Chain cleaning: A complete guide from lazy to obsessive
Your bicycle’s chain is like a mechanical log of your riding adventures: road grit from that last wet ride, red mud from adventuring in the desert, clumps of pollen from the springtime blooms. But if your chain is left dirty, that grit will form an impressively effective grinding paste, causing expensive wear, poor shifting, rough pedaling, and wasted efficiency.
If you’re looking to get more performance out of your bike, but without spending a lot of money, keeping your drivetrain clean should be a priority. As the saying goes, a clean bike is a fast bike.
How often you clean your drivetrain, and to what extent, will vary depending on your lube selection, riding conditions, and mileage. And of course, the better you are with your preventative maintenance, the less frequently you’ll need to do a full clean. But if your drivetrain is leaving you with a calf tattoo after every ride, is sounding gritty, or you’ve got an upcoming event, it’s probably due.
There are many different ways to clean a drivetrain. I’ve broken it down into four levels of detail, with each level requiring a little more mechanical aptitude, but each providing better end results.
Easy Drivetrain Cleaning
Limited on time and space? An easy-clean can be done just about anywhere, and all you need is a rag and your choice of chain lube.
In this quickest of methods, simply wrap the chain with a clean, lint-free cloth, and then backpedal the drivetrain through it to wipe off the exterior muck. Repeat the process until the rag stays mostly clean. You can use the rag to scrape crud off of the derailleur pulley wheels and chainrings. Alternatively, baby wipes work pretty well, too.
Once the chain is reasonably clean, you can re-apply lube as needed. Oil-based lubricants also help float contaminants to the surface of the chain, so you can also repeat the wiping process a few more times until the outside of the chain looks clean.
Depending on your lube choice, it might be a good idea to clean your chain like this after every ride. As already mentioned, regular light cleanings like this will make more thorough cleanings a rare task. But if your drivetrain is already extremely filthy, one of the more in-depth methods to follow would make more sense.
Note that I haven’t recommended using a rag soaked in degreaser. While that may yield better visible results, it also mixes degreaser with your dirty lube, instead of removing it. Ultimately, you’ll just end up with diluted chain lube that won’t perform as it was designed.
Apartment tip: If doing this indoors, use a drop-cloth or tarp to collect any mess.
Moderate Drivetrain Cleaning
If you watch professional race mechanics at a road or cyclocross event, you’d be impressed to see how quickly they get a chain sparkling clean, without removing it from the bike. A huge part of this is preventative – especially in the pro ranks, the drivetrain they’re cleaning was probably cleaned one ride ago – but the method used by pro mechanics is still well-proven.
Jason Quade of Abbey Bike Tools is a seasoned race mechanic himself, and a strong proponent of cleaning chains on the bike. “With few exceptions, I don’t remove a chain from a bike unless it’s going into the trash. I’ve seen enough failed quick links to drive this opinion.”
As long as your chain isn’t terribly dirty to begin with, washing it on the bike can yield excellent results. Requiring both degreaser and water, this is best done outdoors.
- Citrus-based or similar degreaser
- A stiff-bristled brush, such as a chain brush or paint brush
- A larger brush for cleaning cogs
- A container to hold degreaser (the pro method is a sawed-off bidon held in your seat tube’s bidon cage)
- A chain keeper
- A garden hose, spray nozzle, and running water (a pump-style weed spray bottle or bidon will work if a hose isn’t available)
- An open space you don’t mind getting a little dirty and/or wet
- A chain cleaning tool (optional)
- An air compressor (optional)
- Take off the rear wheel and install a chain keeper in its place. This will allow more thorough cassette cleaning, while also limiting how much degreaser gets into your hub bearings and on braking surfaces.
- Use a brush and degreaser to remove the gunk from the chainrings and derailleur pulley wheels.
- Brush degreaser onto the chain, backpedaling the chain through the brush at various angles.
- Brush degreaser onto the cassette sprockets; a larger brush will speed up the process.
- Rinse off the cassette, chain, chainrings, and derailleur pulleys with a low-pressure stream of water. Avoid squirting water directly into any bearings.
- Dry everything with a clean rag, and then set the bike aside to air dry further. Alternatively, use compressed air to speed up the process.
- Remove chain keeper, reinstall rear wheel, and apply your lube of choice.
Apartment Tip: Use a self-service car wash if your bike is really grubby. It’s a washer on demand, with fluids collected and recycled.
Alternative: Use a chain cleaning device instead of brushing degreaser on the chain. These use a number of rotating brushes that automatically scrub the chain’s inner links, outer links, and rollers. You can also use these to better contain the mess of washing, or as a final rinse by replacing the degreaser with water.
In my experience, the chain cleaning tools from Park Tool are great (such as the CM-25 or CM-5.2), and do an even better job of getting the nastiest muck off of chains as compared to the traditional brush method. CyclingTips US tech editor James Huang uses the Pedro’s Chain Pig himself, but as Adam Kerin of Zero Friction Cycling warns, none of these tools do a great job of getting the finer particles out from inside the rollers. For that, we have the next cleaning level.
Detailed drivetrain clean
The on-bike method described above will be the way to go for most, but sometimes a more thorough clean is warranted. The method we’re about to go through here is not only more meticulous, but also better contained, which may be useful for those with limited access to an outdoor cleaning space. I’ll do this level of detailed clean when I install a new chain and want the whole drivetrain to look new. Likewise, a number of professional workshops will offer this level of detail above and beyond the usual cleaning services.
The detailed clean involves removing the chain, cassette, and chainrings (or crankset) from the bike. It also serves as the perfect periodic maintenance opportunity to inspect and service other bits such as bottom bracket bearings and freehubs.
- Tools to remove cassette (lockring tool and chainwhip) and chainrings or cranks (e.g: hex keys, bearing preload tool for Shimano, etc).
- Citrus-based or similar degreaser
- A stiff-bristled brush, such as a cog brush or paint brush
- A container to use as a degreasing bath (a plastic storage bucket or large ice cream container work well), or a dedicated parts washer
- Water to rinse
- An air compressor (optional)
- Assess whether the chain is worn and needs replacement. Remove and discard it in that case, but otherwise determine if the chain can easily be removed (such as with a reusable quick link). Remove if so, but if not, perform a moderate chain clean as above.
- Remove rear wheel and remove cassette.
- Remove chainrings from crank (or remove right-side pedal, and then whole crank).
- Clean the derailleur pulleys and cage with a rag or strip of cloth. Compressed air is handy for removing grit from pulley holes and other cutouts. Otherwise, the pulleys can be disassembled for a more thorough cleaning.
- Manually clean the cassette, chainrings (or the whole driveside crank), and chain in a degreaser bath. A thin cog brush, such as the Park Tool GearClean or Pedro’s ToothBrush can help with the task.
- Alternatively, place the dirty chain in a jar filled with degreaser, and shake vigorously.
- Once clean, rinse thoroughly with water.
- Dry all of the components and reinstall. Compressed air is a big time saver here; otherwise, a hair dryer may help to speed the process.
Apartment tip: Use a stainless steel laundry sink as your parts washing basin. Only use environmentally-friendly degreasers if you do this.
Ultrasonic cleaners are fast becoming popular for a hands-off approach to the degreasing bath. You’ll get mixed results with really stubborn grit, but it’ll do an impressive job at getting in all the nooks and crannies. Pay close attention to the heat and solvent used in order not to cause plastic or anodisation damage.
Win Allen, owner of Wins Wheels in Westlake Village, California, and two-time consecutive winner of the Mechanics Challenge at Interbike, uses an ultrasonic cleaner filled with diluted Dawn dish soap after running the components through a separate parts washer. This ensures the solvent is thoroughly flushed out, and that any further hidden dirt is removed.
Obessive chain clean
Are you more of the OCD (Obsessive, Chain, Degrease) type? Did you read the “Holy Grail of chain lube” articles and are now keen to get the most life and best performance from your chain? This section is for you.
“Many drip lubes (and obviously a must for wax submersion) will work their best if they have access to the chain metal,” Kerin explained. “So cleaning a chain should always be viewed as a two-part process. Part one is getting the chain clean, and the second part is ensuring there is no film left on chain from what was used to clean it.”
According to Kerin, petrol, diesel, and many popular degreasers leave a heavy film behind, making it difficult for drip lube, and impossible for wax, to properly adhere to the metal surface as the lube manufacturer intended. Getting a chain visually clean, and then actually clean inside of the rollers, are two very different things, and for that, Kerin suggests that the previous methods mentioned above just don’t cut it.
In particular, Kerin warns that cleaning fluids will quickly get contaminated in ultrasonic cleaners, so it won’t be possible to get a sterile finish.
“It is like trying to get clean glassware out of filthy sink water,” he said. “I use mineral turpentine for the first cleaning part; it does a great cleaning job and is cheap to buy. Once the chain is coming out clean in the turps, I’ll do a couple of agitated rinses with methylated spirits (denatured alcohol).”
Kerin reserves an ultrasonic cleaner only for the final cleaning stage, and then follows it with a rinse in methylated spirits. Other methods and chemicals will work, he says, but it’s hard to beat this once you price it up. Whatever chemical you use, be sure to dispose of it responsibly. (The methods vary depending on where you live, but many councils commonly offer quarterly chemical collections. If in doubt, call your local council.)
Got a brand new chain? Both Kerin and Jason Smith (formerly of Friction Facts, now with CeramicSpeed) believe new chains should be stripped of the packaging grease prior to using your preferred lube. The packaging grease is certainly fine to use, and is often reasonably durable, but it isn’t great from an efficiency point of view. Likewise, many of the better chain lubes won’t mix or adhere well with the factory grease.
So whether you want to get an old chain prepped for a submersion wax treatment (the gold standard, according to the recent Holy Grail chain lube article), just want it feeling like-new, or want the packaging grease stripped from a new chain, the method described below is the way to go:
- A jar or similar bottle
- A strong degreaser for initial cleaning
- Denatured alcohol (methylated spirits) for final prep
- An air compressor and/or hair dryer (optional)
- An ultrasonic cleaner (optional)
- Clean chain with a preferred method as detailed above. Alternatively, drop the chain into a jar of fresh degreaser and shake thoroughly.
- Repeat the shaking process with fresh degreaser until the fluid stays clean. You may need to allow the chain to soak for some time, especially if it’s brand new.
- Replace the degreaser with denatured alcohol and repeat steps 1-3 until the fluid remains clean.
- Hang the chain to dry, or speed up the process with a hair dryer or compressed air.
- Apply your lubricant of choice.
Preventative chain care
Chain maintenance all starts with proper chain lube selection and use. If you prevent the chain from getting overly gritty and greasy in the first place, you’ll rarely need to give it a thorough clean. Using a lube that attracts little grit, and then keeping it clean, can help you get as much as 15,000km from a chain before it needs to be replaced, not the more common 3,000km most people see. And as a bonus, this increased lifespan also comes with reduced friction and greater operating efficiency.
“Cleaning really starts with the application of the lube of choice,” says Quade. “I’ve long said the more anal you are about putting the lube on, the lazier you can be in taking it off.”
Whichever chain lube you use, ensure you use enough to penetrate inside the rollers. Applying lube to the rollers on the lower span of the chain while backpedaling will carry the lube into the links. If it’s an oil-based lube, wipe off any excess with a rag once it’s had time to settle in. Be sure to always read the application instructions, and if a lube calls to be left on the chain overnight before riding, definitely do so.
If the chain is dirty, and you’re in a rush, consider lubing it anyway (and following the easy clean process).
“I’ve not seen any negative efficiency effects of at least re-lubing between rides,” said Smith, “even if re-lubing over a dirty chain, if a user does not have time to clean their chain.”
Replacing parts when necessary
Staying on top of chain wear and replacing before it becomes worn is the best way to prolong the life of other components, since a “stretched” chain will wear the matching cassette and chainrings more rapidly than a fresh one. Our article on chain wear explains the concept and how to check it easily.
Generally speaking, if you’ve worn your chain past 0.8mm wear, you’ll likely need to replace your cassette. And if it’s more worn than this, then you may need new chainrings. If you’re keen to push it to the limit, install a new chain and take it for a careful test ride. If the chain is skipping at the back under power, you’ll need a new cassette. If it’s grabbing unusually on the chainring, making weird noises or shifting poorly on the front, new chainrings are likely needed, too.
Much of what’s been described here may sound onerous, but it doesn’t have to be a time-draining exercise, especially if you have good habits to start with. Whether you want to do the bare minimum, or have a chainring you can eat off of, there’s an approach for you.
In the end, the general advice is to keep your drivetrain clean with a smart selection of chain lube, and a consistent routine to ensure gunk doesn’t build up. If you do this, you’ll only rarely need to use degreaser, and when you do, you’ve got plenty of options.
Wondering what degreaser is best, or simply safest, to use? We’ve recently answered that in our best degreaser feature.