MTB Lube Theory: Which Oil or Grease Goes Where? We Asked a World Cup Mechanic

If you've ever wondered how often you should lubricate your mountain bike chain, or what grease goes on the pawls inside your freehub body, this article is for you.

If you’ve ever wondered how often you should lubricate your mountain bike chain, or what grease goes on the pawls inside your freehub body, this article is for you. Nearly every component on modern bikes calls for a different lubricant, with its own chemical makeup and related viscosity. That’s a lot of info to research and keep track of.

World Cup mechanic Brad Copeland took the time to go over nearly every moving and clamped piece of the bike, sharing his knowledge from working on Kate Courtney’s Scott bikes as well as his off-season work at a local California bike shop. Copeland has shared loads of info with us in various tech articles and in a podcast episode. This time we asked for a lot, and he delivered. So let’s learn about lubricants together.

What’s the theory behind using different greases and oils on different parts of the bike? 

There is a whole massive industry behind grease and oil theory, as well as their alter ego: solvents and cleaning agents — and there are sub-genres within these categories aimed, at times, at specific bike-related applications (whether legitimate or a product of targeted marketing). Most pro teams have sponsors in these areas and it’s a large industry that employs lots of smart people. So put down that can of WD-40 before you hurt yourself. Grease and oils can be engineered to promote or enhance a distinct characteristic, whether it be lubricating, supporting contact/loads, preventing corrosion/seizure/chemical bonding, or penetrating stuck fixtures. Some grease and oils are marketed as all-encompassing or universal in their application, but while some lube is (almost) always better than none, having the right stuff for the job makes the results much better.

What type of lube is best for installing bearings, like threaded BB cups, headsets, wheel, and pivot bearings? 

It all depends! But here are some examples: for threaded BB assemblies I typically reach for a copper paste type anti-seize compound or heavy waterproof grease. I’ve had great luck with grease formulated for marine/water-intensive applications because it is formulated to resist being washed away and is meant to keep water out — two things that are very good in the BB area! Anti-seize accomplishes this as well. Because this is not a lubrication application but rather a layer of grease meant to resist corrosion and bonding between two threaded components, a grease that won’t be displaced or washed away is the best idea. If the frame is titanium especially I would use anti-seize compound as it is specifically meant to prevent chemical bonding between two dissimilar metals, and titanium is notoriously prone to this phenomenon, particularly in bikes that do not see regular service. A single application of Anti-seize will outlast humanity on this planet.

A heavy grease is similarly beneficial on contacting surfaces of pressed-in bearings; the difference here is that in press fits, it is a corrosion barrier as well as a lubrication method to limit creaking sounds as the two surfaces slide against one another under load or flex. So here, a thick grease that is hard to displace will act as lubrication between contact surfaces so the micro-slipping that occurs is quiet as the parts slide against one another, rather than sticking and slipping, sticking and slipping, with dry or even gritty surfaces moving against one another. This is where creaks come from.

I should mention Loctite and similar brands here, too. Loctite manufactures dozens of products with very specific applications formulated to work with different materials; for most pressfit bearing assemblies (particularly when the bearing seat is alloy rather than carbon) I will use a retaining compound Loctite (typically green color) which fills micro-voids and gaps between the two contacting surfaces and prevent movement, and also eliminating creaks. It works best in metal on metal applications and they make a rubberized type that is better suited for carbon applications. As a thread locking agent, (Loctite 246 for example) it also works as a “grease” of sorts, in that it prevents the likelihood of corrosion by coating the surfaces to which it is applied and acting as a moisture barrier.

Do you use a different lube on crank spindles, pedal spindles, and other spinning parts?

Yes I do — a heavy grease on the spindle/bearing interface is great for preventing […] load-bearing creaks and also helps everything slide into place during assembly. Pedal spindles may be titanium in which case I use a copper paste/anti-seize compound; however, a very thick, moisture-resistant grease (such as what might be used on the BB spindle) can also work well here, and for bikes whose pedals are regularly removed, this works fine.

I should maybe elaborate that on slip-fit systems (a BB30 spindle that slides through a bearing) rather than a threaded system that screws together to a hard stop (like a pedal) dictates my choice between the two — anti-seize has very fine particles of soft metals suspended within it to enhance its chemical barrier between two contacting metal surfaces. Therefore, on pressfit or slip-fit assemblies this can act as a micro-abraiding compound and slowly wear the contacting surfaces under load and over time if it is used in these applications. If you aren’t sure, heavy grease is a safe option. Anti-seize does a great job but if you are careful and have routine maintenance performed on your bike you are unlikely to encounter scenarios where seizing of parts actually occurs. 

What type of lube is best for freehubs, or does it depend on the hub? 

This depends a lot on the freehub and the design of the mechanism. Most manufacturers have a recommendation for their respective systems. Generally, a very thin grease or light oil is prescribed here, because thicker stuff can cause drag in the system which can lead to a droopy chain as the freehub tries to “push” the chain forward when coasting, leading to weird shifting moments and chain suck symptoms among other things. Also given the very light spring action on most freehubs’ pawls, a light lube is necessary so this spring action of the pawl is not inhibited by grease friction.

Further, a DT Swiss Star ratchet design (a ubiquitous and in my opinion probably the best overall design licensed – or copied – by numerous other brands) has very small teeth on two ratchet rings with very shallow engagement. Too thick of a grease can actually get in the way of good engagement, preventing the teeth from fully grabbing onto one another, and can lead to slipping or a failure to engage because a thick grease barrier can be too much for the light force of the springs driving the engagement to displace. Very thin oils or grease that is so thin it is practically an oil is the prescribed lube for 90+% of all freehubs. I made that number up but I also almost said 99% but rounded down just to make sure I wasn’t totally lying.

There’s a tradition of using linseed oil on spoke nipples when building a wheel. Is that still effective, or is there another lube that’s preferred? 

I’m betting some impassioned wheelbuilders will take issue with my remarks, and I’m sure many effective approaches exist here. I’m also sure linseed oil works perfectly well most of the time, just as I’m sure its use predates modern, high-end wheel technology including alloy nipples and teeny tiny gauge spokes. Additionally, the way bikes are ridden can dictate which lubes are used across all manner of lubrication points, so while linseed oil may be just fine for many people, some who take things to the limit may need something more robust than that.

Spoke Prep is essentially a light thread locker like the blue Loctite (#246 is what I tend to use on bikes), but probably lighter in its “locking” strength given the size of the spoke/nipple thread interface and is formulated specifically for this application as the name suggests; essentially it prevents the tendency of a spoke to “unwind” or loosen either from vibration or flex/load of the wheel itself as it’s being ridden. On high-performance wheels, I use this because it can’t hurt, even if it’s overkill for some. I know other mechanics who simply use grease and swear by it, claiming that a properly built and perfectly tensioned wheel shouldn’t require a thread locking agent. However, in these moments I point to products like the DT Swiss Prolock nipples which are like a nyloc nut and prevent unwinding, while also enhancing the strength of the wheel allegedly. I prefer spoke prep or a “locking” nipple like this for race wheels.

What type of grease should folks use when cleaning and re-packing bearings, like those in the bottom bracket?

This really depends a bit on how much maintenance you want to do or not do, and what your goals are. For racing, I strip all grease from these bearings and use a light oil to eliminate drag, freeing up a handful of watts otherwise spent overcoming the friction of thicker grease and also seal drag. On bikes I’ve race-prepped, you can spin the crank and it will remain spinning for 20-30 seconds with practically no resistance; however, this is not something I typically recommend as it requires extensive disassembly of the bike to keep it working this way for long periods of time. A thicker grease formulated for bicycle applications is probably best for most folks.

I have a few formulas from CeramicSpeed that are excellent and made for different conditions. That’s what I use on my bikes and the race bikes I service. Motorex and Muc-Off make some great ones too that I have personally experienced using. Essentially you want something that is both a lubricant and also a moisture barrier, as moisture-induced corrosion leads to rapid deterioration of the bearings on your bike, and the BB is the lowest point in the frame where all water wants to end up. Grease acts as a barrier against water incursion, and also the bearings and races coated in grease will dispel any water that does make its way in, forcing it to go somewhere else (think “oil and water”).

Which lube, if any, do you use when installing a seat post or other components that can seize if left in place? What about with steel or alloy frames? 

Here it is a little dependent on the bike and the application. Anti-seize is great when combining two dissimilar metals because it acts as a barrier preventing chemical bonding (seizing) from occurring. As water enters the seat tube, it can catalyze chemical exchange between metals, so a complete coating of anti-seize can prevent this exchange. Of course, simply pulling and cleaning the post and seat tube periodically is a wise idea, also because grit and dirt particles enter the system with the water that inevitably works its way in, and this can lead to creaky sounds as well whether from frame flex under lateral loading or weight-bearing creaks from hard, seated efforts. Of course, grease is also fine and helps with water resistance and creak reduction.

However, neither grease nor anti-seize should be used on carbon frames as they act as a lubricant, and carbon bikes typically spec light torque values on their seat collars or binding mechanisms so as not to damage the lightweight materials. For these bikes, a carbon paste (fiber grip, etc.) is recommended because it enhances friction between the post and frame, allowing more clamping friction at lower torque values, so your seat post doesn’t slip even at only a handful of Newton meters’ worth of torque. You can often get away with a bare post in a carbon frame these days, but I recommend a carbon paste. For aero seat posts the theory gets weirder — I often use carbon paste at the front and back edge of the seat post here, so it is creating extra friction, and a bit of grease only on the flat sides of the post to offset any creaking that can occur. Typically the fit of an aero post into a frame is not as “perfect” as a round post in a round tube, so small gaps and imperfections of the fitment between the post and frame can leave tiny gaps or other opportunities where creaky sounds due to slipping or sliding of the contacting of surfaces can occur. Most of these aero frames use a clamp, or internal wedge mechanism that pulls or pushes the post against either the front or back of the seat tube, so the front and back is in contact with the frame and/or clamp where the “hold” comes from on these frames, so that’s why I use a bit of friction paste only at those locations on an aero road or TT/Tri frame. I never put it on the sides because it only increases the likelihood of creak sounds as the post and frame slide against one another under load. So either grease or nothing at all on the sides to mitigate this tendency.

What are your thoughts on products like Fibergrip for holding handlebars and other carbon-on-carbon components in place? 

I say use it. It almost never is better to not use it, as it allows the least amount of bolt torque to create enough grip that things stay put, fundamentally that’s what it’s all about and where it differs somewhat from grease in theory. Carbon paste reduces the need for bolt torque and thus clamping force, eliminating or reducing the stress applied to a clamped carbon tube — carbon is super strong but over tightening it inside of a stem clamp for example can expose its Achilles heel— once it is crushed and the integrity of the fibers or the resin structure is damaged, it is not safe to use. A good torque wrench and some carbon paste is a pretty cheap insurance policy.

What are some of the lubes you use in forks and shocks? Can the same grease and suspension fluid be used in both?

Most suspension manufacturers today have pretty specific fluids and greases that they specify for their products. If you don’t know exactly what you are doing and why, I would advise against deviating from these specifications. To answer the question, yes and no — some products are interchangeable among fork and shock but some oils and other fluids are of a specific weight/viscosity to be used only in one or the other suspension component. All manufacturers offer this information and most sell their own formula of oil and grease to be used in these service applications with their products specifically. I do occasionally use a product called Hyper Wiper which is just a dust seal lube and works well to get the sliding surfaces sliding really well on fork, shock, and seat post, and helps overcome the “stiction” sensation that can come from the tight tolerance of the fit between stanchion and external dust wiper seal. Otherwise, when servicing these items I follow the instructions and use the recommendations provided by the manufacturer.

Can you tell us a couple of the specific lube practices you use with Kate’s race bikes that you might not use on a customer’s? 

I’d almost always recommend most customers do MORE of what I do to Kate’s bikes. One exception is probably the thing I’m asked how to do most, ironically, and that is the treatment to her BB that enables it to spin almost frictionlessly. Most BBs are consumer-proofed anticipating a life of neglect (as a shop mechanic I can state emphatically that this is a good idea for most bikes I see). What it means is elaborate water and dust sealing, and the use of thick, long-lasting grease to reduce the amount of service the BB requires. It also creates a lot of drag.

This is all decreased once I’ve disassembled the bearing shields and seals. This is actually the trickiest part of it all, disassembling and reassembling something that wasn’t designed to be serviceable. I actually trim the bearing seals around the edge to reduce the drag of the contact between the rubber seal and the bearing race. If you ride in a lot of wet weather don’t do this. It’s not worth it. Once I’ve degreased the bearings completely, I use Ceramicspeed Pulley Wheel oil and reassemble the whole thing carefully. We use standard SRAM DUB press fit BBs but everyone always assumes they are some fancy ceramic option because of how effortlessly they spin after this treatment is completed. But yeah — it’s a lot of effort for small gains that most people won’t really benefit from in the same way a World Cup/World Championship winning rider would. However, it is probably the number one thing I am asked about on the topic of lube and bearings and such.

What are some of the most common lubricating misconceptions riders have? What mistakes do you often see in the bike shop? 

Oh god. The things I’ve seen. First of all, do not spray ANYTHING on your disc rotors or calipers. I’m worried the world isn’t ready for disc brakes. Or bike shops aren’t doing their job educating consumers. Something is wrong here, that is for sure. I will also say I think road cyclists tend to be less concerned about maintenance things than mountain bike riders, maybe because the road bikes are a bit less dynamic so it’s not something many road cyclists obsess over in the way some MTB riders do, and the bikes have less tunable functionality in general. Most people just get on a road bike and go, at best maybe they pump their tires up every time to a specific pressure but even that is a long shot for most road riders.

I used to see over-lubed road bikes where excess chain lube has slowly migrated up the spokes via centripetal force from rotating parts until it coated the rim and brake track, leading to power loss and rapid wear of the brake pads from the extra squeezing force applied to try to get more power from their well-lubed brake pads. Now the problem I see is the same, but it’s migrating across the rear hub and onto the disc rotor, and the effect of power loss is magnified in a disc brake system, as is the cost to fix it. People do not clean their bikes enough and overcompensate with too much lube. Also, simply wiping the chain off after a ride goes a long way and is probably not done enough by most folks. We could write a whole article about things I’ve seen in bike shops that horrify me, but lubing disc rotors (almost always WD40 too!) has got to be the most absurd thing I see often.

No lie, two weeks ago a customer came into my shop stating he had seen online that there is a product to spray on disc brakes to quiet them down, and he came in to see if we had some he could purchase. So I don’t know where people are getting their information but as long-winded as my answers are I am afraid no one will read this and people will continue to buy bulk shipments of WD40 from Amazon and douse their bikes in it and I will be fighting this battle until I die with no measurable improvement among humanity at large. I have accepted this.

The other thing people could do more and benefit from immensely is lubricating your shift cables occasionally (and brake cables if you still have brakes that use cables). Shimano makes a great grease called SP41 that I like to use for assembly of new bikes; however, dripping a light oil like Triflow into the housing (most of the time there are ways to do this without disconnecting the cables) and under the BB cable guide if your bike is externally routed will improve shift feeling and performance considerably.

Are there other special lubes that average home mechanics might want to know about? For example, are there better ways to lubricate a brake hose end before tightening it into the lever? How about derailleur pulleys and joints?

Yes, absolutely. I’d say there are special lubes I still don’t know about. There really are so many specific and nuanced products out there and they exist, for the most part, for a reason. Sometimes, products from other industries perform as well or better than things commonly found in the bike shop, too. Marine-grade greases are a good example of this. Anti-seize is in fact basically derived from automotive or more industrial applications.

For brake fittings, since you mentioned it, there are even products that don’t react negatively with the fluid or hose material or bladder/seal material within caliper or lever; SRAM offers a DOT grease to be used with its DOT-fluid based braking systems on the coupling nut.

Of course, different oil weights can create different sensations in suspension components and can be tuned to rider preference if you’re willing to take on that experiment (most manufacturers start at a good benchmark but everyone is different, and this is one more way to take things to the limit). The best thing an individual can do is to familiarize themselves with the products on their own bikes first, take a look at the manufacturer’s recommendations, and talk to a reputable bike mechanic. Walk into any shop and you’ll see half a dozen or more types of chain lube— consider that this represents about 1% of all chain lube options in existence, and you can imagine how many differing opinions you may hear. Most of what I’ve learned has been through this practice and then my own observation of using these products and observing the outcome.

So my opinions are based only really on what I’ve seen, and the conditions I find myself in. What works for me may not be as effective in a different environment, or a different application, so it’s important to really feel things out and keep an eye on how things seem to be working. Talking to an experienced mechanic in your home environment may give some insight into what works well locally for the application you require. Local bike shops are probably the greatest underutilized resources to really dial in your lube theory if you can find a good one.

Do you use different lubes or suspension fluids on race bikes for different temperatures or weather?

Yes, to put it simply. We don’t race in wildly fluctuating temperatures so I do not really change the fluids used in suspension; however I will sometimes alter air pressure in suspension and tires in anticipation of temperature change (long stages at the Cape Epic began at temps of around 50° F some mornings, with temps reaching the 80s or higher by mid day). This caused pretty substantial changes in tire pressure and suspension pressure as the air heats and expands within them, so we had to play around with that. I also like to check air pressures afterwards anyway to see how they change — observing these trends and tendencies over many years of racing has influenced how we set the bikes up for short races, too. 

Fortunately, we don’t race in extreme cold, but I’d imagine some different suspension fluids could be used to improve performance in extremely cold conditions. I hope to never have to find out, I don’t know how these cyclocross mechanics survive.

Of course, wet or dry conditions dictate which chain lubes we might select for a race. When it’s dry we want the fastest lube possible. When it’s wet we want lube that will still be present at the end of the race. In the nastiest conditions we usually even have a strategy where Kate might be prepared to stop to re-lube mid-race. Many riders could be seen doing this in Leogang at World Championships last season, for example. We also handed up lots of bottles of plain water simply for Kate to spray on her cassette and around the crank/chainring to offset mud accumulation which can derail (pun intended) even my best efforts to prepare a fast bike.

I also coat as much of the bike as I can (without hindering its performance) in silicon-based spray to help prevent mud accumulation when racing in those conditions. Bikes weigh 8-10 pounds more when covered in thick mud so whatever can be done to offset this is significant. If you look at Kate’s bike post-race you’ll see the wheels and sidewalls of the tire are still perfectly clean despite the atrociously muddy conditions at Worlds last year. I like to think the accumulation elsewhere on the frame was also less than it would have otherwise been. These are some good things to think about if you race in mud or ride in mud frequently

Chainz! There are so many ways to lube a chain, from heavy winter oil to boiling wax. What are some of the ideas behind proper chain lube? How do you lube Kate’s race bike chains? 

Fundamentally what you are doing is lubing the rollers within the chain. The exterior of the chain could be totally free of any lube and work perfectly if the rollers themselves were lubed. It is somewhat impossible to achieve this with conventional chain lube but the point is there is no point to having any extra lube on the outside of the chain. It only attracts dirt and grit which add friction and promote wear, so the least amount possible is the goal.

I like dry lubes on mountain bikes if the conditions are good. They dispel dirt and grit rather than clinging to it and drawing it further into the drivetrain; some test very fast including a proprietary blend we use that is derived from a lube used for R/C helicopter motors (insanely high rpm on a fairly small motor needs low friction, high durability and doesn’t get slung all over the place at high RPM). It doesn’t last very long but long enough to complete a mountain bike race. I also really am impressed by the treated race chains from CeramicSpeed and IceFriction which I’ve used over the years, mostly because they start out “fast” but more importantly they don’t degrade as quickly as conventional chain lubes. They may start 3-5w faster (in terms of coefficient of friction as measured in a lab) but could end up 10-12w faster than a chain lubed conventionally by the end of a race. So that’s something to think about as well. Many of the boiling methods (molten speed wax comes to mind) simulate the process the fancy treated race day chains go through and are repeatable/re-treatable at home. Not a bad product but it’s a lot of effort!

Fundamentally the approach is always the same: to strip every last molecule of oil/old lube/dirt from the chain and then apply the appropriate lube for the given conditions of the race. Four or five revolutions of the crank add up to the full length of the chain so I don’t go much beyond that, and I pinch the chain and run it through my fingers to squeegee it all in there to try to help it get into the rollers. I wipe the rest away. If you lube your chain once in a while and wipe it off every time you ride you’re doing it right. More lube does not really help but a lot of people feel like they are doing something productive by lubing their chains a lot. Most cyclists could probably stand to do it less. Nearly all could stand to wipe their chain off more. If you do, your drivetrain will not accumulate gunk and turn black and disgusting nearly as fast. That happens from over-lubing it.

With a new chain, should riders remove the factory lube and relube, or leave it on?    

It is not a very good lube, and is referred to sometimes as a packing grease, meant to inhibit corrosion in the presence of moisture. It won’t hurt anything to ride it this way, but it will have more drag than quality chain lube would have and it’s quite a sticky substance so it attracts dirt. I will wipe them down with a degreaser in a rag to get the external grease coating off and run them like that when new if it’s not for a race because it’s a pretty durable lube, but if it’s for a race application I’ll degrease it out of the package when new and then a few more times before the actual race so I know it’s as flushed of this factory grease as possible so I’m therefore getting the most benefit from the higher performance lubes we use for racing.

How often should a chain be lubed? Should we reapply after every ride, or wait until it starts making noise?  

This is a question that a lot of riders struggle with to get right, I think. It depends on many things — although every ride is probably too soon for most people (unless it follows a degrease and scrub session first). And that’s not entirely necessary either unless you like your bikes to be showroom quality at all times.

In general, waiting a little longer is better than doing it too soon. As I’ve hinted at already, most people overdo it with the chain lube. But it comes down to what type of lube you use, how much, how much you ride, and the conditions you ride in. Paying close attention to your own methods and their results is how you can optimize them completely. A little at a time with lots of wiping off between applications is my general recommendation, and a full degrease and scrub once a month is probably sufficient for most folks. Dry lube doesn’t last as long as wet lubes/oils, and dry conditions are friendlier to chain lube than wet, so it comes down to these and other factors. If it sounds like you’re being chased by a flock of angry sparrows, it’s time for lube. 

What are some of your favorite lubes to work with as a professional race mechanic? Are there any that you won’t substitute, regardless of sponsorship agreements?  

My favorite chain lube of all time is Ceramicspeed UFO Drip. They call it a chain treatment. Whatever you call it, it’s amazing and the amazing feeling it creates is pretty obvious if you have a sense for things like that. It’s dry, clean, lasts a long time, is super fast, works well in wet conditions too, and closely approximates the performance of a factory-treated race day chain like their own UFO treatment or IceFriction’s similar offering. And of course, you can reapply it and keep the dream alive once it wears off. It is very expensive, but so is everything else that I like. These factory-treated raceday chains are probably the best option overall for pure performance, but most people wouldn’t experience life changing benefits from using them, and they cost a lot for a relatively short-lived experience. But the benefit is real and they do perform extremely well and we do use them occasionally.

My favorite everyday chain lube if I could only pick one would be Rock’n’Roll Gold lube, great for road and MTB, wet and dry, it’s pretty clean, and tests very fast for a cheap everyday product. Great stuff for the money. In my opinion, a bottle of that, some blue Loctite thread locker, a bottle of Triflow, and a decent mid-viscosity grease like Motorex 2000 along with a mild degreaser and/or some blue Dawn dish soap+water and some scrub brushes is all anyone truly needs to do quality general service of their bike at home. 

We would like to thank Brad Copeland for taking the time to share all of this helpful info with readers. If you have lube theories or tips to add please share them in the comments below.

Editor’s note: Purchase links included here do not necessarily represent a specific product endorsement, and were added during the editing process by the Singletracks team.

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