How to Clean and Lubricate a Bicycle Chain

Updated: Apr. 27, 2023

Here's how to choose the right chain lube and keep your bike rolling smoothly in all kinds of conditions.

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Time

30 minutes

Complexity

Beginner

Cost

$5–10

Introduction

Whether you're a fitness junkie or just like to ride a few blocks to the playground in the summer, bicycling is a great way to get outside and enjoy the fresh air.

But like any piece of equipment with a complex series of moving parts, bicycles require some simple routine cleaning and maintenance to stay on the road and roll smoothly. Keeping your drivetrain free of debris and properly lubricated is essential, and it's something you can do yourself.

Here, I'll demonstrate how to clean and lubricate your bicycle chain, and what factors to consider when choosing a chain lube. Then the next time you're ready to hit the road or the trail, your bicycle will be as well.

Tools Required

  • Clean shop towels
  • Empty container
  • nitrile gloves
  • Plastic putty knife
  • Toothbrush or other soft brush

Materials Required

  • Bicycle chain lubricant
  • Bicycle degreaser

Project step-by-step (8)

Step 1

Position the Bike

Start by propping your bicycle against a wall, outdoors or inside your garage or basement. If you have a bicycle work stand, that would be ideal. If not, position it so the bike feels stable and you can rotate the pedals backwards without hitting anything.

To prevent spills and splatters, place some flattened cardboard boxes under the bicycle and on the wall behind it, especially if you’re working inside in a finished area.

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Step 2

Inspect the Chain

Look for the following:

  • Damaged side plates;
  • Protruding rivets;
  • Any twist in the chain;
  • The chain won’t sit fully into the sprocket teeth;
  • Rust;
  • A seized chain.

If any of these issues exist, a professional tune-up should be done, more than likely in conjunction with a full bike chain replacement.

Step 3

Clean the Cassette and Chain Rings

Begin by cleaning the sprockets on your bike’s cassette, crank set and derailleur pulleys with a dry soft bristled brush or old toothbrush.
In some cases, it may be necessary to scrape the sides of the sprockets with the blade of a plastic putty knife to remove caked-on dirt. Or use a section of shop towel to “floss” between each sprocket to free loose debris.

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Step 4

Scrub the Chain

Place a small amount of bicycle specific degreaser, Simple Green or WD-40 Bike Cleaner and Degreaser, into a container. This is less messier than spraying the degreaser directly on the chain.

Use a soft bristle brush or toothbrush to vigorously scrub all four sides of a six-inch section of chain between the crank set and rear derailleur.

Wipe any drips with a shop towel and advance the chain by turning the pedals backwards. Repeat the process in six-inch increments until the entire chain has been scrubbed on all four sides.

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Step 5

Wipe it Clean

Moisten a clean part of the shop towel with degreaser. While holding it on the chain, advance the chain through the towel a few times. Cleaning a chain this way not only removes grime and debris, but also any remaining lubrication.

You only need to scrub your chain this thoroughly after sloppy rides through mud or salt-laden snow, or if you’re switching from one style of lubricant to another. Otherwise, a quick wipe down with a clean shop towel will suffice.

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Step 6

Choosing the Right Lubricant for Your Riding

The type of lubricant will depend on the type of riding you do and where you ride most often. There are two main types, wet and dry.

Finish Line Wet Bike Lubricant Ecomm Amazon.comvia merchant

Wet

Choose a thicker viscosity wet lubricant if you ride in wet and humid conditions, or on clean pavement streets or bike paths.

Wet lubricants pick up dirt, dust, and grime as you ride, making them unsuitable for dirt roads and mountain bike trails. And because they go in wet and stay wet, you can apply a few minutes before you go out for a ride.

Best for:

  • Wet and clean riding conditions;
  • Those who maintain a clean and lubricated drivetrain.

Finish Line Dry Teflon Bicycle Chain Lube, 4 Ounce Drip Squeeze Bottle Ecomm Amazon.comvia merchant

Dry

Dry bike lubes go on the same as wet lubes but dry into more of a”chain wax.” They’re best for dusty mountain bike trails, gravel roads and other areas with abundant dirt and dust.

Be sure to apply a few hours before a ride so it can dry. Otherwise, you’re asking for a gummed-up drivetrain.

Best for:

  • Dusty and dirty riding conditions;
  • Those who don’t wash their bicycle often.
Step 7

Lubricate the Chain

Place the bottle dropper of your chosen lubricant on top of the chain. Gently squeeze a drop on the rollers of each link while slowly advancing the chain backwards. This will ensure the roller catches the lubricant as it advances past.

Applied the lube to chain’s inner components, not its outer surfaces. Avoid advancing your chain too quickly and flinging excess lubricant onto other components.

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Step 8

Wipe Off Excess Lubricant

Advance the chain backward a few more times so the lubricant can work itself between all the chain’s inner components. Let it soak in five to 10 minutes. Wipe off any excess with a clean shop towel. Be more diligent wiping side faces of the chain rather than the internal parts. If it’s dry lube, allow the chain to dry for at least an hour before riding.

Clean off any drips or splatter on your wheels, tires, or other components. Then go have some fun.

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