Bike chain maintenance advice from the experts

How to clean and lubricate one of the most often neglected parts of your bike

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How to clean bike chain: Proper chain maintenance is easier than you think and will keep you bike shifting better while saving you money. No need for lasers or fancy jigs like Campagnolo uses here to quality control a newly minted chain. Photo by Campagnolo

Proper chain maintenance is easier than you think and will keep you bike shifting better while saving you money. No need for lasers or fancy jigs like Campagnolo uses here to quality control a newly minted chain. Photo by Campagnolo

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 12/21/2016 we’re republishing to help riders keep their drivetrains in working order as we head into the winter riding season. 

The bicycle chain is a wonderfully effective means of transferring mechanical energy from one place to another. With good engineering, modern materials, and regular maintenance, it is extremely efficient, with only minimal system power losses. But with abuse or negligence, a drivetrain can quickly devolve into a quagmire of resistance.

Knowledge, though, is power. So RoadBikeReview enlisted experts to educate us lowly cycling sinners on how to take better care of the most neglected part of our bicycles. Starting with the big three component makers, Campagnolo, Shimano, and SRAM, we asked them what to do with a new chain and how to care for a chain as it sees a lot of use. We also tapped two lube/degreaser manufacturers to get their advice on maintenance, cleaning, and the best lube based on how and where you ride. Read on for best practices that can improve your bike’s performance and save you money in the process.

How to clean bike chain: Here’s a great look at the different parts of a chain. It’s the darkest inner rollers that need lubrication. Try to keep the rest of the chain as clean as possible. Photo by SRAM

Here’s a great look at the different parts of a chain. It’s the darkest inner rollers that need lubrication. Try to keep the rest of the chain as clean as possible. Photo by SRAM

Part One: The Chain Manufacturers: Campagnolo, Shimano, and SRAM

RoadBikeReview: Should a new chain be degreased before use?

Campagnolo North America’s Dan Large: We suggest to never remove the Campagnolo chain lube that is applied during the manufacturing process. Once this lube is removed from the inner surfaces of the moving parts it is very difficult to replace it. You will greatly reduce the life of the chain in normal use. Unchecked wear of the chain can cause premature wear of sprockets and chainrings, especially titanium and aluminum alloy.

Shimano’s Nick Murdick: It depends on what kind of chain lube you plan to use on the chain. Our general recommendation is to leave the factory lubrication in place. We use very durable grease on each individual piece before the chain is assembled. It does a great job of protecting the inner parts of the chain against wear and it lasts a long time. As that factory grease does start to wear out, wet style chain lubes can be added to keep the chain running smooth. Most dry lubes don’t mix so well with the factory grease though, and you might just end up with a messy chain if you apply it without removing the factory lubricant first.

SRAM’s Nate Newton: No. Our factory lube is the highest quality chain lube available, not just a coating for shipping. Because it is applied with a sophisticated industrial process, it does not come with the inherent compromises of chain lubes in a bottle that has to balance performance properties with ease of application.

The Take-Away: Leave that new chain alone! Install it on a clean drivetrain and go ride your bike.

How to clean bike chain: The side plates of a chain don’t require much lubricant. If fact, wiping the side plates of your chain after every ride will help dirt and grime from accumulating. Photo by Campagnolo

The side plates of a chain don’t require much lubricant. If fact, wiping the side plates of your chain after every ride will help dirt and grime from accumulating. Photo by Campagnolo

RoadBikeReview: What is the biggest contributor to chain wear?

Campagnolo North America’s Dan Large: The biggest culprits are a dry, un-lubed chain, and/or a dirty, contaminated, over-lubed chain, and improper gear selection (riding in a crossed gear selection, mashing big gears).

Shimano’s Nick Murdick: Metal on metal friction between the rollers, pins, and plates of the chain are what cause the chain to wear. Every time the chain articulates to wrap around a gear those pieces are rubbing against each other. Lubrication helps them slide easily without wearing the metal down so much. Dirt inside the chain acts as a polishing compound that accelerates wear, so cleanliness is just as important as lubrication.

SRAM’s Nate Newton: Dirt and grime in the rollers. Keep your chain clean!

The Take-Away: As a chain moves it has to overcome friction. Lube decreases it while dirt and grime increase it. So like Newton said, keep your chain (and entire drivetrain) clean.

How to clean bike chain: Shown here is proper procedure for lubing a chain. Take your time and remember that it’s the roller in the center of the chain that requires lube. Avoid putting lube on the outer plates as it will only attract contaminants that wick lube away from the rollers. Photo by Muc-Off

Shown here is proper procedure for lubing a chain. Take your time and remember that it’s the roller in the center of the chain that requires lube. Avoid putting lube on the outer plates as it will only attract contaminants that wick lube away from the rollers. Photo by Muc-Off

RoadBikeReview: What can a cyclist do to prolong chain life?

Shimano’s Nick Murdick: There are three pillars to maximum drivetrain wear: Cleaning, lubrication, and periodic chain replacement. Cleaning and lubrication are the best ways to make a chain last a long time, but eventually, the chain will elongate and start wearing down the teeth on the chainrings and cassette cogs. If the chain is replaced before it gets that stretched, the gears will last much longer.

SRAM’s Nate Newton: Don’t leave your chain dirty. Don’t simply lube without removing dirt and grime first. Clean and re-lube immediately after a wet or muddy ride. Don’t forget to wipe off excess lube.

Campagnolo North America’s Dan Large: Keep the chain clean and lubed at every possible chance.

The Take-Away: You need to regularly clean, lube and replace your chain for best performance.

How to clean bike chain: SRAM’s PowerLink chain connectors are great if you like to remove your chain for cleaning, though most of our experts encourage on-bike cleaning. Photo by SRAM

SRAM’s PowerLink chain connectors are great if you like to remove your chain for cleaning, though most of our experts encourage on-bike cleaning. Photo by SRAM

RoadBikeReview: What lube to you recommend? Any lubes that should be avoided?

Campagnolo North America’s Dan Large: We do not recommend any certain brands. As our factory lube is a petroleum based lube, a petroleum based or “wet” lube works great in wet/humid conditions. A dry lube is preferred in dry dusty conditions.

Shimano’s Nick Murdick: Since we generally recommend that the factory lubricant be left on the chain, we would also generally recommend a wet style lubricant, or a dry lubricant that doesn’t require the factory grease to be removed (like Dumonde Tech). Of course, some people are very passionate about their choice of chain lube and they will absolutely all work on a Shimano chain.

SRAM’s Nate Newton: Use a lube that is well matched to your conditions and environment. More important than the exact brand or type of lube is adherence to application instructions, wiping excess lube and grime, and reapplication at appropriate intervals.

The Take-Away: If you left the original lube on your new chain, roll with a wet lube until the first degreasing. After that use a lube that suits the conditions in which you ride.

Part Two: The Lube Makers: Muc-Off and White Lightening

For the next round of questions, RoadBikeReview asked lube makers how best to care for a chain and what products they recommend (obviously bearing in mind that they’ll each recommend a product they make). Both shared great advice on caring for your chain and encouraged riders to create a routine to keep things running smoothly.

 

How to clean bike chain: For long distances and very wet conditions, White Lightning produces its Wet Ride formula. It uses synthetic oils and water-repelling polymers to prevent corrosion and protect your chain during extreme rides. It’s also a good option for muddy cyclocross and mountain bike rides. Photo by White Lightning

For long distances and very wet conditions, White Lightning produces its Wet Ride formula. It uses synthetic oils and water-repelling polymers to prevent corrosion and protect your chain during extreme rides. It’s also a good option for muddy cyclocross and mountain bike rides. Photo by White Lightning

RoadBikeReview: Do you recommend different lubes for different applications? Mountain bike, road or cyclocross? Dry conditions, wet conditions?

Muc-Off’s Managing Director, Alex Timnell: Absolutely! It’s crucial you pick the right lube for the occasion and cycling discipline. If you’re riding in wet weather, it’s best to ride with an oil-based formulation that repels water and sticks to your chain so it won’t get washed off. We’d recommend looking at our C3 Wet Lube. It’s perfect for tackling the mud and grime you can pick up on the road or trail while riding in bad conditions.

When it’s dry, look at using a lighter lubrication that is wax-based and will repel the dirt that would otherwise stick to a wet lube. Our C3 Dry Lube can resist water wash-off in light rain showers, but for deep winter we would recommend you switch to a wet lube.

White Lightening’s Derek Goltz: We always recommend picking lubricants based primarily on conditions. If you live in a dry area, it is best to use a dry lube and best to use a wet lube in wet areas. The exceptions to the rule would be to use wet lube even if you live in dry conditions but are going on long rides or always using a dry or wax style lubricant because you prefer the cleanliness.

With our products we recommend Clean Ride for extremely dry, dusty, sandy areas and for the riders who prefer a clean to the touch chain. Epic Ride lube for variable conditions (some rain, some mud, and some beautiful dry, sunny days) and longer rides. And our Wet Ride lube for wet conditions and extremely long rides. Every lube can be used on any type of bike, it is really best to choose based on weather conditions.

The Take-Away: Wet or dry refers to the conditions in which you’re riding. Use a “wet,” petroleum-based lube for rainy or wintry conditions. Go with a “dry” lube when it’s dusty or nice out.

How to clean bike chain: Cleaning your chain regularly is just as important as regularly lubing it. Muc-Off’s Bio Drivetrain Cleaner is a great option. It’s biodegradable and won’t harm metal, carbon, plastic or suspension seals. Spray it on, let it act for a couple minutes, scrub with a brush or cloth and then rinse it off. Photo by Muc-Off

Cleaning your chain regularly is just as important as regularly lubing it. Muc-Off’s Bio Drivetrain Cleaner is a great option. It’s biodegradable and won’t harm metla, carbon, plastic or suspension seals. Spray it on, let it act for a couple minutes, scrub with a brush or cloth and then rinse it off. Photo by Muc-Off

RoadBikeReview: How do you know when your chain needs lube?

Muc-Off’s Managing Director, Alex Timnell: It’s important to only lube your chain when it’s needed, unless you’re willing or able to completely clean your bike in-between each ride. Too much lube and you risk causing excessive debris build-up on the chain. Too little can cause excessive friction. In both cases, you’re shortening the lifespan of the chain, which can lead to unnecessary costs. There are a few cues you can take as to when your chain needs to be cleaned and re-lubed. That includes if it’s making a lot of noise as you’re pedaling, and after riding in the rain or snow once you’ve cleaned your drivetrain. You can also apply a few drops if you’re planning to go on a long ride. In an ideal world, it’s best to completely degrease and lube the chain after every ride.

White Lightening’s Derek Goltz: The short answer is when it starts to make noise (although that is a little late). The best thing to do is to apply lubricant at regular intervals. At White Lightning we recommend reapplying every 50-60 miles with Clean Ride, every 120-150 mile with Epic Ride, and ever 250-300 miles with Wet Ride. It is always dependent on weather (the more rain/snow/sleet and bad weather, the more frequently you need to reapply), but the above is a good rule of thumb. At a bare minimum, just remember to apply once your chain starts making noise.

The Take-Away: Lube your chain when it begins to sound dry. Develop a condition-based or mileage-based lubing routine.

How to clean bike chain: Muc-Off’s C3 Ceramic Wet lube is aimed at riders in nasty conditions. It utilizes fancy polymers to decrease friction while protecting your chain. Wet lubes are stickier to the touch so that they adhere to chain surfaces better. Photo by Muc-Off

Muc-Off’s C3 Ceramic Wet lube is aimed at riders in nasty conditions. It utilizes fancy polymers to decrease friction while protecting your chain. Wet lubes are stickier to the touch so that they adhere to chain surfaces better. Photo by Muc-Off

RoadBikeReview: How do you know when it’s time to clean/degrease your chain?

White Lightening’s Derek Goltz: When you start to get a solid build-up of grit and grime that is not easy to wipe off with a rag. This will happen faster with wet style lubricants because they will attract and trap all sorts of contaminants. Dry style and wax style lubes will have to be degreased less frequently because of their tendency to run dry and not attract contaminants. At a minimum, you should degrease every 4 months to prevent excess wear.

The Take-Away: When you begin to develop residue that isn’t easily wiped off with a rag, it’s time to degrease. Degreasing more frequently is great too.

RoadBikeReview: What regular chain maintenance do you recommend?

Muc-Off’s Managing Director, Alex Timnell: Cleaning your bike can be complicated, especially if you want to do it properly. That’s why we developed our easy-to-follow 3-step bicycle care program – Clean, protect, lube.

The first step is clean. Spray some Bio Drivetrain Cleaner directly on to your chain and cogs, or use a chain-cleaning machine to speed up the process. Give the solution a few minutes to activate, agitate with a brush if needed, and rinse.

Then you move on to protect. It’s incredibly important to disperse any water from the chain before applying lubricant – you risk trapping moisture in the links otherwise, which can rust it from the inside out. Spray some of our MO94 spray over your cassette and chain to achieve a completely drive chain.

Finally, it’s time for the lube. Rotate the pedals backwards as you apply the appropriate lube on the inside of the chain link. For the best results, leave the lube on the chain overnight before riding; this will give it plenty of time to coat the metal and provide all-over coverage.

How to clean bike chain: White Lightning’s Clean Streak is a spray on degreaser that doesn’t require a water rinse. It breaks down grease, dirt and grime and blasts them off of your drivetrain. You’ll want to make sure to use it outdoors and to be sure that the contaminants are collected by a rag. Photo by White Lightning

White Lightning’s Clean Streak is a spray-on degreaser that doesn’t require a water rinse. It breaks down grease, dirt and grime and blasts them off of your drivetrain. You’ll want to make sure to use it outdoors and to be sure that the contaminants are collected by a rag. Photo by White Lightning

White Lightening’s Derek Goltz: The best daily chain routine is to wipe off any excess lubricant with a clean rag or paper towel before a ride and wipe off any grit, grime, or contaminants with a clean rag or paper towel after each ride. People often forget that the lube needs to be inside the chain, on the pins and rollers, not the outside of the chain. You want to keep the outside of the chain as clean as possible to prevent anything from getting inside the chain. Because of this, it is important to wipe off excess lubricant and wipe off the chain after a ride. It is a 30-second task that will help your drivetrain run smoother and last much longer.

The Take Away: Develop both daily cleaning and lube habits as well as routine, in-depth cleaning procedures. Put together a kit that works for you and stick with it and your chain (and bike) will run smoother, faster, and longer.

About the author: Nick Legan

Nick Legan is happiest with some grease under his nails and a long dirt climb ahead. As a former WorldTour team mechanic, Legan plied his trade at all the Grand Tours, Spring Classics, World Championships and even the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In recent years, gravel and ultra-distance racing has a firm grip on Legan’s attention, but his love of mountain biking and long road rides hasn’t diminished. Originally a Hoosier, Legan settled in Boulder, Colorado, 14 years ago after finishing his time at Indiana University studying French and journalism. He served as the technical editor at VeloNews for two years and now contributes to Adventure Cyclist, Mtbr and RoadBikeReview. To follow along on Legan’s cycling adventures, find him on Instagram at @nlegan and be sure to check out his new book Gravel Cycling: The Complete Guide to Gravel Racing and Adventure Bikepacking.


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Comments:

  • TRS says:

    The chain manufacturer applies the lube inside each roller during assembly, but some of the lube gets displaced during the process. Take an old piece of terrycloth towel and rub down the outside of the chain before installing it on the bike. The factory grease “inside” the rollers will protect the chain from wear much longer than any other lubricant you can apply externally.

  • D.Eldon says:

    I agree with Michael. The manufacturers’ advice to leave the factory lube on the chain is crazy. My experience is primarily with SRAM chains—I use mostly 1091’s but I’ve also used some of the lower end chains from SRAM. In all cases, the factory lube is super sticky and covers not just the rollers, but also the plates. It is an absolute dirt magnet!!! The first thing I always do with a new SRAM chain is degrease it with a “safe” citrus degreaser. Then I wash it with a high-quality dish washing liquid. Then I dry it. If the weather is not sunny and warm, this means 20 minutes in the oven on a very “low” warming temperature. As soon as the chain is dry and the ambient temperature, I install it on the bike and lube the chain rollers with synthetic Park Tool CL-1 wet lube. Then I run the chain for several minutes while shifting through all the gears. I ride between 5,000 and 6,000 miles per year and clean the chain about every 300-400 miles as needed (or immediately after use in wet weather). I take the chain off the bike each time I clean it. I always clean the chainring and cassette when I clean the chain but I never use degreaser on them because I don’t want to risk getting any on my bottom bracket, rear derailleur or rear freewheel hub. I typically touch up the lubricant at 100 miles intervals when the chain doesn’t need a full cleaning. I do this for all the bikes in my family. Once you’ve done it a few times, you get very fast with it. None of the on-bike cleaning contraptions come close to doing as good of a job.

  • Danny Davisson says:

    I Degrease the factory chain and use a 1qt Crook-pot with a secret blend (80/20) of paraffin and Bees wax. Soak the chain in the molten was for about 5 minutes remove and let dry for 10 minutes. The Chains feel like butter, last forever and need only an occasional wipe down with a dry cloth. Same process for Mountain and road. Wet and dry conditions. Not surprised that neither chain nor chain lube manufacturers recommend this method. Annual lube cost is about $10.

  • OK says:

    I have never left the lube that the chain comes with on the chain. It might make the chain last longer but it will be a black mess in no time. Which means that my hands will be a black mess when ever I have to touch it. On a new chain I remove all of the factory lube then I use Rock N Roll gold to lube it. reapplying about every 100 miles. I rarely clean the chain. I only use a shop towel to run the chain thru to remove grime and any excess lube. My chains have lasted about 5,000 miles or more using these procedures. I think that is pretty darn good.

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