Chain lube is a little like ski wax—the right one to use may change with the weather. Lighter lubricants like Finish Line Dry or Ceramic Wax run cleaner. A cleaner chain will last longer, so use the lightest lubricant that the weather and riding conditions allow. Lighter lubes, though clean, have poor staying power in wet conditions. Your choice, then, is to use a heavier 'wet' lube, like Finish Line Wet or Ceramic Wet, or to use the lighter lube more often—which is really any time the bike gets wet.
Cleanliness is key to proper lubrication. Road and trail dirt and grit will build up on the chain and begin to work into the sliver of space between the chain's inner and outer plates causing accelerated wear. The lubricants themselves become sticky as they dry out and actually hold onto more of this abrasive junk. Ideally, re-lubricate and wipe down your chain every four or five rides or after any wet. Go ahead and be generous with the lube, but then, after letting the lubricant penetrate into the space between the plates, wipe agressively to remove the surface lube. This cleans the chain and gives you a chance to feel if there are any stiff or damaged links.
Is it time to lube? Nothing works better to figure this out than getting your fingers a little dirty and feeling the chain. A chain should feel clean and slick, but not too wet. Too long between lube applications and the chain will be totally dry. In this state, you might even hear a metallic sound as you pedal. Too much lube, and you will feel a gritty, black build up of old lube and dirt between your fingers. For the best results, here a few key things to know:
Avoid lubricants like tri-flow that, though not a oil lube, is in a petroleum ‘carrier.’ Petroleum products are the worst for becoming sticky as they dry. Most lubricants for bicycle use are a synthetic base as well as teflon or wax in the lube itself. Personally, I think that most of these are the same products in different labels. One thing to stay away from entirely is WD-40. W and D stand for ‘water displacing.’ It is a petroleum rust proofing agent that became a popular lube. It is one of the stickiest things you can put on your bike. The wax lubes are mixed in a carrier that also works as a great cleaning agent. The new Finish Line Ceramic Wax and Ceramic Wet lubricants are great choices here. Pedros Ice Wax and White Lightening lube are also popular. They work well for mountain bikes as well, but put the lube on every ride.
Some wax products really build up, leading to the term here at Blue Wheel: “White Lightening Abusers.” The wax, if the user doesn’t wipe the excess off—the cleaning procedure described in the instructions on the bottle—the wax keeps building until the individual cogs become hard to find!
All of these different lubricants need to be applied generously, but then scrubbed off aggressively. Take an old t-shirt or rag and, after letting the lubricants soak in for 10-15 minutes, try to work all of the surface lubricant off. This way, the lube stays between the plates of the chain, but the surface is dry so that it won't get sticky.
Here are a couple of sales pitches that will tell you more about the lubricants: