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How To Clean A Bicycle Chain

By Laurel-Lea Shannon

Some years ago, when I was a beginner cyclist, I was in a bicycle shop having my road bike adjusted and asked the bike mechanic how often I should lubricate the chain. “Depends on how much you ride,” he said. “At least once a month. But you have to clean it first. Yours is really dirty.” I looked at my beautiful bike and saw the chain, as if for the first time. Yikes, he was right! It was black with grime. I realized the time had come to learn how to clean my bike chain.

Of course, the easiest part was doing the research. I read articles, checked out my bicycle repair manual, (which still has a new-book smell and feel to it even though it’s been on my book shelf for three years) and watched a few videos.

Why You Need a Clean Bike Chain

If your bike chain isn’t properly adjusted, cleaned and well lubricated, it can cause problems on a ride. The gears won’t shift smoothly and the chain can jump. This is not only distracting–it can be dangerous. I recently heard of a woman who was riding up a steep hill on her poorly-maintained bike–her chain jumped and she fell because she couldn’t release fast enough from her pedals.

When you ride your bike, the dirt from the road eventually finds its way onto your chain. If it’s been a rainy summer, it’s even worse. Wet weather kicks up all sorts of detritus into the chain. This gets into the roller and the plates of the chain, scratching it and accelerating wear. The more you ride your bike the more this happens.

The damage doesn’t stop there. A worn chain accelerates the wear on the smaller chain rings and the sprockets of the rear wheel and can trash the drive train. Is this starting to sound expensive? It is, especially when you consider that a little bit of degreaser, some bicycle oil and a few minutes of your time once or twice a month can prevent all that unnecessary wear and tear.

Steps to Clean Your Bike Chain

Step One: At a bike shop, buy a can of biodegradable degreaser and chain oil. Don’t let them sell you a lethal degreaser (identifiable by the skull and cross-bones symbol). It’s bad for you. It’s bad for the environment. You don’t need anything that strong.

Step Two: Put your bike on a bike repair stand, or a bike rack, or turn it upside down on some newspaper on your driveway.

Step Three: Squirt the degreaser on a clean lint-free cloth. Wrap the cloth around the chain as you slowly turn the pedals backward, allowing the chain to move by the cloth. Repeat this with more degreaser on a clean part of your rag until the chain is clean. You may have to do this many times if the chain is really dirty.

Step Four: Spray degreaser on the cogs and wipe clean. Here’s a tip: to clean between the cogs, place the edge of your cloth between the cogs and move the cloth back and forth, while slowly turning the wheel. Last but not least, clean the jockey wheels. These are the two tiny wheels of the derailleur. Now you’re done. (Click here to learn how to oil the chain. Or watch the video below.)

This video from Georgena Terry shows you how:

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