How to Clean a Bike Chain

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Dirty bike chains lead to substandard performance. Dirty chains stick, slip and have difficulty shifting. There are few things worse than a failing chain on a long mountain climb. Cleaning your bike chain is possible on or off the bike. Cleaning on the bike is prudent for preventative maintenance but removing the chain is necessary when dirt and grime has worked into difficult to reach places.

Cleaning on the Bike

  • Inspect the chain to determine the severity of the situation. Moderate amounts of dirt, mud and grime caked to the exterior require a simple cleaning without removal. Other signs include a functioning chain with minimal sticking and slipping when you shift gears. Mix household dish soap with warm water in a small bucket. Dip a toothbrush in the solution and scrub the chain to remove the dirt. Scrub until the chain is visibly clean. Dry the chain with a rag and add a drop of chain oil to each link. Wipe the chain with a clean rag to remove any excess oil.

Off Bike Solvent Soak

  • Soaking the chain in a solvent is controversial. Soaking the chains from older bikes is fine because the lubricants are easily renewed but new chains utilize small pins and the lubricants are sometimes difficult to replace. Research the manufacturer's recommendations for your chain before attempting a full soak. Soaking is however very useful for chains with extreme dirt and grime issues. If your chain does not respond to cleaning on the bike, removal is often the final option before replacement. Remove the entire chain from the bike and completely submerge it in a combination of household dish soap and warm water. Scrub the chain with a toothbrush while submerged. Work the chain for several minutes to remove all of the dirt. Remove the chain and use compressed air to flush the soap and water from all the tight spaces. Add a drop of lubricant to each link and wipe any excess off with a clean rag.

Deraileurs, Cranksets and Cassettes

  • Dirt does not only effect the chain but also the derailleur, crankset and cassette. Inspect all parts that contact the chain and clean with the toothbrush, dish soap and water combination. Use cotton swabs and tooth picks to remove dirt from difficult spots. Wipe everything down with a clean rag to ensure cleanliness before using the bike.

Chain Cleaning Tools

  • Chain cleaning tools are sold commercially in most bike stores and many outdoor shops. The tools make cleaning the chain a breeze and most models function in the same manner. Fill the reservoir on the tool with the included solvent or a combination of dish soap and water. Snap the tool to the chain and move the pedals with your hand while holding the tool. The chain will pull through the bristles and solvent, cleaning the chain. Remove the tool and dry the chain with a rag or compressed air. Add a drop of chain oil to each link and wipe the excess off with a rag.

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