Friday, November 16, 2012

What's in the Stand: On Oiling Your Chain Too Much

This is a scene I see far, far too often. Somewhere along the line this person was told by someone, typically a friend, well-wisher, or, God forbid, bicycle mechanic, that they needed to oil their chain regularly to get the highest level of performance and service life from their equipment. Since people generally like to take care of the things in which they've invested the rider took this advice to heart and oiled their bicycle's drivetrain regularly and with enthusiasm.
But here's the problem; it freaking nasty and gross. Nothing good is coming from having your bicycle drivetrain looking like this. In fact, there are a great many bad things that come from having a bike that looks like this. First of all, the excess oil acts like glue, trapping dirt and grime and coating the parts of your bicycle with an abrasive glop that wears out parts. .

The two cogs pictured are a great example. The cog on the left is shiny and new,the cog on the right was removed from this bike. The teeth on the used cog shouldn't look like that. The teeth on the middle chainring looked the same. At this point there is nothing to do here but start replacing parts. This is the kind of job I don't particularly like because it frequently leads to a kind of domino effect, where changing one part leads to having to change just about everything else. A chain replacement ($40) can quickly spiral into a drivetrain replacement ($145-ish for parts and labor), and that still may not solve your problems. When a bike is this worn out it's a slippery slope to having a repair bill that's worth more than the bike.

Second, the filth is not isolated to your drivetrain. All the moving parts of the bike spray filth across the back half of the bike. The frame, wheel, and cranks all get covered with a heavy misting of sticky, black gunk. You can see it on the rim in the picture. The bigger problem with the filth on the rim is that the oil is getting sprayed on the brake surface which means that every time the rider uses the rear brakes oil and dirt are getting ground into the brake pads. This means less effective stopping power, increased pad and rim wear from the contaminants that are being ground into the parts, and, more than likely, squeaking brake pads. The solution for this is more new parts (brake pads), and a thorough cleaning of the rim.

Long story short, your bike shouldn't look like this. If your bike does look like this then you're doing something wrong. It's that simple.

How Do I Oil My Chain?
It's a lot simpler than most people are willing to admit. Glossing over a whole other argument over what kind of chain oil to use (In a nutshell: as long as it's intended for bicycles, go for it. Never use WD-40), I recommend applying the chain oil liberally and then, here's the crucial step, WIPING THE EXCESS CHAIN OIL OFF.
If you can see wet oil on the chain, you are not done wiping. If the chain is still black and crusty then you are not done wiping. Most chains have some kind of writing stamped on the outside of the plates. Can you read it? No? Then keep wiping. Your chain should look shiny, silver, and mostly dry. The oil has already gotten to where it needs to be (the inside of the chain rollers and in between the plates) and no amount of wiping will make that oil go away. If you're wondering if you've wiped enough then the answer is no, you probably haven't. Give it another wipe.

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