How to Clean Bike Chain: Basic Care and Maintenance You Need to Know

Learning how to clean bike chain is one of the most important things every bike owner needs to know. It is a basic maintenance task that will help in keeping your bike in its peak performance. Luckily, you do not need to go to a local mechanic and pay someone to do the job for you. With a bit of patience and time to spare, you can do it yourself.

The chain of your bike is a crucial component as it propels movement. It transfers energy from the pedal to the wheels, making it possible for the bike to move from one point to another. To prevent any problem, chain cleaning is a must. If you have no idea about how to do it, keep on reading and learn from the insights we’ll be sharing.

Why You Should Clean Your Bike Chain

Before we go into the specifics of cleaning bike chain, let’s first talk about why you should do it in the first place. If you are not yet convinced that you need to take care of the chain, below are some things that might make you change your mind.

Improve Performance

This is perhaps the most important reason for cleaning the bike chain. The dirtier it is, the more dismal the bike will perform. This will negatively impact shifting performance. You will notice a significant reduction in your bike’s responsiveness. Once such happens, this is one of the most obvious indications that the chain is due for a maintenance.

Reduce Wear

Over time, the different parts of the bike experience wear, and the chain is no exception. It will soon call for a replacement. Otherwise, the performance suffers. If you want to avoid replacing the chain often, a good solution is to keep it clean. This will help you save a few bucks.

Stay Safe

The failure to clean the chain will result in problems in your drivetrain cogs and derailleur assembly, among other parts of the bike. This can also be a reason for the bike to be unsafe and can result in an accident if you are not careful.

A Step-by-Step Guide on How to Clean Bike Chain

Ready to learn the best way to clean a bike chain? Below, we’ll talk about the most important things to do.

Find the Right Place

The first thing you need to do is to find a good location where you will be cleaning the bike chain. It must be a place where you are comfortable working. Pick a well-lit and properly-ventilated location. You must have enough space to move around. It is also important that your bike is on an even surface.

One mistake that most beginners commit is to simply use the kickstand to secure the bike in its location. However, this is one thing that you should avoid. Even a slight bump could knock down the bike, and this can result in more problems. We suggest that you use a bike stand instead. This will secure the bike so that you can work easily.

Inspect the Chain

Once the bike is in place, the next thing to do is to have a quick inspection. This is important to determine the extent of cleaning that needs to be done. A quick eye inspection will give you an idea of what cleaning needs to be done or the type of cleaners you need to use.

If it isn’t excessively dirty, then you will not have to do too much and you can use a basic bike chain cleaner. On the other hand, if it has extreme dirt, then you will need something more powerful. In some instances, cleaning could no longer cut it. You might have no other option but to change the chain instead.

Remove the Chain

Removing chain from bike is the next step. If you are cleaning the chain daily, then it is a wise idea not to remove it from the bike. This will minimize the effort needed for cleaning. However, if you are performing periodic maintenance and deep cleaning, then we recommend removing the chain. If you have no idea about how to remove chain from bike, here’s how you can do it:

  • Find a chain tool. It is a small and handheld device with a metal pin and rotating handle. It moves the chain link’s rivet so that you can remove it from the bike’s assembly.
  • Push the pin of the chain tool on one of the links. Make sure that you insert the tool only on the chain’s pin or it can damage the other parts.
  • Rotate the chain tool handle clockwise while pushing the pin to the link. Avoid over-rotating. When the pin completely comes out of the chain, you won’t be able to return it in its original position.
  • To remove the chain tool from the pin, rotate the handle counterclockwise. Take the chain of the tool and remove the chain from the bike.

Soak the Chain in a Degreaser

Now, on to the actual part of cleaning a chain. Start by degreasing. As the name implies, this will remove grease from the chain. You will find commercially available degreasers that use proprietary ingredients to clean a chain. All that you need is to fill a container big enough to accommodate the chain of your bike.

Put the chain in the container, close the lid, and shake vigorously. As you do this, dirt will break down. For the best outcomes, leave the chain in the container for at least 30 minutes. You might need to leave it longer if the chain has not been cleaned for a long time. Soaking longer dilutes the dirt even on the smallest corners or tightest parts of the chain.

After soaking, remove the chain from the container. If you do not want your hand to get messy, use a hook or anything similar to get the chain out and wipe it with a clean cloth.

Can You Use a Homemade Degreaser for Bike?

Some people would rather take the DIY route and make their own degreaser instead. It is a good way to save money, and this is possible by using ingredients like soap, borax, white vinegar, and baking soda, among others. However, based on our experience and research, this is not one thing that we can recommend. It is best to use a commercial degreaser as they contain exceptional ingredients tough on grease and grime. The best thing is that many of these degreasers are affordable, so there’s no reason why you should not buy one.

Do Not Use Acidic or Alkaline Users

Using acidic and alkaline cleaners are a big no, including rust removers. While they might seem good in theory, in practice, they will do more harm than good. These cleaners are known for being too harsh. They can cause the chain to break instead of just getting rid of the dirt.

Scrub the Chain

After degreasing, some people might re-install the chain, but that should not be the case if it is still dirty. While soaking the chain in a degreaser helps to get rid of the dirt, this may not be enough. With this, you will still need to scrub to get rid of hidden dirt, especially those that you will find at the nooks and crannies of the chain.

Several companies manufacture brushes for this purpose. They are made with tiny bristles that can clean even the smallest spaces in a bike chain. Otherwise, you can also use a toothbrush or dish brush. Scrub the sides and the teeth of the ring, making sure that you do not leave any part untouched.

Rinse the Chain

While scrubbing gets rid of the dirt that sticks to tiny spaces, it is not enough for cleaning the bike chain. You need to rinse it gently with water. Some people might assume that the best way of doing this is the use of a high-pressure hose. However, this should be avoided. The pressure from the water can do more harm than good.

Lubricate the Chain

After rinsing, let the chain dry. Once it is completely dry and lubricate. Below is a quick guide on how to lube bicycle chain:

  • Start by picking the right lube. This will depend on the conditions at which you will be using the bike. If there is rain or snow most of the time, then you should choose a wet lubricant, which will have better resistance. A dry lube, on the other hand, is a better option if you often bike in dry conditions. If you are opting for this, take note that you will need to reapply after 50 to 100 miles of riding. A wax lube is another option. The best thing about this is that it is not as messy as the other lubricants, making the application a breeze.
  • The next step for bicycle chain lubrication is the application. This will depend on the type of the lubricant that you choose. In most cases, this will involve squeezing the lubricant in the chain and backpedaling. The latter is important for the lubricant to spread evenly to all the parts of the chain. Use a clean cloth to wipe the excess lubricant. This will also ensure even distribution. Be careful to prevent hurting yourself throughout the process.

Do Not use WD-40

This is one mistake that most beginners commit. While WD-40 is a handy cleaning tool, take note that it is a solvent and not a lubricant. It contains only a small amount of lubricant and it will also evaporate fast.

Reattach the Chain

You will have two options on when to do this. Some would do this before lubricating but others will do so after. It is a matter of personal preference. You can choose whatever you want. The more important thing is that you return it properly.

The specific method of reattaching the chain will differ from one bike to another.

An Easy Way of Cleaning Bicycle Chain

If you are too lazy, there is an easy way to clean the chain. This process does not involve removing the chain and soaking. This is one thing that we recommend if you have the energy to clean the bike daily and if you are biking most on paved surfaces that does not make the chain prone to mud and dust.

Use a clean and lint-free cloth. Rub it against one part of the chain. Backpedal the drivetrain and the cloth will absorb the dirt from the chain. Be careful when rotating the pedal so that your fingers won’t get hit. Look at the cloth and decide if you have removed most of the dirt that you want to get rid of. Finish by lubricating the chain.

This procedure can be done in less than five minutes. However, this does not work if the chain is extremely dirty. It does not get through the tightest corners and will not dissolve mud.

Use a Chain Cleaning Device

Another easy solution when it comes to chain maintenance is a cleaning device. This is a handy and affordable tool that can make your life a lot easier. It is a must-have for your bike chain cleaning kit, especially if you do not have the time and energy to go through the things that have been mentioned above.

Park Tool is perhaps the most popular brand for a device you can use for cleaning bicycle chain. You will insert the chain in the tool, and it uses a two-step cleaning process. First, it uses solvent to scrub the chain. Next, it uses solvent and water for flushing the grit from the chain. There is a strong magnet that helps in drawing the particles out of the chain to clean it. It also comes with an open-cell sponge to help in cleaning. While this is effective, if you want deeper cleaning for bike chains, we suggest that you follow the steps mentioned above instead.

Prevention is Better Than Cure

It is not enough that you know how to clean your bicycle chain. It is more important that you learn how to prevent it from being dirty in the first place. While dirt is inevitable, there are some things that you can do to minimize the extent of the problem, including the things mentioned below:

  • Check your chain regularly. This will let you know immediately when there is a problem before it is costlier to repair or have a serious repercussion on the bike’s performance.
  • Create a regular cleaning schedule. It can be once a week or once a month, depending on the extent of the use of the bike and the terrain conditions. At a minimum, clean your chain once or twice a year.
  • Choose a high-quality chain. Pay attention to the material used and to the overall construction, making sure that it isn’t easily prone to rust, corrosion, and similar problems that can affect its performance.
  • Park your bike indoors, if you have the space. Leaving it outdoors will not only make the bike more vulnerable to theft, but it will also expose the chain to external elements that can speed up wear.
  • Clean as soon as you can. As mentioned earlier, the sooner you deal with the dirt, the easier your life will be. The longer you wait, the more of a struggle it will be cleaning the bike chain.

Watch Out for These Problems

When you clean bicycle chain, take this as an opportunity to spot other problems. With a keen eye, you can determine issues that require immediate attention before they can compromise the overall performance of the bike.

Tight Links

When the links are tight, they will not bend smoothly. To check if your chain has this problem, slowly backpedal. Look at the link as it turns through the right derailleur. If it does so with difficulty, then this is a sign that you have to fix such aside from just cleaning the bike chain.

From dirt to wrong pin installation, tight links can be a result of different factors. Aside from cleaning bike chain, another practical solution to this problem is to flatten the burr. Do this by locating the problematic part of the chain and let is pass through the pulley. This will press the inner surface together to get rid of the tight link. In some instances, the chain can no longer be spared, and you have no option but to change it.

Chain Stretch

Over time, chains are prone to wear. This is a condition known as chain stretch. The pitch grows longer and larger as a result of wear. If this is not given immediate attention, it can lead to shifting problems and losing efficiency.

It is hard to check for chain stretch by simply looking at the chain. A more accurate way of doing this is to use a chain checking tool. This will measure the distance between the links so you will know if they have stretched beyond what is acceptable.

Just like in the other parts of the bike, prevention is better than cure. Lubricating bike chain is one of the best things to do. It is also important that you keep your bike indoors to prevent potential damages that can be caused by the rain, snow, sun, and other external elements.

How Often to Clean Bike Chain

Aside from learning the steps in bicycle chain cleaning, another important thing to know is the frequency of doing so.

Ideally, bike chain cleaning must be done after every ride. It is easy to get rid of mud and dirt when it is fresh. Otherwise, it will harden and a struggle to remove. However, realistically speaking, no biker has the time and energy to clean the chain after every ride. Most of you are probably too lazy to do so.

If you cannot clean your chain every day, do it at least once a week if you ride daily or at least once a month. This is for the basic cleaning. For deep cleaning, on the other hand, make sure to do it after a couple of months or as needed. We also recommend doing a quick visual inspection of the chain to determine if it needs cleaning.

When to Replace a Bike Chain

There are some instances when it is not enough that you clean bike chain. Some problems can be too severe to the point that the chain can no longer be saved. Even if you practice the best way to clean bike chain, some situations will call for a replacement instead. Unsure if your bike. chain is already due for a replacement? Below, we’ll quickly talk about some of the best things to do.

Measure Using a Ruler

In a standard chain, one link is one inch. All that you need is to measure one chain link and count until the twelfth link. Apply a bit of tension and measure. It should be 12 inches. If it is more than that, this is an obvious indication that the chain has stretched, and hence, it warrants a replacement.

Use a Chain Wear Indicator

As the name implies, this is a handy tool that is designed specifically for measuring wear in a bike chain so that you can easily tell if a replacement is needed. This tool has markings on the end. Insert the tip on the chain link. If it does not shoot, then it means that the chain is fine. On the other hand, if the tip shoots, then it means that it is already stretched. Depending on the end of the tool that you insert, it can be worn by .5 or .75%.

Lift the Chain Ring

This is the simplest way to check for chain wear since you do not need any tool. Position the rear at the smallest cog and the front in the biggest chainring. Then lift the chainring. If you can see a hole big enough to see light at the other end, this is a sign that a replacement is needed. Otherwise, the chain is still in good condition and won’t compromise the performance of the bike.

Conclusion

Now that you reached the end of this post, we hope that you learned a thing or two about how to clean a bike chain. It is easier than what most of you have imagined. As noted above, you will first need to degrease the chain, scrub, and lubricate. Doing these things regularly will increase the functional life of the chain while optimizing the performance of the bike.