Muc-Off leads the bicycle chain lubricant category by experience, influence and method. Established for more than 25 years, a technical partner to three of the most successful teams in professional cycling, and an investor of unmatched commitment in scientific development, we can make a justifiable claim to leadership of a category that suffers from the absence of test literature, protocols for repeatable and reproducible testing and independent standards.
It is a testament to the vision of our board and the skill of scientists that many of our greatest challenges have been overcome. Several, however, remain beyond our control. While they can broadly divide into “scientific” and “strategic”, the two areas are closely related. Our commitment to reproducible and repeatable testing, for example, underpins our long-term commitment to independent test standards that are vital to establishing new levels of consumer confidence.
Our joint research project with the Laboratory of the Government Chemist (LGC) and the National confirmed variance in Shimano drivetrain components. NPL’s scientific investigation uncovered a variance of 0.27w in chains cleaned with LGC’s laboratory cleaning process and treated with the calibration oil developed as part of the project. Chains treated with Shimano’s stock lubricant showed a variance of 0.25w. Variance in both cases occurred within less than nine hours of testing.
Variance was uncovered too in Shimano chainrings and sprockets, but we don't present these findings to criticise Shimano, whose components are manufactured to a high standard, or to celebrate their competitors, whose components did not feature in our joint research project. Rather, we share this finding to illustrate what is arguably the most significant of the ‘uncontrollables’ faced by our scientists in their continued quest to develop faster or more durable lubricants.
Variances which to the untrained eye seem insignificant present a huge challenge in creating repeatable and reproducible testing. Our certainty now that variance in the amounts described above occurs in the chain rather than the lubricant under development by itself justifies the joint research project. Variances that would be imperceptible to the consumer are highly significant to Muc-Off’s scientists. Values even of less than half-a-watt are sufficient to instigate further enquiries.
While drivetrain components remain an essential part of our dyno testing, we have mitigated its influence by investment in sophisticated tribometers. The overwhelming majority of our tribo tests use metal tokens of known hardness and surface finish, rather than drivetrain components. The exception is NPL’s novel line contact high-frequency reciprocating tribometer test method, in which the token is substituted for a chain link.
A smaller, if equally complex challenge is presented by the industry’s plethora of chain technologies: the materials from which they are constructed and the chemical finishes applied to their surface. The way in which Shimano’s SilTec coating absorbs lubricant, for example, varies significantly from KMC’s Diamond-Like finish. While both are viable methods for achieving the robustness necessary in a component that must arguably withstand the greatest stress of any part of a bicycle, the different solutions present our scientists with an added layer of complexity.
Again, our investment in ever-more sophisticated test equipment has helped to overcome the challenge. Tribometer tests can be configured in minute detail, with control over parameters including speed, load, pressure, temperature, motion, direction and more allowing our scientists to isolate and understand the influence of link hardness and surface finish. Further, our Contour white light interferometer, a powerful industrial microscope that reveals the ‘topography’ of a link surface in incredible resolution, provides the most detailed view of a lubricant’s interaction with a coating.
The creation of repeatable and reproducible protocols for a range of fundamental tests of bicycle chain lubricant remains arguably the greatest challenge faced by Muc-Off’s scientists. Lube development is an intensely iterative process, made all the more so by the absence of documented test protocols and results for chemical components commonly used in the category. Unlike the automotive sector, for example, the bicycle industry is poorly serviced for test literature.
A repeatable test is one which the scientist can be certain of achieving the same result each time it is run. A reproducible test is one with which any scientist equipped with the same equipment, formula and materials (metal tokens of known hardness and surface finish or identical and unused drivetrain components) can follow a documented procedure and achieve the same result.
A world of complexity lies behind such seemingly simple ambitions, which depend upon the elimination of every source of variance. Creating an environment in which only the effect of the lubricant is measured and then documented is no small task. Muc-Off is committed, however, to the principles of repeatability and reproducibility and to establishing a bedrock of verifiable data on which to base our marketing activity.
The absence of protocols for repeatable and reproducible testing is the underlying condition for a broader challenge: until reliable test data is generated and shared, comparative claims from bicycle chain lubricant manufacturers will lack credibility. The category is hamstrung by the absence of independent standards for a host of common tests. Until they are developed with the common consent of competitors and verified by bodies like the British Standards Institution, claims for any test can only be regarded as a snapshot in time – the results of a particular product, tested on a particular day, in a particular way.
As category leader, Muc-Off is committed to the development and implementation of independently verified standards. Many of our scientists have worked in other sectors where test literature and documented processes are a valued norm. Their professionalism dovetails with Muc-Off’s strategic ambition for greater credibility for the category. Repeatability and reproducibility, transparency and independent verification are the foundations on which greater consumer confidence can be established.