Cleaning Your Chain for Fun and Profit
Many of us have never given our bike chains a second thought. We just ignore it, trusting it to do its job. This is a serious mistake. The bike chain is one of the most important parts of the bike and requires regular maintenance.
Knowing how to clean a bike chain can save you money over time. Not only will you be able to skip the shop and its fees, but you will be able to save your cogs!
You can think of your chain as the heart of your bike, it is that important. Letting it get filthy, rusty from water or letting it stretch too far will seriously impact the useful life of the rest of the drive train. A loose or corroded chain can also slip or snap, endangering you as well.
Dirty Chain Issues
- Slow or impossible gear shifting.
- More strain on derailleur.
- Stiff chain links from grime or rust.
- Faster wear rate on those expensive drive train cogs.
A Part of Regular Maintenance Time
Keeping a bike in good working order generally requires regular maintenance. You should be giving your bike a good once over twice a season. This means washing the full frame and mechanics with a good de-greaser and automotive soap, as well as checking the bike for any issues.
Wash day is a great time to fully examine and treat your chain to a once over. Start by putting your bike into a bike stand. Flip it upside down if you don’t have one. Now you will need to slowly turn the pedals and watch the chain move along its track.
Look carefully for signs of rust or other corrosion. Carefully look at the individual links for signs of stiffness. Those links should be easy to spot. They won’t bend easily around gears.
Finally, listen for any sounds. A chain should be silent. Any squeaks or other noises mean that the chain needs a good dose of lube.
Three Ways to Clean Your Bike Chain
The quick but good way to clean the chain is to leave the chain on the bike and give it a good scrub. You will need a de-greaser, an automotive or cycling soap, rags and a toothbrush.
Basic Walk-Through for Standard Cleaning
- Carefully squirt a little de-greaser into the links of the chain. Slowly rotating the pedals helps. Don’t rotate too fast or the goop will fly.
- Use your old toothbrush to scrub the links. Get all of them, be sure to work the brush into the rollers. Rinse the brush as needed.
- Work any stiff links until they are easy to move.
- Scrub the cogs and derailleur with the brush.
- Use warm water, soap and clean rags to wash the remains of the grime off the chain and drive train.
- Give the chain a good spin. Drying in the sun is best. A sunny day will dry a chain in about an hour.
You will also need to clean and oil the rest of the drive train. Use soapy water or de-greaser and a toothbrush to scrub the cogs at the front and the back. Be sure to work a rag into the crevices to get all the goop out.
Scrub the derailleur next. Remove the housing, if possible. If not, simply work around it. Wipe down and drip lube into the housing and on any exposed wires.
Drip a small amount of lube into any moving parts you might find while working your way to the front of the bike. Drip wet lube into any opening along your brake and shift lines. Finish with dripping lube into your brake and shifters at the front of the bike.
Always wipe off anything that doesn’t sink in. Extra lube attracts and holds grime. You don’t want that in your lines!
Clean Up in a Hurry!
The fastest way to clean the chain is to use a chain cleaner device and a few rags. First, wipe the chain with a damp rag to remove the big chunks. Second, attach and use the cleaner device.
Now you will apply lube. Drip it into the chain. Slowly spin the pedals.
If you are into mountain biking you should do this after each and every ride. A quick cleaning helps to extend the life of your chain, even in the muddiest of terrains. You can work a quick cleaning into your after ride inspection and wipe down.
Knowing how to clean a bike chain right after a ride also saves time. Mud is easier to remove when it is fresh!
Take Time to Do it Right
The slowest method, but the best way, to clean your chain is to remove it before you clean it. You do this by finding the master link and popping it open. Not every chain has a master link. You can use a chain breaker to pop a link apart easily.
First wipe the chain off with a rag. Now immerse it into a bath of de-greaser. Let it soak, then give it a good scrubbing with warm soapy water. Allow it to soak in a bath of chain lube, wipe off excess and put it back on.
While the chain is off, take the time to check and then clean the rest of the drive train. Scrub the the entire drive train while the chain soaks, take your time.
Removing the chain lets you clean more than just the chain and cogs. You’ll be able to easily clean all the other surfaces. A complete cleaning should be done at least once a season.
Select the Best Lubricant
Most riders have a preferred kind of lube for their riding style. There are many different types. You might need to try a few before you find your favorite.
Many of us find that we need a few types of lube around. I like to use wet-dry lube most of the time. But if I am going to be riding in a lot of mud or snow, I prefer pure wet lube, for example.
Wet lubricants are great for riding in the rain, heavy mud or snow. It stays wet on the chain to soak deeply into every nook of the chain. Most blends displace water too.
It’s great for any moving parts on the bike too. If you need to store the bike for a few months, wet lube is what you’d use to prevent rust. It’s very useful.
Since it never dries, it does attract dust and hold grime. It shouldn’t be used in dusty places. You might need to clean your chain a little more often.
These are not oily lubes, but are waxy stuff suspended in an alcohol-based solvent. Apply it and within a few hours your chain will look dry, with a thin waxy layer. Be sure it’s dry before you ride!
Dry lube is great for dry rides. It’s perfect for dusty locations too. Your chain will stay cleaner, longer. Dry lube doesn’t give much protection against rust so don’t rely on it in the rain.
These lubes are a blend of the best of both lubes. They provide almost as much protection from rust as a wet lube. They are also less attractive to dust like a dry lube.
You can ride in nearly every condition with a wet-dry lube. But, they aren’t as protective when your chain is exposed to a lot of rain. You may need to apply it more often. It provides good peace of mind for a wide range of rides.
Do Check Your Chain
While you are cleaning your chain is the perfect time to inspect your chain for wear. As you use your bike, the chain’s links and pins loosen up. While you ride the chain gets longer as the metal wears away. This is called chain stretch.
Over time, an old chain will wear out your drive train far faster than you’d think possible! This ‘slop’ in the chain can also make shifting a lot harder. A very worn out chain might also drop off the cogs as you ride.
A chain checking tool will easily and quickly check your chain for stretch. Simply place it into the links. A worn chain will measure differently, so follow your tool’s instructions. If your chain is worn, replace it quickly to save your much more expensive cogs.
Other Types of Damage to Look For
- Mountain bikers might have debris bounce into the chain as they ride. Look for links that are bent or crimped.
- Loosened links can happen to any rider. Check that each of the pins for each link are completely pushed into the link.
- Use a chain tool to tighten up any loose pins.
- Check your master link. Replace or repair any bent or lose clips.
- Be sure that no link is unable to bend freely.