You know your bike chain needs to cleaned an lubed (maybe it has started to make noise?), but you’re not quite sure how to go about it. The good news, is it’s easy and anybody can do it!
To say that I am not mechanically inclined is perhaps the understatement of the year. I have always had a hard time understanding how the simplest of machines work, and a bike is truly no exception.
I cannot tell you how many times I have watched a YouTube video, or had something about my bike explained to me, and came away from the experience knowing about as much as I did going into it (which is to say…not all that much at all!).My eyes glaze over as I try to pay attention, and I begin to hope that someone, somewhere will take care of all of this for me.
That a magical fairy will come down from the clouds, wave a magic wand, and BOOM! My gross, disgusting bike chain that is getting grease all over my hands, legs, car, and everything else it comes near will just miraculously be clean.
While it isn’t really quite as easy as a magical bike fairy, cleaning and lubing your own bike chain is actually pretty easy and simple. With the right method, equipment, and tools, this is a simple and essential piece of bike maintenance that you can absolutely handle all on your own!
Why Clean and Lube Your Bike Chain?
First of all, you might be wondering if this step is even necessary. I mean, it’s true that most bikes will continue to function with a very dirty chain.
Really, cleaning and lubing your bike chain is almost like changing the oil in your car. Yes your car will drive a lot longer than the prescribed amount of mileage suggested between oil changes, but the wear and tear on your vehicle and your engine will increase, and things are likely to get gunked up in there somewhere (yes, that’s totally a technical term!).
The same is true with your bike. Keeping your chain clean and lubed will extend the life of your drivetrain. It will keep all of the parts of your bike lubed that need to be lubed, keep your chain from making angry noises, and keep nasty, dirty bike grease from getting all over your bike, and all over YOU!
We cyclists spend a lot of money on our bike and our bike components, and cleaning and lubing our chain is a basic step we can all take to really care for our bike and prolong its life.
How Often Do I Need to Clean and Lube my Bike Chain?
There is really no exact set amount of time or mileage guide to determine when your chain needs to be cleaned and lubed. If you ride pretty regularly, once a month is sufficient for a deep clean. (In between, you probably still want to wipe down your chain with a clean cloth and re-lube).
Otherwise, it depends on how often you are riding, where you are riding, and what your chain looks/sounds like. Is your chain making a lot of noise? Can you hear it more than you could before? Does the grease appear “gunky” or dusty?
Is your chain getting bike grease all over your legs and/or all over your bike? Is your shifting not going quite as smoothly as it once did? Did you just ride through some pretty dirty/rough terrain?
If you are answering yes to any of the above, then it is probably a good time to clean and lube that chain! You’ll need to lube your chain more often if you are riding off-road in dusty or muddy conditions, or if you are riding on the road during wet or wintery weather. Rain, slush, and salt can all create a dirty drivetrain pretty quickly.
OK, I am Convinced! But, HOW Do I Actually Clean and Lube My Bike Chain?
What follows are step by step instructions on how to do a deep clean of your drivetrain. While this should be done periodically, if you’re in a hurry or your just cleaned your chain but it’s already dusty, you can skip steps 2-3 and simply wipe down your chain.
Do this with a lint-free cloth (an old t-shirt works great). Roll your chain backward by backpedaling your bike with one hand and run the cloth over the chain with the other. Then proceed with Step 4.
Also, we’re assuming your chain is in currently in pretty good condition. If it’s rusty, a little more effort will be required. Read our article on cleaning a rusty chain instead.
Step 1: Get Your Materials Together
To clean and lube your bike chain you will want to have the following items on hand to make the process a little easier. These items are relatively inexpensive (with the exception of the bike stand which is optional but REALLY helpful), and are a worthwhile investment as replacing drive train items is MUCH more expensive!
Stuff You’ll Need:
- Chain Lube*
- Degreaser and brush* (you can buy a kit OR an old toothbrush works well too)
- Shop Rags* (old t-shirts work great too)
- Soapy water in a bucket
- Bike stand* (optional) *
- Dummy hub* (optional)
- Gloves (optional)
Step 2: Get Into Position!
First, you will need to put your bike on a stand, remove the rear wheel, and insert the dummy hub; OR if you want to keep things simple, lean your bike against a wall with the chain side out.
The use of a stand and removing the back wheel are completely optional. It’s a little more work on the front end, but it does make the process of cleaning and lubing your chain easier because the wheel isn’t in the way.
The “dummy hub” simply acts as a placeholder for the wheel. Removing the wheel and using the dummy hub allows you to get just the right amount of slack in your chain, and to reach some hard to reach spots with your brush.
Alternatively, you can absolutely clean and lube your chain just by leaning it up against a wall with the chain side out. It’s fast and doesn’t require any expensive gear.
You want your wheel to be in the smallest cog to start. This will put your chain in the ideal place for cleaning.
Step 3: Clean Your Chain
For this step your “must haves” are a chain de-greaser, soap, water and a brush. If you wanna be pro, I love the chain cleaning kit from Park Tools because not only does it have the de-greaser and brush, but it also has a handy chain cleaning tool.
Fill the cleaning tool to the fill line with the chain de-greaser, clip it over the bottom of the chain, and spin the wheel BACKWARDS about 30 times. You will want to keep as much slack in the chain as possible by holding the tool rather lightly.
No tool? No problem! You can use just a small brush and bike chain de-greaser. It can even be a toothbrush, just make sure you hit both the top and bottom of the chain links.
This is also a great time to give a little attention to the rest of your drivetrain. Use the brush to get any built up gunk off of your front chain rings, rear derailleur pulley wheels, and rear cassette.
After you use the chain de-greaser you want to wash the chain with soapy water. Dump the chain de-greaser out of the cleaning mechanism, and fill to the line with soapy water (I use Dawn dish soap). Spin your pedal backwards about 30 more times. If you are just using a brush then dunk your brush in some soapy water and go to town.
Presto! Your chain is CLEAN and RINSED!
Finally, you are going to want to dry your chain. You can let it air dry or hold a shop rag over the chain and back pedal until your chain is reasonably dry.
Step 4: Lube Your Chain
For this step you simply want to put a small drop of lube on the top of each and every little chain roller. You do NOT want to overdo this by putting on too much lube on the top of the chain roller or by getting a bunch of lube on the sides of the chain. Lube on the sides of the chain is just going to attract more dirt and debris, and you are going to have to clean the chain again that much quicker.
Pro tip! Most bike chains actually have a handy special chain link (quick link) that holds the chain together and it looks different from all other links on the chain. This is awesome for lubing your chain, because if you start and end on this link you know you have gotten every roller just once, which is all you really need.
Finally, grab a handy shop rag, loosely hold it over the bottom of your chain, and back pedal a few times to remove any excess lube from your chain.
Voila! Your chain is LUBED!
Yes, That’s Really It!
It’s amazing how a task can feel so daunting before you even begin. I was hesitant to clean and lube my own chain, but after seeing just how easy it is, and trying it out for myself, I realize now that I can confidently take charge of this piece of bike maintenance.
There are many things that I will continue to march my bike down to the bike shop for, but I am happy to say that cleaning and lubing my bike chain is no longer one of them! Breaking this process down into concrete, manageable steps has empowered me to clean and lube my own bike chain, and I am absolutely confident that you can do the same.
More Stuff You Might Find Helpful
- Bike Maintenance: Conquer Your Fear And Learn To Fix Your Bike
- Cycling For Beginners: Everything You Need To Know
- How To Use a Bike Pump to Pump a Bike Tire
About The Author
Stacy Ann Smith is a New England-based cyclist who strives to stay upright on her bike. She is the founder of Sascy Cycling, and her mission is to encourage women to love their body and focus on what it can do, not what it looks like. When Stacy’s not cycling she is teaching high school history and eating pizza with her husband and son. For awesome women’s cycling tips and to learn more about Stacy, visit Sascy Cycling at www.sascy.com.