Essential Guide: Clean your chain

As chores go, cleaning your chain ranks right up there alongside unblocking the toilet or creasoting the shed for sheer unwelcomingness.

But it’s one of those things that has to be done – a clean chain is a smooth-running, long lasting chain and nothing spoils a ride like a chain that sticks and slips and won’t shift and then breaks. There are a few different approaches to chain cleaning, so pick the effectiveness/time compromise that suits you best…

1. If you happen to have a chain with a quicklink magic joining doofer than you can undo by hand, the most effective method is just to take the chain off and dump it in a container of suitable degreaser. You’ll probably want to use a large, shallow container rather than, say, an empty tuna tin – if you can coil the chain up so it lies flat you don’t need much degreaser.

2. If you don’t have a quicklink, splitting and rejoining the chain just to clean it is a bit of a performance, so you’ll have to deal with it in situ. Shift into the gear with the straightest chainline you can find (middle chainring and fifth sprocket on 27 speed setups) so you can spin the cranks backwards without the chain wandering around the place. Use degreaser and a stiff-bristled brush to work it into the chain. It’s a good idea to set aside a brush just for chain cleaning – they get pretty oily and tend not to get anything else very clean…

3. If that seems a bit longwinded, the slightly easier (and certainly less messy) option is a chain cleaner. There are loads out there, all essentially similar – the chain runs through a load of whirly brushes sat in a bath of degreaser and comes out nice and shiny.

4. Whichever method you choose, give the chain a good wipe down with a suitable rag (impossibly faded bike race t-shirts from the early 90s are a good choice). With a bit of practise you can hold the rag around the chain and wind the pedals backwards to run the chain through.

5. If you’ve used degreaser and a brush you may find it more effective to rinse the stuff off with some water. If you’ve done this, spray the chain with some thin water-displacing stuff like WD-40, GT85 or X-Lube. It won’t be hefty enough to actually lube the chain, but it’ll stop it going rusty.

6. Once the chain’s nice and shiny and dry, reapply a proper chain lube. If you’re in a hurry to start eating toast, you can lube it up just before the next ride. But if you can, doing it before you put the bike away gives the stuff time to get everywhere it needs to be and puts you one step nearer to ride readiness next time. We like lubes that come in squeezy bottles – they’re more time-consuming to apply but it all goes where you need it. Putting the lube on over the cassette ensures that any that does wander at least ends up somewhere semi-useful.

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  1. gav

    linky in number 1 no worky :o(

  2. Cormac Eason

    I clean the chain while cleaning the bike – blast water through it from the hose while back pedalling to get the dirt out then use the nozzle from an air compressor to dry the chain before adding more oil to it. If the bike doesn’t need cleaning after a spin, chances are the chain won’t need it either unless it was spectacularly dusty.

    Make sure to always angle the hose and compressor nozzle away from the disk side of the bike though. If the disk gets contaminated by oily water from the chain there’s a far more miserable job than chain cleaning ahead…

  3. The BIG GT

    What is this ‘chain cleaning’ of which you speak?

    I’ve just changed my chain (and rings and cassette) on my bike after three hard years of riding in all conditions, with a lot of long, hard climbs and teeth-shaking descents.

    Apart from the (really) rare times I’ve cleaned the bike in general, the chain gets nothing more than an occasional lick of oil when it’s relatively clean.

    I think sometimes you can clean too much and remove that which is keeping it going…

  4. chris-m

    You’d be suprised just how many people don’t do a thing to their bikes. Be it a person who has a £300 bike to some one with a £5k bike!
    .
    For cleaning, I can’t recommend the Park Tool Chain Cleaner enough. They are a lot of money to begin with (RRP £28), but are totally worth the price they cost as they speed up the cleaning process no end and are more likely to persuade people to clean their bike more often… as it’s so easy.
    .
    You can’t clean your bike too often, but if you use a jet wash or half clean it then you might as well not bother. Spending time making sure it’s as clean as possible from excess oil and grit, etc, will not only help it run smooth, but will also help you get in there and find possible problems with the bike. A great offence is a great defence, as they say.
    .
    Try and run the chain almost dry with a small film of oil on, so you get that protection, but it’s then easier to wash off at the end of the ride. Make sure also to scrub clean the cassette and your chainrings too – which a nice set of brushes always helps
    - but be careful not to get spray lube on your disc brakes.
    .
    On a separate note, try and service your bike regularly – at least once before Summer and once before Winter. When it comes to forks and shocks, I’d recommend getting the fork lowers off regularly and cleaning the seals, etc and popping some clean fluid in the lower legs. If they haven’t been cleaned and serviced in a year or so, they are worth having the seals changed and a good service.

  5. Anth

    Chris-m says ‘You can’t clean your bike too often’
    You can clean your bike too often, check out the lifetime bearings guarantee article on Santa Cruz’s Joe’s Corner:
    http://www.santacruzmtb.com/company/joe1206.php
    Admittedly its about the whole bike rather than the chain drive (which is worth a rub with a rag after every ride and applying some fresh lube – Lennard Zinn),
    the conclusion is the more you ride the less cleaning you should do and if you don’t ride much, don’t clean your bike…
    I like the sentiment; our time should be spent riding, not cleaning!

  6. Masklin GT

    I use the Muc-off chain cleaner its class.

    1) I will wash mud off, then run the chain through the cleaner going through the gears at the back.

    2) Then wash off the degreaser with cold water.

    3)Then fill cleaner with hot soap and water and repeat step 1.

    4) lube and wipe excess off.
    5) day after lightly lube again this time letting it soak in.

    Never had an issue with my chains or casettes :)

  7. martin parfitt

    i use rock n roll extreme, just wash chain when bike is washed, put on some more rock n roll wipe off, job done. No more oil and degreaser for me!

    1. pikachu

      +1 for Rock’n'Roll extreme, why do anything else…

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  8. chris-m

    @Anth. I’ve been a mechanic for over 13 years and get to see all conditions of bikes and one thing I have found is that completely neglecting your bike just destroys them! And, you can clean it as often as you like – as long as it includes periodically greasing and oiling of areas that need it. If you don’t use a jet wash or a high power water hose (finger on the end of a hose for e.g.), then a sponge wash regularly is not going to do lots of damage. It’s about finding a balance and not going to the extreme.
    .
    A clean bike is better than one covered in dirt and oil for long periods of time. To say otherwise is just plain lazy, IMO.
    .
    By the way the Santa Cruz website didn’t say HOW they cleaned the bikes in that test, just that they were cleaned.

  9. oldnick

    My bikes (including the chains) get washed most times after a ride ’cause I like shiny bikes. Also I find preventative maintenance very relaxing (especially in comparison to breaking down mid ride) and that requires a clean bike to start with.

  10. JohnTudor

    Just got myself a cann of Dirtwash spray, have it!!!!

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