Muc-Off's government-funded investigation into the tribology of a bicycle chain – the loads and speeds to which it is subject, the complex interaction of its many moving parts, the wear and friction that results, and the degree that the same wear and friction can be reduced by the application of optimised lubricants – represents a new level of scientific development for the bicycle industry.
Funding awarded by Innovate UK in a competitive process, and partnerships with internationally-renowned, government-owned or approved laboratories, lie at the heart of this incredible ground-breaking research. Together, we have developed new methods for measurement and analysis to determine and score lubricants for performance, durability and environmental impact. More impressively, we can now identify, analyse and score individual chemical components.
We have always believed that tribology – the science of friction – holds the same importance as chemistry when developing a new lubricant. This document is in part an attempt to claim tribology’s rightful place in the cycling conscious. Tribology is everything, to paraphrase an industry slogan, and a greater determinant of a rider’s pleasure and performance than aerodynamics.
Our success from lubricants developed with our chain link dynamometer – Tour de France victories, Olympic titles and World Hour Records, speaks for itself. But we are not content to hit the brakes and stop the work there. The dynamometer is now only one scientific tool at our disposal.
We’ve followed our research with the Laboratory of the Government Chemist (LGC) and National Physical Laboratory (NPL) with an investment of nearly £250,000 in a tribometer and other incredible scientific devices. We have expanded our R&D team, too. Each of our engineers is an expert in their field, whether mechanical or chemical. Both Dr MM, the team's long-time leader, and Dr DK, hold PhDs in tribology. Additionally, Dr DK holds an MSc in Advanced Chemical Engineering (The full names of our R&D experts are withheld and shall remain so to protect our competitive advantage).
Such massive investments in people and equipment are essential to creating protocols for repeatable and reproducible testing. Bicycle lubricant development offers many challenges, from a lack of published test literature to chemicals 'handed down' from parallel industries. It presents many variables, from a variety of chain surface technologies to inconsistencies in the manufacture of drivetrain components. We are more convinced than ever of the need for a scientific method to overcome them and of our ability to do so.
Our research project with LGC and NPL included more than 50 tests that created a huge amount of data. The tests delivered a series of significant outcomes, which will be described in greater detail in following chapters. In this opening section, we'll provide a summary of the most important achievements.
Friction curves showing biodegradable vs non-biodegradable lubricants
Chain efficiency data for biodegradable vs non-biodegradable lubes replotted as a bar plot
- SOURCES OF FRICTION
We proved that of the many sources of friction in a bicycle chain, the greatest occurs between the pin and the plate. This validated our previously-held opinion, gained from extensive testing with the dynamometer.
- GREEN DOES NOT MEAN SLOW
We discovered that using biodegradable chemical components do not negatively affect lubricant performance. Put simply, we can now be certain that 'green' does not have to mean 'slow'.
- CHAIN VARIANCE
We confirmed that Shimano chains induce variance. Until completing this research, conducted with a tribometer, we had no method to verify whether the variance we’d encountered with our dyno-led testing was caused by the chain or the lubricant under development. The Tribometer is an extremely accurate scientific machine that can measures lubricant performance without a chain or drivetrain avoiding all the variances there in. This finding, by itself, justified the project.
- DYNO-LED RESULTS
We also measured variance from Shimano chainrings and cassettes in less than nine hours of testing. As a result, we have reduced the duration of our dyno-led tests and now replace Shimano chainrings and cassettes with more frequency.
- ADVANCED CHEMICAL COMPOSITIONS
We discovered the chemical composition of 30 best-selling bicycle lubricants by scientific analysis (Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry and Atmospheric Solids Analysis Probe Mass Spectrometry). We use this research to group chemical components for performance comparison, which facilitates a more targeted approach when selecting base oils and additives.
- DEVELOPING TEST METHODS
We developed a new line contact, high-frequency reciprocating tribometer test method. Early results from testing 'liquid' lubricants have been very encouraging, while testing of wax lubricants proved the accuracy of our dynamometer comparable to tribometers in certain functions.
- LABORATORY STANDARDS
We developed a laboratory-standard chain cleaning process and a calibration oil. The lubricants in which chains are supplied to the consumer only introduce a further variable to testing. Clinical removal of any trace of 'stock lubricant' is essential to ensure accurate measurement of our development formulas.
Our work with LGC and NPL has strengthened our belief that scientific development is the only approach that can guarantee consumer confidence. Myths are no substitute for evidence. By research with world-class laboratories, feedback from world-class athletes, investment and recruitment, expansion and development, we are creating world-class lubricants that exceed expectations. We want to do more than lead by example, however. Standardised testing for the performance and durability of bicycle lubricants represents an ideal scenario and an aspiration for us here at Muc-Off. Additionally, all market participants, ourselves included, have a better job to do in communicating the practical purpose of our products to real-world riders.
As an industry, we need to embrace every consumer need. The 'best' lubricant is not necessarily the 'fastest'. Instead, the best lubricant is always the most appropriate for a specific rider. The requirement for protection on a daily commute through winter is no less valid than the need for 'speed' in a WorldTour time-trial. Performance and durability are two sides of the same coin. One side does not hold greater value than the other.
Relentless innovation in other categories demands the same commitment from Muc-Off. We relish the challenge. Our canvas is already sufficiently broad to contemplate innovations so bold as chain-specific lubricants optimised for each of the different surface technologies adopted by various manufacturers. The rapid growth of the e-bike sector represents another huge opportunity.
Whichever direction the industry takes, we are equipped and ready to respond with scientific, evidence-based development. The results of our research project will reduce testing iterations, leading to faster development of new products. The pages that follow represent an exciting new chapter in bicycle lubricant development.