Lubrication of moving parts on your bicycle (especially the drive train) will keep your bicycle happy and functioning properly. A bicycle specific lubricant such as Tri-Flow or White Lightning will extend the lifetime of your parts, which will save you money. Maintaining proper lubrication will also help to keep your bike clean as well as rust free. First, we'll talk about some different types of lube, and then we'll talk about proper standards and a couple of pointers to ensure you're lubricating properly.
Dry Lube: Probably the most popular, it is usually Teflon based. This guy goes on wet, sets up and dries. This is important because once it "dries out" it becomes resistant to dirt and grime picked up from the road or trails. This lube is also handy to have in your tool box because it can be used pretty much anywhere on the bike, including brake springs, and pivot points on your front and rear derailleur. One downfall is that it is not very water resistant, so in rainy conditions or river crossings, you may want to choose another option. Tri-flow Dry and Finish Line Dry are great examples of dry lubes.
Wet Lube: Great for rainy or muddy conditions, I personally switch to this during late fall and winter months. This stuff goes on wet and stays wet. It is a "heavier" lube than dry, and will keep things running smoothly in the grimiest of conditions. The main con for this lube is that it is known to pick up dry dirt and grime, so pay close attention to your drive train after rides. If you notice build up, wipe it down and if necessary, re-lube then re-wipe. Finish Line Wet lube is a great choice here.
Wax Lubes: This is great for anyone who dislikes chain cleaning. Goes on wet and forms a waxy like crust to clean off any nastiness your drive train may have. This is a great way to increase performance without the hassle of chain cleaners or degreasers. There are, however, two main downfalls to this type of lube. One is that it requires more frequent applications, usually anywhere from 50-150 miles, and it is not very resistant to wet or muddy conditions. Spring and summer rides are best suited for this lube. White Lightning makes a variety of wax lubricants and Finish Line offers the Krytech product line.
There are many different options to choose from in the vast world of lube, and each company strives to come up with the perfect one. Some of the names to look for are Finish Line, Tri-Flow, White Lightning and Park Tool. There are now even "1-step" lubes that claim to both clean and lubricate, and even soy-based, Eco-Friendly lubes. Each manufacturer has certain specifications for pre-application and application so be sure to check the company’s website to make sure you are doing it correctly. (i.e.: some require degreasing before application.) The most common misuse of lubrication is the common household oil, WD-40, being used on bicycles! WD-40 is a solvent, not a lubricant and will strip off any pre-existing lubricant due to the fast moving interaction of chain ring/cog teeth to chain, creating a metal on metal effect that is quite undesirable.
Proper lubrication application: the easiest way to do this is to lean your bike against a wall or tree, and cycle the cranks backwards. If the chain is very gritty, you may want to wipe it down first with a rag, paper towel or old t-shirt. Drip the lube on the chain while cycling the cranks counter clockwise until the chain is thoroughly covered. Use the rag or paper towel, and wipe off the lube after applying. You wont be able to get it all off, so don’t worry, the goal here is to make sure you're not using too much, as this can attract dirt/road grime/nasty stuff. As mentioned previously, if you're using a dry lube, you can also hit all the pivot points on your derailleur and brakes, but just like your chain, make sure to wipe it down afterwards. A time frame on how often you apply depends on how often you ride, but I’d say a good average would be about once a month. Also listen to your bike! If it's squeaky or making noise when pedaling, it's probably time to lube.
To maintain optimum performance and extend drivetrain longevity, you can use a chain cleaner such as Park Tool's CM-5, which is quick, easy and virtually mess free.
--Alex, Mechanic Agee's W. Broad