Bike Cleaner/Lubes 101 by Cat MacKinnon

Cat MacKinnon has been a loyal reader since the early days of the site. She’s always had something great to share in her comments and in a recent article, I asked her for her opinion about bike lubes. Below is her comment, indulge in all this knowledge that is given before you. In all honesty, I really don’t know if Cat is a Wrench for a shop or what, but all I know is, she’s smart! Thanks Cat!

Bike-specific lubes and cleaners….honestly, i’d say that most of them, while they definitely work, are overpriced simply because they’re “made” for bikes (whatever that means). i’ve used TriFlow, FP-10 (a firearms lube with PTFE), RiG grease (general sporting goods grease), white lithium grease (from the autoparts store), Finish Line Wet, White Lightening Epic Ride (a lightweight lube), plus a couple other types i can’t remember. here’s what i’ve found…

honestly, i think most “specialized” lubes (wet-type, dry wax, ceramic, etc) are marketing gimmicks. the thing is, they work, but i don’t think they really do anything better than the less expensive “generic” stuff that’s not specifically marketed for cyclists. in fact, i think some of them actually make things worse: every wet lube i’ve tried, while it was fairly waterproof, attracted every single little speck of dirt and glued it to my drivetrain. and it’s a bitch to clean off your gear (it’s kinda like the factory lube that SRAM and Shimano pack their chains in).

in my opinion, something like TriFlow is probably the best all-around lube and will serve just about as well as any of the “bike specific” brands out there. the Epic Ride that i’ve got is almost identical, except it cost about $14 for a 4oz bottle! TriFlow is a general purpose lube that’s been around for years and it’s available at WalMart, auto parts stores and a bunch of other places. and it’s cheap. it does what lube is suppose to do, doesn’t attract too much dirt into the chain, and is pretty much the industry standard for lubing shift/brake cables. and it’s what, $4 a bottle?

funny thing is, i just read an interview a couple weeks ago with a very well-known bike builder, and he said he pretty much only uses TriFlow in his shop because he didn’t think the “bike specific” lubes were worth the money. i can’t remember who it was, but he’s a pretty well-known bike builder. my browser history clears once a week so i don’t have the link anymore, but if i can find the article again, i’ll post a link to it.

as for grease, i generally just use RiG, which is a general purpose sporting goods grease. works great, and i’ve used it to repack loose and caged-ball type bearings. it’s about $7 at most sporting goods places (and i think WalMart). i also use just plain white lithium grease from the auto parts store when necessary.

there are a couple general purpose lubes that i wouldn’t use on bikes: i don’t think 3-in-1 oil works very well (ironic, since it was originally invented for bicycles!). it won’t hurt anything, but i think it’s kind of an antiquated formula that doesn’t last very long. and i’m of the mindset that WD-40 should never be used on bicycles! it’s mostly meant as a waterproofer and eventually it gets sticky and then hardens up, trapping dirt and stuff under it, and can be very difficult to remove!

i think “bike cleaners” are an even bigger joke: i’ll use either just water with dish soap for basic stuff (dish soap is designed to be a gentle degreaser, after all). i just have to pay attention to not let it soak on non-stainless steel parts and to dry it thoroughly so those parts don’t rust. for hardcore cleaning i’ll use automotive brake or engine degreaser, although i am looking for a more enviromentally-friendly cleaner, since auto degreaser has some pretty nasty chemicals in it. also, nobody should EVER use auto cleaners/degreasers around carbon fiber bike parts or frames!!! they usually contain a lot of solvents, which can eat into the epoxy that holds the carbon fiber together!

so yeah, i think most bike-specific lubes and cleaners generally aren’t worth the money.

3 Replies to “Bike Cleaner/Lubes 101 by Cat MacKinnon”

  1. for the record, i’ve never worked at a bike shop. i’m just one of those people who’s always taking stuff apart to see how it works, which i think is the best way to learn a new mechanical skill. trial-and-error is how i learn (although it definitely has its negative aspects! there’s a good reason a couple of my friends gave me the nickname “Captain Danger”about 15 years ago!) anyway, i think there are very few things the average home mechanic couldn’t do if they just gave it a shot…although i fully admit that i have absolutely NO desire to attempt wheel building any time in the near future. i could PROBABLY do it (slowly), but it just seems tedious…also: i don’t wanna! i have no problem spending half an hour trueing a wheel, but i don’t want to waste an afternoon lacing up wheels and then stopping halfway through to figure out where i screwed up the spoke pattern;)

    i’m also part Scottish, so i tend to be pretty, um, “frugal” (which is the nice Scottish way of saying we’re cheap bastards;) if i can competently fix something myself instead of paying someone else to do it, then i’m all about that! also: books are awesome! “Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance”, the Park Tools “Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair” and Bicycling Magazine’s “Complete Guide to Bicycle Repair: Road and Mountain Bikes” are three books every mountain biker should own!

  2. Cat, don’t rule out wheelbuilding…I used to feel exactly the same way as you do about it, and I used Zinn’s simple guide to try it out. The first wheel took about 40 minutes to lace, and the second took about 10. Trueing and tensioning, obviously, took a lot longer…but the final results gave me a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that I’ve not felt in a long time.

    My favorite lubes are waterproof marine bearing grease for general purpose, Phil Wood grease for the parts that truly deserve it (Campagnolo hub bearings, in particular). And I make my own homebrew chain lube: 3 or 4 parts mineral spirits, 1 part synthetic 5W-30 motor oil. Cheap and super-effective as both a lube and a simple chain cleaner.

  3. Ghost Rider,
    yeah, it’s not the lacing that i really have an aversion to, so much as the tensioning and trueing. i’ve trued wheels a couple times, but i thought it was mind-numbingly tedious. being cheap, i’d still be more inclined to build a set of wheels myself, rather than paying a shop to do it, but i’m not looking forward to it.

    funny enough, just today i was window-shopping on a couple websites, looking at wheel sets. i started realising that, for the price of a fairly inexpensive wheelset (say, around $300 or so), i could build a set with some nice hubs AND nice rims, for about the same price. the only thing is that i’d need to buy a trueing stand (since i usually just true wheels while they’re on my bike), but i’ve got plans for a very inexpensive one that should only cost about $10 or so to build.

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