Tips on How to Clean a Chain on a Bike (Updated 2021)

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How to clean a chain on a bike?

Don’t you sometimes wish that bike chains could be like self-cleaning ovens? Hit a button, walk away, and when you get back everything is clean and ready for use?

No such luck with your bike; if you want it to ride smoothly, shift well, and last long, you have to clean the chain regularly.

If you look at available resources online you will find different suggestions. Some say you should use household products, others that you are better off with commercial preparations; some say that you should take the chain off, others that you can clean with the chain on.

What is the truth? What should you do if you want to make sure that your bike chain is clean?

This article will tell you everything you need to know about how to clean a bike chain. It will look at some of the contrasting information and present different methods of bike chain cleaning and then you can decide what’s best for you particular case.

Why should you clean your bike chain?

Your bike chain is coated in grease that enables it to move smoothly. The grease attracts dirt. In fact, if you were to do a microscopic study of that dirt and debris it would tell you where you have been in the last few weeks or months.

If you went to a sandy area, the grease in the bike chain will contain sand, if you went to a muddy area it will have mud, and if you rode on dusty terrain it will be there for you to see.

All this dirt causes friction which slows down your bike. When you pedal your bike, the chain is the one that transfers the energy to the wheels. The dirtier the chain, the more inefficient your bike gets.

Dirt on your bike chain also reduces its life-span; just think what all that grit does to the component parts!

How often should you clean your bike chain?

How to clean chain on a bike

Read 10 different articles and you will probably get 10 different opinions on how often you should clean your bike chain.

Some say that you should do it after every ride, others once a week, some once a month. What is the proper duration between chain cleaning?

The answer is that it depends on a couple of things:

  • How often you ride
  • Where you ride
  • The type of lubricant you use

1. How often you ride

If you read blogs that are written by people who cycle long distances every day, or who take part in competitive cycling, you will get the sense that they recommend cleaning your bike chain as often as possible. It makes sense – the more you use your bike, the more dirt accumulates on the chain. However, if you don’t use your bike that often, you don’t have to clean the bike chain every few days.

2. Where you ride

This is very important. If you cycle off-road a lot your bike chain will get dirty a lot faster than if you stick to tarmac. You know your surroundings and where you ride most often, so for this we recommend that you use common sense. If, for example, you live in a sandy area you can be sure that your chain traps lots of sand grains and will wear down faster. You should, therefore, clean it more often.

3. The type of lubricant you use

There are many types of lube in the market, and some are good, while some aren’t so good. If you use the best lubricants, they provide protection for longer and you can afford to go without cleaning the chain as often as you should. If you use cheap lubricant you should clean your bike chain more often.

Where does all this leave you?

If you are new to cycling these things may not mean very much. How can you really know that your bike chain needs cleaning?

  • Use your eyes and estimated distance cycled

Set the bike properly on the ground and stand behind it, and then lift the back tire and inspect the chain. If the lube has changed from its original color it’s an indication that gathered dirt and debris and needs to be taken off.

Alternatively, the distance cycled can tell you whether you need to clean your bike chain. Most manufacturers recommend that you clean after every 200 miles or so. But remember, this will depend on the surfaces you ride on.

3 Tips on How to Clean a Chain on a Bike

1. Household products for bike chain cleaning or commercial preparations?

This is another area where you will get a lot of differing opinions depending on who you talk to.

Some experts say that commonly available household products are best because they don’t contain any chemicals that can cause damage to the chain and they are better for the environment.

This is true, but only to some extent. While household products are safer for bicycles and the environment, there are commercial preparations that have been rigorously tested for safety and will not do any harm.

If you choose to clean your bike chain with household products, here is the recommended procedure. You will need:-

*Check out How to Remove Rust from Bike Chain

2. How to Clean a Bike Chain with Household Products

  1. Remove the chain from the bike. This can be tricky if you have never done it before. I recommended that you take pictures of the chain before you take it off, and then again as you do it so that you can put it back exactly the way it was.
  2. Put bike degreaser into a clean plastic container. Make sure it’s enough to soak the chain through. Drop the chain in, cover the container and shake it to ensure that the solution gets into all the links of the chain.
  3. Leave the chain soaking for at least 20 minutes. Often-times you will have to soak for longer to get all the grease and dirt off.
  4. If your degreaser comes in a spray bottle you can spray it directly onto the chain and leave it to settle for some time.
  5. Once the bike degreaser has done its job it’s time to clean the chain. You can do this using turpentine or kerosene. This is an important step, so make sure you repeat it until the chain is completely clean. Some people use dish soap for this step, but it should only be a last resort. Dish soap will not get rid of degreaser as effectively as kerosene or turpentine.
  6. Let the chain air dry for about an hour – the kerosene or turpentine will evaporate and the chain will be left completely clean and dry. You shouldn’t leave the chain out to dry too long as oxidation, or rust can occur.
  7. Put the chain back on carefully – it shouldn’t have any warps or buckles.
  8. Once the chain is back in the right place it’s time to lubricate it. Your choice of lubricant is important – don’t buy a cheap one as it will cost you your chain in the end. Apply the lubricant to all parts of the chain as you rotate the pedals (it ensures that the lubricant spreads to all parts).
  9. Test the chain by doing complete revolutions on the pedals. If everything is smooth you have done the job properly.

How to clean a chain on a bike

Seems like a lot of work, right? The question on your mind at this point may be, is there an easier way to clean a bike chain?

The answer is yes. You can buy a bike chain-cleaning device.

The best thing about using a chain-cleaning device is that you don’t have to take the chain off.

In older bicycles, removing the chain to clean it was the way to go. As bicycles have become more complicated this isn’t recommended anymore. Chain design has become complex and specific and removing the chain to clean it every time can is not always the best thing to do.

Today, most bikes have 10 or 11 speed drive-trains and the chains aren’t designed to be removed at any time. They should remain in place until they are worn out, and when removed should be replaced.

For these bikes the chain should be cleaned in place.

3. How to Clean a Chain Without Removing it

You will need a bike chain-cleaning device. Park Tool Cyclone Bicycle Chain Scrubber, JBM Bike Chain Cleaner Bicycle Chain Cleaning Brush Tool, Muc Off Ultimate Bicycle Cleaning Kit and Finish Line Shop Quality Bicycle Chain Cleaner Kit are some of the best chain-cleaning devices in the market and they are all affordable.

These devices have stiff, rotating brushes that spread the degreaser into the chain (you have to slowly pedal a full rotation in order to get the degreaser into every single link in the chain).

Some experts recommend the use of a Dummy Hub, a small device that’s used to keep degreaser from the freehub, rear hub bearings and disc rotor (if your bike has disc brakes). If you don’t have a Dummy Hub you can keep these parts safe by using a plastic bag and tape.

Chain cleaning devices come with specific instructions so make sure you read them carefully. You may have to make a few adjustments depending on the type of bike you have. The important thing is to make sure that you get degreaser to all parts of the chain mechanism.

After you have used the chain-cleaning device you have to rinse the degreaser off the chain. For this, you can use warm soapy water. Remember, it is not an effective a solvent as kerosene or turpentine, so you will have to rinse at least two or three times. 

Alternatively, you can use kerosene or turpentine in a spray bottle. Make sure all the degreaser comes off; even a little bit left on will cause problems when you lubricate the chain.

To make sure that the chain is completely clean you should wipe it with a lint-free rug until the rug doesn’t stain anymore.

*Check out How to Tighten a Bike Chain

What’s the Best Bike Chain Lubes?

Now that you know how to clean a chain on a bike the next step is lubing. You have to make sure that the chain is properly lubricated to maintain the efficiency of your bicycle and maintain its parts.

How to clean a chain on a bike

As mentioned earlier, the kind of lube you choose is most important. Most companies are now making drip lube as it’s easier to apply. Some of the best bike chain lubes are:-

Wax lubes increase efficiency of any bike but they are harder to apply and may also be harder to find. However, if you decide to use wax lube we recommend that you choose Molten Speed Wax.

Tip 3: Quick bike chain cleaning

Even if you choose not to take the bike chain off and use a chain-cleaning device the process seems a little long. When you get home after a ride you want to rest, not get stuck in your garage cleaning the chain for an hour.

Are there faster ways to get a clean bike chain?

There is a lazy way to clean a bike chain. You can use chain lube and a clean, lint-free rug. (Lint-free because otherwise, pieces of lint will remain on the chain). This process is simple and fast and can be done anywhere, any time.

Just apply some chain lube to the rug and then run it over the chain. If the rug comes off very dirty you should repeat the process a few times until the rug doesn’t come away so dirty anymore.

If you look around you will find some products that are designed just for this. They are a combination of bike chain cleaner and lube. Finish Line 1-Step Bicycle Chain Cleaner & Lubricant and RocRide Eco-X Bicycle Chain Lubricant come highly recommended by those who prefer to use this method of cleaning.

While these formulations work they are temporary; they will help you get through a ride or two when you haven’t had time to clean your chain but they are not a permanent solution.

They are usually thinner than lube so they don’t offer adequate protection to your drivetrain, and using them on a continuous basis will eventually damage your chain.  

Can you lube a dirty bike chain?

Bike Chain Cleaning

You really have to use your bike, you know the chain needs cleaning but you don’t really have the time; can you just lube it?

Yes, you can and you should. It is better to lube a dirty chain that to ride a bike that has no lube. Not only will it be difficult to ride smoothly, the friction will cause damage.

You should run a clean rug over the chain to get rid of the gunk and then apply just enough lube. 

However, when you get home set aside an hour or so to clean the chain properly and give it a proper lube job.

I’m not an avid cyclist; should I bother with all this?

Excellent question; most people are busy and all this seems a lot to do, especially if they only cycle once or twice a week.

Think about cleaning your chain like servicing your car. Even if you don’t use your car all that much you still need to have it serviced for it to drive properly.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to clean your bike chain and other parts you should look for a reliable bicycle repair shop near you. They will charge you a few dollars each time but will keep everything in excellent condition.

Most casual cyclists will wipe or brush the chain from time to time and then apply lubricant. When the chain gets worn out from the grit that’s stuck in the hard to reach parts they simply replace it. That’s another way to go – bike chain replacement is cheap.

You should lube your bike more often in winter.

Summary – How to Clean Bike Chain

You may want to learn how to clean a chain on a bike; a clean chain allows for easier shift and efficiency and keeps your chain in good condition for longer.

You can clean a bike chain using common household products, but you need to have a good degreaser and an excellent lubricant, and you also need to know how to remove and return the chain.

While it used to be customary to remove a bike chain in order to clean it, it’s no longer necessary, and oftentimes isn’t recommended. You can clean a bike chain without removing it if you have a chain-cleaning device.