Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
No doubt you’ve heard of the cobbler whose children are without shoes because he’s too busy fixing everybody else’s to attend to his own family. That’s kind of like yours truly’s chain care program. A bit like the soul man, I’m busy enough working on other people’s bicycles that I have less time for my own. So, I follow the most basic clean and lube chain care procedure on my everyday ride.
One thing I know, though, is that chain care is close to religion for many roadies. So, I’m not here to tell you to change how you baby your links or heaven forbid – to try a different lube. But, I’d like to share for new road riders my quick and relatively easy approach. It’s a handy skill to master for year-round maintenance and especially so in winter.
Please note that my procedure is for oil- not wax-based lubes.
For anyone interested in a more obsessive care routine, I have one to show you from Silca, who recently came out with their wax-based Super Secret Chain Lube.
To go with it, Silca head Josh Poertner tested and determined the best chain cleaning techniques and also did an extensive study of ultrasonic cleaners. That’s at the end of this article, so please scroll if you like a squeaky clean chain (well, hopefully your chain never squeaks!).
My 15-30 Minute Chain Care Routine
Actually, this isn’t just my routine. It’s how race mechanics usually do it, too. The time range is because sometimes it takes a little longer if there’s a build-up of grime on your chain, derailleur pulleys, front derailleur cage and chainring(s). You can prevent that, however, by doing this job more frequently. That way you never get the build-up.
All you need is your regular chain lube and a few rags. Or an old ride T-shirt you no longer wear works nicely, too. While you can clean with the bike upright on the ground, it’s easier when it’s in a repair stand.
The frequency you clean and lube your chain depends on how much you ride, the lube you use, where you cycle and other factors. As I mentioned, a telltale sign that you’re not doing it enough is a build-up of grime on the drivetrain. That can also indicate you’re applying too much lube or you might be using the wrong type of lube for your riding conditions, such as a wet lube when you mostly ride when/where it’s dry.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to figure this out over time. And, that’s easy to do by experimentation once you start with this basic routine.
Wet, wipe and go
The first step is wetting your chain with your preferred lube. About a drip on each link is enough. Put the lube on top of the links on the section of the chain below the chainstay. Turn the crank and repeat until every link is wet. Now, let this sit long enough to penetrate the chain. At least 30 minutes.
The reason to use lube rather than degreasers or solvents is 1) because you already have it – so there’s no need to buy and store other chemicals; 2) because it works as well as solvents; and 3) because solvents and degreasers should be removed before re-lubing, which can mean twice as much work.
Wipe the chain
Now that the lube has worked its way into the links, go to work wiping the chain clean. But first, shift into a middle cog so that the chain is straight rather than angled. And if you have two chainrings, shift onto the large one. For triples, put it on the middle ring.
It’s your choice. You can wipe the chain quickly and mainly get the easy-to-clean outer sideplates. Or, you can go to town and fastidiously scrub the outer & inner plates plus in between them and the rollers, too.
Cleaning “Clean” Chains
The fast way to clean chains – the way race wrenches do it – is by holding the rag inside your hand and making a fist over the chain. Grab the section above the chainstay. Depending on the rag you may want to double it up. The goal is to clean the chain without getting black grime all over your hand. If the rag’s thin, the gunk will come right through it.
Now you can hold your hand like this, pedal the crank forward and squeeze to clean all surfaces of the chain as it passes through your hand. Do this as long as it takes for the links to come clean. Keep moving the rag in your hand. As part of it becomes black, move it so you’re cleaning with a fresh part.
Cleaning Dirty Chains
Or alternatively, for filthier chains, you can hold the rear wheel to keep it from turning. Then grab the chain with your rag in your hand on the section of links below the chainstay (photo). Doing it this way, you don’t pedal. Instead you pull back with your hand and rag to squeeze, wipe and clean that section of links. Once that section is clean, rotate the crank and work on the next and so on until the chain is completely clean.
I find it easier to clean dirty chains with this method. You can squeeze harder with the rag when holding the wheel. And that helps get it down into the inside sideplates and rollers. But try both and see which one you prefer.
Clean the pulleys if needed
If there’s any grime on the rear derailleur pulleys, rest the rag against each pulley and turn the pedals to clean them. Do it on both sides. Also look for crud on the pulley cage and run the rag through it to clean it off, too.
Do the other parts if necessary
Likewise on the chainrings and front derailleur, wipe off any grime. The other component that might need wiping is the cassette/freewheel cogs. The easiest way to do this is to remove the rear wheel. Apply a little more lube so that all the cogs are a little wet. Then it’s relatively quick work to run the rag between cogs to clean them.
As a last step, since you wiped off all the lube while cleaning, you need to apply lube to the links as before. But you don’t need as much since some residue is likely still on the links even after cleaning. Let the fresh lube dry before riding. If you don’t do this and ride immediately after lubing, the lube will usually get flung all over the rear wheel – a mess you’d rather not have to clean up.
Silca’s chain cleaning – really clean!
Silca instructs users to completely clean chains before applying their new Super Secret Chain Lube. And they go into great detail on how and with what to do it in this video.
Then, since anytime the subject of super cleaning things comes up, ultrasonic cleaners can come to mind, this Silca video is great, too.
Whichever way you choose to go, a clean chain means more efficient pedaling and longer lasting components. Plus, it’s super satisfying on rides looking down and seeing those sparkling links.
Ride total: 9,878
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s cycling streak ended in February 2022 with a total of 10,269 consecutive daily rides (28 years, 1 month and 11 days of never missing a ride). Click to read Jim’s full bio.