What you need to know about cleaning your bike chain

Bike chains lose their efficiency from grit which gets accumulated over time. So, if you want to make your expensive bicycle last longer and save money, cleaning your bike chain is important.

Jason Smith of Friction Facts, an independent testing facility explains how a bike’s efficiency gets reduced from a dirty chain.  “The numbers can vary based on the ‘dirtiness’ of the chain, but on average, testing shows a dirty road chain can decrease efficiency by about 3-5W (at 250W rider output) – about 1-2% of power loss,” he says. 

“For example, say a properly cleaned and lubed chain consumes about 7W. The light road grit kicked up from a couple of ‘clean’ road rides can cost an additional 3W of frictional losses.”

Smith also explained that figure goes up with the grit. “Riding on several road rides without cleaning or relubing can cost about 5W of losses. In extreme cases (MTB or cyclocross for example), we’ve seen a muddy chain add 12W of losses over baseline,” he says.

That being said, let’s dive into the main subject we will be discussing in this article — cleaning your bike chain. 


Cleaning your bike chain: On or off the bicycle?

Many cyclists ask whether the chain should be on or removed from the bike for cleaning. Modern bicycle chains have become more compact than before, so the old technique of removing a chain from the bike and rinsing in a container of degreaser is no longer possible.

Nowadays, the design of the bike chains depends on the brand and number of speeds the bike has. For instance, bicycles with 10-11 speed drivetrains, have chains are designed for a single go and needs to be replaced when worn out.

For bikes with older drivetrains with 8-9 speeds, the process differs from maker to maker. Chains on bikes made by SRAM, KMC, and Wipperman can be removed and re-installed. Whilst, Shimano, and Campagnolo insist the chains should stay on their bikes.


The bike chain can’t be removed? Here’s what you can do.

Image source: Park Tool


Bicycle maintenance product companies such as Muc-Off and Park Tool recommend cyclists use a chain-cleaning device to clean their chains. Chain-cleaning devices come with rotating brushes that spreads the degreaser all along the chain in a controlled way as pedalled backwards.

It’s also recommended that you use the Park Tool chain keeper in place of the rear cogs.

If your bike includes disc brakes, remove the wheel to ensure the oil-filled degreaser does not come in contact with the disc rotor. To make the cleaning process even better, use a plastic bag and an elastic band to seal the brake callipers.

After using a chain scrubber, with a degreaser, follow up with a second wash of warm soapy water. Using two different solvents flushes out any grit that is left. Always centralize your chain on the rear cassette when cleaning it to stop it coming off when pedalling backwards.

Using a chain-cleaning device is the best way to clean bikes chains if they’re unremovable. But bear in mind this means the chain can’t be submerged in a cleaning fluid.


A lubed dirty chain is still better than a dry dirty chain

There’s no excuse for having a dry chain. It doesn’t matter if it’s muddy or grimy, what’s important is that it’s well oiled.  Whether or not you’re using a chain-cleaning device, stiff bristled brush or even a dirty rag to clean your chain – you can still do it outdoors. After all, cleaning bike chains is a dirty job.

Don’t use harmful degreasers, gasoline, diesel, benzene, acetone or any harmful chemical to clean the chains. There are many safe and less harmful cleaners out there to get the job done.

After cleaning your bike chain, it’s essential to get the chain lubed again. Part of the total cleaning process is re-lubing. Choosing a high-efficiency chain lube is the easiest and least expensive way to decrease friction in a drivetrain.

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