Keeping your chain in good condition will help keep your drivetrain running smoothly and make your components last longer. If left dirty, all that grime on your chain will create a pretty strong grinding paste, causing premature wear, poor shifting and to some extent reduced efficiency. In this guide I’ll show you how to clean your chain without having to remove it from your bike.
Quick but Effective Method
There are numerous ways of cleaning your chain, but I’ve found the quickest and one of the most effective ways is to use a chain cleaning bath/tool. These basically consist of a plastic container or ‘bath’ that wraps around your chain and holds a small amount of degreaser.
Inside the container will be a series of rotating brushes, as you spin the cranks these brushes will scrub the chain clean. Combined with a good, preferably environmentally friendly degreaser, this can be a very effective way of getting your chain relatively clean.
How to use a chain cleaning bath
Although chain cleaning baths vary slightly in design they all follow the same principle shown below:
- Fill chain cleaning bath with degreaser up to the maximum line
- Open bath container and sandwich the lower section of the chain between the top and bottom parts of the chain cleaner
- Close the chain cleaner and secure it using provided hook
- Hold the chain cleaner steady with your left hand, while rotating the cranks clockwise for several revolutions
Depending on how dirty your chain is, you may need to repeat the above process 2 or 3 times, replacing the degreaser each time with clean solution to get the chain completely clean.
Which Chain Cleaning Tool should I use?
There are many different chain cleaning tools on the market catering for all budgets. However, even the cheaper options can produce some excellent results.
Below are some of the more popular models available:
Other Chain Cleaning Products worth considering
As well as chain cleaning baths there are other products available which allow you to clean your chain on your bike. I have personally used the Fenwicks Chain Cleaning Sponge and Foam Cleaner. Together these products will give your chain a quick but relatively effective clean with less mess leakage/mess than a chain cleaning bath. However, it will not be as effective as the aforementioned device.
How often should you clean your chain?
Depending on how much riding you do and where you ride, will determine how often you need to clean your chain. For instance, someone who only rides 25 miles per week may only need to clean their chain once a month, whereas someone who rides 100 miles a week will likely need to do it every week.
Also, if you ride in a country with a relatively wet climate, like here in the U.K, your chain is likely to get dirtier more quickly, than if you live in a drier country. This is where a chain cleaning bath can really help you maintain a good chain cleaning routine. If your chain is completely black, this means the chain lube is effectively contaminated and is definitely time to give it a clean.
Which Chain Degreaser should I use?
Most cyclists would be tempted to just use household cleaners such as White Spirit or Petrol to clean their drivetrain. However, these chemicals are bad for the environment, give off toxic vapours, extremely flammable and are generally less effective. For these reasons I would recommend using a dedicated bike/chain degreaser, which is bio-degradeable and non-toxic.
There are many of these products available, however the best and most economical degreaser I’ve used is the Fenwicks FS-1 Bike Cleaner. This solution can be used neat as a chain/drivetrain cleaner or diluted and used as a general bike cleaner which is safe to use on all types of anodised, painted, plastic and rubber surfaces.
It’s also possible to re-use some of the cleaner from your chain cleaning bath by leaving the solution to rest overnight. This lets all the heavier particles settle to the bottom allowing you to pour off and re-use the clearer solution above. By doing this you save money and help the environment.
How to clean the rest of your Drivetrain
Although keeping your chain clean is good practice, if the rest of your drivetrain is dirty it will eventually contaminate your chain. The easiest way of cleaning your cassette and chainrings is to spray on some drivetrain degreaser, loosen the dirt with some brushes and then rinse off. Bike-specific brushes can really help get the dirt out of all the little nooks and crannies and in between cogs. I’ve also had pretty good results using bike floss ropes which allow you to easily scrub in between the cassette cogs.
When should you replace your chain?
Eventually after prolonged use your chain will begin to stretch. It’s recommended to replace your chain when it’s stretched by 0.75% or more, as this can cause premature wear on the rest of your drivetrain. The easiest way to check this is with a chain measuring tool. This simple device has markings for 0.75% stretch and if the tip of the tool drops into the chain link then the chain will need replacing. The tool may also have a marking for 1% stretch. If your chain has stretched this much it’s recommended to replace your cassette as well.
The reason an overly stretched chain can cause premature wear to your drivetrain is because the chain’s rollers will sit higher up on your cogs teeth. This puts extra stress/load on the teeth, eventually wearing them into a shark-fin like shape. At this point you will start to experience poor shifting and possibly random chain derailment. Also replacing a chain as soon as it reaches 0.75% stretch is much cheaper than having to replace your cassette and/or chainrings.
When you come to buy your new chain obviously you need to check it’s compatible with your setup. If you have a 9-speed cassette (9 cogs) , then you need a 9-speed chain and the same logic applies for 10, 11 and 12 speed drivetrains. Also, most brands of chain will be compatible with other brands of drivetrain. Generally, any chain from Shimano, SRAM or KMC will be good quality and work well with your setup. Personally I like KMC chains as I find their quick-link easy to use.