According to Friction Facts, a dirty bike chain (on a bike used mostly on the road) sees up to 2 percent power loss. Not only is a dirty chain less efficient, but it also wears out faster, necessitating replacement sooner. Cleaning your kid’s bike chain (or your bike’s chain) gets crud and road grit out of the nooks and crannies, making it more efficient and increasing its durability.
Related: How to Clean and Degrease a Kid’s Bike
Not everyone agrees on whether lubing a bike chain is a good idea or not. Fortunately, there’s an alternative strategy: immersing the chain in hot wax and waiting for it to cool and then re-installing the chain.
In this how to clean and lube a bike chain tutorial, I describe 4 effective bike chain cleaning methods so that you can handle the task like an experienced bike mechanic.
Benefits of Cleaning a Bike Chain
When you let road grit, chain and sprocket wear metal dust, and the extremely hard and grind-y aluminum oxide that comes from the chainrings build up, your chain won’t work super efficiently thanks to increased frictional loses.
Failure to clean and lube a bike chain causes an increase in the amount of friction happening in each chain link. Each chain link has surfaces that slide against each other, and if there’s no lubricant at the contact point, friction increases.
After testing dirty road chains, Friction Facts found that dirt decreases rider output by between 1.2 and 2 percent. If for example your output was 250 watts and you road bike a couple of times without cleaning up the grit, you’re looking at a power loss of 3-5 watts.
And if your kiddo does tons of mountain biking in wet and muddy conditions, that muddy mountain bike chain can decrease rider output by up to 4.8 percent or 12 watts (assuming rider output of 250 watts).
Also, a grunge and crud-packed chain won’t last very long. You’ll end up replacing the chain sooner than you’d have had you treated the chain better. And the best bike chains aren’t the cheapest thing out there.
But when you form the good habit of cleaning and lubing (or waxing for those opposed to lubing), your bike’s drivetrain runs like a well-oiled machine. Because that’s what the chain becomes with proper care and maintenance.
Additionally, keeping a bike chain clean allows for better shifting and improves how the drivetrain works.
What’s the Best Way to Clean a Bike Chain?
Cleaning a bike chain isn’t rocket science, but if one thing stirs controversy within the biking community, it is how best to clean a bike chain.
Whether to lube the chain after cleaning causes even more for and against arguments. I’ve seen a bunch of bitter and aggressive comments from some who don’t value courtesy that much. You don’t have to agree with everything I say in this post, but I do expect you to respond calmly even if you disagree.
Bicyclists have different ways of cleaning the chain on their bike. But pretty much everyone agrees that the best way to clean a bike chain is to first remove it from the bike and then soak the chain in a proper degreasing solvent. Citrus-based degreasing solvents are the best options. Why? Because citrus-based solvents aren’t as toxic as others, plus they don’t cause as much harm to the environment. What’s more, citrus-based degreasers aren’t as stinky as non-citrus choices. After you degrease the bike chain, the next thing to do is rinse it with clean water.
You can also clean a bike chain without removing it from the drivetrain if you’re willing to invest in a good mechanical chain cleaner or an ultrasonic cleaner. In fact, these two bicycle chain cleaning methods work very well.
A good bike-specific degreaser easily cuts through the grime and oily mess that builds up on bike chains.
Different Bike Chain Cleaning Methods
We did agree that there isn’t only one correct way to clean a dirty bike chain. I’m about to describe what I’ve learned and tried (to various degrees of success) over the years.
Method #1: The Pepsi Bottle Method (Use a Coke Bottle If You Like)
I don’t want to get into any kind of Coke vs Pepsi war here, but I prefer using a Pepsi bottle and I’ll tell you why. Pepsi makes plastic bottles that have a wider mouth compared to Coke bottles. In my experience, the best bottle for the job measures at least 2 inches across the mouth.
To clean your kid’s bike chain using the Pepsi Bottle Method, follow the steps below:
Step #1: Remove the dirty chain from the bike. While it’s possible to clean the chain without taking it off, most bike riders prefer getting it out.
Step #2: Pour several ounces of any professional-quality citrus-based degreasing solvent into a plastic Pepsi bottle.
Step #3: Drop the soiled chain into the bottle so that it soaks in the solvent. I forgot to tell you that you shouldn’t dilute the solvent at all. Then, put on the cap.
Step #4: Give the bottle a few shakes to make sure that the solvent spreads into the spaces that need it. This is a 5-minute process BTW. At least, that’s how I do it, and it works each time.
Step #5: Open the bottle and dip a bike spoke to get the cleaned bike chain out. A bike spoke has a hook that makes this task simple to handle.
Step #6: Give the now clean chain in cold water and that’s the end of the cleaning process.
For those in the Coca-cola camp, chances are that you’ll end up cutting the bottle somewhere below the mouth to remove the chain. But it’s a plastic bottle, so it’s nothing to worry about.
Method #2: Use a Toothbrush & a Parts Cleaning Tank
In this method, you get the chain off the bike and dip it into a parts cleaning tank. Add in a decent amount of a citrus-based solvent and let the chain soak for about 10 minutes. The solvent loosens up chain crud and grunge, making it easier to clean with a toothbrush.
Simply brush the filth out and rinse the chain in cold water and that’s it. This method works well, but it’s not as quick and convenient as method #1 above.
Method #3: Chain-on-the-bike Cleaning Method (Use a Chain Scrubber)
In this bike chain cleaning method, you don’t need to take the chain off the bike to clean it. You need to use a good on-the-bike chain cleaning device. I have the Park Tool’s CM 5.3 Cyclone Chain Scrubber, and it works really well.
If you’d rather watch a pro doing it rather than read, below is a video that describes the correct way of cleaning and lubing a bike chain. It’s a Park Tool video, and doesn’t everyone love the videos Park Tool keeps putting out?
You can’t buy the Cyclone 5.2 anymore because Park Tool decided to discontinue its production. But the 5.3 model is the better bet since you can use it to clean regular kids’ and adults’ bikes as well as electric bikes. The discontinued Cyclone 5.2 doesn’t work for e-bikes at all.
Wondering if you should really spend that $25 on a chain cleaner? Well, you don’t really need to buy a chain cleaning machine. However, degriming a bike chain using a cleaner typically works better than a manual clean. Also, using a cleaner makes for a less messy clean, and this is one reason many bicyclists invest in this tool.
How Does a Chain Scrubber Work?
A chain scrubber such as the Cyclone 5.3 from Park Tool comes with a decent-sized solvent reservoir that holds about 2 ounces of this cleansing agent. The cleaning work is done by a bunch of rotating brushes found inside the machine.
There’s a magnet at the bottom of the scrubber, and its job is to pull the metal particles coming from the chain scrubbing process. This same magnetic force keeps the metal particles it captures from redistributing onto the chain.
Another useful part of the cleaner is the spongy material inside that gets the solvent from the chain as it leaves the cleaning cyclone. This sponging action helps minimize drips and mess so you can a nice and clean chain coming out of the locking clips. The Cyclone 5.3 ParkTool handles well thanks to its ergonomic design.
You want to clean the chain scrubber using soap and water once you’re done degreasing the chain.
How to Clean a Bike Chain With a Cleaning Device
One great reason to do a chain-on-the-bike clean is that this cleaning technique helps spin the rollers of the chain while flexing the chain links.
You need the following items to complete this task: Ribber gloves, bike repair stand, dummy hub (optional), rags, soap, clean water, solvent, chain cleaner, apron, and a grimy chain that needs cleaning.
If you doing the job outside, consider wetting surface to make the after-job cleanup of grease and other oily filth easier. And if handling the task indoors in the garage, put a few rugs around the working area to protect the floor.
Step #1: Inspect the chain you’re about to degrease to make sure it’s not worn out. If the chain is too worn out, the best thing is to repair it or replace it. When the internal parts of a chain (the rivets and rollers) wear out, that makes it appear like the chain is stretchy.
A worn bike chain tends to lead to poor shifting, the cogs wearing out too soon, and skipping over the cogs. And because chain replacement costs less than cog replacement, it’s best to replace the chain once the signs of wear become evident.
If the chain is still in good condition, proceed to step 2. Watch this video to learn how to know it’s time to replace a bike chain.
Step #2:Mount the Bike on a Bike Repair Stand…
And follow the steps below to complete the clean:
- Grab the bike and put it in a bike repair stand.
- Rotate the bike to make the lower side of the chain is parallel to the ground.
- Work the shifting mechanism to engage the smallest rear cog and the smallest front cog.
- You can skip this step if you don’t have a dummy hub. If you have a dummy hub, take the rear wheel off and install the dummy hub. But what does a dummy hub do? A dummy hub helps keep the chain slacker while also making sure the loosened contaminants stay out of the wheel and its components. If you want to degrime the chain only, you can put it on a dummy drivetrain, clean it, and return it to the bike after the fact.
- Grab the chain scrubber to the lower section of the chain and be sure that the chain completely seats into the scrubbing brushes.
- Click into place the clips on either side of the chain cleaner to keep the setup nice and tightly held.
- Add in the degreasing solvent all the way up to the fill line.
- Holding the chain scrubber by the handle, start pedaling backward and keep going until you’ve done about 30 revolutions.
- Detach the chain cleaner and pour out the solvent into a container. If you let the impurities in the used solvent settle, it might be possible to reuse the solvent on the top. Find ways to dispose of the rest of the contaminated solvent. You certainly don’t want the used chain degreaser to contaminate your home’s water supply.
- Rinse out the chain cleaner with clean water.
- Fill the unit with soapy water and reattach it to the chain.
- Run the chain through the cleaner as many times as it takes for the chain to be thoroughly rinsed.
- Use rags and a brush to clean the other parts of the drivetrain such as the sprockets, chainrings, crank-set, and derailleur. Park Tool provides a special brush for cleaning the sprockets. One end of this tool is a brush while the other end has teeth that help get grunge out of the spaces between the cogs.
- Use a clean dry rag to wipe off the chain.
- Use an air compressor to dry off the chain and if you don’t have a compressor, leave the bike out in the sun to dry off.
- Lube up the dried bike chain using a good quality lubricant such as CL-1. A drip-type lubricant is preferable to a spray-type lube. Back pedal to help spread the lube evenly and wipe off any excess with a clean dry rag.
Method #4: Use an Ultrasonic Bike Chain Cleaner (Best Way to Deep-clean a Bike Chain)
When you want to deep-clean a bike chain, the best way to do this is to give it an ultrasonic bath. You’ll need to invest in a good ultrasonic cleaner, which makes this method the most expensive approach. You’re looking at spending between $60 and $100 for a decent cleaner, and I did notice that the price keeps changing.
When you turn this machine on, it generates high-frequency sound waves that in turn create tiny bubbles. These little bubbles agitate or cause consistent vibrations to whichever liquid you put have in the bath.
These agitations and vibrations lead to high amounts of pressure. It’s this pressure that helps dislodge dirt hiding in the chain’s hard-to-reach cracks and crannies.
This method also gets out the dirt and grime from the surface of the chain and cassette. But I suggest you remove any visible filth using a clean rag and a solvent before putting the components into the ultrasonic cleaner.
Other Uses of Ultrasonic Bicycle Chain Cleaners
BTW, lab folks such as organic biologists and chemists use ultrasonic cleaners to clean all kinds of things including lab equipment during scientific research. Scientists also use this tool to dissolve different kinds of solids into solvents for certain types of chemical reactions. This tool is also used when cleaning various kinds of precious jewelry.
How to Use an Ultrasonic Cleaner to Clean a Bike Chain
Watch this video and learn how to correctly clean a greasy bike chain using an ultrasonic cleaner.
- Wear rubber gloves.
- Get the chain and cassette out of the bike’s drivetrain. Yes, it does involve quite a bit of work.
- Put the chain and cassette in the mesh box with metal handles and lower the box into the cleansing bath below. The handles of the box-like structure rest upon the top of opposite sides of the machine’s degreasing chamber.
- Pour in an environmentally friendly cleanser such as a biodegreaser. Alternatively, you can use water mixed with a few drops of dishwashing soap.
- Select a cleaning duration, say 5 or 10 minutes, and wait until the cycle completes.
- Get the cassette and chain out of the ultrasonic cleaner and give them a look. If they’re not as clean as you’d hoped (they most likely will be), get the items back into the bath and warm them some more.
Using an ultrasonic cleaner gets gunk out of bike chains and cassettes better than anything you’ve seen. The downside is that an ultrasonic cleaner is pretty loud (I think the sound is kinda demonic too lol).
Plus you need to remove the cassette and chain which is way more work than the chain-on-bike cleaning method I described above (where we used the Park Tool Cleaner, remember?).
If money isn’t tight for you, are OK doing bike chain maintenance no matter how much work’s involved, and want your chain, cassette, or anything else you want to clean to sparkle, get an ultrasonic cleaner. This is the most effective method of degreasing a bike drivetrain’s components.
What a Good Bike Chain Lube Looks Like
A good lubricant isn’t too thick that it attracts dirt and has trouble percolating into the interiors of the chain. Nor is it too thin that it doesn’t last. Choose something that’s moderately thick instead. Some people use automatic transmission fluid used in the automotive world, and it seems to work well. Others have also used motorcycle type chain lubricants to oil up bike chains. Hubby uses it all the time when lubing our sons’ bikes’ chains and so far no problems.
Don’t Use These Kinds of Oils on Your Bike Chain
- WD-40: Some people use WD-40 to lube things, but WD-40 isn’t meant to be used as a lubricant; it’s a solvent. As a lubricant, WD-40 is pretty thin and doesn’t remain in the chain long enough.
- General-purpose household oil such as 3-in-1: This is pretty acidic, gums up a lot, and can damage a bike’s internal hub gears.
- Automotive motor oil: Those who choose to use this oil type almost always get a squeaky bike chain in no time.
What’s the Correct Way of Lubing a Bike Chain?
Many younger and older bike owners out there spray the chain with lube. In this chain lubing technique, the person usually points the can to the rear of the derailleur cage. The reason for doing this is to prevent excess oil spray from getting onto the rim and tire. But this isn’t how skillful bike mechanics lube a chain.
Many bike mechanics believe that using any kind of spray lubricant to a bike chain is a bad idea. Spraying a chain with oil instead of applying it to the rivets as described below gets lots of oil to spaces where less is needed and less of it where more is needed. It’s best to use an oil bottle that drips the lubricant instead of spraying it out.
The correct way to apply bike lube to a bike chain is to point the tip of the lube can to the chain and apply a drop to each rivet. Make sure to apply the lube to the lower section of the chain and not to the top. You’re holding the lube bottle between the upper and lower runs of the chain with the tip touching the inner side of the lower run. Once you’ve applied the lubricant, start back-pedaling and use a clean dry rag to wipe off any excess oil. Oil is a dirt magnet, and wiping off excess lube helps slows down the rate at which dirt builds up on the drivetrain.
The inner side of a chain (the inner circumference of the bike chain, the side that engages the sprockets) is always cleaner than the outer side. Why is this the case? It’s because most of the grime and grit that ends up on the chain comes from the front wheel as it revolves during pedaling.
If you apply the lube to the outer circumference of the bike chain/on the top of the upper run of the chain, that’ll redistribute any crud lurking there into the inner recesses of the chain. And this is something you don’t want to do.
Why Oiling a Bike Chain isn’t Always a Good Idea
Some bicyclists believe that applying oil to a bike chain isn’t a good idea. Those against lubing argue that the oil seeps into the interior components of the chain, transporting grit to those parts as it does so. The grit and oil get deep down and form a sort of grinding compound that speeds up chain wear.
The kind of soil found in the terrain you mostly ride, how much time you allow between cleans, and the oiling technique you use. But IMO, if you apply the right lubing technique, you’ll have less road gunk on your chain and less wear.
Is Waxing a Bike Chain a Good Idea?
Some people choose not to lube their bike chain and instead wax them up. Rather than spray lubricant or apply oil drops to the chain, the bike owner removes the chain and puts it into a hot wax bath. The beauty of hot wax is that it’s quite thin and doesn’t face as much resistance when it comes to penetrating into the crannies of the chain.
Wait for the hot wax to cool off, and what do you get? You get a pretty thick lubricant in all the right places in the chain.
Another good thing about using wax is that cooled wax isn’t sticky. Nor does wax pull in dirt as much dirt to the outer circumference as is the case with regular lubricants.
One con is that melting wax isn’t much fun. Wax is a flammable material and you need to be careful when boiling it. Plus, some people feel that wax doesn’t lubricate moving surfaces as well as does standard bike chain lubes.
But some expert bike maintenance experts such as Sheldon actually say wax is a low-friction lubricant and therefore somewhat better than other choices.
But waxing a chain is just too much of a hassle for most people who’d rather be out there riding trails or doing a bike tour with family and friends.
How Often Should You Clean and Lube a Bike Chain?
It depends on how much riding you do. Some people use a rag to give the chain a quick clean after every ride. Others may do it less frequently than this if the weather isn’t wet or snowy. As for deep cleaning the chain, you’ll have to decide how many miles you want to put on the chain before deep-cleaning it. Hubby does it after 100 miles, it really comes down to personal preference. But if it’s a mountain bike chain, you may want to clean it (and the bike) every time you get home after a trail ride.
Final Thoughts on How to Clean a Gritty Bike Chain
Cleaning a bike chain is a great way to keep the drivetrain functioning at peak performance. Road grit and grime can and do dramatically decrease the efficiency of the chain leading to more frequent chain replacements. Dirty chains also make shifting more challenging, and the chain’s longevity suffers a mighty blow.
There are different methods of cleaning a bike chain on a kid’s bike/dad’s bike, and it’s up to you to decide which method to choose. Please tell us if you can how the clean went for you in the comment box below.