Ask A Gear Guru: What’s The Best Way To Clean A Bike Chain?
You like free watts and saving money, right? What if there was a magic way to do both at the same time? There is; we’ll show you how and what to get to do it right.
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It may seem obvious to seasoned triathletes (though maybe not, given the state of some literally “seasoned” bikes in transition), but it’s important to keep your bike clean. Not just from a Type-A tri-obsessive-compulsive point of view, but also from a perspective of longevity and even speed. A study by the Friction Facts test lab showed that a clean chain can give you as much as 12 free watts, depending on conditions. Also, a dirty chain can wreak havoc on your drivetrain’s longevity—not just on the chain itself, which can cost anywhere from $20-50, but also on more expensive parts like your cassette, that’ll severely impact smooth shifting and run you more like $40-$250 to replace. Numbers aside, a clean chain will make for a quieter, more peaceful ride (something we could all use right now) and smoother, faster shifting. This all sounds good, yes? But what’s the best way to clean your bike chain? Let’s find out:
The Best Way To Clean A Bike Chain: Do It Often
Again, this might be obvious to anyone who has left their chain alone for an entire season and maybe even had to toss it (and shredded their cassette in the process), but a quick wipe down after every other ride—or maybe just before your weekly long ride, when you’re likely less pressed for time—will save you tons of scrubbing that you’d have to do every other month. This is one of those things that can truly compound damage if you’re not wiping the chain down, even with a dry rag after a rainy ride or sweaty indoor session (yes, wiping your chain down after riding inside is often more important). You’ll still need to give it a scrub every once in a while with a solvent, and for sure you’ll need to give it some lube love, but by preventing the accumulated buildup of road grime, sand, sweat, and/or nutrition spillage, you’ll need less elbow grease during that deeper clean.
The Best Way To Clean A Bike Chain: Do It Right
Ok, so you’ve been wiping down your chain with a dry rag and giving it a light coating of lube every other ride, or at least once a week. Sometimes you need to do more. While you should be scheduling a good bike cleaning (we tell you how here) roughly every month during the season—put it on your calendar, trust me—you need to make sure you’re being thorough with your chain during that clean. If your chain has a master link or you’re handy with a chain remover and have replacement pins, remove the chain, and follow these directions (courtesy of master bike maintenance man and author of the classic Zinn & The Art of Road Bike Maintenance, Lennard Zinn):
- Put the chain in an old water bottle quarter-filled with solvent.
- Shake the bottle vigorously.
- Hang the chain to dry.
- Install the chain on the bike.
- Relube with your favorite lube.
- Wipe off excess lube with a clean, dry rag.
If you’re not interested in removing your chain, then get your hands on a chain-cleaning tool with a reservoir (our favorite below), and follow the below instructions:
- Clamp the tool on your chain.
- Following the tool’s instructions, fill the reservoir with solvent (some tools require the reservoir to be filled first).
- Hold the tool tightly as you begin to turn the crank backwards, as the tool might try to get forced into the chainring.
- Give it at least three revolutions, more if necessary. If it’s been a while since you last cleaned it, and it’s covered in road grime, you may need to empty the reservoir, wash it out, and refill with fresh solvent.
- Remove the reservoir and give the chain and drivetrain area a good rinse with water.
- Immediately dry off with a dry rag.
- Apply your favorite lube.
- Wipe off excess lube with a clean, dry rag.
The Best Way To Clean A Bike Chain: Do The Other Stuff Too
Cleaning a dirty chain is definitely the most essential step in keeping your drivetrain healthy, but if you have a messy cassette, chainring, and derailleur cogs, you’re only fixing half of the issue. At the beginning (or end) of each season, you should really be disassembling your cassette, soaking it, scrubbing it, and letting it dry; also work on removing gunk from pulley wheels and your cassette with a dedicated brush (example below) or old toothbrush with solvent. Sure, there’s other stuff you should be doing to keep your bike running smoothly, but for sure this breakdown and drivetrain cleaning should be at the top of every triathlete’s list.
Now that you know why it’s so important to clean your bike chain, when to do it, and how, take a look at our favorite chain-cleaning products:
Muc-Off Claw Brush
So for sure an old toothbrush will work in a pinch, but the various bristles and teeth on Muc-Off’s Swiss Army-style cleaning brush will get the job done faster and more thoroughly. Not much else to say about this handy tool, but the different lengths of bristles will help get into those weird nooks and crannies where dirt likes to hide—particularly when trying to clean your cassette and derailleur pulleys.
Park Tool CM-25 Professional Chain Scrubber
Though it’s not cheap, this super hardy version of the standard chain scrubber is shop quality, which means you’ll have it for life. Other chain scrubbers will work fine, but if you’re cleaning your chain weekly, as you should, the construction of home-use chain scrubbers can feel a little flimsy. A replaceable cleaning cartridge means you’ll never have to buy another one—you might even pass this down to your little tri-offspring.
Pedro’s Oranj Peelz
$15 for 16-ounce bottle, rei.com
Pedro’s Oranj Peelz is the go-to solvent for chains in terms of biodegradability and power. It’s water-solvent as well, so you can easily rinse it off after use and you can (and should) quickly wash it off any plastic, carbon, rubber, or painted parts it might come in contact with. If you’re looking for something less intense that can contact more surfaces without risk of damage, check out Pedro’s lighter, solvent-free, and plant-derived Pig Juice ($11 for 16oz.).
Rock n’ Roll Absolute Dry
$7, 4-ounce bottle, jensonusa.com
Rock n’ Roll might not make much, but they do a good job of making some very serious lubes for all conditions. If you’re riding outdoors in dry conditions, this super light, easy-on, easy-wipe-off lube will be your go to. If you’re wiping off your chain after almost every ride and reapplying this lube (and wiping again, don’t forget!), then this lube will work wonders as it attracts almost no road dirt and grime. If you’re looking for something a little more versatile for potentially messy outdoor rides or indoor sweatfests, check out Rock n’ Roll’s Gold lube—an all-rounder for any conditions, but it will pick up a little more dry road grime than its dry cousin.