Cleaning Bicycle Chains: How to Do it Right

Cleaning Bicycle Chains: How to Do it Right

Your bicycle chain is a gunk covered black mess, isn’t it? Well, admitting you have a problem is the first step to solving it, right?

Read on for three methods of chain cleaning that will deliver results in order of good, better, best. For the impatient among you, here’s the skinny: method one involves a rag, degreaser, and your hand, method two requires degreaser and a click together chain cleaning tool from a bicycle tool supplier, and method three requires you to get two (wide mouth preferably) empty Gatorade bottles and a bottle of Turpentine and a bottle of Methylated spirits.

For those zen, inquisitive folks who’ve made it this far read on for the blow by blow of each method.

First Method - Pinch and Pray

For the pinch and pray method of chain cleaning you will need a (preferably cotton) rag, and bicycle degreaser.

Rags come from your stretched-out-undies drawer (stay away from old bed sheets - they leave strings in your jockey wheels) , Bicycle degreaser you can get from a bike shop. Lean your bicycle against a wall making sure you can back pedal the bike with your hand without the other pedal hitting the wall.
Soak a donut-sized patch of rag in degreaser and pinch the chain and the degreaser-y patch between your fingers. Rotate the chain backwards through the pinched rag. Repeat this with new, virgin sections of rag until there is markedly less black gunk coming off the chain onto the rag.
High five the nearest person or dog because you’ve just degreased your chain. Well, you’ve degreased the outside and prayed that you cleaned at least some of the inside of the chain - pinch and pray!

Method Two - Messy But Effective

Method Two is messier than the first but is more effective at cleaning inside of your chain.

You will need a chain cleaner tool from a bicycle tool supplier like Parktool, Muc-Off, or Pedros. These are plastic contraptions with brushes inside them which you fill with degreaser, attach around your chain, and backpedal the chain through.

Once finished, unclip and remove the cleaner. Then wash your chain down with a garden hose, also while back pedaling. Unlike the Pinch and Pray, this method cleans more effectively, particularly the the inside of the links and pins and rollers of the chain. Which, arguably, is the real point of cleaning your chain at all.

A downside of click together cleaners is that, being plastic, they are prone to cracking and leaking foul fluids on you. Parktool does make a ‘pro’ one out of metal but you might balk at the price. Another issue is that even when new they have a habit of spattering gunk-laden degreaser on unintended targets, like your shoes. I don’t care what the marketing material says they are all messier than a toddler with a tin of open paint.

Method Three - The Big Guns

Method three calls for the big guns: Turpentine and Methylated spirits.

This method requires two empty wide-mouthed Gatorade bottles, two 1L bottles of Turps and Metho, some quick link pliers, a fresh quick link, potentially a chain tool if your chain wasn’t connected by quick link, and maybe an ultrasonic cleaner if you really want to go ham.
First, break and remove the chain either with a chain tool or by removing the quick link with quick link pliers.

Drop said chain into your Gatoriade bottle with the 200ml of Turps. Soak for two minutes then shake it in the bottle for two minutes. Repeat, using fresh Turps, 4 times. When the fresh Turps is no longer turning black it's time for the Metho.

Do the same as above but this time with Metho in the second Gatorade bottle. Remove the chain from the final Metho bath, dry (compressed air is great or a lint free towel), and then lubricate or hot melt wax the chain.
Now all you have to do is reinstall on bike with a brand new quick link (old quick links broadly speaking shouldn’t be reused).
So there it is. Three chain cleaning methods in ascending order of effectiveness and effort. Pick one or try them all. See you if you can stay clean.

PS: Many of you have probably already pieced this together but if your bike’s cogs, chain rings and jockey wheels are filthy, a spotless chain is less than half the battle. More on this in future posts. There is also the not so simple matter of choosing a lube and re-lubricating your chain which will be covered in future posts

A note on ultrasonic cleaners:  

An ultrasonic cleaner can be used in lieu of the Turps step. We run used or brand new chains (when removing factory grease for for waxing) in our cleaner for successive 20 minute cycles, refreshing the fluid each time. The fluid comes from our leased parts washer.

Which ultrasonic cleaner will do the job is a hotly debated topic but broadly, the more expensive the better. The one pictured below was around $1200 and it works well for us. Temperature and frequency are the key factors to a powerful USC

Ultrasonic Bicycle Chain Cleaner

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