Everything you ever wanted to know about cleaning your bike chain

Updated: Scrub that chain to save money and gain speed

Your bicycle chain will wear for various reasons, but the key accelerant is grit within that grinds away the metal. But while reducing wear through chain cleaning is certainly the factor that will save you money, you should also consider the efficiency that's lost through all that abrasive friction.

Jason Smith, of independent testing facility Friction Facts, confirms that there's a measureable amount of efficiency lost from a dirty chain. 

"The numbers can vary based on the ‘dirtiness’ of the chain, but on average, testing shows a dirty road chain can decrease efficiency by about 3-5W (at 250W rider output) – about 1-2% of power loss," he says. "For example, say a properly cleaned and lubed chain consumes about 7W. The light road grit kicked up from a couple of 'clean' road rides can cost an additional 3W of frictional losses."

Wear and lost speed, damn you dirty dirt
Wear and lost speed, damn you dirty dirt

Smith explains that number increases with the grit. “Riding on several road rides without cleaning or relubing can cost about 5W of losses. In extreme cases (MTB or cycloross for example), we’ve seen a muddy chain add 12W of losses over baseline.”

“When a chain is not properly cleaned and lubed, friction levels increase at the sliding surfaces of each chain link.  At 95RPM with a 53t front ring, 40,280 chain link articulations occur every minute (an articulation is a link bending into or out of a ring, cog, or pulleys) as the chain snakes through the drivetrain. Because of the high number of links constantly articulating, it is crucial to make sure the friction is minimized within the links.”  

So, following on from my articlewhere the topic of chain wear was tackled, let’s dive into the messy subject of how to clean a bicycle chain.

Bicycle chain cleaning: on or off the bike?

Reading through various how-tos and forums, everyone has a slightly different view on whether the chain should be on or off the bike for a thorough cleaning. 

With chains becoming more precise as further gears are added, our techniques for cleaning have had to adapt. Removing a chain from the bike and shaking it in a jar of degreaser used to be common practice, but not so much anymore.

Many modern chains aren't designed to be removed for cleaning
Many modern chains aren't designed to be removed for cleaning

Calvin Jones of Park Tool raises the point that this is dependent on the brand and number of speeds your bike has. For the majority of 10-11speed drivetrains, the chains are typically designed to go on once and then removed only once worn out.

“If the chain has a "connection rivet" (Shimano, FSA, Campagnolo, Miche) you invite creating a weak link every time you remove and install a new connection rivet. Even a master link is best left alone,” says Jones.

“The better master links of the 10- and 11-speeds 'click' into place, and taking it off and on and off and on removes this feature. Again you are creating a weak link. If the chain has been working, it has proven itself. Leave it alone until it wears out and needs to be replaced.”

For those with non-reusable links, both SRAM (10/11spd) and KMC (11spd) recommend using a brand-new joining link every time a chain is installed. However, many riders (myself included) re-use such ‘snap-lock’ links with success, despite that brands insist against it. If you do decide to take the risk, a pair of masterlink pliers is the perfect tool to force these free.

For older drivetrains, using seven, eight or nine speeds (or those with re-useable 10- or 11-speed links), then this may be open to more debate. Here, chains from KMC, SRAM and Wipperman can be easily removed from the bike and re-installed via the supplied quick-link. However, Shimano and Campagnolo still state the chains should stay on.

So mine has to stay on, now what?

The majority of bicycle maintenance product brands, including Park Tool and Muc-Off recommend the use of a chain-cleaning device. Here, the device includes rotating brushes that work the degreaser through the chain in a controlled manner as its back pedaled past. (My experience shows they're all pretty similar in function, although I tend to reach for my older Park Tool Cyclone (now CM-5.2) the most.)

Save your hub bearings, use a chain keeper
Save your hub bearings, use a chain keeper

Jones of Park Tool takes it a step further, and recommends the use of a ‘Dummy Hub’ (aka chain keeper) in place of the rear cogs. This is done specifically to avoid running degreaser through your freehub and rear hub bearings, and is common practice amongst WorldTour race mechanics too. A side benefit is easy access to the derailleur pulley wheels, a notorious spot for gunk to build.

If your bike has disc brakes, then removing the wheel will also ensure oil-filled degreaser stays off your disc rotor too. Taking it a step further, you can use a plastic bag and elastic band to seal your brake caliper.

“After using a chain scrubber, with a degreaser, follow up with a second wash of warm soapy water. Using two different solvents flushes out any grit that is left,” suggests Jones.

Charlotte Sampson from Muc-Off offers another handy tip. “Always centralise your chain on the rear cassette when cleaning it to stop it coming off when pedalling backwards,” she says.

Such chain cleaning devices make things easier, but they're not perfect
Such chain cleaning devices make things easier, but they're not perfect

Smith of Friction Facts agrees with Jones and Sampson that using a chain-cleaning device is the best answer if the chain must stay on. However, he warns of potential problems when doing so: “First, the chain cannot be submersed in cleaning fluid.”

The tension of the chain is another factor to be aware of, continues Smith. “Even though the tension is light (created by the rear derailleur cage spring), the positive tension does not allow the chain to go slack. A slacked chain opens up the sliding surfaces and allows cleaner to flow through the internals more freely than a tensed chain.”

Whether you use a stiff bristled brush, a chain cleaning device or the ugly sweater you got for Christmas, it’s best to do it outside. Chain cleaning is a dirty task, and doing it over carpet or indoor floors isn’t advised.

Jones also warns against using harmful degreasers, stating you shouldn’t use diesel, benzene, gasoline or acetone. There are plenty of safer and healthier options that will get your chain suitably clean.

This isn't an advised method
This isn't an advised method

And don’t be tempted to use a power washer as a chain cleaner – “unless you are ready to overhaul the bike at the same time,” cautions Jones – as these can strip the grease from your bearings if you point them in the wrong direction. 

What if you can remove the chain safely?

So you have a re-useable masterlink in your chain and don’t need to touch that chain breaking tool. You’re in the minority, but this means you can take that chain off and run it through a degreasing bath.

Using sound waves, an ultrasonic cleaner is one tool for the fussiest of riders
Using sound waves, an ultrasonic cleaner is one tool for the fussiest of riders

Jason Smith is all for cleaning chains off the bike. “We recommend removing the chain to properly clean it. A quick link such as the Wippermann Connex Link facilitates easy removal. The most effective method of cleaning is by placing the chain in a simple and inexpensive ultrasonic machine.“

“The ultrasonic agitation does a great job of removing dirt and grit from the internals of the links. If a ultrasonic cleaner is not available the chain can be placed in a sealed container with cleaner and shaken vigorously,” Smith suggested.

Personally, I recently bought an ultrasonic cleaner hoping to find a new holy grail. So far, using Simple Green in there has proven effective at getting the chain clean and most importantly, getting the stubborn grit out of the rollers. However, doing this on a filthy chain takes a number of five-minute cycles (or longer) before the chain is spotless. In less time, I can scrub the chain clean 95% as well and have it back on the bike.

If time were not important, I’d scrub the chain clean with a stiff bristled brush to bring back the exterior sparkle, then run it through the ultrasonic cleaner. Once done, rinse it with water and then air dry with compressed air. That said, not even my OCD requests that extra 5% cleanliness.

Whatever you do, don't leave your chain to soak for an extended period of time (days). There are some horror stories out there of degreaser corroding metal and causing surface cracks.

The lazy way to clean a bicycle chain

With that in mind – and after years of spending time fixing other people’s bikes – here’s what I do to my own to keep it turning over. I use chain lube and wipe it regularly with a clean, lint-free cloth.

Some lubes claim to be an all-in-one cleaner and lube. Personally, I find most of these too thin for proper lubrication over longer rides. Though the practice is the same with any lube – wipe off the excess before you ride.

Smith agrees with such practice, stating that it’s better to lube over a dirty chain, then not lube at all. 

It ain't pretty, but a lubed dirty chain is still more efficient than using a dry, dirty chain
It ain't pretty, but a lubed dirty chain is still more efficient than using a dry, dirty chain

“At a minimum, a rider should re-lube the chain prior to every ride, even if they are re-lubing over a dirty chain. For efficiency, It’s better to re-lube over a dirty chain than do nothing at all,” suggests Smith.

If you follow up this advice with running the chain through a clean rag, you’ll surely be staying on top of many dirty chain woes.

Prevention is perhaps the best thing in order to be lazy. Jones suggests – “First, use less oil as you lubricate.  Don't soak a chain in lube. Use a drip lube and put a drop along each joint, each link across the roller. Hosing your chain with spray certainly gets lube there as well, but it also gets it all over side plates, making the chain a dirt collector.

“It takes more time to lube each and every rivet but it also lets you inspect each one, and that will help you catch that "weak link" of a burred, bowed or bent side plate, a mis-pressed rivet and a tight link,” Jones adds.

Perhaps the laziest way to clean a filthy chain is just to replace it. Here, Jones offers the simple advice to measure for chain wear before each cleaning – there's no point wasting time on a worn chain.

Once my chain is showing signs of wear, I’ll pull the old cassette and cranks off the bike and give them a proper cleaning in a parts washer. Doing this provides a nice welcome for a fresh chain.

Can a chain be too clean?

Some people believe that cleaning a chain too much removes hard-to-replace factory lubrication from within the rollers. While it is important to ensure a chain is correctly lubricated, there’s little risk of a chain being too clean.

“We don’t feel a chain can ever be too clean, as long as it’s properly lubed after cleaning,” reports Smith. “In fact, when Friction Facts was in the business of treating chains (the UltraFast Optimization process process acquired by CeramicSpeed) we stripped the chain completely using heavy solvents. The goal was to achieve a bare metal surface, prior to the lubrication treatment.”

We ask Jones the same question, for which his reply is simply – “No, but at some point you are cleaning just for the fun of it.”

Once the chain is clean, Smith warns not to wait too long after cleaning before applying lube. “This minimizes oxidation of a dry chain.”

So what about the lube itself? Are factory-applied ones superior?

“We’ve debunked the claim that aftermarket lubes can’t get as deep into the chain as factory-applied lubes,” says Smith. “Based on the friction decay seen during testing, it takes one minute or less for a drip lube to fully penetrate the internals of a rotating chain.”

Chain lube efficiency testing at Friction Facts
Chain lube efficiency testing at Friction Facts

Smith says he’s done many tests on chains with factory lubes and aftermarket ones. “Some factory lubes are faster than other factory lubes, and we’ve even seen a 5W swing between the fastest and slowest aftermarket lubes. However, in no case have we ever seen a factory lube outperform the fastest aftermarket lubes,” he goes on.

My opinion of the matter perhaps falls on the lazy mechanic side. I keep the chain ‘stock’ with its lube and run it until dry or dirty. The exception here is if I (or a customer in past) were using a wax-based lube that won’t play nicely with the stock formula, in this case, I’d strip the chain of its original lube before installing with the desired lubricant.

Alright, so it’s clean. Now what?

If you decide to keep your chain clean, just remember to lube it afterward
If you decide to keep your chain clean, just remember to lube it afterward

“Part of the total cleaning process is re-lubing. Choosing a high-efficiency chain lube is the easiest and least expensive way to decrease friction in a drivetrain,” tells Smith.

According to Smith’s testing, there’s up to a 5W difference between the top and lowest performing drip lubes. “Some of the top performing drip lubes we’ve tested are Squirt Lube, Lilly Lube, Rock-N-Roll Extreme, and Morgan Blue Rolls Pro. Paraffin wax blends (such as Molten Speed Wax) are generally faster than drip lubes, but the application is more complex. As an option, a few companies are now providing paraffin wax optimized chains, ready to go.”

David Rome

Former Editor, Australia
Dave was the editor of BikeRadar Australia until early 2016.
  • Discipline: Mountain, road and cyclocross
  • Preferred Terrain: Fast and flowing singletrack with the occasional air is the dream. Also happy chasing tarmac bends.
  • Current Bikes: Trek Fuel EX 27.5, SwiftCarbon Detritovore, Salsa Chilli Con Crosso
  • Dream Bike: Custom Independent Fabrications titanium, SRAM Etap and Enve wheels/cockpit
  • Beer of Choice: Gin & tonic
  • Location: Sydney, Australia

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