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For my chain and moving (exposed) mechanisms, I use Dumonde Lite. It's a lube that goes on wet and cures out to form a coating on the chain so it won't pick-up road crap like the Tri-Flow (which I used to swear by).
As far as headset and BB\bearings, I just let my local Trek dealer take care of it. Mike is the only tech that I let work on my bike. He's stellar and he's always been completely honest with me. He's made recommendations that have saved me a great deal of money and other recommendations that have saved me many headaches and downtime and his pricing for his time and expertise have always been extremely reasonable.
I highly recommend finding a tech you can trust and who seems to have your best (cycling) interests in mind. And try the Dumonde Lite. The stuff is GREAT! Especially for MTB'ers - mud and dirt simply won't stick to your chain like it does with a wet lube. Just make sure to apply it about 24 hours before you ride so it has time to cure out.
To all my Sparks peeps: The best lube? Sorry for being technical yet a little vague. I have much experience in dealing with the technical end that I hate to give false or incorrect information without having all the information.
Seals are important as mentioned below. You need to know the composition of those seals to choose the right lubricant so it doesn't interact and break the seal down.
Tolerances are very important. Even with the best designed headsets and components can have issues. I won't mention the mfg but it happened on my newest Serotta, I got a bad headset. It was taken care of quickly and the MFG had to recall a lot due to improper assemble of the sealed bearing. You see all these little details make a huge difference. The hardness of the surfaces must be correct or you will have problems, alignment of assembly fixtures, cleanliness of assembly procedure, etc..
Assembly, how each component is assembled at the factory can be the difference if they last or fail. The machining of the components and other specs can lead to failure. Many of these operations are or should be done in a clean room environment.
Proper alignment of the frame, facing, etc.... I know some of you have used a Campy tool set to face frames, headsets, etc. New technology takes care of some of these issues but they still exist.
Lubricants and materials: Chemical compositions of the materials to be lubricated and the actual additives can cause issues too. Noted by one of the posters, galvanic reaction. Don't grease a Carbon Fiber seat post. These are accurate statements.
If you want to experiment, just pay attention.
I can't give technical data unless I have more info. I do know there are some incredible synthetic lubes on the market, there are super expensive but a small amount will go a very long way. Look for a composition and compatibility of the lubes. The mfg will usually have technical data available. Call or email some mfg's and give the application, they will make recommendations.
As for me, I have all kinds of lube around my shop. I have old Campy stuff and newer Dura-Ace. I don't need much lube and I keep things pretty clean. I don't mountain bike and that tougher when water and mud come into play.
I think everybody has a pretty good grasp on the subject.
I like marine grease best for headsets because I find it lasts the longest.
Cyclists tend to refer to cartridge bearings as sealed and cup and cone bearings as unsealed. The fact is that the seals on some cup and cone bearings are better than some cartridge bearing seals. Cartridge bearings are used in bicycle parts intended to be maintenance free or at least reduced maintenance like Phil Wood, Durham Bullseye, Specialized, Weyless, American Classic, White Industries etc.
Most cyclists do not relube cartridge bearings; they simply replace them. I have been repacking my own rubber sealed cartridge bearings though. I carefully pry the rubber seal off the bearing with the tip of a knife then clean with solvent, repack with grease and then carefully press the rubber seal back on. If you do this be especially careful because the rubber seal has a metal washer than once bent or dented will contact the bearings. I have a 25 year old pair of Bullseye hubs that still have their original 6001RS bearings. When they start to get dry I repack them as I describe above and they have lasted all these years. I figure 6001 series bearings are probably massive over-kill for the sorts of loads bicycle hubs see.
Always grease metal seat posts otherwise they can effectively weld themselves in place with corrosion. Aluminum seat posts (officially saddle pillars) in steel frames are particularly bad because the dissimilar metals experience galvanic corrosion. Old-school quill stems must also be greased. I don't know much about carbon fiber seat posts because they came out after I got out of the biz' but I know you should not grease CF seat posts
I like engine assembly grease for cables, derailleur pivots, sliding parts, and things like that.
I read a lot about grease myself when trying to determine if there was anything special about bicycle grease. There are situations where you need specific greases for specific applications but nothing on the bicycle is like that. I did do some investigation to see if grease with Extreme Pressure (EP) additives would prevent the false brinneling that usually does in headsets and was speceficially told by grease makers that while false brinneling is caused by local lubrication failure it is not the kind of load that EP additives would protect parts from. I will backpedal a bit here in that if you use grease that comes in contact with plastic than you should stick with recommended greases since some greases attack some plastics. I've seen Phil grease stain plastics it came in contact with; otherwise Phil seems to be an excellent albeit overpriced grease. The two failure modes of grease on bicycles are contamination and washout. Washout being the major problem for cyclists who ride in rain or through water. While nearly every grease claims to be waterproof and resistant to washout I found Superlube to be particularly bad in this respect, the widely used white lithium grease had poor washout resistance and the Sta-Lube marine grease for boat trailers the most resistant to washout but Bull Shot and Phil still being very good.
The best lube to use is???
Is marine grease the best for headset bearings? My cranks and wheels are all sealed bearings. Should I pack a little marine grease around them to seal better?
How about cables, shifters, derailleurs?
Do you put anything on seat tubes?
One thing to consider, while it is true that the functionality of grease is universal - to lubricate components so as to reduce wear, heat and friction, thusly prolonging the lifespan of the component(s) in question - there are indeed different grades and viscosities for many differing applications and, in many cases, as BarronVC points out, it does indeed matter.
In a pinch? Sure, use what you have access to if you don't have what you need. But it's a good idea to do at least a small amount of research before you attempt to apply any ''fixes'' in real world applications.
Some of your words are valid and I do agree.
Some of those words are disturbing to me. My experience, 30+ years as a machine tool builder and designer. I've build and designed special spindles, bearings, assembled and rebuilt them. Bearings and lubrication has changed a lot over the past 20 years, the ABEC 7's are improved. Assemblies methods for angular contact bearings, preload, and fitting are much less complicated due to the improved quality. The good bike components are high quality. The middle road can be really poor quality.
Let's forget about the price of lub, you don't need much! The more you have the longer you have time get it contaminated. Forget about name brands! Check the Lighting Reference Handbook to know more about lubrication or just search the net. I've gone through the country teaching spindle rebuilding and bearing failure. Too much grease it bad, you need to put the correct volume in each application for the correct rpm, load, and type of bearing. There are design parameters of each application.
Here is the biggest key. Keep it clean! Dirty fingers, contamination, will destroy your bearing contact points quickly. Keep the dirt out!
I agree with a lot of this post. Use what works and keep it clean.
Bicycles are not very demanding when it comes to lubrication. No bearings on bikes run at high speed or particularly high pressure. It has always amused me the way ordinary grease and oil is repackaged and marketed to cyclists at grossly inflated prices. There is a story that Bill Woodall when doing neutral support for Campagnolo in a pinch scraped some grease off a truck to regrease a bike and admitted that grease is grease. While I'm one of the biggest Italiophiles around old Campagnolo grease never seemed very good to me. It was white but oil seperated easily from it, and it was lumpy. Give me a can of white Lubriplate any day. Since riders used to associate white lithium grease with quality we generally used Lubriplate white lithium for bike snobs. It was a particularly slick grease leading to oohs' and aaaah's when riders lovingly spun their wheel axle or bottom bracket spindle between their fingers and admired their freedom and smoothness. We used a sticky red grease called Bull Shot for cyclists who actually rode their bikes though. Bull Shot was a boutique grease but in the back we could get big cans that were much cheaper than the little tubes we sold.
The only reason to buy an expensive tube of bicycle specific grease is for convenience. You can buy a 1lb tub of grease for the same price at any hardware or auto parts store that will work just as well though. The drawback of a 1lb tub of grease is if you leave it open on your bench dirt and junk can fall into it. To me the best solution is a mini pistol grip grease gun with the needle nozzle. Keeps grease clean and puts it exactly where you want it. I don't enjoy overhauling bearings so I like to use the longest lasting grease I can find. For a grease that doesn't wash out easily I like marine wheel bearing greases. It turns out that both Phil and Bull Shot greases are repackaged marine greases. Boat owners back their boat trailers into the water at ramps and the more water resistant their grease the less often they need to repack their bearings. These greases are perfect for bicycle bearings that get exposed to water. The best one I've tried is Sta-Lube Marine Grease for Boat Trailer Wheel Bearings. I haven't tried every marine grease out there so there may be even better ones but man does this stuff stick to cones and races. Someone showed me an even stickier grease than this but I was afraid to try it because it seemed to have fibers in it. While greases like this are like mother's milk for bearings they are a little heavy for lighter jobs. There are a lot of things on a bike that want lube a little thicker than oil but not as gummy as marine grease. I used to use Lubriplate white lithium on these because it feels so light but someone showed me something even better called engine assembly lube. This is such a light grease it is almost a thick oil. This works great on brake cables, pivots, and any sliding parts.