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How to Clean a Bicycle Chain

January 17, 2024

Cleaning a bicycle chain is not only for visual appeal; it also plays a crucial role in maintaining the smooth operation and performance of your bike, helping it function at its best. Regular and proper cleaning of the bicycle chain can prevent stubborn oil stains, ultimately extending the lifespan of the chain.

The primary cause of bicycle chain wear is friction generated between sand, gravel, and the links of the chain. To minimize wear and tear on your bike, it's essential to clean the chain regularly. This practice can save you the cost of replacing chains, cassettes, and chainrings.

Studies conducted by independent testing institutions confirm that a dirty chain significantly reduces a bike's performance. Depending on the level of dirtiness, a rider outputting 250 watts with a dirty chain may experience an increase of approximately 3 to 5 watts in power loss, totaling around 1% to 2%. Proper cleaning and lubrication of the chain reduce friction, with a clean and well-lubricated chain consuming only about 7 watts of power during a ride. However, a dirty chain can add an extra 3 watts of power loss, increasing with the degree of dirtiness and potentially reaching up to 12 watts in extreme cases.

It is widely known that the quickest way to clean a chain is to replace it, especially if the chain is significantly worn. When signs of dirt and wear appear, it's recommended to remove the old chain from the bike and clean it using appropriate cleaning tools.

Should You Remove the Bicycle Chain for Cleaning?

There is a considerable debate among cyclists regarding whether the chain should be removed for cleaning. In the past, it was common for cyclists to remove the chain, soak it in a container filled with cleaning solution, and shake it. However, this practice is less common now due to the increasing complexity of drivetrain components with multiple gear ratios.

The durability of quick links (magic links) used in 7-speed, 8-speed, and 9-speed chains typically supports disassembly and reassembly two to three times. On the other hand, 10-speed, 11-speed, and 12-speed chains often use one-time-use quick links that can wear out with repeated disassembly. Manufacturers generally recommend using a new quick link each time the chain is installed.

Choosing a Chain Cleaning Device

The most effective way to clean a chain is by removing it and placing it in an ultrasonic cleaning machine for about five minutes. This method can remove even stubborn stains effectively. If you don't have an ultrasonic cleaning machine, using a stiff brush to assist in cleaning the bicycle chain and then performing a secondary cleaning with a chain cleaning device can achieve similar results. Afterward, rinse with water and let it air dry. This process will leave you with a practically new chain. However, it's crucial not to let the chain soak in the cleaning solution for an extended period, as it may corrode the metal parts.

If you don't own an ultrasonic cleaning machine, cleaning the chain with a brush can still yield satisfactory results. Clean chains contribute to faster riding speeds.

Various brands, including Park Tool, Muc-off, and Shimano, produce chain cleaning devices that are convenient for cyclists. These products are functionally similar, with only slight differences in quality. For casual cyclists, using regular dish brushes, old toothbrushes, or even toilet brushes for chain cleaning is sufficient. However, it's crucial to avoid using wire brushes that may damage the chain.

Regardless of whether you use a stiff brush, a rag, or an ultrasonic machine for chain cleaning, it's recommended to perform the cleaning outdoors to avoid making a mess indoors. Avoid using solvents containing diesel, benzene, gasoline, or acetone, and opt for environmentally safe products.

If your bicycle has disc brakes, be cautious not to let oil splatter onto the brake disc. To prevent this, you can remove the rear wheel during chain cleaning and cover the brake caliper with a plastic bag.

Chain Lubrication: OEM Oil vs. High-End Chain Oil

Before every cycling session, it's essential to lubricate the chain for optimal efficiency, even if the chain is in a very dirty state.

Choosing an efficient chain oil is a simple and cost-effective way to reduce friction in the drivetrain. Experiments have shown that different brands and models of chain oils can have up to a 5-watt power loss difference. While the lubrication performance of OEM chain oils may not match the highest-grade retail chain oils, some budget chain oils may even perform worse than the factory-supplied lubricant. Brands like Squirt, Lilly, Rock-N-Roll Extreme, and Morgan Blue Rolls Pro offer excellent performance in terms of chain oil.

Some chain oil brands claim to be revolutionary products that combine lubrication and cleaning. However, after extended long-distance rides, there is often little difference in the effectiveness of various chain oils. It's advisable to choose a chain oil based on personal preferences and experiences.

Metal Cleaner vs. Professional Chain Cleaner

Both regular metal cleaners and chain cleaners produced by professional brands can effectively complete the cleaning task. In general, metal cleaners purchased from grocery or hardware stores are sufficient.

Some cyclists believe that most chain cleaners on the market are too aggressive, removing not only dirt but also the internal lubricant of the chain. This could potentially shorten the lifespan of the bicycle chain from the usual 3000-4000km to 2500km. However, studies show that it takes only one minute for chain oil to penetrate the surface and fully saturate the interior of the chain.

There is a wide variety of cleaners available on the market with different prices and scents. Cyclists can compare products, seek advice from mechanics or other cyclists, and choose the one that suits them best.

Lazy Cleaning Method for Bicycle Chains

1. Clean the Cassette: Shift the chain onto one end of the cassette, apply a sufficient amount of chain cleaner, and brush all the gears clean. Move the chain to the other end of the cassette and clean the remaining gears.

2. Clean the Chainrings: After cleaning the cassette, move on to cleaning the chainrings. It's advisable to remove the chain from the chainrings and clean them separately. Similar to cleaning the cassette, apply a generous amount of chain cleaner on a brush and scrub the chainrings clean.

3. Clean the Derailleur Pulleys: Don't forget to clean the derailleur pulleys during chain cleaning. This area tends to accumulate dirt over time, so thorough cleaning is essential. Occasionally, add a drop of chain oil here for lubrication, ensuring smooth operation.

4. Clean the Chain: With the bike on a stand, rotate the pedals and apply chain cleaner using a brush while the chain is on the large chainring. Continue until the chain is clean.

5. Gently Rinse with Water: After cleaning the entire drivetrain, rinse with water to remove any remaining debris. Avoid using a high-pressure water jet, as it may damage the bike's drivetrain.

Once you've completed these steps, your chain is now clean. However, the process is not complete yet. Wipe off any water on the chain or use a blow dryer to ensure it's completely dry. Then, apply a new layer of chain oil.

Professional Cycling Teams, Bicycle Technicians, Bike Maintenance, and Cleaning

In conclusion, regular cleaning and maintenance of your bicycle chain are essential for optimal performance and longevity. Whether you choose to perform a deep cleaning with specialized tools or opt for a quicker routine cleaning

, the key is to keep your chain clean, well-lubricated, and free from excessive wear. Regular inspection and lubrication during routine rides can also help detect and address issues promptly.

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