How to Clean Your Bike Chain

Bicycle chain (selective focus)
Michael H / Getty Images

Regularly cleaning your bike's chain will help protect it from rust, extend its life, and make your pedaling more efficient. This technique will help you get the job done quickly and easily.

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Prepare Your Workspace and Assemble Your Supplies

supplies needed for bike chain cleaning: wd-40, brush, rags, solvent
David Fiedler

For cleaning your bike, first either move outside or find a place such as a garage or basement where it won't be the end of the world if you drip on the floor.

You'll need the following items:

  • Old newspapers
  • Rags (old t-shirts work well for this)
  • Solvent of some sort, such as WD-40 or isopropyl alcohol
  • An old toothbrush
  • Quality bike lubricant, such as Boeshield T-9 waterproof lube

Locate where you're going to work, and spread out newspapers on the floor below your bike. A spot where you can lean your bike against something to keep your hands free while you're busy is ideal. Shift the gears on your bike while turning the pedals so that the chain is on the largest ring in the front and on the smallest socket in the back.

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Spray or Wipe Solvent on Your Bike Chain

wd-40 spray solvent on a chain helps clean grease and crud
David Fiedler

With your bike in position, apply solvent (something like WD-40 or isopropyl alcohol) to the chain. You do this by slowly turning the pedals backward to move the chain a section at a time so you can clean it by either spraying on the solvent as you wipe down the chain with an old rag or by wiping down the chain with a rag that is saturated with the solvent. This will loosen the collected grease and dirt on your chain and allow it to be wiped away more easily.

If you're using WD-40, take advantage of the red straw attachment to focus the spray. Keep in mind the solvent will evaporate quickly and your rag will get filthy, so you'll want to frequently rotate your rag to a clean spot as you apply more solvent.

Continue applying solvent and wiping down the chain while turning the pedals slowly until you've worked through every link. If the chain has a master link, you can start with it as an easier way to keep track of your progress. Repeat as necessary. Your chain should appear cleaner each time you work through it. Finally, you'll get to the point that no more grease comes off on the rag as you pull the chain through it.

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Use a Brush for More Thorough Cleaning

tooth brush cleaning a bike chain
David Fiedler

This technique is a superficial method of cleaning compared to the full method of removing your chain and soaking it in solvent or by using a bike chain cleaner. You're really just getting the outer surfaces of the chain so there are a couple of additional steps you can take to get your chain that much cleaner if you desire.

A toothbrush dipped in solvent will help you work between the links of the chain and down into areas that your first efforts with the rag simply couldn't reach. Using the technique again of slowly turning the pedals backward, work on each link of the chain, from top, sides, and bottom, paying attention ​to angling the brush so you can get down into those hard-to-reach places. Work your way again completely through the length of the chain.

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Clean the Other Parts of Your Drivetrain

use a rag to clean a bike chain derailleur
David Fiedler

After you're finished with the chain, take a few minutes to clean the other parts of the drivetrain. The chain rings in the front and the sprockets in the back, as well as the pulleys on your rear derailleur, will collect grease and dirt as well, and it's good to wipe them down too.

Apply a little alcohol or WD-40 to a clean rag and simply wipe the accumulated crud from these parts or use the brush to get at them. The hardest part is getting down in between the small chainrings. It'll never be perfectly clean with this five-minute approach, but do your best and you'll definitely see results as you wipe away most of the grime.

Finally, you'll want to wipe down your chain one final time with a solvent-soaked rag. This helps take away the final bits of grease and other crud that were dislodged as you cleaned with a brush and worked at the pulleys and gears. Wipe down your frame too, to clean off any dirt or grease that have flecked onto it, as well, so that your bike really looks great.

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Reapply Lubricant

putting lubrication on a bike chain
David Fiedler

Now that your chain is free of all the crud that was clogging it up and slowing you down, reapply lubricant. This will help protect the chain from rust, make your pedaling more efficient, and extend the life of your chain.

Tip: Don't lubricate the chain immediately before riding. You should give yourself at least a couple of hours to allow the lube to fully penetrate, and then wipe away any excess. If you lube just before riding, you'll end up flinging lubricant all over your bike from the rapid movement of the chain.