Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chain-L: The Best Chain Lube You Probably Are Not Using

Francis Bollag is a chain lube evangelist. Francis believes that his product is the best lube you can put on your chain and after having used Chain-L for the past three months, I've come to believe that he is right. He sent me a bottle to review, called repeatedly to make sure I used it and followed up relentlessly to chat about lube. While Francis is a persistent man, that is somehow fitting -- he makes the most persistent chain lube I've ever used.

Chain-L is the opposite of the lubes that promise to be "Clean". It is the thickness and texture of honey and it smells like hell. And by that I mean it smells like hell in the brimstone sense. "Yeah," Francis chuckles in his whatcha-gonna-do New York accent, "there's some sulphur in there. I'm makin' chain lube, not perfume." Francis will straight up tell you that his product is oil, but there is other stuff in there to make it long-lasting.

In the summer, in good conditions, Chain-L didn't seem like anything special, but when the weather turned worse Chain-L's tenacity became apparent. On our Oregon Coast Tour in September, the ocean air and morning fog made the drive-train on Christine's conventionally-lubed Allant chirpy while my Chain-L-lubed Allant remained silent. On the trip, Christine's bike got a couple of treatments with Tri-Flow (still one of my favorite general-purpose lubes) but on returning home, her bike got the Chain-L treatment.

Christine's commuting experience has been quite convincing. It's the rainy season in Issaquah now and she rides back and forth to work in the rain. Her bike sits out in the rain for hours while she works. It's been two months since I lubed her chain with Chain-L and it's still running smooth and silent.

Chain-L is messy to apply and requires a good wipe-down after application but the stuff certainly works. Properly applied it doesn't attract dirt any more than an other wet lube and I've found occasionally wiping down the chain with a dry rag without re-lubing keeps the chain from getting too gritty.

At about $12 per bottle, Chain-L might seem expensive, but given that I have it on four bikes now (my folding Dahon, my Octocog 29er and our two Allants) and I still have 3 ounces left in my 4-ounce bottle, I'd say Chain-L is a bargain.

You may have a problem finding Chain-L at your local bike shop, but I don't think that's as much a fault of the product as it is the nature of the bike business. Most bike shops work with a few big distributors (folks like QBP, SBS and J&B) to get most of their stock and don't think Chain-L is available via any of these distributors. Francis has signed up quite a few dealers via his grass roots evangelism and you can find a nearby dealer by consulting this map. This is actually quite impressive since Chain-L is a harder product to sell than some other lubes. Chain-L requires more consumer education and since the consumer will ultimately use less Chain-L then some competing products, there is little financial incentive for a bike shop to carry it. Sometimes the free-market works against the little guy,

But I sure wouldn't count Francis and his Chain-L lube out of the running. He's won Christine and me over and Ed Pavelka is also convinced. So is Larry Varney.

As of this writing, I have no financial interest in Chain-L (the shop I work at is not in Francis's dealer network...yet), but I sure hope Francis and his lube are a success. I'd like to see a guy who makes such a good lube succeed and I have one other reason for hoping he sticks around. In another year or two, I may need a second bottle of Chain-L.

Update as of 3:30 PM 11/16/11: I guess I'm more persuasive than I thought. Mike, the owner of the Bicycle Center of Issaquah, where I work, just ordered 18 bottles of Chain-L! They'll be in the shop on Friday.

Update as of 12/1/12: After a year of Christine and I using it on our bikes, I still have 1/3 of the 4 ounce bottle left. This highlights the problem of selling Chain-L from a shop perspective. It lasts too damn long. Customers who buy other lubes wind up spending more! Really, this is good stuff. If you can't find it at your local shop, ask for it. If you still can't get it locally, I'm adding an Amazon link below. (And yeah, I do make about 7% off the Amazon sales.)

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah, WA USA


Karl McCracken (twitter: @KarlOnSea) said...

Looks like good stuff - especially with the performance in the rain. I'm a big fan of waxing, as described on EcoVelo, especially on the bike I tend to ride in the winter - my Frenkenstein fixie. The only trouble is that it is such a faff to re-wax that I invariably end up topping up the lube with something wet after about 6-800 miles. So maybe I should just bit the bullet and return to the dark, gunky, smelly side?

Scott Loveless said...

"It is the thickness and texture of honey and it smells like hell. And by that I mean it smells like hell in the brimstone sense."

That sounds a whole lot like hypoid gear oil. Any chance you'd consider doing a comparison? Once I get my hands on some Chain-L, I'll do one myself. Thanks for the review!

Cherilyn said...

Great review! I tend not to think about such lowly maintenance issues until I get bit in the ass with a bike that won't work. Thanks for the reminder that basic care goes a long way.

Lawrence Fieman said...

Kent. I've been using "Chain-L" intermittently for about one year. I like it, and agree that it lasts longer than tri-flow. I got some when it was only 9 bucks a pop. But, all things considered, I'm not convinced that it is any better than Phil's Tenacious Oil or Chain Saw Lube. The three seem quite similar, and my thoughts are based on very casual observation. You can buy a quart or better of chain saw lube for the cost of a little bottle of "Chain-L.

Apis said...

I'd like to chime in and second the bar oil vote. For my money ($12 a gallon) bar oil is the bestest bang for my ducats going.

What's more. I have plenty lying around.

Anonymous said...

I've been using Chain L for over a year. Can't remember where I learned about it but bought it directly from the maker. I use it on 3 bikes--road, mountain, and fixie--and would never go back to anything else. I like the fact that it lasts for months. I probably get 1,500 miles out of it on my road bike. It doesn't last as long on my mountain bike but it still lasts many times longer than anything else.

Bob said...

Do you have a favorite dry lube, Kent?

Kent Peterson said...


I don't have a favorite dry lube because in my experience none of them work worth a damn in the damp conditions we have around here.

John McDonald said...

I'm riding from Kodiak, Alaska to Key West, Florida this summer.

I am thinking of trying to lube my chain with paraffin wax instead of other lubricants.

I don't mind the idea of having to reapply along the way. what I am interested in is keeping things clean.

Do you know anyone with experience with this old school technique?

My blog on the trip is

Lief said...

I've been using Chain-L for over a year. I commute about 4-5K miles per year in the Seattle area and I've only lube my chain once every 4 months or so since I started using this.

I agree it is really great stuff and because I like it so much I was glad to see a far reaching blogger such as yourself write about it so the owner can keep on making it.

Thanks to you and to chain-l.

roan said...

In summer I use a wax lube. But with the return of rain here in the PNW came the need to switch to a wet libe. I came across a bottle of Dura Lube that came out as a oil additive about 20 yrs ago. It was advertised as reducing engine wear.
Seems to last better than other wet lubes I've used. Much stronger smell too.

jason reeves said...

I am in Socal, and the weather is pretty good, but by the beach my chain picks up all kind of crap. I've been using Rock and Roll, but I want to give this a try. I've been staying in shape with a rip 60 as my knee has been really sore lately.

Francis (chain-L's maker) said...

To those who compare it to Phil Tenacious, gear oil, chain saw oil, and other products, there are points of similarity to all of these, but none are the same. I made Chain-L to incorporate the best balance of their properties specific to the needs of bicycle chains.

Also, in comparing cost, it isn't cost per ounce that matters, but cost per mile. Chain-L users go incredibly far between applications, and typically spend well less than $12.00 per year for chain lube, not to mention the value of the time saved with the low application frequency, and the benefit of a smoother running drive train.

If you're happy with something else, stay with it. But if your drive train doesn't run smooth and quiet, or if your current lube lets you down in the rain, or needs too much maintenance time then Chain-L may be worth a try.

Anonymous said...

Chain-L works superb for me in central SoDak. Typically I ride 4-5k miles/y and the last two years I've used ~two chains/y and ~2 lubes/chain, getting >1000 miles per lube. I've tried all the lubes recommended by the LBS as well as those in Rapid City and haven't found anything that remotely compares/competes w/ Chain-L.
BTW: We're organizing the second annual Tour de Oahe for June 30, 2012 that'll traverse the Buffalo Ranch where Dances With Wolves was filmed in case you're in the area check it out, we have a brand new road with smooth wide shoulders and very, very low traffic.

MzunguEriki said...

Kind of weird. I read this post and then the next day I went to help unpack the Tanzania National Team bikes.
They came back from Tour of Rwanda and Eritrea hosting African championships. along the way they came back with a bottle of Chain-L.

I wanted to steal it and try as I am tired of plain engine oil and expensive unavailable chain lubes.

rtclark said...

I love Marvels Mystery Air Tool Oil.
Very light (about 10 weight), penetrates the entire chain, makes your chain silent, and much easier to pedal.
Also, it is very clean. It does not attract grime to the extent of most chain lubes.
For $15 you can buy a life time supply.

conifir said...

i carry a lube for my chain...but after one mess after another...i stopped off at a hardware store and picked up a couple of small syringes to apply my chain lube...and it made a world of difference in the previous messy situations i had

Augustas said...

I have heard, that regular butter and even hard soap can be used as a chain lubricant. Is this true? Sounds to me like an emergency backup.

Prodromal said...

You can make your own by adding aluminum hydroxide to oil. or just get STP oil treatment, it is the same as this.

Prodromal said...

I forgot to mention that this does wash out when riding in the rain. i have used for two years and I am not satisfied with it.