Here’s the science behind it.
Lighter wheels and a featherweight frame might improve your time (and damage your wallet). But don’t overlook a much cheaper way to cheat the clock: Eliminating extra friction on your drive train.
“In an optimized system, friction in the drivetrain accounts for a loss of about 8 watts at a 250-watt output,” says Jason Smith, who runs an R&D lab for Ceramic Speed—a Denmark-based components company. Smith once ran FrictionFacts.com, a website that independently tested drivetrains and lubes. A loss of 8 watts “means it’s about a 98 percent efficient power transfer, and that’s pretty good. But in a non-optimized system, with a standard or slow lube, you can have 20 watts of loss at a 250-watt output, which is about a 10 percent loss.”
Here’s the deal: Every time you push down on a pedal, your chain engages and disengages with cogs at eight different spots on your drivetrain (think your derailleur pulleys, chain rings, and rear cogs). The chain moving across these spots creates friction, eating up some of the energy you’re pushing into the pedals.
But there’s also something called “stiction” to worry about too. This is the resistance created by the individual chain links. “There are 40,000 chain link bendings per minute,” Smith says. All those tiny movements can eat up energy, especially on an un-lubed chain.
￼￼To beat both friction and stiction you need to make things good and slick. But beware: Not all slippery is created equal. For example, olive oil is technically going to make things slide, but it’s got a lot of what Smith calls “viscous drag.” “Grease and oil are similar in lubricity [meaning their ability to lubricate], but oil is thick and tends to take a lot more energy to move parts through it than grease.” The thicker the lube, the greater your viscous drag.
That’s not always a bad thing. “Wet, nasty condition lubes are usually pretty thick,” Smith says, because those lubes tend to stay on better, and can withstand mud, sweat, and unrelenting downpours. But on sunny, dry days? Dry lube wins—especially in a place like Colorado or California. “Even if it’s a very fast lube, if it’s wet, it’s going to pick up dirt and grime which become like sandpaper on your chain,” Smith says. Pretty soon, your fast lube becomes a drag.
Dry lubes work by using a liquid chemical carrier agent that evaporates, leaving just the lubricant (which is often a wax) on the chain. Bear in mind, even the driest lube needs to be applied correctly. “It’s best to apply it the night before your ride,” Smith says. The next morning, feel your chain before you head out. If it’s still wet, you don’t have a dry lube—no matter what the manufacturer promised.
Finding data on what lube is fastest or lasts longest can be tricky. Smith’s site, FrictionFacts.com, used to do that work (and results from previous tests are still up on the site), but he’s now focused on testing for Ceramic Speed. His best advice is to research which brands have R&D labs and are actively testing and working to improve their products. Outside of that, your best bet is to use each lube as directed by the manufacturer, and evaluate your own results with a critical eye.
Lube up and you’ll banish the squeak, pass with stealth, and—best of all—save yourself some effort.
4 Lubes to Try
Rock N Roll Extreme $15
Muc-Off C3 Ceramic $10
ProGold ProLink $9
Ceramic Speed UFO Drip $75 (not a typo)