A clean bike chain isn’t just for aesthetics—keeping your chain clean will help it perform better, run quietly, and prolong its life. Plus, it’ll also keep those dreaded grease stains at bay. To learn more about the best way to clean your bike chain, we spoke with Bicycling’s resident expert and bike mechanic Joël Nankman.
Nankman’s tips here are based on his own personal experience. “There are mechanics out there that will disagree and those who will agree,” he says. But considering he’s been a bike mechanic in both shops and on staff here for 14 years, and has attended multiple technical seminars from Shimano, Saris (CycleOps), SRAM, Campagnolo, and others, we’re inclined to rely on his expert opinion.
Soap or Degreaser?
Your first step in cleaning your bike chain: Picking your cleaning agent, like a soap or bike-specific degreaser. You don’t actually need anything fancy to get the job done, and you can even pick up what you need at your local grocery store. Dawn liquid dish soap is Nankman’s go-to.
“Dawn dish soap is the only way I clean the surface of drivetrain components,” Nankman says. “I have found most any commercially available degreaser to be too harsh. It removes all the lubricant from inside the chain rollers, which cannot be replaced by just dripping lube on the surface of the chain—it would require removing the chain and soaking in a lube bath.”Trevor Raab
You don’t want to clean the chain so thoroughly that you strip it of its factory lube. “Removing the factory lube from inside the rollers shortens the life of a road bike chain in my experience from 2,000 to 2,500 miles down to less than 1,500 miles,” Nankman says.
You have lots of options here, so feel free to shop around, ask your local mechanic and riding buddies, or just experiment to see what you prefer.
Select Your Scrubber
Bike-specific companies like Park Tool make brushes just for this purpose, and even devices that can fit over your chain to clean it. But any kind of cleaning or scrub brush will do just fine. You can even use an old toothbrush in a pinch.Related StoryHow to Replace or Repair Your Bike Chain
“My method is to use a dish brush with the longest bristles I can find,” Nankman says. “Toilet bowl brushes also work very well.”
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How to Clean Your Bike Chain
Here’s a step-by-step rundown of how Nankman cleans a bike chain.
Shift gears so that the chain is on one end of the cassette. Apply plenty of soap or degreaser to the brush and thoroughly scrub all the cogs, except for the one with the chain. Next, shift the chain down to the other end of the cassette and clean the remaining cogs.
Once the cassette has been cleaned, it’s time to clean the chainring(s). “I’ll often drop the chain off the chainring to do this,” Nankman says. Like with the cassette, apply lots of soap or degreaser to the brush and scrub away.Trevor Raab
And don’t neglect to clean the jockey wheels on your rear derailleur—these can get really gunked up over time. Scrub them thoroughly and rinse. Nankman also recommends lubricating them occasionally. “A drop of chain lube around the bearings or bushings goes a long way,” he says.
Now it’s time to clean your chain. If you have more than one chainring, shift your chain onto the largest one. Apply a liberal amount of soap or degreaser and scrub all sides of the chain until clean. “Scrub the side plates of the chain using the chainring as a surface to push the chain against,” Nankman says.
Once everything has been scrubbed down, rinse your drivetrain off with a gentle stream of clean water, Nankman says. Stay away from using a high-pressure hose, which can blast water into areas you don’t want it.Related StoryHow to Use Bike Lube to Keep Your Parts Moving
Your chain may now be clean, but you’re not done yet. Before tucking your bike back in storage, you’ll want to dry your chain off as much as you can before applying a fresh coat of chain lube, in order to prevent it from rusting. “You can use a leaf blower or [air] compressor to dry everything off before applying lube,” Nankman says.Trevor RaabTrevor Raab
“Liberally apply your favorite lube, let sit for a few minutes, and wipe off excess,” Nankman says. You’ll want to wipe off as much excess chain lube as you can, too. You want it to lubricate in between the plates and rollers—not the outside where it can pick up dirt and grime.
“This is my personal preferred method,” Nankman says about his cleaning routine. “That said, there is nothing wrong with using a Pedro’s, Park Tool, Muc-Off, etc., chain scrubber and replacing your chain more frequently.”