Bike chains are often a forgotten component of a bike. But despite this, they are one of the most important cogs in the machine, that is, if you want the wheels to keep turning! They can be quite the pain to clean properly, so we have put together a guide to help you keep your chain in tip top shape. Here’s a quick video tutorial that I think can also be super helpful:
How To Clean a Rusty Bike Chain
Rusting is a natural part of metals like iron or it’s alloys, which include steel. Bike chains are usually made from steel and so once exposed to oxygen and water, corrosion and rust begin to set in.
Your bike chain is connected to the foot pedals and so is needed if you ever want your bike to travel anywhere. Usually it is oiled/ lubricated to make it easy to go around, however, rust comes with the drying out of this lubricant.
If you’re wondering how to clean a rusty bike chain without removing it, here’s our quick guide:
Clean, Lubricate Regularly
Rusting is far easier to clean if you do little and often, rather than let the rust accumulate and have a much bigger job on your hands. Chances are, if there is too much rust accumulation, you would have to go to the bike shop for a new bike chain.
Stand next to the bike and lift up the rear of the bike.
Rotate the foot pedal backward with your free hand to move the chain through several rotations as you look for dirt, rust and grime.
Wipe off gunk, dirt and other stuff with a clean, dry cloth and brush out hard-to-reach dirt with a small bristle brush or toothbrush. You might need several different sized brushes to get into tight areas between side plates and center rollers of the chain.
Once dirt is removed, you can look for rust. Dampen a plastic or steel scouring pad with lime juice and scrub out surface rust spots from the chain.
Your Garden Hose is Your Friend
A high pressure water jet stream will really help get through crevices that you otherwise can’t. It’s a great way to finish off your quick chain clean too.
What To Use to Clean a Bike Chain
To help know what to clean a bike chain with, here’s a quick list:
- Rag/ Cloth
- WD-40 or other lubricant
How to Clean a Bike Chain with Household Products
Most bike chains, if not left unchecked for extended periods of time, can easily be cleaned with household products too.
Place the Bike on a Stand
It will make everything a lot easier if you have a stand at home, particularly a solid one, as this will make your job of cleaning and visual inspection of the bike a lot easier.
If you really don’t have a stand to use, you can flip your bike upside down and rest it on the floor so it is standing up via the handlebars and saddle.
Check the Bike Chain
If you notice that the chain is very grimy or dirty, or having a crust of environmental sludge, this is the indicator that it’s cleaning time.
My recommendation here is that if you are a regular cyclist, do this about once every week or two, or about every 200 miles ridden or so.
Take the Chain off the Bike
Slide the pin holding the link that’s closed out of its slot. This opens the master link, meaning you can now feed the chain through the drivetrain.
Soak Chain in a Degreaser
You can use a home mixed degreaser such as the following:
Mix half a cup of salt, a quarter cup of washing soda, and 16 ounces of baking soda in a bowl, then add a quarter cup of water to make a paste.
Spread the paste on the grease and let it set. Then combine three quarters of a cup of distilled vinegar, 10 drops of thyme essential oil, and 10 drops of lemon or orange essential oil in a spray bottle.
Now Add Lubricant Like WD-40
Once re-lubricated, you can reverse the steps to reattach your bike chain.
How to Clean a Bike Chain With WD-40
Before you use WD-40, rinse the bike chain off a degreaser. If you’re not sure what degreaser to use, I use the WD-40 Bike chain degreaser. Then simply use a can of regular WD-40, and spray across your bike chain.
How To Clean a Bike Chain Without Removing It
Sometimes cleaning a bike chain is possible without having to take it off the bike. This can be quite a time consuming task and some people prefer to not have to do this. The process is not so different, so let’s break it down here.
Clean / Lubricate Regularly
Dirt and grime are far easier to clean if you do little and often, rather than let it all accumulate and have a much bigger job on your hands. Chances are, if there is too dirt and grime accumulation, it will be a much longer cleaning job that will require the use of more of the product making it more expensive!
Stand next to the bike and lift up the rear of the bike.
Rotate the foot pedal backward with your free hand to move the chain through several rotations as you look for dirt, gunk and grime.
Wipe off gunk, dirt and other stuff with a clean, dry cloth and brush out hard-to-reach dirt with a small bristle brush or toothbrush.
You might need several different sized brushes to get into tight areas between side plates and center rollers of the chain.
Contrary to Some Internet Opinions, You Can Use Water
A high pressure water jet stream like your garden hose will really help get through crevices that you otherwise can’t. It’s a great way to finish off your quick chain clean too. However, excessive use of water could damage your bike in other ways, so be careful.
How to Clean Bike Chain and Gears
So we have already covered the chain, but what else is important to clean here? Your gears, and the rest of your drivetrain (if your bike has gears, of course). When you change gears, your bike chain drops down or lifts up onto another notch on the gearbox or derailleur.
Needless to say, it’s important that this runs well and a big part of that is keeping it clean, clear and well lubricated.
Spray Down With Degreaser
No need to remove from the bike - just get a sprayable degreaser and spray the derailleur. You don’t want to spray too much though, as too much might remove all grease (you need some). The same process applies on both the rear and the front derailleurs.
Clean out the Inside of the Cages
Get a small brush or toothbrush (make sure to not try to clean your teeth with the same brush afterwards), and scrape off the dirt that’s accumulated on the interior of the cages of your front and rear derailleurs.
If you want to get a good scrub on, you can remove the chain from the bike and then get some real elbow grease in, however, it’s not necessary to do this.
Clean off the Grime
If it’s been sometime since the last time you cleaned your derailleur out, you might find your jockey wheels caked in a layer of grime. If it’s thick enough, get a flathead screwdriver to help scrape off the layers, then use a cloth or rag to give it a wipe and clean down.
Inspect and then Oil/ Lubricate Your Jockey Wheels
Over time and use, the jockey wheels may need replacing, so take this time to have a look over them. They should have a blunt, flat-topped profile. If you see them having more spike style teeth, it’s time to replace them. If they are fine, give them a drink of oil (or a healthy spray of WD40).
Finally, Lubricate your Pivots
There are four pivots on the rear derailleur, and two on the front, that can benefit from occasional lubrication. If they get sticky it can lead to poor shifting.
This is particularly noticeable when moving down the cassette or into the small chainring. Give each a squirt of grease and shift the mech to help it sink in.
Your sprockets and chainrings don’t require any specific oiling as they receive sufficient lubrication from the chain as it runs through them. In fact, excessive amounts of oil will attract dirt and eventually wear them out quicker.
How to Clean a Dirt Bike Chain
When it comes to dirt bikes, you will know that it’s dirt bike by name, and dirty bike by nature. Therefore, it’s essentially that you clean the chain regularly.
Put Your Bike on a Sturdy, Secure Bike Stand or Mount
Then grab yourself a wire brush, a degreaser, and a lubricant (again, a spray like WD40 works wonders).
Use the Brush to Clean Out the Chain
Start by turning the rear wheel with one hand, whilst brushing away debris and other dirt or gunk.
Use Water Hose to Rinse out the Chain
A quick spray down will help get anything you haven’t already got to with the brush.
Use a Cloth or Old Rag to Wipe Down Chain Once Dry
Clean any dirt, gunk or sludge that’s left off with a rag.
Rinse and Repeat as Necessary
If this is not enough, just keep going as necessary.
Use Your Lubricant to Re-Lube Up
Spray through your bike chain with your WD40 or other chosen lubricant.
Quick note: Don't use a wire brush or degreaser with O-ring style chains.
How to Clean a Road Bike Chain
- Put your bike up on a stand.
- Grab a set of brushes, and use these to clean through the bike chain, rotating the rear wheel as you go.
- Once you have got the bulkier bits of dirt, grime and gunk out, use a hose to spray down the chain.
- Once dry, use a cloth or rag to manually clean any layers of dirt or grime left. Then re-lubricate your chain with a lube spray such as WD40 and you’re done!
How to Clean Your Mountain Bike Chain
- While slowly backpedaling the rear wheel, apply one drop of lube to each link (roller) in the chain until the entire chain has been coated.
- Let the bike sit for a couple of minutes so that the lube can do it’s work.
- Fold your clean cloth in half a few times to create a nice cushion, then hold it against your chain, again using the rear wheel to back pedal.
- Cycle the chain through several rotations, then change the angle from which the cloth is pressing into the chain and repeat.
- Repeat this until the gunk has been wiped off all sides of the chain and any excess lube is removed.
For more cycling tips, see 25 Cycling Tips for Cyclists. And if you're looking for a bike handlebar bag for your bike but haven't been able to decide yet, have a look at our comprehensive review of 15 best bike handlebar bags on the market and their customer reviews. Happy reading!