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My chain and cogs always look very dirty as the oil attracts dirt. It is a constant problem as you can't fully avoid stains on your trousers and hands. Also, that looks ugly and I believe it wears the chain and the cassette out as the particles stuck on chain act as abrasive.

I used to think that was unavoidable, but then I noticed that on some bikes the chain and cogs are shiny clean. Is that because their owners clean the chain daily (because honestly one day is enough for a chain to turn black after full cleaning) or because they use different lubrication solutions?

I heard about teflon-based lubricants, are they really much better in that sense than traditional oil-based ones? Also, these bikes with shiny chains were always single-speed bikes - does that mean geared system experience more traction and should be traditionally oiled?

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related question about chain lubricant here. And you can find here instructions how you can clean dirty chains. You need to take them off and clean them separately. It is impossible to have "an always clean chain" but an old sock and a proper lube (to take off the dirty and lubricate) will lead you to the right way. -Yes, lube is also a dirt-exctractor! Do not let the dirt kill internals. –  user652 Jul 28 '11 at 11:34

9 Answers 9

up vote 15 down vote accepted

When you clean and then lube your chain ALWAYS take a towel and wipe off the excess lube. Just hold the towel on the chain and spin the crank backwards. And as mentioned above use a strap around you pants leg. A large rubber band works. A timing chip strap worn in triathlons work... those velcro watch bands work... lots of ways here.

Your hands will always get grimy if you have to touch the chain.

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This. I relube and clean the chain on a bike after about a week of use. This keeps the chain shiny and extends its life greatly. My last chain got nearly 3,000mi of use and lasted just shy of a year. –  Stephen Touset Jul 27 '11 at 14:54
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This, yes. But not just this. See STW's much more thorough answer on this page. There is far more to this than just that. –  zenbike Jul 28 '11 at 1:54
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STW's answer is comprehensive, but using a full chain cleaner and washing it off in rubbing alcohol is IMHO overkill. It's a $30 part, and simply wiping/lubing it is enough to extend its life dramatically. The extra hassle and expense of doing such a dramatic clean so often is quite simply not worth it. –  Stephen Touset Aug 1 '11 at 15:57
    
@Stephen -- The additional cost and effort isn't bad; I've estimated about $1.50 for materials for each full cleaning. I do the chain at the same time I clean the drivetrain and entire bike. For me this is done about once a month, and might take an extra 15-20 minutes total to get the chain fully clean. –  STW Aug 2 '11 at 17:10

You can use a wax based lube instead of an oil/teflon based lube. Your chain and cassette will always be clean, however, you will have to apply the wax lube much more often. I do it every second day (40-60km/day). This might seem like a pain, but applying lube is so much easier than cleaning the cassette/chain. Also, there will be no black on your chain ever - you can run it through your hand and nothing will come off! The only thing I do to clean the chain is once a month or so run the chain over an old toothbrush to get rid of built up wax. Good luck!

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My solution for bike chains is constant, low-key maintenance. This avoids having a huge mess to deal with. I think of it like tooth-brushing - do a little every day and you will never have a major problem. Avoid it for weeks, and you will need heavy-duty intervention! I have written a post about this approach, complete with videos. It's aimed at average people who are not bike mechanics and want a simple, clearly-illustrated method. You can find my `article on how to keep your bike chain clean and lubed here: http://averagejoecyclist.com/tag/bike-chains/.

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Welcome to Bicycles SE. This community tends to frown on self-promotion. We also prefer answers to be self-contained, i.e., summarize the information in your linked article within the body of your answer. –  jimirings Dec 5 at 14:06

Bring the oil to 130F or the temperature specified by the bottle.

Hotter oil means thinner oil.

The hot oil will penetrate your chain and when cooled again, will remain there.

About all that cleaning. It's greatly exaggerated. it's a chain. it's probably cheaper to replace it than to clean. Not saying that you should not clean, but water, soap, a rag, and reapplying oil after dry should be enough!

All you people suggesting that a person that does not own a bike shop to buy chain cleaner gear and expensive products should be ashamed. it's like redirecting them here http://sheldonbrown.com/chainclean.html

Ride. when the chain is full of grime or too noise. clean and oil again.

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+1 for Sheldon Brown –  memnoch_proxy Aug 3 '11 at 4:34
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Regarding the exaggeration of cleaning, if you have expensive chain, cassette and chainrings then a dirty chain will wear those down quicker. Taking the time to do things correctly will save you money on the long run. –  cherouvim Jul 30 '13 at 9:51
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but on the other hand, cleaning too often will make you waste more time than you would need to work and buy a new expensive set :) –  gcb Jul 30 '13 at 17:27
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"Chain cleaner gear and expensive products" is relatively inexpensive. And it's simple and quick to use -- far simpler than replacing a chain, even if the chain is free (which it isn't). –  Daniel R Hicks Jul 30 '13 at 19:23

I use Rem-Oil for my chain. I wipe it clean by spinning the crank many times with a towel in hand and wrapped around the chain. I do this until there is very little black goo coming off. I then again spin the crank and spray Rem-Oil down into the links and let it sit for maybe like 10 mins or so at least. I then come back to it and spin the crank with another towel until it the towel again is not longer leaving black goo marks. This works very well for me and i ride maybe 200 miles a week and do it at least once a week. Rem-Oil is cheap so this has been good for me. I used Rem-Oil while in Iraq and my rifle was typically always cleaner than everyone elses due to the fact that dust never stuck to it unlike issued CLP. For this reason i trust it on my bike chain and it works!

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I don't like exposing myself to degreaser. I tend to soak in Simple Green solution and then promptly oil. Not perfect, good enuf if I happen to be replacing a link or what.

Cyclists train themselves to avoid touching their chain and then glumly smirk when someone points out their calf tattoo. I have many pairs of shorts that look much older than they are because I've picked up my bike too casually. Keeping a chain clean is likely solving a problem with too much effort. Alternatives to regular deep cleaning your chain include:

  • A chaincase. The reason most bicycles lack a chaincase is due to vanity and economics, and most civilian bicycle endeavors would benefit from your bicycle having a chaincase

  • A bashgaurd. This plate goes over your large chainring and keeps your cuff out of the teeth

  • A belt drive bike. Only some bikes can be retrofitted to a belt drive, but if you're in the market for a new bike, a belt drive is quieter, more resilient, easier on the knees, and mighty clean.

I get around to cleaning my own chain(s) on weekends as I have time. If I see a shiny chain, I chuckle. I'm way too busy to polish my links.

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There's lots of good info here, let me summarize my cleaning routine which combines many of the approaches already mentioned, and keeps the chain in good condition and appearance. This focuses on getting the chain totally clean and dry (no water, degreaser, or lube) before re-oiling it; and then on removing as much excess oil as possible. The end goal is a very clean chain with just enough oil--excess oil will quickly attracts grime.

Cleaning:

  • First the chain gets a wipe-down with a damp rag to remove as much sand and grime as possible. This is just to knock the worst of it off the chain.
  • Second the chain gets two passes with degreaser. I use the Park Tool Chain Gang cleaner which zenbike recommended for this. It gets filled with degreaser, and gets about 30x cranks on the pedals; then a fresh batch of degreaser goes in and it gets another 30x cranks. At this point the chain should be quite clean except for the degreaser.
  • Third the chain gets washed in 91% rubbing alcohol--this is primarily to wash off the degreaser, but it also gets the last of the grime. Sometimes this takes two rounds--the last round of alcohol should remain quite clean.
  • Fourth the chain is left to dry for ~5-10 minutes (just long enough for the alcohol to evaporate off). At this point the chain should be totally clean and dry with no degreaser left anywhere on the drivetrain--move quickly onto re-oiling, as a dry chain is vulnerable to corrosion.

Lubricating:

  • First the new oil goes on, 1x drop per chain roller. After applying I let it sit for a couple minutes without turning the cranks to let the oil seep into the internals.

  • Second I spend a few minutes slowly running the chain through a clean rag to remove most of the excess--maybe a couple-minutes worth.

  • Third I let the bike sit for a few minutes, then wipe the chain again, and repeat a couple times. The oil inside the links will slowly seep out of the next day or so--so this step is just to remove that excess oil as it appears.

  • Finally I give the chain a wipe before and after the first couple rides. Again just to remove the excess oil as it seeps from the internals.

I usually do this routine every 100-250 miles, depending on how fast the chain grimes up. The goal is to have a very light layer of oil over the externals of the chain, and as much oil internally as it will accept. If you notice the chain is staying too dry, but not dirty, then you can re-oil without cleaning and repeat the process of cleaning off the excess.

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nice answer! well done. –  jackJoe Jul 28 '11 at 14:30
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goodness, I wouldn't take that much effort on my chain even if I were retired –  memnoch_proxy Aug 3 '11 at 5:50
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I followed this advice (approximately) and was extremely happy with the results: thanks. –  Ronald Apr 17 '12 at 0:01
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@memnoch_proxy: It depends on how much you value riding your bicycle. –  cherouvim Jul 30 '13 at 9:11
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@CareyGregory - If I insisted on doing the whole process three times, then I'd agree :) –  STW Jul 31 '13 at 18:14

Usually a clean chain is due to the bike simply not being ridden (much). You can look at the tires and see no wear, no scratches on the bike, etc. These bikes are ridden by CSOs -- cyclist shaped objects.

But you can keep your chain relatively clean several ways. A chain cleaner/washer tool similar to what zenbike shows helps a lot (but don't overuse it). Then use a relatively "dry" chain oil. "Dry" means that the "oil" consists of Teflon and/or wax particles suspended in a solvent. When it is applied the solvent evaporates, leaving the more solid material behind, but not leaving the chain sticky. (The bike shop guy will be able to point you to the chain oils, and many/most will say "wet" or "dry" on the label.)

(NB: For riding in wet weather, though, you should use a "wet" oil, one that is more like a traditional motor oil in composition. It's still best to use a purpose-made bike oil, though.)

But mostly you need to embrace the grime. If you're wearing regular trousers, use a leg strap to hold the chain-side trouser leg tight to the leg. (This also prevents getting the cuff hung up in the chain or on the sprocket.) For your hands, carry a pair of disposable "surgical" gloves, in case you need to muck with the chain.

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+1 for the CSO terminology. Although you can generally (not always) tell cyclists from CSO by the shape of their body. –  Kibbee Jul 27 '11 at 15:23
    
Yeah, but you can see a $2000 bike standing there and not know if it belongs to a cyclist or a CSO without studying it for wear. –  Daniel R Hicks Jul 27 '11 at 16:26
    
I keep a pair of nilprene gloves in my bike bag on all my bikes. This is super smart if you bike with little kids, as if you need to monkey on the chain, you don't want to grease up your toddlers. –  memnoch_proxy Aug 3 '11 at 5:52
    
The guy who runs BikeHacks keeps an old sock tied to his seatpost for when he needs to touch the chain. –  Hugo Nov 5 '11 at 23:04

There are a number of reasons why a chain will get dirty quickly. One is the type of lube used, and how it is applied. Too much lube is as bad as too little for that reason.

See this answer to see how to Lube your chain properly.

There are tools as well to allow you to clean more efficiently, and more often, like this:

Park Tool Chain Gang Cleaning set

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So it is about regular cleaning, not about one lubricant making much better sense in terms of keeping the chain clean than another? –  Yuriy Jul 27 '11 at 10:54
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It is about both. Different lubricants are better suited for different areas of the world better than others, based on weather, and conditions. One thing that makes them better is how the conditions affect how quickly the chain picks up dirt. In addition, it's about how the lube you use is applied, since if you apply it wrong or too liberally, it will pick up dirt faster. The "one day" that it takes yours to get dirty implies to me that lube is applied to heavily. –  zenbike Jul 27 '11 at 11:09
    
Maybe people who like a really clean chain will takes theirs off the bike and wash it by immersing it. –  ChrisW Jul 27 '11 at 14:43
    
@ChrisW, that works as well, of course, but it requires in many cases that you either use a master link, which I prefer not to do because I've personally had too many fail, and if you don't then you must break the chain, which weakens the rivets at each link, unless you use a replacement pin, which in turn limit how many times you can break the chain before you replace it. It also takes more time, so I prefer this way. It is by no means the only way. –  zenbike Jul 27 '11 at 14:48
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I'm a bit lazy about cleaning my chain, so I tend to be thorough when I do clean it and immerse the chain in degreaser overnight. (Despite having one of those Park Tool chain cleaners - they're convenient but can make a bit of a mess.) However, for those who want their chain truly and thoroughly clean, there's the ShelBroCo Bicycle Chain Cleaning System. –  Neil Fein Jul 28 '11 at 3:10

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