Did you know that a dirty chain can wear out up to 3 times faster than a well-maintained chain?
It makes sense when you know that the chain of your bike is the component that is most subjected to external stresses: friction, tension, and weather. Since the chain is a consumable element, cleaning it will reduce its overall wear and tear and thus extend its lifespan as much as possible.
Before being equipped with an ultrasonic cleaning system, I can tell you that I cleaned miles of chains by hand. Here I share with you the methods I developed to make this task quick and efficient.
In this article, you will understand all the benefits of cleaning your bike chain and the best methods to do it – removing it or not. You’ll see that the maintenance of your chain allows much more than avoiding black marks on the calves.
Let’s get started.
Why should you clean your bike chain?
The chain of your bicycle is the element that transforms your muscular force into kinetic force (rotation of the wheels) it must be maintained in order to ensure performance and safety.
You got it, your chain is subject to many stresses.
The chain that needs to be lubricated to keep it running smoothly always ends up accumulating dirt, dust, and chain residue. Thus, it will enter a vicious cycle. The less it is cleaned and lubricated, the more dirt accumulates and the more it becomes dirty.
The consequences of a dirty chain are the following:
- loss of performance due to increased friction.
- loss of efficiency, caused by the lack of precision in gear shifting.
- reduced safety, due to premature wear, derailment, or even chain breakage.
My 2 methods to keep your bike chain clean
For a quick cleaning and a little maintenance, I will clean the chain by leaving it on my bike.
If I want to do a big cleaning and make sure that the chain and transmission are perfectly clean, I will remove the chain from the bike.
Method 1: How to get a clean chain without removing it from your bike
To make your bike maintenance more enjoyable and efficient, you need to have the right tools and be in the right position. “Work well placed, work well done”.
Cleaning your chain directly on your bike can be done with or without tools.
Before I became professional and equipped myself with an ultrasonic tank to be able to keep up with the bikes to be cleaned in the workshop, I used the classic method of soapy water and a rag.
Cleaning your bike chain without tools
First of all, I don’t recommend the use of an aerosol degreaser if your chain is still on the bike. It is an effective product but aggressive, the paints and some components do not like it.
Use a degreaser that you dilute in hot water. If you don’t have any, dishwashing liquid is as effective for cleaning bike chains.
So you’ll need:
- A bucket of hot water with degreaser or dishwashing liquid
- A rinsing tank
- A brush/paintbrush/sponge/rag/toothbrush
For the handling, I advise you not to turn your bike over. The dirty water will run on the frame and it will be that more to clean. It’s good to protect your rear wheel, especially if it’s a rim brake, so as not to pollute the brake pads with grease.
- Place your bike correctly, hold the bottom of the chain lightly with your left hand with a soaked cloth, and turn the crank counterclockwise with your right hand.
- Do a few turns of the pedals, rinsing from time to time.
- Once you have removed most of it, rub the top of the chain and hold the crank. Rotate the chain from time to time with a pedal stroke to change the cleaning area.
One technique to gain speed is to join two toothbrushes face to face with tape and rotate the chain between them.
I admit I’m not a fan of this method, it messes up everything. I prefer to use a single toothbrush to gently scrub the chain, chainrings, and cassette more thoroughly.
Note that it is important to clean the sprockets and the chainrings, otherwise your chain will get dirty from the first pedal strokes. Same technique: soapy water, rag/sponge/toothbrush.
Cleaning your bike chain with a tool: how to use a chain cleaner?
Using a chain cleaner can encourage regular cleaning because of its ease of use and the results obtained. In any case, the more regularly you maintain your bike, the easier it is to do so.
This is where the chain cleaner comes in.
- To use a chain cleaner, stabilize your bike and leave the cranks free to rotate.
- After wiping the chain with a rag to roughen it up, open the cleaner and add a mixture of hot water and degreaser.
- Run the chain as directed and close the housing.
- Turn the chain counterclockwise while holding the cleaner in position. Once the liquid has become dirty, replace it and perform the same operation a few more times.
- Once the chain is clean, remember to oil it. It is important to dry it well before lubricating it, otherwise the oil or wax will not stick.
If you do this on a regular basis, a quick cleaning can be enough each time. However, if you rarely service your chain and it is very dirty, it will have to be dismantled to be cleaned thoroughly – if it is not too worn.
Method 2: How to clean a chain by removing it from the bike
When your chain is removed from your bike, cleaning is easier and more thorough. This is also true for the other components of the transmission such as the cassette and chainrings, which also deserve to be cleaned to preserve the chain.
Cleaning a disassembled chain can be done with or without tools.
When I clean chains in the workshop, there are two cases. Either they are moderately dirty, so I disassemble them and clean them by hand, or they are really dirty and need to be pre-cleaned by hand before being soaked in my ultrasonic tank.
In the end, I still find myself getting my hands dirty. Nice.
My method for tool-free cleaning:
It is very easy:
- Once the chain is disassembled, place it in a bowl.
- Apply an aerosol degreaser and scrub the chain (you can also soak it in a mixture of hot water and liquid degreaser or dishwashing liquid).
Use what works best for you; the key is to clean and rinse well.
Little tip: slide the chain on a cloth between your hands, marking a curve on its path.
I strongly advise against using gasoline or white spirit, which are corrosive and polluting liquids, bad for your bike, for you, and for the planet. Prefer the use of biodegradable products.
Bike chain cleaning with tools:
The use of a machine such as an ultrasonic cleaner or a cleaning fountain is a more expensive solution. However, they are effective and can be used for a large number of components, even beyond the bicycle.
The principle of an ultrasonic cleaner is to soak the part in a bath of hot water (between 45°C and 55°C) mixed with 5% of detergent and to send ultrasounds for about twenty minutes according to the level of dirt.
The ultrasonic waves create micro-vibrations that loosen the dirt in the smallest nooks and crannies – often inaccessible to the hand. This method is widely used by jewelers for example. However, it is important not to overdo the cleaning process, which could remove paint and varnish or dry out plastics.
About the cleaning fountain, it works roughly like a tank with degreaser and a brush, only it is equipped with a pump and a filter allowing the recycling of the liquid.
Models exist with a natural liquid composed of microbiota that must be kept at a temperature of 40°C to ensure its effectiveness. The bacteria come to “eat” the dirt. Very expensive to buy and use, these machines seem to be reserved for professionals.
Tips for keeping your chain clean
Ideally, you should regularly clean the chain and your bike’s components as a rule. “The more frequently – the easier”.
Depending on the terrain and weather, a wipe-down and a drop of lube after every “dry” ride will never hurt. In rainy or muddy weather it is essential to clean the chain. Without necessarily dismantling it, use hot water with a liquid degreaser or dishwashing liquid, let it dry, and then lubricate it.
I recommend a light cleaning every 2-3 rides (except in bad conditions) and a thorough cleaning every 5 rides to ensure the good working of your transmission.
A reflex to adopt during the maintenance of your chain which will allow you to avoid early clogging is not to lubricate without cleaning. Adding oil to the dirt on your chain will result in the dreaded sludge.
How long does it take to clean my bike chain?
Cleaning your bicycle chain can be done in a few minutes with a simple wipe and a drop of oil every 2-3 rides. For a more thorough cleaning with or without disassembling your chain, allow about half an hour.
When to clean your bike chain?
The more often you clean your chain, the less complicated it is. For this reason, I recommend a light cleaning every 2-3 rides and a more thorough cleaning every 5 rides. If this frequency is respected, the chainrings and sprockets can be cleaned every 10 rides without much difficulty.
Any doubts? After your next bike chain replacement, get used to cleaning it regularly and enjoy the result.
Do I have to wash the chain after each ride?
A wipe-down after each ride will never hurt unless you forget to put a drop of oil back in. If this seems too demanding, start on a basis of 2 to 3 rides, your bike will not be too upset.
Can you clean a bike chain with only water and soap?
I would say that cleaning your bike chain with hot water and washing up liquid is the best method in terms of “quality/price”. There is no doubt about the efficiency and the risk of deterioration of the equipment.
You now have in hand the methods and techniques to clean your chain with efficiency and without difficulties.
Whether it’s on your bike or disassembled, with or without tools, you know all the possibilities! You can add a line to your resume as a bike mechanic 😉