Bike chain cleaning is a must in the bike maintenance process if you wish for your bike’s best performance. A clean bike chain means that your pedaling energy will transform to the bike’s speed in the most efficient way.
There are many ways to clean a bike chain, and mechanics are still debating which one is better. This article will show you how to clean bike chain in various ways. You can later choose which one is more suitable for you and your bike.
The Importance of Bike Chain
Whether your bike can propel or not depends on whether power is transferred from the pedals to the rear wheel through the bicycle chain. The bike chain takes the essential role of a middleman that helps to run your bike literally.
When you are riding with a clean bike chain, you won’t even recognize it because you are sliding through the wind with great excitement. However, suppose you are riding with a dirty and rusty chain, which creates a lot of friction. In that case, you will be hit by heavy pedaling, poor shifting, and leg fatigue immediately.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that one of the essential parts of the bike is: bike chain. A clean bike chain increases pedaling efficiency and also ensures aesthetics for your bike. And for that reason, you always need to keep your bike chain in optimum shape.
How Do I Know It Is Time To Clean Bike Chain?
You don’t need to be a professional mechanic to know when you need to clean your bike chain. Simply because you can feel it when you ride your bike. Rough pedaling is a good signal.
The other signs are visible, and you can easily catch them with your naked eyes. For example, the chain/ or the lube has changed from shiny metallic color to brown and rusty colors with many stains. Or when the chain is covered deeply in dirt and mud. Or when you can find pieces of grit sticking on the chain.
Akin to any other maintenance jobs with different parts of a bike, it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when riders need to clean their bikes’ chains. You need to observe and pay attention to how you use your bike to make the decision.
Besides visible signs I described before, you can also consider these 4 factors to decide on when and how often you should degrease and re-lube your bike chain:
Where you ride your bike can significantly influence your bike’s condition, and thus, your bike chain.
Suppose you like mountain biking and enjoy tackling challenging off-roads with many obstacles. In that case, your bike chain will suffer a lot from intense riding style. Then your bike chain needs cleaning often, or better, after the adventure trip.
But if you only ride on smooth trails or tarmac, you don’t need to clean the chain that often. Your bike chain will be fine with a quick cleaning one per month and a thorough cleaning once every six months.
Frequency and Mileage:
How often and how far you have ridden with your bike also affects the bike chain’s shape. The more you pedal, the more force you put on the bike chain. As long as you ride, the bike chain never stops moving to propel the bike.
With commute riding on smooth roads under normal weather conditions, you should consider cleaning your bike chain after 150-200 miles. But this number can drop lower if you ride on rocky, sandy, or muddy trails under bad weather.
Chain lube or chain oil is necessary to keep the bike chain in good condition for an enjoyable and easy ride. Like any other machines, some oil will help cool down the heat generated on the bike chain and smoothen its movement.
Besides, chain lube also protects bike chains from getting all dry and rusty. Without chain lube, you will have to endure a very clunky and tiring ride. You can choose between drip lube or wax lube.
High quality factory lube provides better protection over your bike chain. You still have to clean your chain when rusty, but the rustiness won’t happen at lightning speed.
Bike maintenance is a must when you ride a bike after a long period. But with some few steps that you frequently do right before and after your riding, you can put off the entire maintenance task for a while.
The same thing applies to bike chain cleaning. If you take 1-2 minutes to wipe off all the dust and grit or clean off all the mud on the bike chain after every ride, then the bike chain is kept clean all the time.
Don’t forget to apply lube on the chain often. It helps to keep the rust away and prolong the life of your bike chain.
2 minutes is a short time, but if you keep doing it, you can be sure that your bike chain is always in top condition to make the best performance for a long while.
Usually, if you use a bike regularly, you should clean and lube your bike chain once per month. You can consider the 4 factors I presented above while trusting your eyes and your feelings while on your bike, then you will know when you should clean your bike chain.
Bike Chain Cleaning Agents
Before you degrease your bike chain, you need to make up your mind on the bike chain cleaner. This is a big decision because it decides whether or not your bike chain is cleaned entirely thoroughly.
Many cleaning agents can be used to degrease bicycle chains. Some are common household products that you can find right in your house or grocery shops, such as dish soap or vinegar. Or you can also find bike-specific degreasers easily in bike shops or online stores.
As a beginner, you might get confused because of the wide range of choices and tons of advice on what type of cleaner you should use. Here is the list of the 4 most common bike chain cleaning products. Read through their characteristics and then decide which one you prefer.
Cleaning bike chain dish soap
This is the most common cleaning agent you can find in any household. It is cheap, easy to find, and luckily, it is also very effective in removing stains, grease, and rust off the bike chain. It is also not as toxic as other more potent cleaning agents.
Compared to many degreasers on the market, dish soap’s cleaning power is not as harsh. Being gentle is a good point, so the soap won’t wash away all the lubricants from the chain rollers’ inner side and erode them quickly.
So, if you use your bike for a short commute trip or leisurely rides, then you can settle with dish soap without any concern.
Cleaning bike chain with vinegar
You might be surprised, but you can indeed use vinegar to clean your bike chain. This type of cleaner is not widely known. Still, it is a relatively good and user- and environmental-friendly cleaning agent.
You will need distilled or white vinegar (4%-5% acetic acid) for this task. Both can be found in the supermarket or your kitchen. You might be more familiar with using these types of vinegar, especially distilled vinegar, in cooking, baking, and food preservation. But it is a green cleaning product with high rust remove ability.
You don’t have to worry about your little brother or sister, your kid, or your pet wandering around while cleaning your bike chain if you are using vinegar. But you should be careful if you are using strong cleaning detergents or degreasers.
Just like dish soap, distilled and white vinegar are very cheap. But one extra plus point for vinegar is that it is easy to dispose of and causes no harm to the environment.
Cleaning bike chain with Kerosene oil
If you are serious about getting your bike chain 100% rust-free and dirt-free, Kerosene oil is the best choice. This is the most popular chain cleaner among riders with more experience in bike maintenance.
Kerosene is a very versatile petroleum-based fuel. It is used for lighting, heating, powering and even cleaning bikes and motorbike chains. It works very well to remove old lube oil altogether before you re-lubricate your bike chain.
Another benefit is that you can reuse the kerosene oil. After cleaning your chain, pour the oil into a container. Once the contaminants settle down, the solvent on the top can be used for the next time.
However, Kerosene oil has two disadvantages. It has a terrible odor. If this is the first time you use it, you might get nauseous and dizzy because of the smell. And just like any other petrol substances, it is difficult to find a way to dispose of it because it is harmful to the environment.
Cleaning bike chain with petrol
Many people also use petrol or gasoline to clean their bike chain because it can practically clean off grease and rust marks. Also, it used to be cheap. It is a very effective degreaser and can make your bike chain sparling as brain-new.
But I must say you should consider petrol as the last resort if you cannot find any alternative degreasers.
The reason is that petrol is too toxic for you and the environment. Petrol on your skin can make your skin red, irritated, dry, and cracked. Also, petrol is highly flammable and explosive. It is not safe if you have to work around small kids or pets. Also, the smell is much more unbearable than kerosene oil.
If you haven’t cleaned your bike chain in a long time and the rusty layer has become so thick, then petrol is unavoidable. Make sure to wear thick gloves and mask, and work outdoor so that you won’t be tortured by such terrible odor.
When using petrol or kerosene oil, it’s best if you can detach your bike chain and soak it into a bucket filled with these cleaning agents. This way, you will minimize your direct contact with them.
Petrol is a highly effective degreaser and works well only when riders are experienced and meticulous while handling the cleaning bike chain task. So, if you are new in the field, maybe you want to cross it off your list of bike chain cleaners. If you really need something that strong, you can try these solvents: kerosene oil, white spirit, WD 40.
How To Clean Bike Chain
Here is all the equipment you need to clean bike chain:
- Degreaser (or dish soap, vinegar, kerosene oil, WD 40)
- Brushes (or lint-free rag, toothbrush, bike-specific chain wash device)
- A bucket
You can place your bike on a park tool to stabilize your bike to clean it more easily. While cleaning the bike chain, you also need to clean other drivetrain components. The whole drivetrain needs to be dirt-free.
There are 2 ways to clean a bike chain.
Clean bike chain off-bike:
Step 1: Mix the cleaning agent with warm water in a bucket
Step 2: Remove the bike chain completely from the bike. Soak it into the bucket for 5 minutes.
Step 3: Take the chain out of the bucket and scrub it with a brush carefully multiple times. Wash the chain in the cleaning agent water a few times and keep scrubbing until you get rid of all the dirt, stain, and rust.
Step 4: Empty the bucket and refill with warm water. Soak the chain in for 5 minutes and wash it thoroughly.
Step 5: Dry the chain with a clean (lint-free) cloth. While waiting for the chain to dry, you can also clean the cassette and the chainring(s) by scrubbing them with the brush (with cleaner). Rinse them with warm water and dry them with a cloth.
Step 6: Install the bike chain back. Wind the pedal for several revolutions to check if everything clicks.
If you are interested in this way, check out this video on how to remove bike chain:
However, removing the bike chain is not always a good choice. Modern bikes have become very complicated, and some don’t even allow you to take off the bike chain for cleaning. So, here is the second way – and an easier way for me. Because not everyone knows how to install a bike chain.
Clean bike chain on-bike:
Step 1: Mix the cleaning agent in the bucket.
Step 2: Clean the cassette first. Shift gear and move the chain to the right-most cog. Dip the brush into the cleaner water and scrub all the cogs carefully. Then shift the chain to the left-most cog to scrub the remaining ones.
Step 3: Clean the chainring(s): drop the chain off. Then scrub the entire chainring with the brush. Make sure the inside is all clean.
Step 4: Clean the bike chain: sandwich the chain between two brushes. Rotate the pedal backward (around 20 revolutions) to clean the whole length of the chain.
Step 5: Rinse the cassette, chainring(s), and bike chain with warm water.
Step 6: Dry them entirely with a clean cloth.
You can use a bike chain scrubber instead of brushes in step 4. It costs around $20 but is an excellent investment. If you want to know how to clean a bike chain with a bike chain scrubber, check this video:
After cleaning the bike chain, you have to lubricate it. Make sure you apply lube on every rivet. Use a clean cloth to get rid of all the excess lube on the chain. Or else it will accumulate dust quickly.
Here is a very nice and complete guide on bike chain cleaning and lubricating:
How many ways I can apply to clean my bike chain?
Basically, you have two ways. You can take the bike chain off the bike and clean. Or you can clean without removing the bike chain from the bike. The second way is easier because you don’t have to worry about putting the chain back in the correct position after cleaning.
What is the fastest way to clean my bike chain?
The fastest way is to use a lint-free rug to wipe off all the dirt, dust or mud. And then apply the chain lube on every part of the chain. It’s a temporary solution, but you still need a thorough clean for your chain later.
What are the steps to deep clean my bike chain?
Sandwich the chain between two brushes (already soaked in a cleaning agent) or between the bike chain scrubber. Rotate the pedal backward multiple times to clean the whole length of the bike chain. Rinse with water. Dry and re-lubricate.