- If you don’t lube your bike chain you may experience mechanical issues such as chain noise, dryness, rust, dirt & gunk, snapped chains, chain slips, and damaged bicycle components.
- An unlubed bike chain can also cause performance issues like poor shifting, stuck gears, abrupt stoppages, and inefficient cycling.
- Applying lube to your bike chain every 100 to 150 miles or once per week will ensure that the chain is properly lubricated and that your bike performs optimally.
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Keeping a bike chain lubricated is a routine part of every cyclist’s maintenance and upkeep, but what happens if you don’t lube the chain?
If you don’t lube your bike chain you may experience mechanical issues such as chain noise, dryness, rust, dirt & gunk, snapped chains, chain slips, and damaged bicycle components. In addition, an unlubed bike chain can cause performance issues like poor shifting, stuck gears, and abrupt stoppages.
After extensively researching bicycle maintenance, I have gathered enough information to determine what happens if you don’t lube your bike chain. In this article, we’ll be taking a closer look at the importance of maintaining and lubing your bike chain to help you avoid unnecessary and costly repairs.
Do Bike Chains Need to Be Lubed?
Yes, bike chains need to be lubed. You can procrastinate this essential maintenance task for days, weeks, or even months but all bikes will require their chains to be lubed eventually.
As you ride your bike, you will notice the condition of your chain starts to deteriorate and performance issues become apparent. If you want to keep your bike running smoothly and efficiently, I recommend lubing your chain regularly.
What Happens If You Don’t Lube Your Bike Chain?
Bike maintenance is by no means a fun task, but it’s a key aspect of cycling that we all have to commit to. Keeping your bike chain lubed is mandatory and you should check on its condition routinely to avoid running into performance and mechanical issues.
Unnecessary bike repairs are expensive and tedious, which is something you will likely encounter if you fail to lube your chain.
It’s easy to underestimate just how badly an unlubed chain can affect the condition of your bike, especially if you continue to ride actively with it in this condition. These are the mechanical issues you will experience if you don’t lube your bike chain.
The first thing that people tend to notice when their bike chain is unlubed is a horrible screeching or clanking noise coming from their chain.
Depending on the condition, the piercing sound may become noticeable while you are riding or changing gears.
Moving mechanical parts should rarely (if ever) be dry. Keeping metal parts lubed will ensure that they are running smoothly and not breaking down on you.
After the lube on the bicycle chain starts to deteriorate, you will notice your chain may feel dry to the touch. A properly lubed chain should feel oil and greasy.
One of the key reasons that you want to keep your chain lubed is to prevent rust. Once the chain has been unlubed and exposed to moisture long enough, the metal will start to develop rust.
At this point, the chain requires immediate lubing and may even be damaged past the point of repair.
Dirt and Gunk Buildup
While dirt and gunk are telltale signs of a dirty bike chain, they can also indicate an unlubed chain. Keeping your bike chain lubed is arguably more important than keeping it clean (within reason).
As the lube on your bike chain dries out, you will notice the dark grease transform from an oily substance to a more solid gunk. This gunk will start to spread all over your sprockets, cogs, and gears.
If you fail to lube your chain and continue to ride with it in this condition, you can expect it to snap and break eventually. Once a chain has snapped, your only real option is to buy a replacement.
Chain slips happen to the best of us, but they can be significantly mitigated through proper bike maintenance.
If you do not lube your bike chain, you can expect chain slips to be a common occurrence on your cycling trips. Without proper lubrication, the chain will not rotate reliably and will likely slip off due to friction.
Damaged Bike Components
Your bike chain’s performance directly affects other components on your bicycle. An unlubed bike chain can potentially result in additional damage to mechanical parts such as your derailleur, gears, sprocket, and cogs.
Cycling Performance Issues
Your cycling performance will be directly affected by the condition of your chain, with damaged or unlubed chains hindering your ability to ride your bike. These are the cycling performance issues you may encounter if you do not lube your bike chain.
Your ability to smoothly shift gears is highly dependent on how lubed your chain is. You need to maintain consistent speeds as you shift gears to ensure that each gear lines up properly.
A poorly lubed chain will cause poor shifting performance and will decrease cycling efficiency considerably.
Once a chain is in bad shape due to a lack of lubrication, you may not be able to change gears at all.
This will result in your bike being stuck in a single gear, essentially turning any bicycle into a fixie, provided it's still rideable.
If you’ve ever ridden a bike with an unlubed chain, one of the main things you will have to deal with is abrupt stoppages.
When your chain is unlubed and slips or gets stuck in a certain gear, this can easily result in the bike coming to a complete halt.
The bottom line is that the performance and mechanical issues that an unlubed bike chain causes will ultimately make your cycling inefficient.
Your ability to accelerate and change gears will be so poor that you will constantly have to stop to fix slips and handle repairs on the road.
Is an Unlubed Bike Chain a Safety Risk?
Yes. Given that an unlubed chain can directly affect your bike's mechanical components and your cycling performance, it does pose some safety risks.
You need to consider that one of the best ways to ensure a safe cycling experience is to ride a bike that you know is reliable and in good shape. A bicycle with an unlubed chain is unpredictable and the chain can snap or slip at any moment.
If this happens to you while you are out riding, especially if you are around traffic or pedestrians, you can potentially endanger yourself and those around you. At the end of the day, the smallest mishaps can result in major accidents, which is why any cyclist will tell you that keeping your bike chain lubed is a simple and essential part of riding safely.
How Often Should You Lube a Bike Chain?
As a general rule of thumb, I recommend lubing your bike chain every 100 to 150 miles or once per week, especially once the factory grease wears off. This will ensure that your chain stays consistently lubricated and that you don’t run into mechanical or performance issues when cycling.
That said, there are a number of factors that may require you to lube your bike chain more often than this. Climate can play a big role in this regard, especially if you find yourself riding in wet or humid conditions.
The moisture will remove the lube and essentially clean any of the grease in the chain. If you live in a wet climate or are riding during a rainy season, you should lube your bike more often, perhaps as frequently as every few days.
Dry conditions on the other hand, especially in relatively clean urban areas, may require less frequent lubrication. Ultimately, the best way to determine how often you should lube your bike chain is to check on the condition of the chain routinely.
If you notice that the chain does not feel oily or that you are encountering performance issues and chain slips, this should indicate that you need to lube your bike chain ASAP.
How to Lube a Bike Chain
Bike maintenance can be time-consuming and tedious, but this is an essential aspect of being a cyclist. Rolling up your sleeves and assessing the condition of your bike regularly will ensure that it performs optimally and reliably.
Applying wet lubes to your bike chain only takes a few minutes and the performance boost that you get from doing so will be well worth it. This may actually end up saving you a considerable amount of time on your rides as you will have better cycling efficiency with fewer performance issues.
Before you can start lubing your bike chain, you need to ensure that you have all of the necessary supplies on hand to get the job done. Gather the following supplies to lube and clean your bike chain:
- Chain Lube
- Cleaning Rags
- Degreasing Liquid
- Plastic Squeeze Bottle
- Bucket (with water)
- Bike Stand
- Chain Cleaner (optional)
Step 1: Clean the Bike Chain (Optional)
This is an optional step for cyclists who keep their bike chains clean. However, if you’ve neglected your bike chain for a while, it’s important to clean it properly before applying lube. Otherwise, you will simply be turning the gunk and dirt build-up on your chain into a grimy and greasy paste.
Cleaning a bike chain is not difficult and can be done in 30 minutes or less. This process is a lot easier if you can properly position your bike on a stand, as this will let you rotate the pedals and chain effortlessly in an upright position.
Alternatively, you can flip the bike over so that it's standing on its seat and handlebars if you don’t have a stand at home. Remember to do this in a garage or on a surface where you don’t mind grease and oil making contact with the ground. Follow these steps to clean your bike chain:
- Fill squeeze bottle with degreaser
- Apply degreaser to chain while spinning the pedals
- Soak rag with degreaser
- Continue pedaling and drag the rag along the chain to remove grease
- Use a chain cleaner to remove excess grease (optional)
- Spray the chain down with water to remove any remaining degreaser
- Use a sponge with soapy warm water if there is any remaining degreaser
- Rinse and repeat until all degreaser is removed and the chain is clean
Step 2: Apply Chain Lube
At this point, your chain should be spotless and this will allow you to apply lube without creating a mess.
Make sure to have your favorite bike chain lubricant handy for this step with your bike either on a stand or flipped upside down. Follow these steps to lube your bike chain:
- Open the bike chain lube product
- Rotate bike pedals with your hands
- Place lube nozzle near the chain by the rear derailleur
- Begin slowly dripping wet lube onto each chain link while rotating the pedals
- Apply the drops of lube evenly across the chain rollers
- Stop applying lube and continue rotating the pedals
- Rotate the pedals until you see that lube has spread across the entire chain
- Wipe away excess lube with a clean rag to prevent debris and dirt build-up
Step 3: Apply Chain Lube to Bike Components
A great way to ensure that your chain stays lubed is to target all of the components that the chain comes in contact with. After you’ve thoroughly lubed your chain, add drops of the bike chain lubricant to the following components on your bike:
- Rear Gear
- Chain Rings
This will ensure that your bike runs smoothly and that other components are properly lubed. Ideally, you should clean all of these components beforehand using the same method mentioned above.
What Alternatives Are There to Bike Chain Lubes?
Chain lubes are the best approach to maintaining your bike, but not everyone has this kind of product handy when they notice their chain needs lubricating.
Bicycle chains can be lubed with various products and they often do just as good of a job. If you don’t have standard bike lube handy, consider using one of the following products instead:
- Motor Oil
- Chainsaw Oil
- 3-in-1 Oil
- Clipper Oil
- Cooking Oil (last resort option)
Why Does My Chain Keep Slipping After Applying Lube?
It can be quite frustrating to deal with a slipping bike chain. A lot of cyclists tend to experience this issue due to their chain being dry and unlubed, which causes it to slip when they go out cycling.
However, if you’ve already applied lube to your chain and it continues to slip, you may have a more serious problem on your hands.
If the chain is slipping after lubricating, check the condition of the chain to see how tight it is. Bike chains should be tight with just a small amount of play.
A loose bike chain will cause slips, requiring you to tighten the chain to resolve the issue.
Worn Out Rear Gear
The teeth on your rear gear are what allow the chain to create movement. As each tooth on the gear aligns with the chain links, your pedaling motion with cause the bike to move forward.
However, if the teeth on the gear are worn out, this may cause the chain to slip, even after proper lubrication. In this case, your best bet is to replace the worn-out gear.
Whether it's due to rust or simply natural wear and tear, you can expect your bike chain to get damaged over the years. Proper maintenance helps prevent this, but all mechanical things break down eventually.
If your chain has been severely damaged and is constantly slipping because of it, there is no amount of lube that will prevent it from slipping. Replacing the chain with a new one is the only way to remedy the situation.