miles between applications.
The road.cc recommendation
So if you’re a regular commuter or a long distance cyclist, then a wet lube is going to be our tip for you. It will not only last longer but also handle any weather conditions.
If you’re a racer or a rider of a super high-end bike in the sunshine then it's dry lube all the way. There’s no mess and your chain stays looking clean, just remember to reapply more often.
Conventional wisdom points to a wet lube for wet winter cycling, and a dry lube for summer cycling when it’s dry and conditions are good. It’s a good rule of thumb to follow and you won’t go wrong if you choose this approach.
The lube choices
Now you know what type of lube you need for your riding, here are some of the best lubes as tested by the road.cc tech team - each of these products scores four or more stars so you know they're worth the money.
Green Oil's Wet Chain Lube is an exceptionally good barrier against water, dirt and corrosion, seriously reduces maintenance and won't turn the planet into an unliveable wasteland. The price is good and the applicator is well designed. There's really nothing not to like.
B'Twin 300 Lubricant is a cheaper option than many lubes out there. It's easily applied and will keep your chain and derailleur running smoothly. For the price of £2.49 there isn't really a bad thing to say about this lubricant. You probably won't go through it twice as fast as anything twice the price, even with weekly applications (more so during wet/winter weather), making it an excellent choice.
Pedro's is a long-running lube specialist and the Syn Lube is ideal for British road cyclists and commuters because we found it easily lasted 130 miles of winter riding in a mixture of wet and dry conditions over clean and absolutely filthy roads, keeping rust at bay without a buildup of congealed sludge on the derailleur pulleys or sprockets.
Rock n Roll Absolute Dry Chain Lube is a super-clean-running formula designed primarily for the drier months, but several very soggy weeks suggest it's one of the most tenacious. Unlike most dry/wax types, this doesn't scab off and evict contaminant as you ride, but is designed not to collect grot in the first instance. Friction is extremely low, and transmissions feel crisp and silent. Staying prowess is surprisingly good by the standards of the genre.
Fenwick's Stealth Road Bike lube is a phenomenally clean-running, long-lasting synthetic lubricant and probably my favourite of all the many space age preps I've tested to date. At £9.99 it's highly recommended, and gives comparably sophisticated chain lubes a seriously good run for our hard earned, although methodical preparation/curing times won't suit everyone.
Wickens & Soderstrom No.5 Drivetrain Lubricant is a thinnish lube that does a great job of keeping things quiet whilst being non-gunky and easy to clean off. That's about as good as chain lube gets. At £14 per 125ml bottle it should do you about 3,000 miles if you don't slosh it on. Yes, that's a 'premium' price – Muc-Off's C3 is £12 for 120ml, Juice Lubes' Viking Juice is £10 for 126ml – but for the quietness, cleanliness and ease of clean-up, it's the bottle I reach for.
Smoove is a thin, white liquid that needs applying to the rollers-only as you turn the chain to get a light, even coverage. Then you leave it overnight to dry (Smoove recommends this, though it says an hour is enough) and the next day, the chain appears completely dry. Only by touching it can you detect the presence of the lube, in a faint stickiness.
My plan was to see how far I could ride before chain noise became noticeable, but when I got to 200 miles it dawned on me that I was never going to get a grinding chain, because Smoove doesn't work like that. While most wax lubes work by flaking off, taking the dirt with them, Smoove creates this long-lasting coating which doesn't fall off (hence the long-lasting lubrication) but does hang on more to the dirt. Whether this is an issue for you depends on how often you like to clean your chain, but if you're a frequent cleaner, then Smoove works very well in between cleans.
Do you go wet or dry?
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David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.