Tuning tip: bicycle chain waxing
Looking for a way to squeeze out every last watt? Then wax your bicycle’s chain. Some people might say now: “Come on, give me a break.” But waxing your bike chain instead of using classic lube to lubricate it, does not only lead to reduced friction and thus energy savings, but in the end also reduces wear, especially on expensive parts like sprockets and chainrings.
Not to mention all the filth that sticks to a classically lubricated chain when riding in wet conditions or offroad. On Alpecin Cycling website “Der Baranski”, who is well known in triathlon and time trial circles for his meticulous search for the last watt, elaborates on what other advantages wax on a bike chain provides, why wax is the better lubricant and how to wax a chain.
“Der Baranski”, please take over!
For generations, a bottle of lube was used for bicycle chain maintenance. Even for those who only took rudimentary care of their equipment, lubing the chain was quickly done and effective – and easily the lube also dissipated in places where it was not really wanted. I will explain to you in the following, why this is anything but desirable and what the approach of chain waxing is about.
Strictly speaking this subject will be split into two parts: In part one, I will introduce you to the how and why of chain waxing and, taking a closer look, show you which benefits chain waxing provides for pretty much every bike, even if you are not taking part in bike races or look for so-called “marginal gains”.
In part two, I’ll show you how to do it yourself. I’ll do a “nerd instruction” for all those of you who, like me, are eager to squeeze out the last watt of power – but you’ll also find a reduced version for the majority of cyclists who just want to find out what it is like to use wax instead of lube and as a result to get and keep a much cleaner drive train.
Waxing chains: why do it at all?
Everyone knows the feeling: you ride your new bike for the first time, and gears shift smoothly and quietly. However, this pleasure is short-lived. Even in dry weather conditions, dust and dirt easily stick to the original chain lube. And if you don’t wipe them off regularly, a black emery paste will form that doesn’t allow for quiet gear shifting anymore, and also wears down the chain and all other drive train parts involved, such as sprockets, pulley wheels and chainrings.
Those who do not pay attention will furthermore easily find the lube on their calves, inside their car or on the couch in your living room, depending on where you store your bike.
This is avoidable, however, by switching from oil-based lubricants to grease-free solutions.
A misconception that needs to be clarified at this point is that the classic lubes bike chains come with ex works automatically are the right lubricant for riding outside. Depending on the manufacturer, they primarily serve as protection against corrosion during storage and to ensure that the new bicycle shifts gears smoothly and, above all, quietly in the shop.
In this part of the world corrosion is only a minor concern when the bicycle is new. Worst case, it will be an issue when the lube film wears off or the weather is really bad. Further south, however, it is indeed an important factor even with new parts and especially with salty air and highly volatile temperatures, for example in tropical regions and when there is air conditioning.
This probably is one of the reasons, why Shimano’s chains, which are made in Asia, are lubricated quite heavily. SRAM’s chains, on the other hand, which are made in Portugal, are only lightly lubricated.
Tuning tip: always degrease a new chain!
For those who want to stick to lubricants other than melted wax: Get rid of the factory lube quickly! The best way to do so is by using brake cleaner, benzine or other solvents that do not affect the metal. Then apply the lubricant of choice on it and especially on the chain.
Waxing the chain: wear and dirt versus smooth running
The classic way most cyclists lubricate their chains is the following: At the latest when the chain runs noisily or sluggishly, they apply liquid lubricant on the chain’s surface. This is an easy method but comes with a few drawbacks that you should be aware of.
First of all, it is primarily the inside of the chain that needs to be taken care of, i.e., the contact surfaces of the chain’s rollers, plates and pins. This is where the forces are transmitted and where friction occurs. Strictly speaking, depending on the length of the chain, we talk about more than 100 tiny plain bearings that need to do hard work close to the ground without a seal under constant dirt bombardment.
Running other bearings on the bike without a seal would be unthinkable, but that’s exactly what happens with regard to the chain. A chain whose surface has been perfectly lubricated is therefore nice to have, but this measure is rather cosmetic and actually counterproductive.
Depending on how dirty the chain gets, the filth that initially only sticks to the chain’s surface will get inside the links. As a result, friction increases, and friction in turn increases wear.
The chain will lengthen because of the contact surfaces’ getting ground down further and further. There is only little play at each pivot point, but as soon as the chain gains more than 0.5 percent in length, the shifting performance will decrease rapidly. If it is not replaced, it will wear down the cassette, too.
With modern group sets, this can quickly add up to a lot of money. The wear kit of top group sets, e.g., consisting of a new chain and cassette costs a few hundred euros, compared to 25 to 50 euros at the most for a new chain.
Tuning tip: buy a chain gauge
A chain gauge is inexpensive and a lifetime purchase. Keep in mind that new SRAM AXS chains require a narrower gauge that will, however, fit all models.
Wear is much easier to measure than smooth running. Even if, of course, just about every manufacturer claims that their lube, wax or whatever is the fastest product on both the chain and the market.
To measure smooth running, i.e., how many watts of power are lost or saved, too many variables would need to be considered, such as torque, skew, chosen gear and the accuracy of the measurement. However, as a rule of thumb low wear is always a sign of low friction and thus also of a smoothly running drive train.
On the other hand, wrong lubrication and lack of care will lead to the opposite scenario: friction will ultimately wear down chain, cassette and, in the worst case, the expensive chainrings. Pulley rollers may even be grinded down until their teeth look like those of a shark.
So please keep in mind that friction always causes wear and loss of power. You don’t care about some watts more or less because you ride merely for pleasure? Then chain waxing is for you anyway, because it keeps wear and costs low – in addition to a few other benefits.
One of them is, e.g., that you will no longer flush lube from the drive to the brake discs on the other side when rinsing the bike with a hose. Another, that the whole wheel stays much cleaner than with fluid lubricants.
This may be especially important if your two-wheeled baby “sleeps” in the living room. Getting rid of the idea that the chain is only a wearing part and therefore does not need to be taken care of much, is also sensible. Thought through to the end this would mean, after all, that this concept goes for the whole bike, too. But considering today’s bikes hardly anyone would not take care of them, right?
Waxing the chain: why use wax instead of classic lube?
Interestingly, wax products, not classic lubes, offer a remedy for these problems. They mainly consist of paraffin. They are solid until they are warmed. Since wax is available as granules or solid blocks, it must be heated before applying it to the chain or bathe the chain in it.
The advantage compared to oil-based liquid lubricants is that it provides for an even and durable surface coating inside the chain instead of just applying a substance from the outside and by doing so carry adhering contamination into the chain. I’ll say it once again: It matters, what happens inside the chain, not on the visible surface.
You can find out how exactly this is done in the workshop. Just a few words up front regarding the topic “keep the inside clean”: By swivelling the chain in a bath of melted and therefore very fluid wax, no dirt, dust, or abrasion will stick inside of it. This is because the wax bath rinses it all out.
Tuning tip: chain lubrication with Molten Speed Wax
The first supplier of such a product for chain lubrication was “Molten Speed Wax” from the USA, which, as a small family business, still only offers anything related to chain waxing and does not belong to a larger chemical company, like many established suppliers of chain lubes.
Waxing chains: wax and what else?
Even though paraffin is originally a product of petroleum processing, it is neither toxic nor does it contain fat or oil. Moreover, it is used in the food-, pharmaceutical- and cosmetics industry and per se better than some oil-based lubricant or “miracle product” that carries a hazardous substance label – for those using it as well as for the environment in which the bike is ridden after all.
Wax adheres well and smoothens the surface – as you may have seen it with car polish – but it needs a few additives for high compressive strength to make sure that the lubricating effect lasts for a long time. Without these, the wax layer applied in the bath would quickly be dispersed by the torque. Therefore, pure paraffin is not the right choice, even if it looks and is applied almost exactly the same at first glance. A mix of paraffin as a carrier and some additives will lead to the desired result and is more feasible.
A sensible choice of additives is, e.g., tungsten disulfide (WS2) and molybdenum disulfide (MoS2). Both are extremely pressure-resistant, extremely fine – and grey to black, which is the colour of common wax products such as Molten Speed Wax or Silcas granules. When applied to silver-coloured chains, however, it fades to a whiff of grey.
This is because per bath only a few grams of wax stick to the chain, what makes waxing so productive. Depending on the product, 500 grams cost 35 to 45 euros, but depending on chain and usage, this will suffice for waxing at least 15 chains.
For quite some time I additionally used polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), also known as Teflon, for tuning. Early wax products contained it as an additive. PTFE is still found in various liquid lubricants and Shimano applies it under the designation Sil-Tec to their top chains.
However, it is at least controversial because it is actually microplastic. In dry form PTFE looks like baking powder when it is applied to a waxed chain.
The alternative for all “marginal gainers” who want to tap the full potential of their competition chains are tungsten disulfide and molybdenum disulfide in powder form applied afterwards. However, the chain won’t look clean afterwards, but as if it had been rolled in graphite powder – and it will stain everything in the vicinity grey.
Waxing chains: is it worth the effort in everyday life?
Sounds like a real effort, and something you’ve been doing well without so far? You are right. However, waxing the chain frees you from regularly cleaning the oily drive train and ideally you don’t just prepare one chain at a time, but a few, maybe some for yourself and some for your mate’s bike fleet.
This way you’ll always have a freshly waxed chain at hand when the lubrication effect wears off. Because that will be the case at some point. Depending on, e.g., whether you ride on- or offroad, weather and amount of dirt on your route, and the watts you generate, you’ll need to put on a new chain every 300 to 1,000 kilometres. With a chain lock, however, this is quickly done, and the used chain only needs to be wiped off and put back into the wax bath.
Tuning tip: use chain locks
No matter which waxing method you choose, I’d recommend using suitable chain locks and pliers. This way, even inexperienced riders can change the chain quickly and, unlike riveting, no new potential weak spot in the chain is created.
Even if manufacturers tell you that only their lock fits their chain, I have so far had very good experiences with those from YBN, which are reusable several times and not as expensive as those offered by Shimano and SRAM. However, be careful with SRAM AXS drives on road- and gravel bikes: due to the larger rollers of the chain, only the original SRAM locks work as of now!
FAQs on bicycle chain waxing
Before diving into the technical implementation in a workshop and via pictures in the second part (link), I’d like to provide the answers to the most frequently asked questions on this subject.
Do I need to clean not only the chain, but all drive train components?
Absolutely, as there may still be lube on the chainrings, the sprockets and the pulley wheels, which may run back into the waxed chain. Usually, a cloth and some petroleum ether or brake cleaner will do the job.
How long does the applied wax last?
Provided the chain and all drive train parts were properly degreased and cleaned before, the initial treatment will last for at least 300 kilometres. I rode 800 mountainous but dry kilometres in one week in a training camp without having to renew the wax coating.
I also waxed the chain, a chrome-plated SRAM model, Christoph Strasser rode with during his 24-hour world record – it lasted 1,000 kilometres, including several hours in the rain. What is important: E-bike riders may also wax their chains, but due to the high torque they’ll need to change them more often.
What happens in the wet?
Personally speaking, I get wet from above and from below in about half of my training rides. And Molten’s Speed Wax has so far worked convincingly in these conditions. After a ride in the rain, however, it is advisable to dry the chain and not leave it wet. Why? See below.
Does the wax also protect against corrosion, i.e., rust?
Honestly, there are better products for corrosion protection. But they often contain grease, and in my opinion, that’s what you want to avoid. If you put the bike in the shed after a ride in bad weather, you may find a little rust on the waxed chain the next time, depending on the quality of the material.
This hardly ever to never happens with top chains and chrome-plated products. But let’s be honest: We’re talking about high-end bikes that are to perform at top level. By the way, I also use the wax on my 29er mountain bike, which I only ride when the weather is too bad for road cycling. The wax also works great offroad.
Does a waxed chain run louder than a lubricated one?
Yes – and that’s only logical. Grease as a sound absorber is washed out of the chain. Therefore, the sound is different or louder than before notwithstanding the lubricating effect of the wax that is still there. And it is exactly where it is needed, primarily in the chain and not on its surface staining the rider’s calves. Modern bikes are constructed to feature many resonating bodies that amplify the chain’s sound: monocoque, high-profile rims, one-piece sprocket set and crisply adjusted gears.
How can you tell that the lubricating effect is subsiding?
You will notice it at some point when the chain squeaks. It doesn’t just run louder, but squeals as it would have done before when it needed more oil to run noiselessly again. There are a few alternatives.
You either put a dry lubricant on it, for example, from Dry Fluids, Silca or CeramicSpeed. As already mentioned, this rewaxing is my gold standard! Or you take off the chain, put it on a pile with other used ones, clean it and bathe it in wax. As there is no more grease on it, it’s quite an easy process.
It’s just a chain, isn’t this a little over the top?
Absolutely, if you run the whole process on only one chain. Do what I do, as already described above, and wax a whole batch of chains, which will last at least for the next few months. And consider how much time you’ll save by no longer needing to scrape off sticky lubricant paste from the drive train. That’s just no longer an issue, not to mention much less wear and tear …
Tuning tip: buy a ready-waxed chain
If you still consider this too much work, you may just buy a ready-waxed chain, for example in my derbaranski.shop: https://derbaranski.shop/collections/ketten-schmiermittel
Links on waxing chains
Nerds will find below some links to chain lube advice and reviews: