Bicycle Chain Maintenance

One skill that every cyclists should have is bicycle chain maintenance. Chains need to be kept clean and lubed not only for better performance, but also for longer life of the chain and sprockets. There are many ways to clean and lube a chain, but the following method is the one that works best for me.

Filthy Winter Chain
Filthy Winter Chain

There are many factors that determine chain service intervals. Chains collect a lot of grime when riding off road, and wet conditions can wash the lube out of your chain. Rather than worry about what those specific intervals are though, just do a 2 point inspection.

1) Visually inspect the chain, chain rings, rear cassette, and rear derailleur pulley wheels. If these parts are full of grease and grime, it’s time to clean them.

2) Listen to your chain when pedaling. A lubed chain will be mostly quiet, while a dry chain will make noise from the friction. A squeaky chain means you’re way overdue, or you forgot to lube the chain after washing your bike, riding through a creek, or riding in the snow or rain.

The Degreasing Bottle
The Degreasing Bottle – My old Nalgene bottle…back when “Bisphenol A” was all the rage.

Cleaning a chain is easiest on a work stand, but any method you can come up with where you can turn the cranks without the bicycle falling over will do. Cleaning a chain doesn’t take much toil if you use a degreaser and a stiff bristled brush. The bike shops sell bicycle specific degreaser and cleaning brushes that make the job pretty easy. Simple green works pretty good for breaking up the grease too. For the filthy chain in the first picture, I actually removed the chain, and stuck it in an old water bottle full of degreaser. Once in the bottle you can shake it up and let is soak for a while to break up even the most stubborn grime. After scrubbing your chain, rinse it thoroughly with water to flush out the remaining grime and degreaser.

Also remember to brush or wipe off your rear cassette, rear derailleur pulley wheels, and front chain rings when you clean your chain. If you’re taking the time to clean your chain, you don’t want these parts forcing the grime right back into it.

Lubing the Chain
Lubing the Chain

After the chain has dried, it’s time to lube it. I’ve seen people lube a chain all sorts of ways, but some of the methods are way too excessive. I use lube in a drip bottle, so I can put the lube exactly where I want to. The drip bottle also allows me to only use as much as I need.

I start of by finding the master link on the chain. The master link has either a different pin or side plate, and gives you a good reference point where to start and finish. I turn the cranks until the master link is on the portion of the chain nearest the ground. This helps keep the lube from dripping onto the frame when you begin to apply it. This also allows you to apply lube to the inside of the chain, that is, the side of the chain that touches the sprockets. This keeps the outside of the chain less sticky, and less prone to collecting the dirt that is flung off your tires.

Once I have my reference point set up, I drip one drop of lube on every roller as I slowly turn the cranks. This takes a little longer than just squeezing the lube bottle as you quickly turn the cranks, but by going slow, you put the lube only where you want it, and you’ll use less of it. This may be important to you if you use the expensive high end lubes!

Once you have allowed the lube to penetrate, wipe away the excess with a rag. A wise man once told me, “If you can see the lube, it isn’t doing you any good.” It’s also a good practice to wipe down your chain after each ride. This will keep the gunk and grime from building up. If you keep it clean enough, you can apply lube a few times before a thorough cleaning.

Dumonde Bio Green
Dumonde Bio Green

Because of modern chain design, a drop of lube on the roller will find it’s way under the roller and work its way out to the side plates. As I mentioned before, a lubed chain will make your sprockets last longer. Envision your chain link coming into contact with a tooth on the sprocket. As you turn the cranks, a lubed chain roller will roll from the tip of the tooth down into the little valley between the teeth. Contrast this to a dry chain. Instead of rolling, a dry roller will slide down the surface of the tooth. As you can imagine, this will accelerate the wear of the sprocket and chain.

My favorite chains right now are the ones from SRAM with the Powerlink. It’s easy to remove and install your chain without any tools. Simply push the Powerlink pieces together with your hands, and it comes right off.

SRAM Powerlink
SRAM Powerlink

All lubes are not created equal! Most lubes excel in a certain area; for example, a wax based lube doesn’t attract as much dirt, but will wash out easier in the winter. You may have to experiment to find the lube that works best for your riding conditions.

WD-40 is not a chain lube. In fact, it’s probably a better chain cleaner than a lube. I’ve tried Tri-Flow before, but it definitely felt inferior to a nice bicycle specific chain lube. It’s half the price of the higher end lubes though if you’re on a tight budget. Wax based White Lightning works well during the summer and makes cleaning the chain fairly easy. I’ve also had good luck with T-9 Boeshield. For the past few years though, I’ve been using Dumonde. It seems to be a good compromise. It doesn’t attract dirt excessively, and doesn’t wash out easily in the winter. I’ve used the blue Dumonde on my mountain bikes, and the yellow on my road bike (a lower viscosity version). My most recent purchase of Dumonde was the new Bio Green version. It’s plant based and biodegradable, and the smell is less noxious than the regular Dumonde lubes.

Do you have a favorite lube not listed here (No KY or Astroglide jokes Jeff P…)? What are your chain cleaning tricks?

Want to learn more? To dig deeper into the subject of chains, visit Sheldon Brown’s very educational chain page HERE.

13 thoughts on “Bicycle Chain Maintenance

  1. I gave up on cleaning my chains so thoroughly. Some degreaser in a rag to take the bulk of the crap off, a screwdriver against the derailleur pulley wheels while back-pedaling the chain, and a relube with blue Dumonde. I’d suggest a pair of rubber gloves for chain work. It’s a lot easier to clean up.

  2. Great post! I think it more likely that Marcus would make the first KY joke. And I’ve never heard of Asstroglide.

    Any thoughts on recycling your old chains? Art? Reuse? B&D?

  3. “”

    ughhhhhh that looks like it would take weeks!

    No thanks I would rather ride.

  4. i’m fairly sure i’d heard potter mention that new KY “yours+mine” as being his lube of choice. one for him, one for the chain, and when they come in contact, WOW!

  5. Hey 6dogs. I resemble that remark…. KY, chains… Throw some Great Danes and Whips in there and whalla! ya got my kind a blog! Gotta go… It’s time I got Leather off my mind and on my body…

  6. I just this evening popped a powerlink on my chain. I’ve been having chain separation problems ever since I transfered over to a newer frame so apparently I did some damage to the chain link when I dis/assembled it. It’s amazing that little powerlink holds on, though. It seems so delicate and doesn’t really snap into place very noticeably. Hopefully it will stay in place and all my chain woes will be over… Happy riding…

  7. Never had a problem on a geared bike or a single speed with that link coming apart. I’d imagine one turn of the cranks locks that thing down tight.

    Oh and Jonah, I took your tip about sanding the rims a tad. My brake squeal went away! Mostly…

  8. Actually, I’ve had some relapses with the squealing brakes, too. Warmer temperatures seem to help things, though, so hopefully everything will be fine for the next several months. Maybe we need softer brake pads – something formulated for cold or wet conditions…

  9. I used Brake Klean to flush the gunk off the chain and cassette. It comes with a skinny, long, red nozzle extension. The stuff goes where you want it and it is water-less. I do not like to mix water with lubricants, it is not a good practice. I like the product named Break-Free. It is a high end synthetic that comes in aerosol and drip. I use both. The drip applicator is very precise and only one drop per roller is ample. Makes the chain quiet and smooth.

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