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I've started cleaning my mountain-bike chain more regularly, using this process:

  1. Wash off mud.
  2. Use chain-cleaner tool with de-greaser.
  3. Wash off de-greaser.
  4. Dry chain (see below).
  5. Re-lube with wet lube.
  6. Wipe off excess lube with rag/paper.

The bit I'm having trouble with is #4 (dry chain). What's a good way to achieve that? Currently, I do this:

  1. Dry chain as far as possible with rag/paper.
  2. Squirt GT-85 all over chain to drive out water.
  3. Dry chain (again) with rag/paper.

...but even then it's clearly not dry enough, because when I put the new lube on the whole lot emulsifies into a brown gloopy mess :-(

At this time of year (winter) I'm normally doing all this when I get home after a couple of hours riding and a couple of pints in the pub - late at night, in the dark, outside in the freezing cold, often in the rain - so I'm looking for a quick solution that doesn't involve a workshop (which I don't have, far less an air compressor).

I've tried leaving it overnight before putting the lube on, but in cold weather it's still not dry in the morning. And it tends to form surface rust too...

Do I just need a better (fluffier?) rag? Or is it simply not realistic to be able to clean it and re-lube it within 15 mins?

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    Old towels make good rags for this, but in cold damp conditions the reality is the chain isn't going to get properly dry. Personally I gave up on winter MTB maintenance and bought a singlespeed MTB with rust proof chain. It's inevitably worn out by spring, but is super cheap to replace and worth it for the lack of hassle. – Andy P Jan 31 at 15:49
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    I wouldn’t go through all this hassle. If it’s really dirty you can wash it with a garden hose, then wipe it down with old clothes and oil it the next day. I guess you could use compressed air or a hair dryer to speed up the drying process if you want to oil immediately. – Michael Jan 31 at 16:27
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    Why are you doing this "twice a week" ? Seems excessive. – Criggie Feb 1 at 8:05
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    For that level of muck on the bike, I'd use a handheld garden hose sprayer and wash it off outside over a lawn. Then dry it in the sun. And I'd ride a dedicated commuter bike to work - a full suspension bike is overkill for a commute and its a lot more stealable. – Criggie Feb 1 at 23:41
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    @Criggie: hose - check. Sun - don't make me laugh, I live in Scotland :-) FS overkill: it would be possible to get to work entirely on the road, but I make it my goal to commute entirely off road :-) – Gary McGill Feb 4 at 10:34
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A method I've used a lot is after the chain is thoroughly clean but still wet, use an old hair dryer rigged up to be pointed into a small bucket, in which the chain is sitting in a wire basket or similarly suspended. It takes about three minutes to get the chain dry and hot. At the particular shop I was at where this was the protocol, we'd then pull the chain out with a spoke and dip it into a jar of Boeshield T9 for a few seconds, then pull out and let drip dry. The heat does a lot to pull the lube into the inners of the chain, and the results look and feel like a new chain out of the package. I imagine a lot of lubes would have the same result, although you need to develop the system in a way that doesn't cause fires (choice of lube and how hot you get it).

An old toaster oven would probably work too.

  • So, take the chain off the bike, then? That would make a lot of things easier (and more comfortable), but is it realistic to remove and reattach the chain twice a week? I've never removed a chain but my understanding is that even quick links cannot be constantly re-used. – Gary McGill Jan 31 at 17:40
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    There aren't any good ways I know of to get the chain dry while still on the bike other than let it sit however long it takes. How good of an idea it is to re-use a quick link does depend on which one, but the short answer there is it's not manufacturer sanctioned for a lot of them. (Whether it can be safely on a selective or limited basis is another question, and I think there are questions here about it). In general though you don't want to be doing this level of cleaning so frequently, and if you're finding you need to then you might revisit either your lube choice or application technique. – Nathan Knutson Jan 31 at 18:38
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A mix of GT85 and chain oil isn't necessarily a good idea anyway. One beater bike of mine generally has its chain oiled with GT85 alone, which I use all over the chain and front/rear mechs to reduce surface rust (it's kept outside work) but the better bikes get proper oiling.

A fluffier rag won't get into the rollers, but these can largely be dried by spinning the chain, either on a stand or by riding a couple of hundred metres fast in the smallest chainring. So you can wipe down, spin, wipe down and that will get most of the water off. The rags I use are old T-shirts or bedsheets becuase they shed fewer fibres into moving parts than old towels. Paper towel is rubbish for this sort of thing - it either falls to bits or it's too stiff and not absorbent enough.

Assuming you use wet lube to oil your chain you can apply it to a damp (not soaking) chain, and work it in. I do one drop per roller and back-pedal by hand until the whole chain has been round several times, before wiping off the excess, and that's noticably smoother and clearer of surface rust than if I leave it to dry overnight (in an unheated built-in garage).

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This isn't something I've tried, and I suspect it would be horribly wasteful in practice, but you could try a quick rinse of isopropyl alcohol just before drying out a towel/rag/etc might help.

I've used it for smaller items that I wanted to dry quickly; it's not magic but it will get mostly dry quicker than just water would.

Of course, if the concern is that your fingers are freezing, this might not be any improvement at all.

  • Isopropyl alcohol is great for stuff you want to dry quickly after cleaning as it evaporates very quickly. Just make sure it's compatible with the other greases and lubes, and not harmful to any of the materials you'll be using it on. – A C Feb 1 at 1:55
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Wipe off as much water as possible with a rag. apply hair dryer or a heat gun (careful with a heat gun though, those things can burn off paint, melt plastic and even degrade epoxy in carbon fiber composite.)

When I wash my bike I blow excess water off it with a leaf blower and wipe it down with a clean rag. (The water where I live is quite hard and leaves a white residue if allowed to air dry). I don't have problems with my chain rusting.

Shop-Vac style vacuum cleaners also work quite well, with the hose connected to the 'blow' side and a small-diameter attachment adapter.

  • That's a good warning about using a heat gun - I'd considered that, but hadn't thought about what it might do to the rest of the bike. I don't own a leaf-blower, but anyway I think my neighbours would have something to say about me using one of those at 11pm on a weeknight :-) – Gary McGill Jan 31 at 17:37
  • Small air compressor would be good to blow off water as well, but they are not quiet when running either. – JPhi1618 Jan 31 at 19:12
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Try a different oil. Your MTB chain lube should be able to withstand the amount of water left in a rag dried chain. I wipe the chain dry with an absorbent rag and oil it immediately, I never had a problem.

In winter, one option is 'give up' keeping it clean, spend 2 seconds with a chain measuring tool and replace chain when its worn (or in spring if that comes first).

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It's not terribly eco-friendly, but try a can of compressed air. It doesn't need a workshop or electrical outlet, it's portable and quiet, fairly cheap, and it generally works quite well on non-porous surfaces where it can just blow off surface water. Just make sure you get in all the little nooks and crannies -- oh, and don't turn it upside down or shake it (as you appear to dislike the freezing cold). I'd include a link but it's usually not worth buying it online - shipping canned air is expensive.

  • It's a good excuse to buy a compressor :) – Criggie Feb 1 at 23:42
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There is no need for all that work!

First wipe the chain with a rag.

Next, use a chain washer and commercial chain cleaner fluid. If you're really obsessive, drain & refresh the cleaner fluid and give it a second wash. (You can store the dirty washer fluid in a jug for a couple of days, then decant & reuse the clear stuff off the top, if you want to conserve resources.)

Wipe the chain with a rag again.

Lubricate with your preferred chain oil.

Note that you never need to remove the chain from the bike.

  • That's pretty similar to the technique in my question? Other than the steps relating to getting the chain dry, which was the point of the question :-) You say there's no need to dry it, but the oil-and-water mix I ended up with says otherwise. (To be fair, I think working in freezing temperatures didn't help - I think things would be very much easier in a warm climate). – Gary McGill Feb 1 at 9:50
  • @GaryMcGill - Where did I say to use water? – Daniel R Hicks Feb 1 at 12:51
  • Aaaahhh... :-) OK, sort of like taking clothes to the dry-cleaners, then! Interesting. Doesn't the residual cleaner stick around inside the chain and react with the new lube? (The directions for the de-greaser I use say to wash it off with water; maybe a "chain cleaner fluid" is a different animal - I'll google it). – Gary McGill Feb 1 at 14:14
  • @GaryMcGill -- Yep, "chain cleaner fluid" is a different beast from "de-greaser". – Daniel R Hicks Feb 1 at 19:23

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