Publisher’s note: This article was written by Tori Bortman. In the coming weeks, Tori will help you Optimize Your Ride by sharing her bike repair tips, tricks and perspectives.
Today’s topic: the chain.
The chain is one of the easiest parts to maintain on your bike; but for some reason, it’s also the most neglected. Maybe some of you are intimidated by chain-tenance? Don’t be. Here’s all you need to know…
Choose a good lube. Look for one that’s not too thick or thin, preferably with a solvent mixed in. My favorite is A.T.B. Lube (which stands for Absolutely The Best). I’m a fan because I want maintenance on my bike to take as little time as possible. Go ahead. Call me lazy (I prefer “efficient”).
You don’t need a bike repair stand! Just flip your ride over so it’s resting on the seat and handlebars and the chain can move freely. Look at the chain as a big loop with an outside surface (the top) and inside surface (the bottom). Grab your pedal, hold the lube bottle and squeeze gently while pedaling for 4-6 rotations (It’s OK if you don’t hit every link). How fast? Sing (out loud if you’d like) “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” pedal to the beat and you’ll be in the ball park. The lube will spread itself out and you’re hitting both sides of the chain. This should take about 30 seconds to a minute.
Just like your stove-top, oily surfaces collect dirt; so make sure to wipe the chain down. Wrap a cloth around the rectangular outer surface of the chain. Grab a pedal for stability and rub a 4-inch section (top and bottom, side and side) until it’s squeaky clean and no more dirt will come off the chain before moving on to the next section. This might take up to 30 seconds per section you grab. That’s right—this will take you 5 minutes longer than oiling, but will leave your chain turning more easily and it will keep your frame and wheels from being sprayed with lube and your pant leg clean all in one go. (Bonus: If you do this correctly, you won’t need to clean your chain of old dirt and debris before you lube it the next time.)
You most likely will need to clean the chain before you oil it the first time. This is also good to do a few times in the life of the chain or if you often ride in mud or grime. Find a good degreaser (e.g. – Simple Green, 409 or Citrisolve) that can cut through the old grease and grime. You can use a fancy chain cleaner contraption available at your local bike store or go for the simpler “scrub with an old used toothbrush” technique. If your chain is incredibly dirty, you can try WD-40 (Caution! This is a great cleaner but a horrible lubricant and is very strong, so use judiciously by spraying on a rag or brush instead of on the chain directly). With any of these you’ll want to wait at least 24 hours before applying your lubricant, otherwise the degreaser left behind will break down the new oil you apply.
This whole routine shouldn’t take long but can extend the life of your chain. Most chains have a life span of 1,500 to 2,000 miles depending on your weight, riding technique and the amount of hills you encounter regularly—and of course how often you lube the chain.
It’s important to have a mechanic check the chain wear occasionally. If you let it go, you’ll have to change the cassette (the rear gears) as well, which can add another $60 – $100 to the cost of a new chain. Not good. The cassette will last through 2-4 new chains if you make sure you lube and check the chain regularly, and that makes for a smooth, fast, and quiet ride into the spring breeze.
— Tori Bortman is the owner of Portland-based Gracie’s Wrench, a business that offers individual and group bike repair classes tailored to your needs. Column sponsorship is available. Please contact info[at]bikeportland[dot]org.
This is one of the best articles on this topic I’ve read.
Since it wasn’t mentioned, I just thought I’d note that on my bike with an internally geared hub and full chaincase, I lube the chain 2-3 times per year, and I usually wipe it off first, then lube it by squirting some lube on a cloth and then just holding the cloth around the chain as I pedal it. I don’t know recommended numbers or anything, but I imagine with the chain case, and with the chain not hopping between sprockets, the average mileage for the chain is probably somewhat greater. I feel like I’ve heard 3-5 years as an average figure somewhere.
Thanks for the note! Since your chain is not only more protected than the average but is likely also a slightly larger width. It’s true that both of those factors make for a much longer lasting chain with less frequency of maintenance than the average unprotected, geared chain.
+1 on the A.T.B. It’s thinner than most other brands but holds up well in wet weather without gunking up your chain.
Shouldn’t the degrease section come before the lube/oil section? The wording seems to imply lube, then degrease, then lube…
me too, but then in the next paragraph it says to clean first… so it’s not a step-by-step guide… read first, then implement…
Nice article. I’d like to point out that WD-40 isn’t just an oil. It’s primarily a solvent with a light oil. It’s good for removing rust from chrome or steel. I used it the other day on a bike trailer I got dirt cheap because the hitch rusted shut. A squirt of WD-40 and some elbow grease was all I needed to get it working again.
Yeah, I’ve heard of people using WD-40 to remove rust from chromed steel rims (like on old Raleighs) as well.
WD was formulated as Water Displacement on the engineering group’s 40th try. It’s mainly solvents(acetone) mixed with oil to penetrate rust, but was not designed to lubricate as the solvents evaporate with residual oil left soaking through the rust and lightly clinging to the base metal.
I use tri flow with teflon because it’s available anywhere, and I’m always losing mine. I don’t know if it’s any good. Also, I try to peddle with as little torque as possible to maintain drive-train components and wheels. Also knees.
Tri-flow is a good second choice next to ATB Lube. It’s very similar but with one big difference: if you read the fine print on the back of the Tri-flow bottle it has to be shaken regularly or the solvent and oil separate from each other. ATB lube makes this step unnecessary.
Good to know. I’m also a firm tri-flow user.
Try and not put your bike on its grips/tape/shifters/brakes/leather(ette)seat, upright works well
Clean jockey wheels
Clean chain again
Choose maybe a non-solvent or least solvent based
One drop per linkplate, both sides
Give a couple of cranks and either let the lube soak in while attending to other parts of the bike or the cats or the kids or the brunch or…..
Wipe excess off chain, chainring(s), jockey wheels
Wipe chain again
Repeat as needed
“…One drop per linkplate, both sides …” daisy
I’m sure it depends some on the type of riding individual people are doing, but for clean road riding, I also go with modest, one drop application of the lube to chains right over the points where rivets and side plates meet. Even taking excess off with a cloth after doing so, slopping lube over the entire chain makes a big, funky gunk collecting mess. Even with one drop on each of the rivet/link connections, some of the lube will generally spread out to other components of the chain. It’s easier and cleaner to put more on than take excess lube off.
One of the things that interested me about this article, was the picture showing the lube bottle with the long, narrow diameter tube to put the lube on. I might get some lube with one of those. The lube I’ve been using, just because it was around: Bones Speed Cream R.F. (it’s been working good.), that I got for skate wheel bearings, has a snubby, one drop tip. Used that lube all up though. Maybe can’t even get it anymore.
Over the years I have tried many lubes (I was a bike mechanic for 15 years) and I always come back to Tri-Flow. Widely available, reasonably priced and not too thick or thin. The only down side is it tends to congeal in the bottle when it gets really cold.
Holy smokes! I ride about 3,000 per year just commuting… that means…
Wow. I gotta get me some chains and keep them around like extra tire tubes.
Yeah but be careful what you scrub those old bikes with. With the WD you can leave some serious scratches on the chrome. Then you have to polish… way longer than 5 minutes for certain.
-I find nitrile gloves are good to use when cleaning my bike, as it keeps my hands clean and they don’t seem to break down when in contact with solvents the way latex gloves do. You can buy large packs of them at Home Depot/Lowes/Etc. for cheap.
-Using a lockring and chainwhip to remove the cassette before cleaning makes the job go SO MUCH more quickly, and you can get the cassette as clean as the day you bought it in about 10 minutes.
-I’ve had good luck with Dumonde Tech brand citrus solvent and bike lube.
-To save on waste, you can filter your solvent and re-use it.
I bought a super old bike which I stripped down and actually used mineral spirits (paint thinner) to clean off the old gunk from the chain, cassette and derailleurs.
Intrigued! What a great idea. AK – any advice on filters one would use?
I think you can get really complex, but the simplest way is to simply let the solvent sit in a sealed container, so the crud can settle to the bottom, then you carefully pour the cleaner solvent off of the top, leaving the dirty stuff at the bottom.
This doesn’t exactly work if you’re just wiping your chain down with a damp rag, but if you are removing components to clean them in a small tub or other container, you can continue to reuse the solvent.
I’ve always thought about getting a cone from an auto parts store and just filtering it through a paper coffee filter, but I’ve never bothered and don’t know if it would work or be worth the cost/hassle.
I like the “let it settle and pour carefully” method for reusing a strong cleaning solvent (like CitruSolv), but when I’m doing a ton of cleaning and reusing solvent in larger batches, I will occasionally take a funnel (like the kind you use for liquids in the kitchen), lay a small (6″ x 6″) square of scrap fabric in it (cotton t-shirt scrap or similar works well), and slowly pour the used solvent through the cloth-lined funnel. The gross stuff stays in the cloth and you can put that in the trash (there is no perfectly green solution here, sorry). The useable solvent is cleared of the most offensive bits and after you let it settle you’re ready to use it again.
Nice article! I know you mention these, but I think 2 things bear repeating since I have seen both errors made many times:
1. Do not use a heavy grease on your chain. It is a dirt/particulate magnet and you will wear down your drive chain much faster.
2. Do make sure you thoroughly clean the lube off your chain after applying it. Leaving it on does not give you “extra lubrication”; it will attract and hold dirt/particulates that will wear down your drive chain much faster.
OK, so I used to be a shop mechanic, Park chain-wear indicator in hand as I wrote service tickets. But what I’ve found since then is that chain maintenance matters surprisingly little. Chain gets noisy, I lube it on the bike and wipe it—end of story. Same cheap SRAM chain and cassette on my road bike since 2004, thousands of commuting and rec miles, no skipping. (Haven’t measured stretch.) Similar deal on my mountain bike. WD-40 applied sometimes to penetrate and displace moisture, Tri-Flow a few days afterward. Sooner or later I’ll spend a few bucks to replace chain and cassette together, since they’ve worn in together. Maybe the middle chainring, too.
I suspect chain/cog maintenance is one of those areas where affinity and fetishism have overwhelmed practicality and pragmatism. Just sayin’.
I’ve read the same thing on bikeforums. Peace of mind works into the equation.
Great, great article. I’d love to see more of these here.
I don’t know how good it is on chains specifically but an aerosol can of carburetor cleaner, or engine degreaser will probably make that chain and anything else that is gunked up very clean with little effort
More articles like this, please.
the life of the chain totally depends on the quality of the chain. i easily get 4000 miles out of 10 sp dura ace chains.
Thanks for writing this, Torie, it’s a great article -lisa
Thanks for all the wonderful feedback. This is a new column so I’ll be back in a few weeks with the next installment!
Great article, glad I remembered so much from your presentation at the Bike Show, this was a great refresher! Can’t wait to see what the next article will be about.
Thanks for the great article! I also have a few questions – is “Phil Tenacious Oil” too thick?? That’s what I’ve been using. I wipe it off pretty well, but stuff still gets stuck to it pretty quickly. Could it be too tenacious?
Also, how much does a new chain cost to purchase and install?? Is the installation easy if you know someone with a chain thingy… Hmm. Yes, so how much does it cost to have a pro install it?
Thanks again! I hope we see more bike maintenance articles!
In my experience, Phil’s is too thick for our weather and makes the chain dirty very quickly, leaving a gooey mess to clean more often than I’d like. It works, but I don’t prefer it for our riding conditions.
A new chain, depending on the number of speeds you have on the rear wheel, can run from $18 (6-7-or 8 speed) to $100+(very nice 10 speed chains).
Installation depends on the shop but installation will usually be around $10 dollars for a professional. I recommend spending the ten bucks unless you are very confident in your friend’s abilities. Improperly installed chains have been known to break!
Hope this helps. Good luck!
Yea! Go Tori!!
These days I pull the chain away from the front chainring (at the 3 o clock position). If I can see an entire chainring tooth exposed, I put a new chain on and pray the cassette won’t skip on it. Running a chain past that point really wears the chainrings down fast. Pedaling is noisy and feels a bit crunchy on a worn chain.
Cleaning the chain; I have never been able to clean it in solvent well enough so it doesn’t feel gritty when pedaling. So I don’t bother. Just lube with ProLink and wipe it. 2K miles of chain life is the average for me.
I remember reading a Sheldon Brown article about cleaning a chain for the first time. He said don’t do it! The lube on a chain straight out of the bag is just fine. So now I just put it on and wait till it begins to squeak before applying any lube.
Thanks for the article Tori, maybe will try ATB lube next time.
I rotate three chains to a cassette – one on the bike, one soaking a couple days in mineral spirits before toothbrush scrub, one cleaned and dry ready to put on the bike and lube. Swap chains every 500 miles or so. Even though my riding style and routes are hard on chain life, I can get 10,000 miles out of the set.
You don’t have to filter the mineral spirits, just let the sediment settle in a jar and decant. If you really want to filter, I imagine Mr. Coffee…
Really? Need a mechanic to check chain wear? What’s the matter – don’t know how to use a ruler?
I like Dumonde Tech chain lube, and carry a small bottle with me (28 mile commute each way – a good downpour can strip the chain lube), but I’m thinking of carrying a small bottle of extra virgin olive oil instead, as it should work fine to get me home, and has other uses 🙂
DanO has elevated chain care to almost fetishistic heights. Fantastic.
Awesome article. Keep it up!
Any opinion on wax-based chain lubes like white-lightening? Are they even still around?
They are still around and I have not had much success with them in our weather conditions. I’ve heard folks in the desert swear by it but around here I’ve noticed that it either ends up with a thick waxy build-up or if it’s cleaned regularly, like no lubricant had been applied at all. The most frequent noisy chain complaints at Cycle Oregon came from folks using a wax based lube. I just don’t feel that it penetrates as well as a petroleum based lubricant.
One of the most active posts and very civil. Compliments to Tory and all respondents. The ATB lube that Tori recommends is amazing, I use it on anything that squeeks or needs a little TLC. Door hinges come to mind. One little drop and the squeek is gone forever. I have never had to apply a second dose.
The German bike magazine Fahrradzukunft compared 6 different chain lubes by segmenting a chain into 6 segments, lubing each of them with a different lube riding the chain for 2000 km and then measuring the elongation of each segment. Table with results can be found here: http://fahrradzukunft.de/13/kettenschmiermittel-test/#ergebnisse-und-auswertung
One tip for getting really grimy chains squeaky clean: unlink the chain to remove it from the frame. Drop it in a plastic gatorade or snapple bottle with an inch or two of simple green or other mild sovlent … shake the shit out of it.
I did that with an old mt.bike that had a very dirty, dry and caked up chain and the chain came out looking practically brand new.
I do that with gasoline but don’t remove the chain…just droop a third of it in a bottle, cover the mouth with my hand, and shake.
Gasoline, with its low flash point?! marshmallow, you’re likely to get toasted. Lots of less volatile solvents around.
Note the difference between this procedure and simply wrapping a rag around the chain and backpedaling for several revolutions. I find that the suggested technique of working a section at a time results in a much cleaner chain when I am done. Perhaps the bi-directional wiping is more effective, or the results are easier to see and therefore maek it easier to determine when a section is “done”?