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Keeping Your Bike Chain In Top Shape

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Your bike chain is a crucial component transmitting pedaling power to the wheels. So keeping it clean and lubed maintains efficient pedaling and shifting performance. Learn when and how to properly clean chains along with lubricant selection for maximum drivetrain longevity.

How Chains Get Dirty

Road grit, mud, dust, and moisture are chief culprits dirtying chains as miles accumulate. These contaminants infiltrate inner rollers and plates that must glide smoothly together. External grime also carries moisture inside promoting corrosion and rust compromising strength.

Shifting performance suffers as particles clog narrow gaps between cogs and chain sideplates. A gritty chain readily skips over gears or hesitates dropping onto larger sprockets. Stuck links also make trimming across cassette ranges jerkier.

While riding in wet weather worsens contamination, airborne dust flakes into drivetrains on dry roads too. Coasting downhill sucks debris inside chains as well. So regular cleaning is essential no matter what terrain you cover.

When to Clean and Lube

Addressing chain maintenance by mileage instead of a strict schedule makes more sense allowing for riding conditions. Clean and lube every 300 to 400 miles in wet, muddy settings. But stretching that interval to 500 miles works for predominately dry roads.

Perform mid-ride lubing if riding all day or consecutive days. Apply fresh lubricant atop existing grease still intact instead of stripping it completely. This quick reapplication restores slippery effectiveness as factory lube washes away mile by mile. It also displaces smaller particulates before they irrevocably grind gears and pins.

Inspect visually too. Darkened and dry looking links accompanied by increased mechanical noise means it’s overdue for cleaning and lubrication. The chain lacks protection allowing further contaminant infiltration and component wear. Delaying risks expensive drivetrain damage.

Proper Chain Cleaning Technique

Quality cleaning prevents premature chain and sprocket replacement saving money. Solvent and brushes alone fail flushing all grime out from between inner rollers and sideplate joints. Cleaning machines utilize tumbling actions with multiple solvent baths to extract grime so chains run clean and silent.

Fill a small bucket with the recommended amount of bicycle-specific degreaser and place the chain inside. For severely dirty chains, allow soaking for a few hours before scrubbing. Use an old toothbrush to dislodge packed sediment around pins, inner links and outer plates. Rinse clean with water.

Spin chain checking for lingering debris or stiff links. Repeat scrub brushes and solvent baths if necessary. Once gleaming, let air dry completely before applying lubricant. Any lingering moisture inside promotes corrosion forming rust compromising strength.

Choose the Correct Chain Lube

Matching lube viscosity to regional riding conditions provides longer drivetrain lifespan over misapplying heavy duty wet lube in a dusty climate. Manufacturers formulate lubricants based on average terrain their customer base encounters. So use drier lubricants in arid regions while wetter, thicker lubes suit muckier riding.

Check labels for descriptive terms like “dry”, “wet”, “muddy” directing best conditions for that lube. Some versatile blends bridge multiple settings but last a bit less time between reapplications. Consider keeping a separate dry reservoir lube for dusty summer conditions, and wetter cold-weather lube to prevent winter rain washout.

Many newer lubricants utilize advanced polymers, wax emulsions, and even Teflon for maintaining optimum viscosity across wide ranging humidity and temperatures while protecting metal. Their sophisticated chemical formulations require fewer mid-ride re-lubes over traditional oils while minimizing dirty grime attraction.

But basic quality petroleum lubes work fine for shorter hourly rides in average conditions when regularly reapplied too. Save expensive exotic lubricants for competitive all-weather cyclists logging high miles and marathon sessions between washes.

Proper Chain Lubrication Method

With so many lube options available from aerosol spray cans to drip bottles, brush top applicators and even wax sticks, settling on your lubricant is the first step. Next comes learning ideal application for maximum longevity.

If over-applying or adding lube atop exterior grime, excess grease just attracts more filth from roads while providing negligible internal chain penetration. That leads to black gunk coagulating links and premature wear. Applying lubricant to a warm chain post-ride allows the grease to flow down between inner rollers. Pedal it gently backwards while dripping oil across entire widths of inner plates where they contact sprockets. This allows lube to wick throughout joints.

Let the freshly oiled chain alone for several hours or overnight for solvents to evaporate while polymer additives set up protective barriers. Buff any visible exterior grease buildup with a rag before riding to prevent grabbing grit. Store bikes inside away from dust to extend re-lube intervals.

Over time the original lubricant washes away with riding leaving protective additives clinging to metal surfaces. When pedaling becomes noisy or shifting hesitates, it’s reapplication time.

When to Replace a Chain

As chains wear from use, their bushings and pins slowly elongate putting tension on cogs and chainrings wearing them excessively too. Indicators including skipping gears signal replacement time before ruining far pricier cassette and ring sets.

Measuring chain stretch is the definitive gauge for deciding when upgrading makes sense economically. As elongation surpasses .75 percent of overall length, sprocket tooth damage is imminent. Check manuals for the measurement process or have shops demonstrate the quick check.

Visibly, chains with loose sideways play, bent or frozen links, and cracked outer plates warrant replacement as well. Discoloration and rust outbreaks indicate internal deterioration too, though surface rust is normal and harmless with proper lubing. Consider upgrading to higher end chains featuring advanced corrosion fighting steel alloys and seamless construction.

Chain and Sprocket Life Cycles

Expect roughly 1,000 to 2,000 miles chain lifespan for lower end models with frequent wet weather riding. Mid-range ones yield around 3,000 miles with proper care. And high quality chains maintain adequate stretch measurements for over 5,000 miles before requiring replacement.

But exceeded chain stretch indirectly damages cogs and rings much sooner. Factor their replacement into yearly equipment budgets after 2-3 worn chains fully torqued them down. Rotating between 2-3 chains using a chain checker tool helps get maximum drivetrain life before swapping entire cassettes and cranksets.

Higher tooth sprockets wear faster too since chain angle places more sideways pressure on the profile tips. Inspect the top 3 smallest gears closely while cleaning cassettes. Chunking shark fins on profile edges means replacement time.

Do It Yourself or Shop Assistance

With some basic tools and learning proper methods, bicycle owners can tackle their own chain cleaning and lubrication at home. DIY saves shop labor charges while allowing more frequent cleaning attention as components require. Consider inexpensive cleaning devices simplifying the process such as tumbler tanks and roller brushes with built-in degreasing solution basins.

However replacing a worn chain yourself runs the risk of mismatching components unknowingly if skipping checking precise stretch with calipers. Then the new chain rapidly destroys cassette and chainrings costing far greater to replace later. Let shops assess elongation advising on optimum replacement timing across related transmission parts. They also have professional degreasing equipment capable of completely flushing gritty grime out of chains in just minutes while simple home efforts often fail doing so.

Staying ahead of basic home chain maintenance eliminates sticky gears and keeps cycles smoothly rolling for years through expert assisted component upgrades when measurable elongation exceeds safe limits.

About the Author

Tony K

Senior Technical Writer,

Tony K is a technical editor at He has a focus on downhill bike riding but still loves xc bikes too.

With more than ten years of mountain biking experience and more than 5 years testing mountain bikes, Tony has ridden and tested hundreds of different bikes and products, everything from XC to enduro bikes. Tony regularly competes in mountain bike races while seeing how long those compontents can hold up which gives me a lot of insight.

When he isn't shredding down a mountain or camping out, he is writing reviews for Mountain Bike Experience.

Rides: Surly Lowside, Canyon Exceed