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Cleaning your bike chain

Difficulty level : average
Reading time: 6 minutes

To keep your bike performing at its best, you should clean the bike chain regularly. For those with limited time and space, the good news is that it can be done quickly by following a few simple steps. We’ll explain what you need and how to clean your bike chain properly.

Note that the rear derailleur should always be cleaned along with the chain. There’s no point just cleaning one or the other, since the two constantly touch and will dirty each other.

Content

Needed items

  • a lint-free rag or cloth
  • matches
  • an old toothbrush
  • a cleaning agent
  • a brake or chain cleaner
  • a bucket of water
  • a sponge
  • a screwdriver
  • benzine or turpentine
  • suitable bike chain oil or lubricant
How often should you clean your bike chain?

How often should you clean your bike chain?

In general, bike chains should be cleaned at least once a year. If you do so reliably, the cleanings will be done in the blink of an eye. It only becomes a difficult task if the bike chain has not been cleaned for a while.

So we recommend that amateur cyclists clean their bike chains as soon as black dirt and grime become visible on the chain. Pro and amateur cyclists who feel very strongly about speed and performance should clean their chains approximately every 300 kilometres.

How often a bike chain should be cleaned therefore depends on the situation. Of course, the weather also plays a major role. If you often ride through rain and mud, you should clean your chain more often.

Do you mostly ride on paved roads, or rather on unpaved roads and forest paths? Do you only ride your bike on dry days, or also when it’s raining or snowing outside? Do you put your bike in a dry, sheltered garage when you’re not using it? Or is it parked in an unprotected place exposed to the elements?

All these aspects determine how quickly your bike chain will accumulate dirt and therefore how often it needs to be cleaned.

With regular cleaning, your bike chain will wear out less quickly. While you cycle, the chain gradually accumulates small stones, dust particles, mud, road grit and so on. This detritus makes your bike chain dirty and also wears it out over time. A worn bike chain makes pedalling much harder, while a regularly cleaned bike chain will last longer.

What do you need to clean a bike chain?

What do you need to clean a bike chain?

When cleaning your chain, don’t forget to clean the derailleur as well. A bike with a clean chain but with a sprocket still full of dirt (or vice versa) isn’t much use – one will immediately dirty the other again.

Frequent rides create sticky and greasy build-ups of dirt on the bike chain and sprockets, which are caused by solidified lubricant, oil, dust and dirt. We’ve all seen that black layer of dirt on the bike chain and on the sprockets after a ride in muddy or wet conditions.

Before the bike chain can be re-lubricated or re-oiled, the old oil and other dirt particles should be cleaned off.

First, the bike should be turned upside down so that you can work more comfortably. You can put a rag under the saddle to protect it from damage. You can also wear gloves to keep your hands oil-free. This is recommended when working with chemicals.

Watch out: if the bike chain is overstretched, the chain links will no longer fit on the sprockets, even if they have been cleaned well beforehand. So it’s important to check that the chain still has the right level of tension before you start cleaning it.

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Clean the bike chain with Fairy Ultra, Dasty

Clean the bike chain with Fairy Ultra, Dasty

When cleaning your bike, first remove the biggest chunks of dirt with a cloth or rag. It’s best to clean the bike itself first, and only then the drivetrain, chain and gears. You don't want to accidentally cover your frame with drivetrain grease by cleaning the drivetrain first.

Fill a bucket with hot water and some detergent (e.g. Fairy Ultra or Dasty), then take a sponge and clean the bike frame. Once you’re ready to clean the chain, follow the steps below:

  1. Turn the pedals to move the chain. At the same time, hold a screwdriver wrapped in a lint-free, dry cloth onto the chain to remove dirt.

  2. The gaps between the bike chain links can be cleaned with matches. To do this, use a suitable chain or brake cleaner spray, brushing it on with an old toothbrush. Don’t spray too much chain or brake cleaner onto the chain, and wait a few minutes before going on to the next step.

  3. Next, clean the chain using a dry cloth to remove the residue of the chain cleaner. Don’t forget your sprockets, derailleur or the chainrings on the crank. If you choose the right spray, brake cleaner evaporates quickly, meaning that no greasy bike chain dirt is left behind.

  4. Now that the chain is clean, it should be lubricated straight away. Be sure to use special bike chain oil or lubricant – these lubricants have bike-specific properties like enhanced adhesion, better rust protection and improved lubricity. Classic WD-40 is isn’t suitable, but there’s also premium WD-40 bike chain oil that can be used.

  5. To lubricate the chain, apply some chain oil or lubricant to a lint-free rag. Then run the bike chain through the rag several times by turning the pedals with one hand and gently pushing the rag against the chain with the other. Do this until the chain surface is completely lubricated.

  6. Now, repeat this process with a clean, dry cloth to quickly remove any excess oil.

Your bike chain is now properly lubricated again for many rides to come!

Videos: How to clean your bike chain

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Cleaning very dirty bike chains

On a bike, the chain is always the part exposed to the most strain. The individual links of a bike chain are pulled with every pedal stroke. If you want to minimise wear and tear on your bike chain, it’s crucial to clean it regularly and meticulously. When you push your pedals, a strong and continuous power transmission affects your bike chain.

On top of that, when riding a mountain bike, for example, wear and tear is caused by stones, mud, grit and other dirty particles when riding on sandy and muddy paths. Add rain or wet conditions into the equation, and you’ll understand why the bike chain takes such a beating.

It’s not only the chain of your mountain bike that suffers, but the entire drivetrain including your chainrings and sprockets. And very dirty bike chains decrease efficiency by several watts, leading to power loss.

So, how should you clean your bike chain after it’s been exposed to so much dirt? And what’s the best way to remove the old chain oil or lubricant and the greasy dirt?

Benzine from the hardware store works well. It can even be re-used if you run it through a coffee filter to clean it after applying it to the bike chain. Benzine is cheap and effective for cleaning oily substances because of its strong degreasing qualities.

Can a bike chain and derailleur also be cleaned with turpentine? Turpentine can degrease almost as well as brake cleaner spray. Especially if other degreasers can’t do the job, turpentine might be a good alternative.

After using benzine or turpentine, the bike chain should be lubricated again, because both substances are very strong degreasers.

Using a chain cleaning tool

Using a chain cleaning tool

A chain cleaning tool is a brush to clean your bike chain. In fact, it consists of several powerful round brushes that rotate within the housing. In addition, the tool has a liquid tank which should be filled with cleaning agents.

Two important side notes, though: don’t use the chain cleaning tool with aggressive cleaning agents and don’t use it for motorcycle chains.

To find and buy the right chain cleaning tool for your racing bike, e-bike or mountain bike, you should consider the following aspects:

  • Material and weight
  • Dimensions
  • Number of brushes
  • Cleaning agents
  • Extra accessories
  • Ease of handling

The bike chain cleaning tool should also be suitable for most chains and gear hubs (with or without gears).

To clean every part of the bike chain, the chain cleaning tool should have at least six rotating round brushes. For a thorough cleaning of the sprockets, that’s the minimum you’ll need.

If your bike already has a rusty bike chain or if metal particles already firmly stick to the chain, then it’s best to buy a chain cleaning tool with an integrated magnet. The internal magnet collects the metal particles brushed by the chain, preventing them from being redistributed across the chain.

During the cleaning process, the bike chain runs through the inner rail of the chain cleaning tool without having to be dismantled beforehand.

When buying a chain cleaning tool, make sure you go for a kit which includes the right accessories: a chain scrubber, chain brushes and a chain gear cleaner. With the right accessories, you can significantly extend the service life of your bike chain.

Cleaning the chain of a road bike

A road bike chain (or race bike chain) should be checked and cleaned after about 300 kilometres. A road bike chain is a fully exposed (no chainguard) and continuously moving part of your bike. That’s why dirt particles should be removed from the chain regularly to minimise the friction, wear and tear and power loss of the individually moving chain links.

Before cleaning the chain of your road bike, it’s important to clean the following parts of your drivetrain first to stop the dirt sticking to your chain again:

  • Cassette
  • Chainrings
  • Front and rear derailleur
  • Pulleys

Regular dirt can be rinsed off with warm water and Fairy Ultra. A chain cleaner can also be used to clean the sprockets. Just spray some cleaner on a lint-free rag and move it back and forth across the sprockets. The rag can also be used to wipe the rear derailleur and clean the rear derailleur rollers – that’s where most of the dirt on a road bike accumulates.

To clean the chain, proceed exactly as described in the steps above. The chain of a road bike should be cleaned and lubricated immediately after a ride.

Never clean or lubricate your bike chain right before a ride. Chain oil and lubricant are particularly thin in the beginning and need some time to penetrate the moving parts. So it takes a few hours before the bike chain is fully covered with a solid layer of oil or lubricant. If you lubricate your chain right before riding, extra dirt will stick to the chain, causing other parts of the rear derailleur to also get dirty more quickly.

Ideally, road bike chains should be cleaned once a month if you cycle around 50 km per week. Nevertheless, more experienced and well-trained cyclists who often cycle 200+ km per week should clean their bike chain almost daily. Their chains are exposed to greater forces, especially when they frequently ride on hilly terrain or attack steep ascents.

Replacing a bike chain

Replacing a bike chain

Before starting your cleaning job, check whether cleaning the chain is worth the effort. It can happen that the dirt has already damaged your bike chain so badly that replacing it is the only option. And when your chain becomes too rusty, or the chain is locked or too loose, you should quickly buy a new one – safety should always be your top priority.

A very dirty or rusty bike chain also drastically affects the service life of your sprockets and chainrings, which will wear out a lot faster. So we strongly advise cyclists not to wait too long before replacing a bike chain.

A new bike chain should always be the same size as the original chain. Make sure that the exact distance between the chain links is maintained to avoid wear on the sprockets.

Only by replacing worn parts in a timely fashion can you be sure of a smooth and safe ride. This philosophy certainly applies to the bike chain, which is constantly exposed to high power forces. Very dirty, rusty or warped bike chains that can no longer be cleaned should be replaced quickly so that you’re always safe on your bike.

We also recommend protecting your bike chain with a chainguard – a protective shield that helps to ward off rain, small stones, mud, grit, dust and other dirt particles. A chainguard extends the service life of your chain and prevents it getting dirty or wearing out quickly.

A wide range of chainguards is available, ranging from plastic to aluminium models, all available in different designs and made to match your bike chain size. Some of the simpler models only cover the sprocket. Larger ones also cover the entire chain from the rear axle to the chainrings, thus providing more protection.

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