How to Clean a Bicycle Chain Properly

People are often aware of the maintenance required to take care of a car, but what happens with a bicycle if you don’t handle the maintenance properly? Just like a car, you can cause extensive damage, leading to poor performance as well as high costs of repair, if you aren’t diligent with the maintenance and care of your bicycle. For example, one of the largest reasons that bikes and bike chains wear out is excessive dirt and grime from lack of cleaning and lubrication. This can really have an effect on the way the bike rides, lead to shorter life of the bike chain, and require you to change the chain and other parts more frequently, costing you excess money.

The Figures

Each ride you take kicks up dirt and debris, and some of this is caught in your bicycle chain each and every time you ride. A single ride after which you don’t clean the chain and allow the dirt and dust to remain on the chain can lead to a 1 to 2 percent loss in efficiency when you ride, causing you to work harder for less. While this can be bothersome, there are even further consequences, especially when you ride continuously without cleaning.

If a single ride can cause that sort of inefficiency, consider what riding over and over can do. You may find that, eventually, you’re looking at a 10 to 15 percent power loss based on the caked on dirt and debris. Even worse, your bike chain’s life could be cut in half, and you could end up having to replace other parts as well, such as the cassette, depending on how worn your chain becomes.

Should You Remove the Chain to Clean It?

In the past, it was common to remove the bicycle chain and simply shake it in a jar of degreaser, then replace it on the bike. This was acceptable and plenty efficient. Now, however, bicycle chains are made more precise, and with a growing number of gears and better technology, you’ll find this doesn’t do the trick anymore.

In fact, a number of bikes with 10 speeds and above are made specifically to go on the bicycle and not come off till it’s time to replace them. On top of that, every time you remove the chain and replace with a new connection rivet, you’re weakening the chain. If you do choose to remove your bicycle chain to clean it, be sure to use a new connecting link every time you replace the chain to avoid serious damage to the chain.

For reference, you can actually still easily remove KMC, SRAM, and Wipperman chains to clean them and then reinstall.

How to Clean the Chain on the Bike

Several companies will recommend that you use specific tools or a good bike tool kit for chain cleaning. The devices include rotating brushes to work the degreaser through the chain safely and effectively as you pedal it around. However, there are plenty of other options as well, though this will be the most effective and give you the longest

While cleaning and lubing are the best course of action before every ride, lubing over a dirty chain is better than not lubing at all. However, there are some caveats to this.

  • Don’t use a lubricant that claims to clean and lube at the same time. This is too thin to actually reduce friction as you ride and won’t leave the chain properly lubricated.

  • Use a high efficiency chain lube so that you can decrease friction in the drivetrain. This is the most cost effective and easiest solution to keeping your bicycle in good working order with less need for a chain change.

  • Never soak the chain in lubricant. In fact, if you can use less lube when oiling the chain, especially over a dirty chain, you’ll avoid caking on the lubricant to the point of causing more harm than good.

  • Don’t get lubricant on the plates. This is bad for the bike and can cause additional issues with efficiency, lifespan, and overall wear and tear. This makes the chain collect more dirt and filth, leading to quicker devaluation.

  • Take the time to lubricate each and every rivet. This will let you inspect each one carefully for damage, wear and tear. If you catch a weak link, you’ll be prepared and know that you need to replace the chain, and if you find bent and bowed rivets, the same is true.

  • Use a drip lube. This allows you to control the application so that you get it on every joint and each link rather than hosing the chain down. This keeps the lubricant off parts you don’t want it to touch and makes sure you get the entire chain.

  • For even better results, use a cleaning rag first. Run the chain through the cleaning rag, pedaling it forward, and then lubricate the chain. This is the best way to assure you’re getting the most efficiency.

  • After you lubricate the bicycle chain, you should wipe it down to remove any excess. This will help keep it cleaner, rather than gathering additional dirt that sticks or causing some of the lube to end up on other parts of the bike.

Taking the time to care for your bike chain in this fashion will save you a lot of time and money in the future, and it will help keep your bike in better working order between full cleanings with a tool, which are still highly recommended.

Can a Chain Be Too Clean?

While some riders believe you shouldn’t have a chain that is ‘too clean’, most experts agree that there is no such thing. In fact, some professionals use a solvent to complete strip the chain of dirt, dust, and grime. Of course, the important factor here is that, once the chain has been properly cleaned, you definitely need to assure it is properly lubricated to avoid rough riding, inefficiency, and greater harm to any bike parts, including the chain, cassette, gears, plates, and brakes.


A lot of people pervade the myth that factory applied lubricant outperforms aftermarket lube because it ‘gets deeper into the links’. However, numerous tests by professionals and bike chain manufacturers have proven otherwise. Therefore, you don’t have to worry about the expense of having a factory applied lubricant to your bike chain.

Instead, you can properly clean and lube your own chain with just a little effort. As you can see, there are more intricate and deep cleaning options, but all it takes is a few minutes before each ride, and you’ll have greater performance and efficiency when you ride. You’ll also have less of an expense, since you won’t be tasked with replacing parts of your bicycle as frequently. You can literally make your bike chain last twice as long by taking the time for proper maintenance. In addition, you’ll find that you’re not working as hard to get less output from your efforts.

Remember, your bicycle is a mechanical, working vehicle, just like a car. And just like a car, if you want performance and a long lifespan, you need to make sure to care for the vehicle.