Here’s a quick and easy way to keep your bike chain clean and working well.
Bike chains need to be kept clean and greased to keep your gears working smoothly. Accumulated gunk on your chain will cause gears to slip, and will wear out your sprockets in record time.
One way to get your bike chain clean is to take it off and clean each link with enormous care (as shown in this scary photo of clinical bike chain cleaning). This is the traditional method and does make get your bike chain extremely clean, but it is difficult and time-consuming. Plus it takes quite a bit of techie expertise to take the chain off – and even more to put it all back together properly. (Personally I would rather buy a new chain than go through the experience shown in the photo.)
A much easier way is to make sure your bike chain never gets dirty enough to need a heavy-duty clean. For that, all you need is regular light maintenance. During rainy weather, do the routine below at least once a week, but preferably even more often. At the end of each biking day is optimal. Think of it like brushing your teeth – a routine that takes a few minutes out of your day, but is worth it in the long run (because you don’t have to go through the kind of hell shown in the picture).
If you can’t manage that, once a week will do it. And if you are lucky, you might get away with once every two weeks. It also depends on how often you cycle in rainy, muddy conditions.
How to Clean and Lube your Bike Chain Quickly and Easily
This method assumes that you are doing regular chain maintenance, so your chain is not filthy when you start.
Step 1: Make the chain accessible so you can work without hurting your back. Ideally, you could put the bike on a bikestand. But if you don’t have one, and don’t want to buy one, a bike rack on the back of your car makes an excellent stand. We use our Thule Helium bike rack (reviewed here). You can also just turn the bike upside down, and balance it on its handlebars. Make sure to first remove items such as lights or bike computers that might get damaged.
Step 2: Using a dry rag, turn the pedals a few times, holding the rag firmly around the chain so as to wipe the chain clean, as shown in the video below. This should get most of the dirt off the chain. You can simply use a clean, dry cloth if your chain is fairly clean. If you have a lot of oil and dirt on the chain, you will need to put a good quality degreaser on the cloth.
Tip: Old T-shirts and towels work well for bike cleaning. All of our old T-shirts and towels go into our bike-rags bag.
Step 3: Also wipe off the round cogs on the rear derailleur, and clean off any visible dirt or grease you can see along the chain or on the derailleurs. If you have a sprocket cleaner, use it to clean between the sprockets. (A sprocket cleaner is like a plastic toothpick for bikes – cheap and worth buying, and usually sold together with a brush that you can use to brush out any gunk in the links.)
It is useful and inexpensive to have the right tools, degreasers and lubricants. I recently discovered a great line of chain-cleaning products called Finish Line. They work well for me.
Step 4: Once the chain looks clean, turn the pedals again, applying a line of oil along the links, as shown in the video below. Your aim is to average out at one drop per link. Use a drip-type oil can. Three pedal turns should ensure you get the whole chain. Good oils will trickle out at just the right speed when the can is held upside down.
Tip: For the rainy season, buy a lube that is designed for wet weather. These are usually called dry lubes. They are wet when you put them on, but they dry into a waxy film.
Step 5: Spin the pedals for about 45 seconds to give the lube time to settle into the inside of the chain links.
Step 6: Repeat step 2, wiping off the visible oil. Your goal is to have oil inside the links, not on the surface. Surface oil will just attract dirt, causing a buildup of filthy gunk.
Step 7: If you want to be a bike chain super hero, repeat step 6 the next morning for one or two pedal turns, to wipe off any oil that has oozed out of the links overnight.
Final Tip: If your bike is brand new – note that new bikes come pre-lubed with very superior lube. Don’t clean it off before you have to, because the oil you replace it with will not be as good. If cycling in dry, clean conditions, you might be able to go for a few hundred miles without lubing the chain of a brand new bike.
This whole chain-cleaning-lubing routine takes just a few minutes and is dead easy. But if you repeat it often enough, your chain and gears should keep rolling smoothly right through the rainy season.
You can of course make this whole thing easier by buying a bike chain cleaning kit for less than $30. I have one like the one below and it is truly excellent and easy to use on a chain that is moderately to extremely dirty. Just do NOT do what I did – leave it on the ground and then step on it, messing filthy oil all over the floor!
Note: I know that people have different opinions about cleaning bike chains, and some people feel quite strongly about it. So I want to end this post by quoting the late, great Sheldon Brown:
“This article is based on my personal … experience and my own theories. If you disagree with them, I won’t call you a fool or a villain, you may be right. I hope you will extend me the same courtesy.”
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