Chain lube marketing myths: Interview with Zero Friction Cycling’s Adam Kerin

Chain lubricants vary hugely in quality and some are nowhere near as impressive as the brand's testing data suggests. We spoke to Zero Friction Cycling's Adam Kerin to find out more

ClockUpdated 17:00, Sunday 11th February 2024. Published 13:06, Sunday 11th February 2024

Wet lube, dry lube, drip-on wax, hot-melt wax - there are so many lubrication products out there for bike chains, it can be a confusing market to navigate. Things are made more complicated by the bewildering number of marketing claims accompanying the products, usually suggesting that a product is more efficient or saves X amount of watts.

And those claims matter as lubricant plays a vital role, not only in the performance of the drivetrain, but also in extending its longevity. Use the wrong product and you won’t only be losing efficiency, you could also be wearing components faster.

So, can you trust all of the marketing claims and how do you identify a good chain lube? We spoke to Adam Kerin of Zero Friction Cycling - a company that specialises in testing lubricants - to find out more.

What inspired Zero Friction Cycling’s work?

A chain is such a hard working mechanical component, just so much more than bearings. A chain also operates completely exposed to contamination, so lubricant performance has such a big impact on both friction losses, but more importantly for most drivetrains, wear rates and running costs.

There is no industry standardised testing for lubricant performance in this space, for many reasons. As such, performance claims on products can be, and are, often pretty much whatever the manufacturer wants to say, with absolutely zero substantiation.

Jason Smith’s pioneering work with Friction Facts I thought was brilliant, but I wanted to take it further. Rather than just outright efficiency in a short test in a clean lab, I wanted to track lubricant performance across thousands of kilometres on an actual bicycle drivetrain and to get a broader assessment of the lubricant’s performance, including any initial penetration issues, dry dust contamination performance, wet conditions performance, ability to clear contamination, single application longevity.

I simply felt pretty passionately that those performance attributes should be assessed for a lubricant for use on bicycle chain, and that there should be some independent body conducting such testing and holding lubricant performance claims versus reality to some account, putting in light those products and manufacturers who are delivering well on their product claims, and raising concerns on those who are selling a big game but delivering some version of liquid sandpaper.

I knew absolutely without doubt that if I could assess the above performance for lubricants, this knowledge would be of high value to cyclists. Not only for racers, but for all due to how much the right product for their cycling will save them in wear and running costs.

I could not see that the above was going to be done anytime soon and I just happened to be in just the perfect place to try and make it happen. I was on a paternity leave career break after our little guy came along and with the super wife being a doctor, we were in a fortunate position that a second income wasn’t needed. The start-up costs and financial risk for the Zero Friction Cycling business model was low, the main risk for this venture was always going to be a time and work investment risk.

But I do love to tinker, and I felt pretty certain that, whilst there would no doubt be other efficiency loss test labs that come to the fore post Friction Facts being purchased by Ceramic Speed, for me that was not going to be enough going forwards.

Outright efficiency testing can be very limited. The test numbers from one facility to another vary rather wildly, making outright efficiency testing currently a rather fraught area indeed. Again, this testing does not show what happens to the lubricant’s performance when exposed to dust or wet contamination, which is just really rather crucial.

So, sometimes, if you really want something to be done, you have to make it happen.

How long has Zero Friction Cycling existed?

I started in 2016, so we have just turned eight already. It’s hard to believe it, time really does zoom by.

Also, the start was very slow. It began with putting an industrial motor onto a Tacx Neo [turbo trainer] and testing various test protocols to arrive at what I felt was a pretty nailed protocol, and then a bunch of tests to check its variance and repeatability.

When the test protocol was finally dialled, then I very slowly started working my way through building a league table and finding the first top product to stock and sell, which was the original MSPEEDWAX.

By the end of the first year, I had a league table of four lubricants and a rather small online store! I had a total of 22 transactions in 2016 comprising of some MSPEEDWAX sales and pre-prepped chains with MSW (Molten Speed Wax). The last few years we have been doing nearly 2000 to 3000 chains per year and a similar number of wax sales, and so now the retail side is really covering the costs of the testing side.

What type of cyclist is Zero Friction Cycling for?

Really, any cyclist who wants their bike to ride beautifully and to get a great lifespan from their drivetrain components. Also, of course, racers looking to save some easy watts.

Aside from being able to check the league table to find a suitable great lubricant option, Zero Friction Cycling has a lot of great information resources from initially prepping chains, to chain maintenance for your lubricant and riding type, to waxed life guides, ultrasonic guides and more.

Do you think consumers are ever misled or lied to in some marketing terms, or is it more a case of very carefully presented information?

There is a very wide spectrum. For sure, in my opinion, there are cases where the marketing is extremely misleading at best, and more likely, knowingly outright dishonest.

Most prevalent, though, is simply the same claims being made with zero substantiation, and zero chance if you write to the manufacturer and ask that they can substantiate their claims.

Marketing in this space is pretty nuts. There are literally thousands of bicycle chain lubricants vying for you to buy them versus the bottle sitting next to it. So when one manufacturer makes X claims, and they don’t need to do anything at all to substantiate that what they claim is true, then manufacturer Y will follow suit. Until basically everyone is claiming all sorts of wonderful things, because why not?

Unlike most product categories, it is not really likely anyone will be taken up on false advertising again as there is no way for any such body to have a product tested against a standards test and assess against claims. If it claims it cleans as it lubricates, how is a regulatory body to say otherwise?

Unlike, say a TV, that says it only uses 200 watts of electricity or a washing machine that claims X amount of water use on a standard cycle, these things can easily be tested by consumer product review sites, and if a clear issue presented, the product and manufacturing can be reported, flagged for false or misleading advertising.

In this space, it is pretty much just go for it. This has another impact in that it really hurts the manufacturers who have genuinely put in the human and capital to develop, test and bring to market a genuinely great product, as opposed to another manufacturer who simply buys industry lubricant X from an industrial supplier, who knows what the lubricant was originally developed for 20 years ago, has it rebottled and branded and boom, they can go to market with a product with the same performance claims as another manufacturer who invested a lot to make a product that is great for the very specific purpose of lubricating a bicycle chain, which is actually a pretty extreme lubrication challenge.

So, it is not only extraordinarily difficult for consumers to try to parse through all the competing products and claims, and really for most their choice will be a lottery, but it does hurt the manufacturers who have put in the time, cost and effort to try to get market traction and a return on that investment when you don’t have a marketing edge for your actually great-performing product.

When a competitor can claim the same when they literally haven't a clue what its performance is on a bicycle chain, it’s literally just a lubricant of unknown performance for this use case. The whole wild west nature has made it very difficult for everybody. A lot of objectively poor products have a very strong market presence, whilst some new great products and brands can struggle for traction.

Zero Friction Cycling helps here, not only with the open league table, but also for the last few years especially, we do a lot of private testing. This gives the brand independent testing results from a very robust test to be able to back their performance claims.

Some manufacturers also use this heavily as part of the development process. So, I will test X number of bases, then the best base with X additives and so on so that a product is nailed before it goes into production.

Why should people care about their chains and lubricants if not racing?

Mostly for cost reasons, but also for life is too short to ride a shit-riding bike reasons.

Again, the chain just does so much mechanical work and is completely exposed to the elements. If a lubricant quickly becomes a liquid abrasive, the lifespan of one's chain and cassette and chainrings can be pretty short indeed, whereas on the best known products the lifespan can literally be multiple times longer. Between some of the best tested and some of the worst tested, over 10x longer is not a stretch.

Components are not getting cheaper and so, especially for higher-tier parts, the cost-to-run impact can be pretty huge. And it’s way more fun to spend one’s hard-earned discretionary cash on more fun stuff like that new kit one was coveting, or an upgraded winter jacket, or cool new kicks, or glasses, or towards coaching, or getting a proper bike fit and so on, versus just burning it on replacing the chain and cassette, and potentially rings again, which can be just hundreds of dollars that you now don’t have for more fun things.

It is great to remember that, typically, saving three watts or five watts for a great lubricant versus a not-so-great lubricant is pretty easily done. That is three watts to five watts of energy every pedal stroke going into pushing your forwards further, versus literally previously going into wearing out your components faster.

The right lubricant, and a proven top lubricant, really is one of the best win-win situations in cycling.

Check out the full interview in the video at the top of this page. For more tech news, features, interviews and pro bikes, head over to the ‘Tech’ section on the GCN website, linked here.

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