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Do You Need To Grease A Bike Stem?

Problems with steering your bike as it gets worn with use and age are some of the most common problems most bikers face. And many of my cycling friends mention that the best solution is to grease the bike stem. But I wasn’t entirely convinced it was the best option. So I scraped the annuls of the internet for some comprehensive answers. This is what I found!

A bike stem can be greased at the base only, using a thin, waterproof or oil lubricant. It should not be greased at the point where it’s fitted into the steerer tube. To avoid permanent adhesiveness between the stem and steerer tube, apply some lubricants (besides grease) when necessary.

Why is it recommended that you grease the joints between the stem and fork but not the steerer of the handlebars? And why is it only necessary to lubricate (not grease) the joints between the stem and steerer tube? Let’s take a look at the implications that underlie the answers to these questions…

Why Grease Only Between Stem & Fork But Not Fork & Steerer Tube?

The steering sections of a bike are some of the most critical components. They have a direct determining factor in the degree to which your biking experience is secured from accidents and other related dangers.

In light of this, keeping these sections flexible yet sturdy are some of the key design and mechanical concepts underlying their construction. Moreover, these concepts have to be kept in operational balance. 

Therefore, any maintenance undertaken has to be in keeping with this operational balance. Here are some thing to note:

Grease is a substance that tends to have a high degree of viscosity. This means it has high resistance to flow and adheres more securely to solid surfaces than other lubricants.

This makes it ideal for conjoining two different parts of solid objects where a degree of sturdiness is required but with the flexibility that lubricants allow. This is why grease is ideal for connecting a bikes’ fork and stem, since the connection between these two parts requires these two qualities.

However, these same ideal qualities of grease make it unsuitable to be used as lubricant between the stem and steerer tube. The most important qualities emphasized between these parts are dexterity and flexibility.

The more significant structural internal friction of grease (as a result of high viscosity) becomes a liability in this regard. The more rigorous dexterity and flexibility needed for handling the steering components of a bike make grease unsuitable for use between the stem and steerer tube.

The consequence of applying grease to the stem and by extension to the steerer tube is the forced breakdown of the internal friction of the substance. This affects its adhesiveness and subsequently leads to an incapacitated connection that destroys conjoined steering capabilities of these two parts.

The unsuitability of the use of grease on the stem of a bike raises the question of whether or not there are any alternatives that can be used and if there are, when and where can they be used.

Given that grease is itself a lubricant and that the process of lubrication is an important part of maintaining your bikes performance quality, it becomes inevitable that you would look for options besides greasing to perform maintenance on your stem. 

What Can You Use Instead of Grease for Bike Stem Maintenance?

Oil or water based lubricants are better suited to bike stem maintenance than grease (which should not be used)

Now, having established the unsuitability of using grease on your bike stem, there’s still the problem of needing to perform maintenance on it. Those with deeper pockets may simply decide to get another stem or if they have more in their private inventory, replace it with another unit.

For most of us, this will most probably be seen as too costly and unnecessary, given the lost utility and value of the stem that’s replaced. It is then that you may to decide to look for alternative lubricants. Here are a few options that can be considered to help with your bike stem:

  • Water – To be used as a cleanser to clean any fine matter that my have accumulated on your bike. This includes sand, dirt, mud etc. Water is also used a preparatory liquid or base for the application of other lubricants.
  • Oil-based lubricants – There are primarily two types: Dry and wet.
    • Dry lubricants are applied wet but dry to a waxy finish within a few hours. To be used primarily for maintaining the structural integrity of the stem against oxidized corrosion, weathering etc.
    • Wet lubricants are thick, long lasting lubes that can only be removed by rubbing them away. Perfect for (pun not intended!) wet conditions due to their resistance to rain. 
  • All purpose lubricants – These are your standard, run-of-the-mill lubricants which can be applied on almost any movable part your bike. They come in a spray can and thus make application fairly easy and very efficient as the spray can reach surfaces on the stem that can be difficult to reach.
  • Lastly, as aforementioned, grease is normally unsuitable for use because of its highly viscous nature. However, this can be remedied through the use of shear-thinning: A process of applying shear to the grease to the effect that it reduces it’s viscosity to the same degree as the base oils used in the grease. In effect, it becomes a sort of pseudo oil lubricant that can be used to lubricate the joint between the stem and the steerer wheel.

With these alternatives established, you may wonder how to use these lubricants in order to affect maintenance on your bike stem…

How To Maintain Your Bike Stem Using Lubricants Besides Grease?

It’s actually pretty much the same way you would apply lubricant on any other area of your bike. Simply clean the area and apply the lubricant. Wheels off or on, upright or horizontal, with or without constituent parts, it doesn’t matter.

As long as you remember to use only the above mentioned lubricants under the conditions stipulated, you can choose whatever manner in which you wish to apply these lubes!

Conclusion

Grease should never be used on the stem, fork or steer interface of the bike under any circumstances. Doing so would jeopardize the ability to use that interface to steer your bike in the manner in which you chose. 

There is, however, a need to give your bike stem regular maintenance, regardless of the unsuitability of grease. This is due to the effects of wear and tear, and it requires a solution beyond purchasing another stem or replacing it with a readily available one.

In answer to this need, it’s advised that bike owners use alternative oil-based, waterproofed lubricants on their stem. Moreover, you should only use these lubricants when you absolutely need it. For example due to corrosion, adverse weather etc.

And remember, you should only use it on the mechanical joints connecting the stem to the fork and steerer tube of the handlebars.