Why and how to clean your bike chain

(Photo: Pixabay)

No matter how much you enjoy riding your bike, cleaning it is likely not your favorite part of being a cyclist. But if you train so hard to bring your total wattage up, and if you invest a lot of money in aerodynamics, you can’t show up with a dirty bike chain. The value of a clean and well-maintained bike chain seems to be underestimated by some athletes, but it turns out to be worth your time to actually clean your bike regularly. Let’s look at why it’s so important to ride with a clean chain and sum up some tips on how to get your chain clean.

How much faster with a clean chain?

Nobody would be surprise to hear that you’re slightly faster with a clean chain than with a dirty chain, but what’s the exact difference? Given the amount of different types of chains, the level of dirtiness and other factors at play, it’s hard to come up with one exact number to answer this question. However, testing has showed us that with a power output of 250 watts, you would lose one to two percent when riding with a dirty chain. That difference arises because a dirty chain gives more friction. If you don’t clean your chain after a few outdoor rides, your chain could already be dirty enough to slow you down, even if it’s just a little.

This number of a one to two percent loss when cycling with a dirty chain is for when you have a “normal” level of dirtiness. The number could go up to three to five percent if you’ve ridden your bike on a muddy road.

Longer life span

If a lower power output doesn’t even convince you to clean your bike, then maybe this will: you will increase the life span of your chain, cassette, and chain ring by cleaning it regularly. When these parts remain dirty, they will wear off faster.

Cleaning a bike chain

That a clean chain is important is probably clear by now, but how do you clean your chain? Simply put, there are two options: you can clean the chain while it’s still on the bike, or you can choose to remove the chain and cassette in order to clean it thoroughly.

“Ultrasonic cleaner”

If you opt for the latter – taking all parts off the bike – you could make use of a so-called “ultrasonic cleaner“, which is basically like a fancy bath for your bike parts, or you could make your own cleaning machine by use some lukewarm water and degreaser. A bucket with some water will likely do the job for most athletes.

“Chain scrubber”

The easiest and most-used option to clean your chain and belonging parts, is while they are still on your bike. There are a few tools that can help you clean these well without taking the bike apart. Many athletes nowadays use a “chain scrubber”, which is a little and not too pricey machine that you put onto your chain. With the brushes and degreaser you can clean the chain very well if you run it through the machine a few times. You could turn your pedals twenty times to remove the first amount of dirt, then clean the machine and run the chain through it a few more times until it looks silver again.

A simple cloth

Then there is of course the good-old cloth that you can use to clean your chain, cassette, and chain ring. With this “method” you could put a cloth around the chain while also peddling, or you could just move it around the chain with your hands. Both with using a scrubber or a cloth, it’s good to also take the chain off the cassette and chain ring, so that you can reach these parts separately too. Be aware that your hands can get quite dirty while cleaning.

Remove degreaser and apply chain wax or oil

After cleaning the chain, it’s important to use a cloth to remove any degreaser that’s left. This is essential to do before the next step: applying chain wax or oil. If there is still some degreaser left on the chain, it won’t attach well. Another tip: if you ride with disc brakes, be careful not to spill any degreaser on those. Don’t forget about the last step, applying oil or wax, as this is important to keep the chain running smoothly and to protect it.

Finally: maintain your bike well by regularly cleaning it. Especially, make sure to not skip this necessary task after a rainy ride.