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Looking at videos of cleaning bicycle chains online, it seems like an inevitably tedious process. Getting the muck out of the links especially. For example, as described in this video. I'm thinking, what if I spent a few minutes every other day or so, cleaning and re-greasing just a few links at a time. I could just turn the chain to a random position and pick a few links. I should be covering the entire chain once every few weeks. Are there any downsides of doing it this way?

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    The downside is that you would be wasting a lot of time when you could be doing something useful. Just wipe down the chain with a rag as he shows closer to the beginning of the video. All that flossing with a shoelace is nearly useless. If you want to do better, remove the chain and submerge it in a cleaning solution and then scrub with an old toothbrush. Commented Jun 28 at 1:38
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    That video is wrong. To clean the chain properly, you have to do it as shown on Sheldon Brown's web site : sheldonbrown.com/chainclean.html
    – mattnz
    Commented Jun 28 at 6:22
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    Downsides? Not if you love cleaning your hands very often and still have dirty hands all the time. Commented Jun 29 at 23:04
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    You should use a clip-on chain cleaner. Super simple to use and you are done in a couple of minutes.
    – hlovdal
    Commented Jun 30 at 16:31

5 Answers 5

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When it comes to chain cleaning, you really consider the value of your time compared to the cost of a new chain. The only essential thing to do is a splash of lube regularly, along with checking chain wear and replace the chain when worn.

How you clean is very personal. For many of us, chain cleaning time is wasted riding time. We aim for quick and effective enough, if not perfectly clean. This extends chain life without wasting time.

The technique shown in the video is not quick so fails what most people find most important. Cleaning a few links a day is neither quick or effective - the dirt from the links next to the cleaned ones will quickly migrate to the cleaned links as it transfers onto cogs and back onto the chain.

"..it seems like an inevitably tedious process"

It does not need to be. A chain cleaner such as Parktool CM-5.3 makes chain cleaning quick and effective enough. If you want to do better, remove the chain and wash in a bath of solvent, dry, install and lube is not tedious at all, but does take longer.

The method shown is not cleaning the chain very well, all it is doing is cleaning the outside surfaces. It is not getting the dirt out of the internal surfaces where the chain wear occurs. Good for keeping your pants clean and filling in time, but that is about it.

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There are two aspects to be understood when it comes to chain maintenance, and you need to understand how your chain is composed, most importantly, that the part contacting the teeth is not fixed, but is a roller, that needs to be able to rotate.

First, there's dirt abrasing your sprockets.
Dirt clings to the outside, i.e. all visible parts, of your chain. This dirt rubs on the contact surfaces of chain and sprockets, wearing your sprockets out. You want as little of this dirt as possible, to extend the lifetime of chains and sprockets. To achieve this, first, remove the dirt regularly (duh...!) but more important, keep the visible parts of your chain free from excess lubricant. The reason behind this is that dirt sticks to your chain because of the lubricant, and together with the lubricant it forms an abrasive paste.

Second, there's lack of lubricant, resulting in abrasion of the rollers, which is what makes your chain become longer with wear. A longer chain, in turn, means that the distance between two rollers becomes bigger, consequently no longer matching the distance of two teeth on your sprockets, which means that the power applied while pedaling is no longer evenly distributed over several teeth and chain links, but bites into the last tooth that currently is in contact with the chain, and only with the last chain roller that currently has contact with the sprocket. This, in turn, wears out your teeth and your chain more than it should.

Consequently, you want to make sure that the inside of your chain, i.e. the the inside of the rollers, is well lubricated, to allow it to roll freely, and not to abrade on the inside. You don't want the outside of your chain to be dripping oil, though, because that would bind all the dust and dirt that gets to the chain.

Your suggestion of cleaning a few links at a time is better than nothing, because it reduces the total amount of grit in your chain, but it doesn't help with lubricating, and those links you just cleaned will pick up the dirt from the other links after only a few turns of the pedal. So, you might (almost) as well not clean anything.

@mattnz suggested a link in the comments, which, as you surely noticed, is a satire. It does point out an important factor, though: While it is in theory possible to have a perfectly maintained chain, it would cost you a fortune, and several times as much as a new chain. So, how much you want to clean and lubricate your chain is a tradeoff between aesthetics, performance, and wear, with wear equaling cost (to replace chains and sprockets).
Personally, i'd suggest cleaning your chain when it looks dirty, then lubricating it, giving i a few spins, then wipe off excess lube. Repeat when it feels like it would be a good idea, but remember that the chain and sprockets will get worn out eventually.

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  • Dirt does not wear sprockets. Worn chains do.
    – juhist
    Commented Jun 30 at 18:06
  • Roller abrasion does not make your chain longer with wear. Pin abrasion is what makes it longer. Roller wear is not a problem, pin wear is.
    – juhist
    Commented Jun 30 at 18:07
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First, that video is insane. I would never bother to clean a chain that way.

If I want to get a chain "clean enough," I use a clip-on chain cleaner with degreaser. This takes maybe 5 minutes. If I want to get it cleaner than that, I remove the chain and soak it in degreaser, agitating periodically.

A better solution is to use a waxed chain. It's a pain to get started with waxing, since you need to meticulously strip all the existing lubricant from the chain before waxing it, which is a tedious, multi-step process (although there are products now that make this easier, or you can buy a pre-waxed chain). But waxed chains just don't hold onto gunk by their nature, and to the extent that they do get dirty, the dirt washes off easily. Wax does need to be reapplied more often than "wet lube," either in the form of dipping in hot wax or applying drip wax.

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    I use a clip-on chain cleaner with degreaser. Yes, these are wonderful. They are super simple to use and gives excellent results in just a couple of minutes. I see no reason OP should need anything else.
    – hlovdal
    Commented Jun 30 at 16:28
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I could just turn the chain to a random position and pick a few links. I should be covering the entire chain once every few weeks. Are there any downsides of doing it this way?

The problem in this case is that your chain isn't in a standardized state.

If you clean your entire chain at once, then lubricate it at once, every chain link is approximately in the same state. Approximately the same amount of dirt, approximately the same amount of lubricant.

So then you can at every time use a chainwear tool at any position of the chain, and get a good reading that would be consistent with the tool in any other position.

However, if you pick few random links, clean and lubricate, then some links may receive more cleaning and lubrication than others. This means a chainwear tool is a hit and miss thing, it will give wildly inconsistent results depending on the position you use it in. So in practice you would need to use it on every possible position and pick the worst one.

Furthermore, if you ever encounter a lots of rain, you will have to lubricate the entire chain anyway since it's squeaking. Doing it few links at a time will just delay the lubrication, destroying some links in your chain due to inadequate lubrication.

I recommend that you avoid preventive chain maintenance anyway and only clean and lubricate when it's starting to squeak, to save your time. Lubricating a chain should be permitted only if it's clean, and cleaning the chain requires so much work that you don't want to do it unless it requires new lubricant.

Yes, it might take 20 minutes to clean and lubricate properly, but if you do it every 1500km or so, it's not a disaster.

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Said more succinctly, the good methods of cleaning a chain can clean a whole chain easily. I am talking about an on-bike chain cleaner, or removing the chain and shaking it in a bottle of solvent (needs a reusable quick link to repeat). In fact, with those methods, it's not practical to clean a few links at a time.

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