The bike chain tends to collect a lot of dirt on rides – from the pollen clumps and red mud from exploring off-road trails to the road grit from your last road biking trip. If left uncleaned, the grit and dirt form an effective grinding paste that causes expensive wear and tear, rough pedaling, poor gear shifting, and wasted efficiency. Knowing how to clean bike chain is an effective way to avoid drivetrain problems.
The frequency of cleaning a bike chain, and to what extent, is dependent on mileage, lube selection, and riding conditions. If, however, your bike’s chain is sounding gritty, or it is visibly dirty, it might be time to give it a thorough cleaning.
A Step by Step Guide on How to Clean Bike Chain
Easy Chain Cleaning
If you are limited in both space and time, easy clean might be your best option. All you will need for this clean is a rag and a good chain lube. To use this method for cleaning a bike chain, you will need to follow the steps below:
- Wrap your mountain bike chain with a lint-free, clean cloth. The rag shouldn’t be soaked in degreaser – while the degreaser can produce better visible results, it will also mix with the dirty lube instead of removing it.
- Next, backpedal the drivetrain through the cloth – this should wipe off the exterior muck.
- Repeat the process – using a clean rag each time – until the rag is mostly clean.
- Use the last rag to scrape off cud from the chainrings, derailleur pulley, and cassette.
- Once the drivetrain is reasonably clean, apply the lube as needed.
It is worth noting that oil-based lubricants help float dirt and grit to the surface of the chain. Hence, you may want to repeat the wiping process a couple of times after applying the lube until the chain’s outer side looks clean.
This type of easy cleaning is ideal after each mountain biking trip. However, if your chain is extremely dirty already, one of the in-depth cleaning methods described in the following sections may be more ideal.
Moderate (On-Bike) Chain and Drivetrain Cleaning
This method will require both water and a degreaser. As long as the chain is not already terribly dirty, this method should help you get it clean without removing it from the touring bike.
The cleaning is better done outdoors. This will help you avoid messing your house – if you have a car wash, it might be a good idea to use it for the cleaning.
The Necessary Tools
- Air compressor (optional)
- Chain cleaning tool (optional)
- An open space you won’t mind getting wet and/or dirty
- A garden hose, running water, and a spray nozzle
- Chain keeper
- Container for holding the degreaser
- Larger brush(es) for cleaning the cogs
- A stiff-bristled small brush
The Steps to Follow
- Take off the rear bike wheel – just as you would do when changing a tire – and install the chain keeper in its place.
- Using the degreaser and brush, remove the gunk from the derailleur pulley wheels and chainrings.
- Brush the degreaser onto your chain, backpedaling the chain through your brush at varying angles.
- Brush your degreaser onto your bike’s cassette sprockets – use a larger brush to speed up the cleaning process.
- Using a low-pressure water stream, rinse of the derailleur pulleys, chainrings, chain, and cassette. Avoid squirting the water into any bearings directly.
- Using a clean rag, dry everything. Next, set your road bike aside and give it time to air dry. If you are in a hurry, use compressed air to speed up the drying process.
- Once the bike dries completely, remove the chain keeper and re-install the wheel.
- Finally, apply the lube.
As an alternative, you can take advantage of a chain cleaning device instead of brushing the degreaser on your chain. Cleaning devices user rotating brushes that scrub the inner links, rollers, and outer links automatically.
Detailed Drivetrain Cleaning
The on-bike chain cleaning method above will be enough for most bikes. However, sometimes cleaning a bike chain more thoroughly may be necessary.
The method described in this section is not just more meticulous, but it is also better contained and may be more ideal for bike owners who do not have access to an outdoor cleaning area. In addition to cleaning an old chain, you can use this method to make the entire drivetrain look new when installing a new chain on your commuter bike.
This detailed cleaning option will involve removing the chainrings, cassette, and the chain from the beginner mountain bike. This option can also serve as an ideal periodic maintenance opportunity for inspecting and servicing other components, including the freehubs and bottom bracket bearings.
The Necessary Tools
- Air compressor (optional)
- Rinsing water
- A container to use as your degreasing bath
- Stiff bristled brush – either a paintbrush or cog brush
- A bike multi-tool or a tool to remove the chaining and cassette
The Steps to Follow
- Assess whether your chain is worn and requires replacement. If the chain is worn out, you will have to discard it. Otherwise, determine whether it can be removed easily – such as with some type of reusable link. If so, proceed to remove it.
Note: If you cannot remove the chain, you may have to use the steps on how to clean bike chain moderately while it is still on the bike.
- Remove the bike’s rear wheel and the cassette.
- Remove the bike’s chainrings from the crank. Alternatively, you can remove the right-side bicycle pedal and then the whole bike crank.
- Clean the cage and derailleur pulleys using a strip of cloth or rag. Compressed air may help you remove grit from the pulley holes and other cutouts. Otherwise, you may need to disassemble the pulleys for a thorough cleaning.
- Clean the chainrings and cassette in a bath of degreaser – you will need to do this manually. You can use a thin cog brush for the task.
- Place the chain in a jar filled with degreaser and shake the jar vigorously. You can also use a brush on the chain.
- Once clean, use water to rinse the chain, cassette, and chainring.
- Dry the components and then reinstall them. When it comes to drying, you can use compressed air to speed up the process.
You can make your work much easier by making use of an ultrasonic cleaner. This is an ideal hands-off cleaning option. However, you have to keep in mind that ultrasonic cleaners generally offer mixed results when it comes to extremely stubborn grit. If you have to use the ultrasonic cleaner, be sure to check the solvent used and the heat – this will help you avoid anodization or plastic damage.
Cleaning for Maximum Benefit from the Chain Lube
If you are not very new to cleaning a bike chain, you may already know that most drip lubes will work best only if they have access to the chain’s metal. For this reason, most biking experts encourage riders to view the chain cleaning as a two-part process.
Part one is getting your chain clean – that is, getting the dirt and grit off the chain. The second part is ensuring that no film remains on your college bike chain from the materials you used during the cleaning.
Most degreasers leave a heavy film on the chain that makes it hard for the drip lube and impossible for your wax to adhere to the chain’s metal. When removing the film, you will need to reserve the ultrasonic cleaner only for your final stage before following it with a rinse in denatured alcohol (methylated spirits). This section will show you how to clean bike chain without leaving a film on your chain.
The Necessary Tools
- An ultrasonic cleaner (optional)
- An air compressor (optional)
- Methylated spirits (denatured alcohol) for the final step
- A strong degreaser for the initial cleaning
- A jar
The Steps to Follow
- Using the detailed method described in the previous section, clean your chain thoroughly.
- Drop the chain in a jar of fresh degreaser and then shake thoroughly. Repeat this step with a fresh degreaser until the degreaser remains clean.
- Replace the degreaser with denatured alcohol. Shake while replacing the denatured alcohol until it remains completely clean.
- Hang your chain to dry or use the compressed air to speed up the drying process.
- Apply a lubricant.
Problems to Watch Out for When Cleaning the Chain
When cleaning your chain, there are some issues you may need to check. Even if you are new to bike repairs, spotting them should be easy. These include:
These are chain links that no longer bend smoothly. To spot them, simply pedal the chain backward and watch as each chain link passes through the tight turns of your rear derailleur.
Most of the tight links are a result of dirt or corrosion between the link plates – you can fix these by cleaning, lubricating, and flexing the chain back and forth. Others result from either an improper pin installation – that is, the pin that holds your chain links together isn’t fully inserted through the rollers and links – or serious chain damage.
Poorly installed pins can – in some cases – be worked back into their ideal position by shifting them back and forth inside the chainplates by using your hands or a tool. If your chain is, however, severely damaged, you may have to replace it completely.
As the chain wears, it becomes longer. This is what we are calling chain stretch. The chain lengthens as wear occurs between the link pins and the rollers. This creates free play or slop that can lead to skipping in some cases. Additionally, it leads to extra wear and tear of the rear cog and chainring teeth.
Staying on top of the chain’s wear and replacing it before it wears out excessively is the most ideal way to prolong the lifespan of other drivetrain components. Compared to replacing the cog set for your chainring and cassette, replacing the chain is a more ideal and more affordable option. To check whether the chain is extremely worn, you can use a chain wear indicator tool.
If you have worn out the chain past the 0.8 mm wear, you will most likely have to replace the cassette. If it is more worn out than this, replacing the chainring may be necessary too.
If you are keen to push the chainring and cassette to the limit, you can install a new chain, put on your biking shorts and shoes and take the bike for a careful test ride. If your new chain is skipping at the back under power, you will have to invest in a new cassette. If the chain is grabbing on your chainring, shifting poorly in the front, or making weird noises, you may need new chainrings.
Preventative Chain Care
Chain maintenance begins with selecting an ideal lube. If you can prevent your budget road bike chain from getting overly greasy and gritty in the first place, you will rarely have to give it through cleaning.
Using a chain lube that attracts minimal grit and keeping the chain as clean as possible can help you get over 15,000 kilometers before you have to buy a new bike chain for your aluminum road bike. Most people, however, due to poor maintenance, often replace their chains after only 3000 kilometers. As a bonus, the better lifespan comes with improved operating efficiency, especially when shifting gears, and reduced friction.
Whichever lube you decide to use on your chain, use enough such that it penetrates inside the chain’s rollers. Applying the lube to the chain rollers on the lower span while backpedaling the chain should carry the lube into the links.
If the lube is oil-based, be sure to wipe off any excess using a rag once it has had enough time to settle. If the lube instructions require you to leave it on the chain overnight before grabbing your biking gear and getting on the bikepacking trail, definitely do so. If your chain is dirty but you are in a rush, always follow the easy clean method to clean it before applying the lube.
Q: Can You Clean A Bike Chain with Soap and Water?
Both water and diluted dish soap are some of the things that you will need to clean your bike’s chain. In addition to the water and soap, you will need to use a degreaser – the degreaser will make it much easier for you to remove the old lube. First, you will need to use the degreaser to get all the old lube off the chain before using the soap and water to complete the cleaning process.
Q: How Often Should You Clean Your Bike Chain?
How frequently you ride and where you go cycling your bike determines how often you need to clean the chain. For the average rider, giving the chain a thorough clean at least once per month can help maintain optimal protection and performance. However, for riders who clock numerous miles per week on dirty, muddy, or wet trails, more frequent cleans may be necessary.
Q: How Do You Clean A Derailleur on A Bike Chain?
The best way to clean a derailleur is to make use of a degreaser and a brush. The brush should help you get the gunk off while the degreaser will ensure that the old lube comes off. This ensures that the newly applied lube functions optimally.
Q: What Household Items Can I Use to Clean My Bike Chain?
Some of the household items you might need when cleaning your chain include:
- A rag for removing the gunk from the chain, cassette, and other parts of the drive train.
- A jar for holding your degreaser bath.
- Dish soap for cleaning the chain after using the degreaser.
- Gloves to protect your hands from the grease.
- A hairdryer to speed up the drying process.
Q: Can You Clean Your Bike with Dish Soap?
Yes, you can use dish soap when cleaning your bike. However, a much better option – which is often recommended by bike experts – is a preformulated bike wash cleaner.
Q: What is the Best Bicycle Chain Cleaner?
In addition to allowing you to remove old lube from your chain, a good chain cleaner should be both biodegradable and non-toxic to the user and the environment. The cleaner shouldn’t dissolve the paint finishes on your chain, otherwise, it may expose the chain to conditions that favor rusting.
Globo Surf Overview
With proper and regular chain care, cleaning a bike chain should neither be complicated nor consume too much time. The thorough cleaning will be needed less regularly if you use easy cleaning more regularly and use the right chain lube.
Depending on how dirty your chain is, you should be able to find good steps above to show you how to clean bike chain. If the bike’s drivetrain requires more profound maintenance, working with a professional bike mechanic is always a good idea.