Bicycle Chain Cleaning: Is it Really that Important?

Bicycle chain cleaning is something most of us may not want to think about very often, but it is one of the most important things you can do not only to maintain the life of your bike chain, but to extend the life and performance of your mountain bike drivetrain.

A dirty mountain bike chain will cause problems with shifting gears on your mountain bike because the build-up of dirt and grime will prevent it from moving smoothly on the chain rings and cassette sprockets.

Riding with a dirty chain also causes dirt and grime to get between the plates and rollers, which accelerates chain stretch. Dirt also gets into the other parts of your drivetrain, causing the more expensive parts to wear out faster.


Another reason to have a clean bicycle chain is to prevent getting one of those ugly black tattoos on your calf if you happen to accidently rub up against the chain.

A bicycle chain cleaning can be a dirty job if you have neglected cleaning your mountain bike for a long time, but if you clean it on a regular basis, it is much easier to maintain and better for your drivetrain.

Cleaning your mountain bike chain on a regular basis does not mean breaking out the cleaning solvent and brushes every time. On the contrary, if you quickly wipe down your chain and other mountain bike drivetrain components after every couple rides, you will not have to use the solvents and do heavy duty cleanings as frequently.

For a description on how to do a quick cleaning of the drivetrain, please visit our Bicycle Cleaning page and then click your "back" button to return.

Bike Chain Cleaner

There are a lot of controversy and opinions about which type of bike chain cleaner is best. I have used citrus degreasers that are made specifically for bicycle drivetrains. I like the fact this type of product is biodegradable. I have used the Pedros Citrus Degreasers because they are inexpensive, easy to use, and do a good job.

Many cyclists like to use Simple Green to clean their drivetrain because it is also biodegradable and very inexpensive. There is some controversy about using this product because it has detergent in it, which can stick to the moving parts of the bicycle chain. This causes friction and prevents the lubricant from functioning properly.

Other riders like to use mineral spirits (paint thinner), kerosene, or WD40 to clean their drivetrain. There are mixed opinions on whether these products are good for your chain.

How to Clean your Bicycle Chain


In order to clean your bicycle chain, you can either leave it on the bike or take it off and clean it.

To clean your chain while it is on the mountain bike, it is easiest if you have a bike stand, but you can also lean your bike against something so that the pedals can freely move backwards.

Shift your mountain bike gears so that the chain is on the largest sprocket in the front and the smallest sprocket in the rear. Pour some cleaning solvent onto a clean rag and hold onto the bicycle chain with the rag in the palm of your hand while pedaling backwards. Fold the rag so it is clean and repeat. Do this as many times as necessary until the rag is not collecting grime.

If your chain is really dirty, you may want to remove it from the bicycle to clean it. Before removing it however, make sure you know how to route it back on the bike. It helps if you have another bicycle to use as a model or a close-up photo of another bike's drivetrain.

Remove the chain from the bike by taking apart the master link if it has one or by removing one of the rivets with a bicycle chain tool.

After removing the bicycle chain, get the big chunks of dirt and grime off with brushes or a small flat screwdriver. I have a set of Park Tool Brushes that I really like because I can do all my cleaning with them. There is also a Pedros brush kit that is currently cheaper than the Park Tool kit and also has an extra brush.

You can use a flat pan or pie tins to scrub your chain with brushes and chain cleaner or put your chain and a little cleaning solvent in a jug or large bottle that closes tightly and shake the jug. Remove the chain by fishing it out with a wire hanger. Repeat if it is still dirty. When the chain is clean, dry it with clean rags or an air compressor if you have one and then put it back on the bicycle.

There are also on-the-bike chain cleaners like the Park Tool Chain Scrubber that clip onto your bike chain and have brushes and a reservoir that holds cleaning solvent. These are very user friendly and come with instructions on how to use them.

When doing a bicycle chain cleaning, it's a good idea to clean the other parts of the drivetrain, including the chain rings, rear sprockets, jockey wheels and derailleurs. For more information on how to clean the drivetrain and the rest of your mountain bike, please visit our page on Bicycle Cleaning

That's it! Your bicycle chain cleaning is done. Don't forget to lubricate your chain after cleaning it. Make sure it is completely dry before lubricating it.

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