Fail to take care of your bike chains and you'll work harder, ruin gear shifting, and damage the drivetrain. Discover the right way to look after bike chains.
Chain care is crucial. A dirty and rusty chain makes you work harder, ruins gear shifting, and can damage the other parts of the drivetrain. Since most bike chains are exposed to grime and the elements, it doesn’t take much for a good chain to go bad.
Don’t just dump oil onto a dirty chain. That will create an abrasive paste that will grind away at the chain. On the other hand, you don’t need to clean the chain before every application of oil. Eyeball it. Is it dirty? As a rule of thumb: if you can’t read the brand and model name of the chain that’s stamped onto the side of each link, it needs cleaning.
To clean and lubricate your chain, you will need:
- An old newspaper
- Some kitchen roll or rags
- Light spray oil for displacing water, such as WD40 or GT85
- Cycle-specific chain oil. ‘Wet’ oil is best for winter.
- Some stiff brushes or a clip-on chain cleaner
Chaincases and guards
The best way to keep a chain in good condition is to prevent it getting wet and dirty in the first place. You can only have a full chaincase on a bike with hub gears or a single gear, and unless your town bike came with one (perhaps it’s from Pashley, Trek, or Gazelle?) it’s a struggle even to find one. Google ‘Hesling chaincase’ if you’re happy to order one online. Fitting it may be a job for your bike shop. With derailleur gears, a partial chainguard such as an SKS Chainboard or Hebie Triple Chainguard will offer some protection.
Rain will wash the oil off your chain and it will start to rust. While not a very good lubricant, a water displacing spray will prevent this. Apply it when you get home after a wet ride. Put a sheet of newspaper between the lower run of chain and the back wheel to keep oil off your rims. Turning the cranks backward, spray down onto the chain as it emerges from the derailleur – or off a hub gear’s sprocket. Apply to the whole chain, allow to stand for a few moments, and then wipe off any excess with kitchen roll by drawing the chain through it. If the chain suffered a real soaking, you may need to repeat this process with chain oil. When you put the bike away, place newspaper underneath to catch any drips.
There’s nothing worse than salty slush falling off your tyres and onto your chain after a road has been gritted. Hose down your chain – and the rest of your bike while you’re at it - to wash off any salt, then follow the procedure for basic lubrication.
You may not have the time or inclination for this, but if you’ve got a Sunday best bike and were wondering, here’s how. Remove the chain from the bike, breaking it at its quick link (or with a chain splitter if it doesn’t have one). Clean it thoroughly in a tub full of solvent, using degreaser rather than petrol. Rinse off the solvent. Dry it in the oven or with a hot air gun until it’s hot (but not glowing). Let it cool a bit. Soak it in thick oil for at least five minutes. Hang it up to drip dry. Wipe off any excess with kitchen roll. Refit to the bike.
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Quick & dirty cleaning 1: with a gadget
Chain cleaning devices clamp to the lower run of chain in front of the derailleur. You turn the cranks slowly backward by hand to draw the chain through a series of brushes and a bath of degreaser. The best ones are okay; the worst are a waste of time. Get one that’s sturdily built, with stiff brushes that you can replace (such as the Park Cyclone CM5, pictured). Once you’ve removed the chain-cleaning device, rinse off the degreaser with water as best you can. Then refer to basic lubrication. Be sure to use chain oil as well as spray.
Quick & dirty cleaning 2: by hand
Get two cheap nailbrushes with stiff bristles. (You can re-use them – on the chain, not your nails!) Coat the chain with degreaser; the foaming type makes less mess. Hold both nail brushes in your left hand and clamp them around the chain – side-to-side, then top and bottom. Turn the cranks backward to drag the chain through the brushes. It’s the same principle as the chain-cleaning device, but cheaper, messier and more effective. You can use the nailbrushes to clean sprockets, chainrings and derailleur jockey wheels too. Once done, rinse clean and refer to basic lubrication. Be sure to use chain oil as well as spray.
Replacing the chain
However well you look after your chain, it will eventually become worn. This is sometimes called stretching, although what’s actually happening is that the bushings are wearing away. The result is that the chain won’t mesh properly with the chainrings and cassette sprockets, so it will slip, skip and fail to shift properly. You need to replace the chain before the chainrings and sprockets also wear down. When the chain is worn by 0.75%, it’s time for a new one. You can check wear with a ruler but it’s easier with a chain gauge from the likes of Park Tools. The cheapest is only a tenner – a fraction of what it would cost to replace even one drivetrain.
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