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How to clean your bike chain: a good way, a better way and the ultimate way to save watts and money

A clean bike chain can prolong the life of expensive components and make you faster. Here's the good, the better and the ultimate way to complete this most common of bike maintenance tasks

A clean chain is the cheapest way of prolonging the life of expensive drivetrain parts and probably one of the best value ways of making your bike faster. Well, we've got three very grubby chains to show you the good, the better and the ultimate way to get them clean and ready to ride...

2024 chain cleaning drivetrain on Jamie's Specialized Allez Sprint 1x

> How to clean your bike - from a quick lick to a full makeover

When cleaning your bike it might be tempting to focus on the larger surfaces such as the frame, but by far the most important part of your bike to clean is the drivetrain. 

Tests have shown that a grubby drivetrain can cost you around 3% of your power output, as well as rapidly accelerate drivetrain wear. Some studies even show that a consistently grubby chain will result in expensive components lasting less than half the mileage than when a clean one is used!

2024 chain cleaning grubby chain

Luckily, keeping your chain clean needn't be too arduous. Just a few minutes after riding could save you a fortune.

The good way to clean your drivetrain

For this method, you will need a rag that you don't mind getting greasy, a degreaser of your choice and a bottle of chain lube. You may also want to invest a few quid on a stiff-bristled brush to help lift stubborn dirt and get into those hard-to-reach places.

2024 chain cleaning rag chain

> The lazy way to clean your bike

The main aim when cleaning your drivetrain is to remove the dirt and grime that gets between moving parts. In short, this means that as a minimum you will need to clean not only your chain, but also your cassette and chainrings.

Personally I start by putting my bike upside down or in a stand with the bike in a large chainring and one of the larger sprockets at the back. This is so that the chain is under more tension, hence making it easier to clean.

2024 chain cleaning clean inner links

Next, you're simply going to run the chain through the rag to remove any excess grease. It's usually easiest to do this at the top of the chain which is under tension.

Once complete you can move on to cleaning it more thoroughly, cleaning in between each of the plates on the chain.

2024 chain cleaning close up

> How to get your bike ready for summer

A spray of degreaser or chain cleaner will help lift stubborn grease. I find it easiest to push against the chainring rather than try to clean the chain where it is unsupported.

2024 chain cleaning degrease cassette WD40

Next, make a pad with the towel and thoroughly rub the chainring, paying particular attention to the teeth. Remember to clean both sides of both the big and little rings if you have two.

2024 chain cleaning chainring teeth

It's then time to clean the cassette. Spray it with a degreaser, being careful to avoid your brakes, and then use either a stiff brush or rag to remove excess grime. There is a more thorough way to clean your cassette that we'll get on to further down the page, but this method is better than nothing when time is against you. 

Give the drivetrain a final rub over with a dry rag, and then apply your favourite lube while turning the pedals.

Many people debate whether it is better to lubricate the inner or outer surface of your chain. The truth is that it makes very little difference as long as the lube can get down into the rollers and in between the links.

2024 chain cleaning chain lube 2

> Best bike chain lubes

Remember when lubing your chain that it is the rollers that need lubricating and not the outer plates. Therefore, may want to wipe off any excess before riding to avoid attracting excess debris.

The better way to clean your drivetrain

If you've got more time on your hands, then it's always worth being a bit more thorough. This is how I clean my drivetrain once a week, or after a particularly filthy ride...

2024 chain cleaning take wheel out

For this method we're going to need to remove the chain, so you will also need some chain link pliers (or a shoelace), an old water bottle, some white spirit (or similar) and a rag and stiff-bristled brush.

Remove the chain by shifting into the small ring at the front and small sprocket at the back to reduce chain tension. Most chains have a quick link which can then be 'broken' using a set of chain link pliers.

2024 chain cleaning chain in bottle

Once the chain is off, put it in an old water bottle and add a couple of hundred millilitres of degreaser or white spirit. Next, pop the lid on and shake vigorously. This will encourage the degreaser to penetrate in between the links of the chain and drive out any debris.

Remove the chain from the bottle, using an old spoke or something similar, and put the bottle to one side ready for next time. Maybe add a warning not to drink from it!

2024 chain cleaning chain after

Place the chain and quick link onto a towel and wipe off the excess degreaser, before using an old toothbrush to loosen any grime that is stubborn enough to still be present.

Once again we will have to clean the chainrings and cassette, and this is best done before refitting the chain. To clean the chainrings, repeat the process we went through in the "good" method, using a rag and degreaser to wipe off any dirt and grease.

2024 chain cleaning cassette cleaning wheel off bike

To clean the cassette more thoroughly, remove the back wheel from the bike, cover the brake disc if your bike has disc brakes, and then spray degreaser on to the cassette.

Then, use a stiff brush to get the worst of the grime off, before using the edge of an old towel to clean in between each sprocket. Do this by rubbing backwards and forwards. You will find that the cassette will spin in one direction but not the other.

2024 chain cleaning cassette cleaning with rag off bike

> How to replace a chain in 14 easy steps

Before refitting the chain, give your jockey wheels some love. If things have got really bad then you can use a small screwdriver to remove excess grease, and then clean thoroughly with a rag and/or toothbrush.

2024 chain cleaning putting chain back on

Refit the chain noting its direction, being careful to thread it to the right side of any guide pegs in the rear derailleur cage. Give the drivetrain one final rag down with a clean towel to remove the degreaser, and then lubricate each roller of the chain. This method will ensure proper lubrication without excess lube that will attract dirt.

2024 chain cleaning lube chain links Smoove wax based

A personal favourite of mine is this Smoove wax-based lube.

The best way to clean your chain

Our final method might seem a bit OTT for casual riders, but if you're serious about speed and/or drivetrain durability then we think this is the way to go. This is the method that I use before race/event day or before a long period of dry weather in the summer.

2024 chain cleaning ultrasonic cleaner

For this method, you are going to require a bit more equipment: an ultrasonic cleaner, a toothbrush, some degreaser, a rag, some hot melt wax and a way of heating it up, a chain link tool and potentially a cassette tool as well.

Once again, we're going to start by removing the chain. Wipe off any excess grease with a rag, and then we're going to pop it into an ultrasonic cleaning bath. An ultrasonic cleaner uses sound waves to agitate fluid, in this case, degreaser, to remove any contaminants from the chain. It is scarily effective!

2024 chain cleaning chain in ultrasonic cleaner

I usually put my chain in the ultrasonic cleaner for around ten minutes, ensuring that it is fully submerged in the degreaser. Once the time is up, remove the chain and use a towel to wipe off any excess degreaser.

The next step is to clean the chain using alcohol. We do this because while degreasers are excellent for removing grease from the chain, it doesn't prepare the surface very well for lubrication.

2024 chain cleaning alcohol and chain

Use a clean cloth and alcohol to prepare the chain. You'll know when you're getting there as the chain will no longer feel slimy.

It's now time to lubricate the chain, and the gold standard is waxing. A waxed chain is usually quieter, more durable, and there's plenty of studies out there to show that it's faster too.

2024 chain cleaning chain in hot melt wax

> Your complete guide to waxing your chain

Personally, I find it easiest to apply wax using an old takeaway tray, as it makes it easy to warm up in the oven and submerge the entire chain.

Once fully melted, submerge the chain in the wax and agitate it to ensure that the wax gets into all of the links. After a few minutes, remove the chain using an old spoke and hang it to dry.

2024 chain cleaning breaking wax

The next step is to go around and break all the wax seal on the links. Just like with lube, it's not the wax on the outside that is important.

Before putting the chain back on the bike, remember to clean the rest of the drivetrain. I usually repeat the process as in the 'better' method, but if you want the ultimate drivetrain cleanliness then you could take the cassette off and also ultrasonic clean it. 

2024 chain cleaning jockey wheels with toothbrush

Personally, I wouldn't ultrasonic clean jockey wheels as I have ones with bearings in rather than bushings. The ultrasonic cleaner would 'clean' them so well that there would be no grease left in them!

While you're at it, clean the inner plates of your front mech and derailleur cage plates, and then it's time to reassemble. Put the cassette back on the wheel, and the wheel in the bike, followed by the chain. Bingo, you've just saved yourself not only watts, but hopefully some money as well!

2024 chain cleaning cassette clean

Leave any of your chain cleaning tips down in the comments below. Which one of these methods would you use?

Jamie has been riding bikes since a tender age but really caught the bug for racing and reviewing whilst studying towards a master's in Mechanical engineering at Swansea University. Having graduated, he decided he really quite liked working with bikes and is now a full-time addition to the road.cc team. When not writing about tech news or working on the Youtube channel, you can still find him racing local crits trying to cling on to his cat 2 licence...and missing every break going...

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30 comments

Avatar
froze | 2 weeks ago
0 likes

Nonsense!  You don't need to remove the chain from the bike to clean it really well, but you should not let your chain get as dirty as the one in the video either.

All a person needs to do is to clean the bike with Dawn for Dishes, without citrus as the acid could damage the chain.  Scrub the bike down, then with a sponge and a brush scrub the chain and the gears front and rear.  Dawn for Dishes will remove all the grease from the chain and gears. 

I've done it that way for many years after a pro race mechanic told me that's how they cleaned their team bikes and chains.

 

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Delta4 replied to froze | 1 week ago
0 likes

What kind of brush do you use for your chain cleaning?  Will Dawn clean your chain well enough to apply wax lube? 

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Cayo replied to Delta4 | 1 week ago
0 likes
Delta4 wrote:

What kind of brush do you use for your chain cleaning?  Will Dawn clean your chain well enough to apply wax lube? 

A Garmin Sharp (now EF Education) mechanic at the Giro told me they added a drop or two of Fairy Liquid (Procter & Gamble's equivalent of Dawn in the UK) to Morgan Blue degreaser, and I've used that combo ever since, with a Muc-off claw brush: https://muc-off.com/collections/brushes-cloths-sponges/products/claw-brush

Avatar
mark1a replied to Delta4 | 1 week ago
3 likes

Delta4 wrote:

Will Dawn clean your chain well enough to apply wax lube? 

I guess you'd have to ask her yourself...

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Mikeavison | 1 month ago
0 likes

I'm surprised no-one suggested a chain cleaning gadget. Surely better to have brushes thoroughly clean out all the crannies.. I put a bit of water based degreaser in the gadget, Fit it and wind the pedals vigorously for a while. Rinse with hose. Spray with WD40 and bounce bike to dispel the water. Lightly oil with suitable oil. When motorcycling many years ago, I used to heat chain in LinkLife which is a wax loaded with molybdenum disulphide solid lubricant. If you want to use wax I think that would be better if still available

Avatar
ceebee247 | 1 month ago
0 likes

Dare I say that you can avoid all of these steps and issues if you just use wax......

Of course that will open up a whole new debate , so I'll just get my popcorn ready

Avatar
mark1a replied to ceebee247 | 1 month ago
3 likes

ceebee247 wrote:

Dare I say that you can avoid all of these steps and issues if you just use wax......

Of course that will open up a whole new debate , so I'll just get my popcorn ready

That's the big question, and I've been toying with the idea of wax for some time now. I'm struggling to be arsed with the whole preparation & process though.

However - as of a few weeks ago, based on the 10/10 review here and a good ZFC report, I'm trialling Silca Synergetic drip lube on one of the fleet. I started with a brand new chain, stripped it of all factory goo in the ultrasonic tank, along with the used cassette, until the drivetrain was clean. I then applied the Silca Synergetic very carefully after what seemed like an hour shaking it to distribute the black particles.

So far so good, drivetrain is very quiet, just needs a wipe off after each ride, and 263km so far. I'm expecting to reapply in the next few weeks after 500-600km. No wear showing yet although I wouldn't expect it after that short distance. Chain seems to be cleaner than with my previous Muc-Off Hydrodynamic. If it goes well on the bike I'm trialling it on, I will use on others when the time comes to replace chains.

Photo shows just before application and after 263km ridden.

 

Avatar
ktache replied to mark1a | 1 month ago
3 likes

I am very impressed with the synergetic, the cleanliness is so much better than anything else I'd used, shiny and no grinding every morning, the wipe down is very effective.
New chain for me last night, old one lasted since December, impressive seeing the filth up to May.
According to Silca, the manufacturers grease will be replaced after a couple of applications, and previous use seems to have confirmed this.

Avatar
mdavidford replied to ceebee247 | 1 month ago
2 likes
ceebee247 wrote:

Dare I say that you can avoid all of these steps and issues if you just use wax......

Of course that will open up a whole new debate , so I'll just get my popcorn ready

Or a belt transmission...

Avatar
pathicon | 1 month ago
2 likes

Nice ultrasonic cleaner there Jamie, though you might want to make sure you're wearing your thick sole boots when you're using it! 

https://www.gov.uk/product-safety-alerts-reports-recalls/product-safety-...

Avatar
Cugel | 1 month ago
2 likes

Lots of this advice is about cleaning the chain "cosmetically" - to make it just look clean.  The cleaning that matters is of the not-visible innards where the hardest to remove combination of lubricant and road grit grinds away.

The most effective way to clean a chain is not to let it get deeply impregnated with gritty lubricant in the first place. 

This means that the factory grease must be completely removed. It's a rust preventer for storing chains, not a lubricant - although its the ideal substrate for making a grinding paste since it both picks up and transfers loads of road grit to chain innards in no time.

When the chain is free of grease and everything else, a minimal lubrication (tiny drop per link) is needed, not a slathering in a different grinding paste gunk masquerading as a lubricant. The outside links can be more or less dry, with perhaps no more than a wipe of the outer links with a cloth minimally dampened with WD40 or some other water-repellant.

Minimal lubing means minimal cleaning.

There are also some far more effective chain cleaners available now than white spirit & similar. But any cleaner is much more likely to remove all the lubricant and grit from the chain innards if the amount of lubricant and grit is very small rather than a great clag of black gunk obscuring the whole chain.

Minimal chain lubing also prevents all that black clag sticking to sprocket, chainring and pulley wheel teeth.

As ever, see ZFC for details.

Avatar
chrisonabike | 1 month ago
14 likes

More lazy and damaging "maintenance" advice for chains?  The proper way is that set out by Sheldon Brown:

https://www.sheldonbrown.com/chainclean.html

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McFrancis replied to chrisonabike | 1 month ago
10 likes

chrisonabike wrote:

More lazy and damaging "maintenance" advice for chains?  The proper way is that set out by Sheldon Brown:

https://www.sheldonbrown.com/chainclean.html

Whilst comprehensive, Sheldon Brown's advice appears to be taking shortcuts and does not even consider the remanufacturing of parts showing wear.  Using this approach I have now owned the same chain for 40 years, it is like new. I use the same approach for a brush I have owned for many years, it is better than new, I have only changed the head 4 times and the handle 7 times.

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john_smith replied to McFrancis | 1 month ago
4 likes

I have been using the same toothbrush since 1973. Our loo brushes were originally purchased by my great great grandmother. All original parts too. 

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cyclisto replied to chrisonabike | 1 month ago
3 likes

Hadn't noticed the troll products of Sheldon Brown, thanks for the tip.

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levestane | 1 month ago
2 likes

Unlike freewheels, cassettes have no moving parts and are really easy to remove and clean separately. This avoids the possibility of cleaning fluids getting into bearings, spoke holes, brake surfaces etc.

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panda | 1 month ago
2 likes

This might sound like health and safety gone mad, but if you're going to be heating paraffin wax in a confined space inside your home, best make sure you're not doing it near a source of ignition?  i.e. electric oven OK, gas oven less OK.  

I keep a second ultrasonic cleaner in the garage with the wax permanently in (like an old chip pan, it's solid when not in use) and just heat it up to 80degC when chains are ready to go in.  As long as the chains are clean when they go in the wax doesn't need changing.  

I've been using this method for 5+ years using the same two chains.  Zero chain stretch during that time, no discernible wear on sprockets or chainrings and never any need to clean bike with anything more than warm water.

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VIPcyclist replied to panda | 1 month ago
0 likes

That's a good method. More generally it might be worth mentioning that, if cleaning with an ultrasonic, you really do need to have the solution above 65C (thoughts on temp please) for it to do any good. I mostly train inside so just rewax after giving the chin a wipe with naptha. It dissolves the wax on the outside of the chain.

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mark1a replied to VIPcyclist | 1 month ago
8 likes

VIPcyclist wrote:

...so just rewax after giving the chin a wipe with naptha.

Thanks for the tip, but what about your bike?

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panda replied to VIPcyclist | 1 month ago
0 likes

I do know the viscosity of the fluid matters - for example turning the ultrasonic-ness on in the wax bath won't magically punch the molten wax into the nooks and crannies where it needs to go.

I just use hot water at 80degC to re-clean the chain before waxing.  Getting all the factory grease off after running the new chain in prior to first wax was a right palaver though.

Avatar
bikes replied to panda | 1 month ago
1 like

5 years with no stretch is incredible. Do you only ride in dry conditions? My experiment with a waxed chain was very short as it became noisy after only a brief exposure to rain, around 1 hour. I figured it's not possible to run a waxed chain if you ride in the rain.

Avatar
panda replied to bikes | 1 month ago
0 likes

Fair weather cyclist: guilty as charged!

Also, I re-wax the chains after 10 hours use i.e. before any noise starts.  With two chains that means the cleaners only get fired up once a month (I don't ride that much anymore).

Avatar
matthewn5 replied to panda | 1 week ago
1 like

panda wrote:

This might sound like health and safety gone mad, but if you're going to be heating paraffin wax in a confined space inside your home, best make sure you're not doing it near a source of ignition?  i.e. electric oven OK, gas oven less OK. 

Good advice, a friend was horribly burned and disfigured when wax she was heating up on the stove caught fire.

Avatar
AnotherChrisOnA... | 1 month ago
3 likes

When on a tour, I use bogroll. First wipe the externals. Then twist half a sheet of bog roll and pull it through a link. Repeat .......

Avatar
Brauchsel | 1 month ago
3 likes

"put the [old water] bottle to one side ready for next time. Maybe add a warning not to drink from it!"

Not much good if you've got small children who can't yet read but do like drinking from squeezy bottles, especially one just like mum or dad's. 

White spirit and the like are sold in child-proof bottles for good reasons, and they're the same good reasons there were public information campaigns in the 80s to stop people storing weedkiller in old drinks bottles. Evidently they're slipping out of public memory, so it's pretty irresponsible to make that suggestion on a website that any idiot can read. 

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NotNigel replied to Brauchsel | 1 month ago
0 likes

The way I'm reading it is that there won't actually be any degreaser stored in the bottle after use as you'd normally get rid of the dirty stuff.  The warning would be just not to use the bottle for drinking out of as even after it's been fully cleaned I'd guess there would still be the odour/taste of degreaser in the bottle.

Avatar
Brauchsel replied to NotNigel | 1 month ago
2 likes

It doesn't say anything about getting rid of the 200ml of white spirit, and specifically says you should fish the chain out with an old spoke. You wouldn't need to do that if you were draining the liquid away, and I can't be the only person who reuses white spirit after sieving out any big lumps of muck. But I store it in a bottle suitable for it, because I (usually) don't want to poison any of the kids cluttering up my house. 

Avatar
open_roads | 1 month ago
1 like

There's another way that for me at least works brilliantly:

1. slather the chain, cassette and chainrings in Peaty's drivetrain foam stuff (30 secs)

2. Rotate the pedals backwards and give everything a good scrub with a drivetrain brush (again, can recommend the peaty's angled one) - do all 4 sides of the chain and the jockey wheels (2 mins)

3. Rinse off (30 secs)

4. Bounce the bike a bit to shake off the water and then leave to dry for a bit

5. re-lube with what ever brand of lube you normally use then wipe off the excess.

This is much easier than faffing with chain cleaner devices / chains in bottles etc. in fact it takes so little time that actually bother to do it regularly now 😂

 

Avatar
john_smith replied to open_roads | 1 month ago
5 likes

Or just wipe the chain clean with a rag, oil it, and wipe the excess oil off.

Avatar
marmotte27 replied to john_smith | 1 month ago
1 like

The only sound words I've read on this page. (So are you not a t... after all? I'm getting confused...)

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