Chain Doping Update

bikepacking Chain commuter commuting Garbaruk gravel

Thought I'd give everyone an update on my 2020- 21 "chain doping" thought experiment and discuss how I plan to take it to the next level in 2022. 

As you know, I ride a lot of miles in all kinds of conditions and as such, regular preventative maintenance is almost always top of mind. It bugs me when my bike is making a noise because in my experience, noises are a leading indicator of pending mechanical failure. And don't get me started about noises coming from other people's bikes, I'll just keep my thoughts to myself on this point!

Before I switched over to the AXS wireless shifting system in late 2019, the previous two years had been with the traditional SRAM 11 speed 1x drivetrain - drop bar cable pull brake brifters and the two-piece machined SRAM 1195 / 1199 cassettes. Nothing super unusual about that setup, it's common across all kinds of CX, gravel, and MTB cross setups. At the time, my chain hypothesis was to use the cheapest SRAM chain that met the spec, keep it lubricated with spray motorcycle chain lube, periodically clean it with WD-40, check the stretch weekly with a chain tool, and change it out when indicated.  I was getting maybe 2,000 miles from each $25 PC 1130 chain - but it turned out that the cassettes--which as you know are super expensive--were wearing at an alarming rate. I was going through one every other chain, so around 4,000 - 5,000 miles. You know when it's time because you get the skipping in your favorite cog when you really lean into it on a climb. What a drag.

AXS is a 12-speed system so everything needed an upgrade with the switch, including the chain. The AXS Eagle system has two chain offerings with the same technical spec, the primary difference being the flashy colorway on the XX1 chain that costs an additional $25. The primary finish on my bike is silver, so I prefer the more basic nickel finish of the $60 X-01 Eagle. 

When I switched over, I completely changed my chain management technique. The new approach involved an off-the-bike chain cleaning (shaking the chain in an old water bottle with recycled and filtered mineral spirits, wiping the chain dry, and then the same shake treatment with water and dawn dish detergent, and finally a bit of isopropyl alcohol to drive off the water and facilitate drying. When dry, I'd dip the chain into molten paraffin wax bath that I'd created in the kitchen using a double boiler technique - a sauce pan filled with boiling water, with a metal Illy coffee can in the center sort of bouncing around but weighted by the molten paraffin wax ($5 / lb bricks of unscented candle wax from Hobby Lobby). It's best to allow the chain to sit in there for 10 minutes while it reaches the same temperature as the wax, because when you pull it out, it leaves a really nice thin film of wax on the chain. If you drop it in and pull it out quickly without the temperature stabilization, the wax gets clumpy and it's more of a thick coating. After 10 minutes, I'd move the coffee can with the molten wax and chain to the garage and carefully fish the chain out and hang it to dry.

Once on the bike, I'd augment the chain with Squirt wax chain lube on a weekly basis, or after a rainy ride, applying it at night with a drip and an old toothbrush and letting it sit overnight. What was amazing is how clean the chain and the drivetrain would stay with the wax approach. I mean seriously clean. Plus, no real issues keeping the brake rotors clean because there was no transient spray from the cassette or the periodic chain cleaning.  And every two or three weeks, I'd repeat the process.  I rode almost 10,000 miles in 2020 with the same chain, observing little or no chain stretch and no cog skipping.  This approach takes a little more time and takes over the kitchen, but it works!  Of course, the other part of the observation is that the Eagle X-01 chain is waaaay better than the cheapest kind PC-1130 chain. This is an example of getting way more than you pay for when you upgrade your chain game - disproving my initial "cheapest kind" chain hypothesis.

Ok so enough with my chain history and vague scientific methods, and on to the next phase of chain doping. I wanted to take my action out of the kitchen and completely into the garage, and at the same time, up the game on chain lubrication. I researched the heck out of various aesthetic hot wax melters on Amazon and ultrasonic cleaners at Harbor Freight and other outlets. My conclusion: skip the ultrasonic cleaner because it offers marginal gains over my current "shake it up" approach and at the same time, produces a significant waste stream that my current system avoids. And also, skip the purpose-made wax melter systems because they are plastic-y not industrial enough to handle repeated chain melting.

I went with a $10 2-liter mini crockpot from Walmart and it's absolutely amazing for melting wax--provided you're OK keeping the wax in the crock for the next time.  It takes maybe 30 minutes to liquify the wax and then you're good to go.

The real innovation I'm testing this year is the inclusion of Tungsten Di-Sulfide (WS2) powder in suspension within the molten wax. This material is known as one of the most lubricious materials in the world - better than Teflon or graphite - and it's surprisingly affordable.  I bought an ounce of it on eBay for $10 and am using it at a ratio of 1:32 by weight (half an ounce of WS2 to 1 lb of paraffin).  Because it doesn't dissolve in the wax, one needs to stir it up when the chain is in the pot, making sure it gets in to all of the nooks and crannies of the chain. I used a wooden chopstick to mix up the suspension when the chain was at the bottom of the pot. The result?  Amazingly quiet drivetrain.  I've been riding for a week without adding any squirt to the chain. The usually chromed out chain is looking a lot greyer from the addition of the Tungsten, but it's got a waxy feel and it's not powdery in the slightest. I suspect I'll go the whole of 2022 with the same pound of wax in the crock pot unless I get into the commercial chain waxing business!  I'll give you an update mid year on this project, but so far, so good.

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  • Don M on

    DO YOU REMEMBER “Crack Wax” from the old MTB days? I used it until they went out of business. I really worked in out muddy (NE) conditions.

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