How to Maintain Your Chain (it’s Not Such a Pain)

Basic chain care is worth the effort, surprisingly simple and neither time- nor money-consuming. And a little work goes a long way towards improving your chain’s lifespan and performance.

Honesty compels me to tell you: I’ve ignored a dry, squeaking chain and ridden for months with my bike chirping like a nest of hungry eaglets. But I’ve learned a good lesson: Basic chain care is worth the effort, surprisingly simple and neither time- nor money-consuming. And a little work goes a long way towards improving your chain’s lifespan and performance.

What You’ll Need:

– A chain-friendly degreasing solvent (like Simple Green or a citrus degreaser; ask your bike shop for recommendations)

– Cotton rags (torn-up old cotton T-shirts, sheets or diapers are great)

– A good chain lube for your riding environment

Optional Items:

– A gear-cleaning brush for cleaning the cogs, derailleur and sprockets

– A repair stand

– Latex or rubber gloves to keep your hands clean

– A chain-cleaning tool

1. Clean It

Choose a workspace where you can make a mess (outdoors, indoors on a drop cloth or at your community bike shop). If you have a repair stand, put your bike on it; if you don’t, either prop the front wheel securely so that the bike stands alone or flip the bike upside down and let it rest securely on its handlebars and seat (protect your seat from scuffs and dirt by setting it on a rag).

When you clean your chain, go ahead and clean your rear cogs (the cluster of gears on your rear wheel) and your rear derailleur pulleys (the star-shaped things the chain zigzags through), too – if those are really gunked up, your chain will get dirty that much quicker once you’re finished. There’s a gear-cleaning brush made especially for doing this: one side has toothbrush-like bristles for scrubbing, and the other is curved and toothy, to scoop gunk from between the cogs. If you don’t have this, just use a rag and some cleansing solvent, and get as much dirt off as you can (“flossing” the rear gears with a rag works great).

Now, the chain. If you want, you can buy or borrow a chain-cleaning tool to do some of the dirty work. This tool is a little box with brushes and rollers inside: you pour solvent in, clip the box onto the lower section of your chain, hold the box in place and then backpedal the whole chain through it several times. The rollers and bristles run your chain through a solvent bath. After that, you empty out the tool and repeat the process using soapy water instead of solvent; then, wipe the chain dry with a clean rag.

If you don’t have a chain-cleaning tool, the old-school method is perfectly good (and it costs less): Just spray some bike-friendly cleanser onto a rag. Grip a segment of the chain with the cleanser-soaked rag and hold it gently but firmly. Now, use your free hand to pedal backwards, until the entirety of the chain has been run through the rag and wiped off. Then, repeat.

2. Oil It

Take a good chain lubricant for your riding environment (see “Oils” sidebar) and drip oil evenly over the chain. The easiest way to do this is to let the oil drip steadily onto a fixed point while backpedaling, so the entire chain gets saturated. Ideally, use a drip-type oil, and oil along the chain’s inner circumference – the part the gears penetrate.

3. Wipe It Off

One you’ve applied lube and let it sit for a minute, take a dry, clean section of rag, grip the chain with it, and backpedal so the rag soaks up all the excess oil.

How Often?

It depends on the frequency and type of riding you do; a decent rule of thumb is to clean and lube your chain whenever the chain starts squeaking, or if it’s looking gunky. If you’re feeling super-thorough, you can periodically remove the chain from your bike using a chain tool or, if your chain has it, the “master link.” Clean it thoroughly with solvent, then re-oil it. Again, be sure you don’t leave excess lubrication on the chain, as it’ll pick up dirt and grit that’ll accelerate chain wear.


Wetter environments often require heavier oils and more frequent bike maintenance, while drier environments tend to require lighter oils that pick up less dust and grime. Biodegradable soy-based chain lubricants have received good reviews, too. Ask your local bike mechanic for advice on what’s best for your area. Be sure to use lube intended specifically for bicycle chains. Sheldon Brown’s website, an authoritative source of bicycle information, cautions against using automotive motor oil, household oil, such as 3-in-1, or WD-40.

The “factory” lube that your chain comes oiled with is often of a higher quality than what you’ll be able to purchase at many retail outlets. So don’t clean it off – wait until your chain is dry before applying new oil.


Georgena Terry (of Terry Bicycles) shows you how to clean your chain:

The great Sheldon Brown on chain maintenance:

Anne Mathews is a Seattle-based musician, writer and bike enthusiast. She’s getting ready to do some long-overdue spring maintenance on her road bike.


  • John B.

    Thanks, this is helpful. The more often I clean my chain, the easier it gets, so I don’t have to spend too much time or effort. Riding every day, I clean and oil the chain once a week. The hardest part is cleaning between the sprockets (gears). My tools for that are a flat-head metal screwdriver and/or wooden spatulas that you might stir your coffee with. Although this can be intimidating until you get enough practice, I find the sprocket cleaning is way easier if I remove the back wheel from the bike. If you ever have reason to remove the back wheel, that is a great time to clean the sprockets and chain.

  • Bruce MacGibbon

    Thank you so much for the bike information. Apprevite it very much

  • Alan

    Even though you may use an eco-friendly cleaner on the drive chain, remember that the dirty rags you end up with are hazardous waste, and should be treated as such. They will contain lots of gunk from the chain, including oil residue, road gunk which contains oil and rubber particulate residue, and metal residue from chain/chainrings/cogs wear.

    • Alice

      So actually, I’ve gone years without cleaning my bike chain because I have no idea what to do with the dirty rags the process would create. As far as I understand, it’s not safe to store them, throw them away, or wash them. So what do you do with them??? (In lieu of cleaning, I just put a tiny bit more lube on my chain whenever it gets squeaky. Probably this isn’t the greatest thing for either my chain or my cogs.)

      • Dave H

        Not cleaning one’s chain out of concern for dirty rags seems well-meaning, but short-sighted. A clean chain extends the useful life of the chain and the rest of your bike’s drive train. The energy and raw materials that go into producing bike parts like chains, cogs, and rings must have more of an environmental impact than the benefit of not cleaning those parts and throwing them away when they are ruined.

  • christine jones

    My Dutch bike comes with full chain case, dress guards and mud guards. I can cycle in pallazo pants, long dresses, no special clothing required. Keeps chain clean and oiled, I get it serviced once or twice a year.

Spring Gear Guide

Looking forward to riding season ahead? We are! Get excited to ride with our guide.

Download Now