VeloClub is CyclingTips’ membership program which brings us closer to our members, and connects likeminded cycling enthusiasts.
by Dave Rome
January 30, 2018
Photography by David Rome
Whether you call them dummy hubs, chain keepers, wash buddies, or doodads, these small devices are always in use by professional race mechanics during routine cleaning and maintenance. They simply sit where the cassette cogs normally do, holding the chain away from the frame for easy cleaning, while also protecting hub bearings, rims, and disc brake rotors from contamination. They’re also handy for travel, too.
CyclingTips tech writer and resident in-house tool nerd David Rome has spent the past few months gathering the most popular models to see how they compare. All do the job to some degree, but not all are equal.
While the exact method of use varies somewhat between the options, the general cleaning function remains the same. Most pro race mechanics combine a chain keeper with a paintbrush, and a way to hold a small amount of degreaser. Most use a cut bidon stuck into a bottle cage mounted on the seat tube to be the perfect degreaser container.
From here, the degreaser is brushed on while the chain is pedaled through. Once done, rinsing clean with a hose on a light shower setting usually leaves a pleasantly sparkling chain.
Alternatively, the chain keeper can be used with a clip-on type chain cleaner device, such as the Park Tool CM-25 I reviewed recently. These allow the chain to be backpedaled through a series of rotating brushes while bathed in degreaser.
Our complete guide to chain cleaning has all of this, and much more, covered.
Chain keepers are relatively cheap maintenance tools: some cost as little as US$5, while others sell for more than 10 times that. There are, however, a few quick questions to ask yourself before buying one.
Dummy hubs often work with either open quick-release dropouts (left) or closed thru-axle dropouts (right), but only the three most expensive tested here work with both.
What type of bike or bikes are you planning to use it on? Does the bike have thru-axles or is it a quick-release frame? Some chain keepers work with both, while others are locked into one or the other. If you have multiple bikes or are planning to look after bikes for other people, look for a universal fitting option.
How often are you planning to use it? Professional race mechanics use these day in and day out, where speed and ease of use, along with durability, are key concerns. Some of the cheaper units will fail or become increasingly hard to use with age, while others will last forever. On a similar note, race mechanics who travel with their tools will want one that’s light and portable.
Some models have sliding carriages that allow you to move the rear derailleur for more thorough cleaning.
Do you want to clean the derailleurs? A few options, such as Park Tool and Abbey Bike Tools, allow you to shift the rear derailleur with the dummy hub in place, creating additional space to clean pulley wheels and the derailleur. If this feature matters to you, then your options will be limited.
Perhaps you’re not here for the cleaning, but rather you’re looking for one to use when simply packing a bike? In this case, it’s more important that the rear of the frame is reinforced from crushing, so you’ll want a chain keeper that locks both dropouts in place.
There are a few ways to make your own chain keepers or frame spacers, and I’ve seen some cool ones made from spare derailleur jockey wheels, plus a hub axle and quick release. Most of the homemade solutions don’t adapt well to different frame designs, though, and unless you already have the parts laying about, it may be cheaper and easier to buy an item made for the purpose.
For those traveling, there are also the plastic dividers that come with framesets. Bike shops typically have these sitting around and will hand them over in exchange for a smile. But they don’t always stay in place as well as one would like – bringing into question their robustness for repeated travel – and they’re certainly not great for use as a cleaning aid.
Made predominantly of plastic and supplied with limited instructions, this tool is held in place with your bike’s rear wheel quick release skewer. While it can be used to clean a chain, it’s slow to use and the construction won’t likely withstand constant use since the chain will gradually wear through the plastic. It’s best kept for travel use only where its simple and lightweight design works well at keeping the frame safe from crushing.
Cycling tool company Pedro’s is no stranger to bicycle maintenance, long offering a comprehensive lineup of lubes, cleaning products, and cycling tools. This chain cleaner has been in the lineup for some time, and shares a similar egg-shaped chain holder to the IceToolz unit above.
Like the IceToolz, it also only works with quick-release frames, but attaches to just the driveside dropout (Pedro’s shows it working with a thru-axle frame, but it’s a bit of bodge so I’m discounting it). The bigger cradle is also designed to take up more slack and add more tension to the chain, keeping it further away from the frame than many of its competitors.
However, I found it difficult to get this chain cleaner’s quick-release tight enough for the egg-shaped chain holder to stay upright; instead, it would slowly droop down as you pedal forward. Tightening the quick release more kept the holder from rotating, but caused the flimsy two-piece construction to visibly bow outward under the added pressure. Pedalling backward solves the issue, but it’s not an issue experienced with the other units tested. Pedro’s offers many great products, but this isn’t one of them.
Lifeline is the house brand of internet retailers Wiggle and Chain Reaction Cycles, and combines aspects of the Pedro’s and Morgan Blue tools into one. A quick-release lever clamps it into a dropout, and the small pulley wheel is free to rotate with the chain, which means the pulley will last longer than models that use a fixed carriage. However, the external-cam skewer closes on a plastic washer, which will degrade with use.
This tool isn’t perfect, nor is it built to stand the test of time. But it’s very inexpensive, and it performs as well as others that cost much more.
This one isn’t marketed as a chain cleaner, but rather a dummy-axle for reinforcing a frame and holding a chain during transport. That said, it also works pretty well as a chain cleaner, too.
Regardless of what you’re using it for, the internal-cam quick release is all quality (not surprising given PRO is from the Shimano family), as is the aluminium axle. It works with both 130- and 135mm-wide quick-release dropouts. At 115g, it’s not particularly light for travel, but it certainly won’t fail you.
In cleaning, the pulley can be shifted with the derailleur. A pulley-only version is available separately for use with 12mm thru-axles.
One of the originals, the Morgan Blue chain cleaner is simple, low cost and perfectly effective. It simply uses a plastic pulley that secures to the frame with a galvanized bolt and wing nut.
Once screwed on, the small blue pulley doesn’t spin, but it’s at least made from a highly durable Delrin nylon. The wing nut design is also surprisingly effective, and arguably quicker to swap between frames than a cheap quick-release lever. That said, the wing nut can feel uncomfortable with cold, wet hands.
For 2018, Morgan Blue has released a thru-axle version of its chain cleaner. This is even simpler than the original and features a larger 12mm hole that works with your bike’s own 12mm thru-axle.
The pulley itself is larger than the blue quick-release version, while still made from a durable plastic. On most frames, I found it to lock into the dropout and not spin, but on one frame it tended to intermittently come unstuck, potentially leading to paint rub at the dropout. On the upside, the purely plastic construction means zero chance of corrosion.
Update (2/10/2018): Abbey Bike Tools has updated the Wash Buddy. Swapping the Paul Components skewer as tested for one that’s made in-house. Such a change has seen the price drop US$20, to US$55.
The Abbey Bike Tools chain cleaner is an item for people who see elegance in superior function – regardless of price. There are no plastic parts (with the exception of the chemical-resistant Delrin pulley), all of the components are machined in Bend, Oregon, and the assembly is clamped with a beautiful Paul Components internal-cam skewer. It’s also the only chain cleaner here that isn’t made in Asia, but you certainly have to be willing to pay a premium for all of the above.
Like the Park Tool DH-1 below (which copies a number of features introduced by Abbey’s Wash Buddy), Abbey’s pulley features a 12mm internal diameter that works with either your bike’s own thru-axle or the stub-axle provided. Also like the Park Tool DH-1, Abbey’s pulley is free to spin and slide along the length of the tool’s axle, and it does so extremely smoothly. But whereas the Park Tool has an aluminium shaft that’s clearly prone to wear, the Abbey uses a stainless steel shaft that is not only more resistant to abrasion, but also won’t corrode over time.
In many ways, the Abbey does everything the Park Tool does, but with a near-guaranteed lifetime service life and a smoother, easier operation. In particular, the Paul Components quick-release is incredibly nice to use.
The Abbey tool is nearly perfect, but there are three areas in which it’s clearly beaten by the Park. Switching it from the quick-release to thru-axle is marginally more of a fiddle with more small parts to trade back and forth. Its metal build quality means its heavier. And then there’s the price, which is over triple the cost of the Park.
Feedback Sports is best known for its workstands, but the Colorado company recently made the leap into cycling tools and even more recently bought the rights to Butter’s popular chain cleaner design. Also designed in Colorado, the Butter B1 was arguably the first professional-grade chain cleaner on the market, and Feedback only improved on it. Made with a mix of machined aluminium, stainless steel, and Delrin, this tool has an heirloom-like quality much like the Abbey.
This cleaner works with both quick-release (open) and thru-axle dropouts. Both axle options allow the tool to be installed one-handed, a key difference to everything else tested. It’s remarkably easy to use, and unlike many of the other designs that work with thru-axles, this one doesn’t require you to rethread the thru-axle into place.
On the downside, there are several small parts that have to be swapped between the two fitments, and careful attention must be paid to the ones that aren’t being used so they don’t end up lost. While Feedback made the big upgrade from the original Butter design to allow the pulley wheel to spin, the compact design still doesn’t allow the derailleur to be shifted like on the Park and Abbey.
This is Park Tool’s first foray into the world of chain cleaner tools, and it’s a good one. It works on just about any quick-release frame, or you can also remove the pulley and slide it over your bike’s own 12mm thru-axle. The pulley is given enough space on its own axle that the derailleur can be shifted through a full range.
That blue-anodised aluminum axle looks nice when new, but the soft surface wears with use. The quick-release skewer also uses a cheaper external-cam design, which will require more maintenance than more elegant internal-cam skewers in order to keep the mechanism running smoothly.
All up, Park has done a great job creating an easy-to-use tool that works on both quick-release and thru-axle frames. Its price and weight is indicative that it’s not built to the same standards as either the Feedback Sports or Abbey Bike Tools versions, but for home use, it should be plenty.
This answer will depend on why you’re looking to buy a chain keeper. If it’s for travel with a quick-release bike, then the Icetoolz or PRO chain keeper are your only real options to prevent potential frame crushing. If you’re concerned about weight, the Icetoolz is also impressively light, especially when you consider it requires your bike’s rear quick-release skewer. The PRO is more expensive and far heavier, but it should last for ages and withstand use as a cleaning tool, too.
For more dedicated cleaning tools, the simplest and most effective options are from Morgan Blue. They help to wash down a chain, and nothing more. Despite the fact they don’t spin and aren’t convertible between different dropout types, they’ll last a long time and get the job done. For the casual user, the Lifeline tool is worth a look. It’s not as good as the Morgan Blue, but hilariously cheap to buy – assuming you’re doing an online order at the time so as to lessen the financial pain of shipping costs, that is.
If you simply want the best – and are willing to pay extra for it – you’ll be happy with either the Feedback Sports or Abbey Bike Tool models. I like that you can shift with the Abbey Bike Tools, and there are also fewer small parts to misplace in switching it between axle types. Plus, that Paul skewer is dreamy in use. However, the Feedback is a very elegant solution that’s also cheaper, more compact for travel, and quicker to use once set up for the right axle type.
For everyone else, the Goldilocks of this bunch is the Park Tool DH-1. Its sliding design allows access to clean the derailleur, it works with both quick-release and thru-axle dropouts, and isn’t all that expensive. Its blue aesthetic will tarnish quickly, and the quick release lever may need some grease from time to time, but that’s also why it’s far cheaper than the Abbey and Feedback Sports.
[caption id="attachment_386016" align="alignnone" width="1600"] Another angle of the IceToolz Chain Master.
A small spacer allows the PRO Chain Holder to be used in either 130 or 135mm-wide quick-release dropouts. Sadly, the pulley wheel cannot be removed.
Another angle of the Lifeline chain keeper.
The included skewer is basic on the Pedro’s tool, similar to that supplied with the Lifeline unit. (Note: For photo purposes, the quick release is technically installed on the wrong side here.)
The Abbey Wash Buddy’s pulley as used with a stock 12mm thru-axle. Abbey offers this item separately, too.
The smaller nut on the Feedback tool has square edges that prevent it from rotating in the dropout. You simply slot it in, and give the large red anodized handle a quick turn.
The Feedback Sports keeper from the back.
The Feedback Sports Chain Keeper as mounted in a thru-axle frame. It’s the only one that doesn’t need the bike’s original thru-axle.
The Park Tool Dummy Hub offers a large quick-release lever.
The Park Tool Dummy Hub pulley in use on a 12mm thru-axle.