my chain was yelling at me

My poor chain.  It complains when I don’t keep it clean and happy.  I’ve been pretending I didn’t hear its murmurs but the complaining was getting louder.  Finally it started yelling and I gave in today and made my chain happy by cleaning it.

This post is all about how I clean my chain.  You may do it differently.  You may be one of those incredible experienced people who take your chain completely off and soak it, take your back wheel off and painstakingly brush each cog, etc.  But I’m not.   I live in an apartment so I don’t have a backyard hose.  I’m not sure I could put my chain back on if I took it off.   I know how to do some basic bike maintenance and repair but I’m no pro, and I accept my limitations.  Plus, I’m lazy.  So if I don’t have to take my chain off to get it clean I’m happy.

You can find all the products I’ve mentioned here at REI.

So here’s how I do it. I use a product called White Lightning Clean Streak.   It’s a “dry” de-greaser, which means that you don’t need running water to use it.  It’s a spray-on product that dissolves grime.  The grime drips off so make sure you use it outside and make sure you put some rags or cardboard or something underneath your bike – I learned the hard way that the gunk will drip off and make a mess on my apartment balcony’s concrete (sorry, apartment managers!).

clean streak

The can comes with a fine spray “straw” of sorts to attach to the nozzle; I recommend using it so the spray doesn’t get everywhere.  It’s great at making sure it only goes where I need it.

First I spray the entire chain while slowly turning my pedals backwards:

spray the chain

I make sure the chain is dripping (hence the cardboard underneath).  Then I take a fingernail brush and I brush the top of the chain:

scrub above

And the bottom of the chain:

scrub under

I hold the pedals while I gently scrub back and forth on the same section a few times, then I rotate my pedals a little bit, gently scrub back and forth on the next section, etc.  If you can see one link of your chain that looks a little bit different, you can make sure you get the entire thing covered without losing your place.  Mine has a very bright connector link so I can easily keep track when I’ve gone one revolution.  Even so, if it’s very dirty I may have to go around more than once. I check to see if there are leaves or pieces of crud between the links and make sure I get those out of there.

I then spray the chain again as I did the first time, allowing the grime to drip off.  You may need to go through this whole sequence more than once if your chain is super grimy.

Now I check to see how well I’m doing by gently holding my chain with a clean rag and rotating my pedals to make an initial pass of my chain:

wipe chain

How clean is it?

dirty rag

Nice and dirty!  I keep repeating the above steps until it comes off mostly clean.  But before I spend too much time going over it and over it I clean the dirty cogs because I’m still ptobably transferring some grime from the gears to the chain. I start with the front:

spray front crank

I need to stick the spray extender thing in-between a lot of places to get all three of my cogs. I get on the other side of my bike and spray each ring from that side too.  I usually can see the gunk coming right off.  I keep spraying and rotating until most of it has dripped off. At this point I run the rag over the chain again to see how I’m doing.  Then I start to clean the back cog, rotating my pedals:

spray cogs

It isn’t too terribly dirty, is it?  It gets much dirtier in the winter.  Again I get on the other side of my bike and spray the cleaner from that side too, rotating my pedals.  Usually it takes a combination of repeating the above steps to make sure I’m not transferring dirt and grime from one part I haven’t cleaned yet to a part I just cleaned, but after going back and forth between the chain, front cog, and back cog, and using the rag to wipe the chain in-between, it gets pretty clean and SHINY:


I know by the glare that it’s clean! I let it dry for a couple of hours.  At some point I rotate my pedals to make sure everything gets a chance to dry out thoroughly.  I then lube my beautiful clean chain.  In the winter when it rains I need the protection of a “wet” lube. I use T-9 Bicycle Chain Lubricant.  In the summer it’s very, very dry in northern California so I use a “dry” teflon lube.  I am trying out different products but one I like so far is Finish Line Dry Teflon Lube.  If you switch between a dry lube and a wet lube, just make sure you clean your chain thoroughly in-between.

When I lubricate my chain I hold the bottle over the chain on my back cog and I drip the lube down onto it while turning my pedals, wetting my whole chain.  I probably over-lube.  But I then let it drip and dry overnight and before my next ride in the morning I take a clean rag and wipe my entire chain down, rotating my pedals.  You want the lube to be on the little spindles of each link of your chain; not on the chain itself.  Over-lubricating your chain without wiping it off makes it a dirt magnet.  When you ride dirty your chain wears much faster and your cogs will wear out.  Save yourself the replacement costs and keep your ride clean and happy.

Tip:  When dripping anything on your chain and cogs tilt your bike so the cleaning product and lubricants aren’t dripping on your wheels.  You want your brakes to grip! 

When I’m done riding I keep a rag near where I store my bike and I wipe my chain off after each ride.  That helps it stay cleaner longer and gives me lots of free and happy pedaling in-between cleanings.  Depending on your weather and how much you ride you may need to reapply lube every week or two – run your fingers over your chain.  If it’s smooth but not sticky or gritty you’re in good shape. If your fingers are filthy when you run them over your chain, guess what time it is?  Time to clean again.  If they’re gritty you may not be wiping off well enough between rides. And by all means, if your chain is squeaky it needs lube.

Keeping your chain happy and clean is one of the best investments of time you can make for your bike.  When you get more practiced you’ll find that cleaning your drivetrain takes only about 15 minutes.  But you’ll be amazed at how much easier it feels to pedal, how much more energy you have, and how silent a clean bike chain is.  It’s a beautiful thing.

Happy cleaning and happy riding!

2 Comments on “my chain was yelling at me”

  1. […] I posted about how I clean my bike’s drivetrain and the products I use.  During the summer I prefer to use a “dry” chain lubricant […]

  2. […] dry (always start with a glistening clean drivetrain before applying new chain lubricant; this is how I clean my drivetrain).  After my first ride I wiped my chain with a clean rag and it came off pretty dirty.  I rinsed […]

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