"Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue"
~ Vice President Richard Cheney

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Cleaning your bike chain the cheap and easy way

Everything I need for bike maintenance

Biking is great for your health, for your wallet, for the planet and, IMHO, for your soul. You're not paying for gas and you're not pumping fossil fuel fumes into the air. Bike maintenance is also much cheaper than auto maintenance - but there are ways to make it cheaper still.

I think that the vast majority of bike maintenance boils down to keeping the drive train (the chain and gears) in good condition. Rusted or eroded drive trains seem to account for the vast majority of bike deterioration; having kept my chain in good condition I have had to do very little else to keep my bike running well over 4 years and thousands of miles. If you take your bike in for maintenance, the main thing the mechanics do will probably be to clean and oil your drive train. By doing some simple maintenance on my chain and gears I have avoided needing to take it in for maintenance for the last 4 years and many thousand miles. (I've also replaced one chain that rusted in my basement while I was in Namiba, one pedal and the bar tape. I replaced the breaks and most of the wiring on my old mountain bike).

Dirty chain and gears

When you work on your chain, the first thing you will do is take off the dirtied oil and all the crap that's sticking to it. The oil serves an essential purpose of lubricating the chain and protecting it from rust, but over time and as you bike it will collect dust and grit. Having that stuff pass through your drive train will reduce the smoothness and efficiency of your pedaling and add wear-and-tear. So your first job is to remove it all. You can buy chain degreasers, but like most specialist products they are overpriced. A better solution is to use diluted dish soap. I use the Park Tool CM-5 Cyclone Chain Cleaner (without the CleanBrite solution; you'll use diluted Dawn) to really scrub the chain, although for years I got by just using rags and wire bristle brushes. I bike every day and clean my chain at least once a month, so I'm glad I bought the Cyclone, but if you're a less frequent rider you'll need less frequent cleanings so buying special tools is unnecessary. Expect your hands to can dirty doing this, especially if you use a rag (layer it - the grease will soak through) but the dish detergent will clean them too. Cleaning dirty grease stains out of your clothes is iffy at best so don't wear nice clothes.

The Cyclone makes things easy but you can use a wire brush and a bunch of rags.
So now your filthy old chain looks shiny and new. However, it's not ready to ride on; you've removed the lubrication and rust protection. So you need to add it back by applying chain lube. I recommend Finish Line. At this point my attention is wandering so I do it the easy way: I pour some on the chain and then run the chain by pedaling while cycling through all the gears to make sure that all contact surfaces are well lubricated.

This is most of what a bike shop would do for your recommended annual checkup, but they'd charge you $50 or more.

The diluted dish detergent removes the dirty lube. Then you'll need to reapply clean lube. This is the majority of bike maintenance. 

I think it's also a good idea to run degreaser (dish soap) on a rag over the rims of your wheels. Grease and gunk that builds up there may make it harder for your breaks to grip. Then clean the degreaser off with water and of course do not lube your rims!

After two years and many thousands of miles, this chain looks and rides almost like new.

Surprisingly clean hands, because I used the Cyclone and layers of rags. Normal washing
won't remove those stains easily but dish detergent will.

If you want to go the extra mile for environmentally conscious bike maintenance, many cyclists swear by using Simple Green as the solvent. I have never done this nor used Simple Green for anything, but it may be ecologically better than Dawn. 


  1. Did you use regular commercial dish detergent? I am told hippie dish detergent won't do it.

    Other things that will: orange juice, vinegar, cheap soap like Dial, dissolved in water.

  2. I use diluted Dawn dish detergent. Does vinegar cut through grease? Maybe I'll try that. I'd certainly love to cut down on "chemicals" even more.

  3. Dawn's the thing for grease. Vinegar is OK. It's just the all-natural don't-kill-your-skin detergents won't work.

  4. Oh. Well using the Cyclone and doubling the rags should keep you from getting much of anything on your hands during this process. Don't wear fancy clothes though.