How to Clean a Bike Chain

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? Like a car, you can cause extensive damage, leading to poor performance and high costs of repair, if you aren't diligent with the maintenance and care of your bicycle. For example, one of the largest reasons bikes and bike chains wear out is dirt and grime that build up without cleaning and lubrication. This can affect the way the bike rides, lead to a shorter bike chain life, and require you to change the chain and other parts more frequently, costing you excess money.

Here's how to clean a bike chain, as well as some tips when using a bike chain cleaner.

The Figures

Each ride you take kicks up dirt and debris, and some of this is caught in your bicycle chain every time you ride. Not cleaning after a single ride can lead to a 1 or 2% 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. Eventually, you may find that 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 WD 40 bike 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, several 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 it with a new connection rivet, you're weakening the chain. If you 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 still easily remove KMC, SRAM, and Wipperman chains to clean and then reinstall the chains.

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 WD 40 bike 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.

While cleaning and lubing with bike grease 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 bike chain cleaner that claims to clean and lube at the same time. Those are too thin to 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 bike grease. 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 bike grease on the plates. This is bad for the road bike and can cause additional issues with efficiency, lifespan, and overall chain wear and tear. This makes the chain collect more dirt and filth, leading to quicker devaluation.
  • Take the time to lubricate every rivet. This will let you inspect each one carefully for chain 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 to get it on every joint and each link rather than hosing the chain down. This keeps the lubricant off parts you don't want to touch and also gets 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 ensure you're getting the most efficiency. (If you plan to adjust the bike pedals, make sure you know what you’re doing first!)
  • 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.
  • Bike chain cleaning will save tons of time and money, and it will keep your road bike in better condition between full tool cleanings (which are still recommended).

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 completely strip the chain of dirt, dust, and grime. Once the chain has been properly cleaned, you need to ensure 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. That way, you don't have to worry about the expense of having a factory-applied lubricant on 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. It's also cheaper since you won't replace bicycle parts as frequently. Bike chain cleaning helps the 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 vehicle, just like a car. So if you want performance and a long lifespan, care for the vehicle.