Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

How to Clean Your Bike Chain Like a Pro Mechanic

Bike mechanic Joël Nankman shares his tips for tackling greasy drivetrains.


Read when you’ve got time to spare.

Screen Shot 2021-08-11 at 4.02.42 PM.png

Photo by Trevor Raab

A clean bike chain isn’t just for aesthetics—keeping your chain clean will help it perform better, run quietly, and prolong its life. Plus, it’ll also keep those dreaded grease stains at bay. To learn more about the best way to clean your bike chain, we spoke with Bicycling’s resident expert and bike mechanic Joël Nankman.

Nankman’s tips here are based on his own personal experience. “There are mechanics out there that will disagree and those who will agree,” he says. But considering he’s been a bike mechanic in both shops and on staff here for 13 years, and has attended multiple technical seminars from Shimano, Saris (CycleOps), Sram, and Campagnolo, and others, we’re inclined to rely on his expert opinion.

Soap or Degreaser?

Your first step in cleaning your bike chain: Picking your cleaning agent, like a soap or bike-specific degreaser. You don’t actually need anything fancy to get the job done, and you can even pick up what you need at your local grocery store. Dawn liquid dish soap is Nankman’s go-to.

“Dawn dish soap is the only way I clean the surface of drivetrain components,” Nankman says. “I have found most any commercially available degreaser to be too harsh. It removes all the lubricant from inside the chain rollers which cannot be replaced by just dripping lube on the surface of the chain—it would require removing the chain and soaking in a lube bath.”

You don’t want to clean the chain so thoroughly that you strip it of its factory lube. “Removing the factory lube from inside the rollers shortens the life of a road bike chain in my experience from 2,000 to 2,500 miles down to less than 1,500 miles,” Nankman says.

You have lots of options here, so feel free to shop around, ask your local mechanic and riding buddies, or just experiment to see what you prefer.

Select Your Scrubber

Bike-specific companies like Park Tool make brushes just for this purpose, and even devices that can fit over your chain to clean it. But any kind of cleaning or scrub brush will do just fine. You can even use an old toothbrush in a pinch.

“My method is to use a dish brush, with the longest bristles I can find,” Nankman says. “Toilet bowl brushes also work very well.”

How to Clean Your Bike Chain

Here’s a step-by-step rundown of how Nankman cleans a bike chain.

Clean the Cassette

Shift gears so that the chain is on one end of the cassette. Apply plenty of soap or degreaser to the brush and thoroughly scrub all the cogs, except for the one with the chain. Next, shift the chain down to the other end of the cassette and clean the remaining cogs.

Clean the Chainring(s)

Once the cassette has been cleaned, it’s time to clean the chainring(s). “I'll often drop the chain off the chainring to do this,” Nankman says. Like with the cassette, apply lots of soap or degreaser to the brush and scrub away.

cleaning supplied for a bike

Photo by Trevor Raab

Clean the Chain

Now it’s time to clean your chain. If you have more than one chainring, shift your chain onto the largest one. Apply a liberal amount of soap or degreaser and scrub all sides of the chain until clean. “Scrub the side plates of the chain using the chainring as a surface to push the chain against,” Nankman says.

Gently Rinse With Water

Once everything has been scrubbed down, rinse your drivetrain off with a gentle stream of clean water, Nankman says. Stay away from using a high-pressure hose, which can blast water into areas you don’t want it.

Let It Dry—Completely

Your chain may now be clean, but you’re not done yet. Before tucking your bike back in storage, you’ll want to dry your chain off as much as you can before applying a fresh coat of chain lube, in order to prevent it from rusting. “You can use a leaf blower or [air] compressor to dry everything off before applying lube,” Nankman says.

person cleaning a bike chain

Photo by Trevor Raab

person cleaning a bike chain

Photo by Trevor Raab

Reapply Chain Lube

“Liberally apply your favorite lube, let sit for a few minutes, and wipe off excess,” Nankman says. You’ll want to wipe off as much excess chain lube as you can, too. You want it to lubricate in between the plates and rollers—not the outside where it can pick up dirt and grime.

“This is my personal preferred method,” Nankman says about his cleaning routine. “That said, there is nothing wrong with using a Pedro’s, Park Tool, Muc-Off, etc., chain scrubber and replacing your chain more frequently.”

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for Bicycling

This post originally appeared on Bicycling and was published November 18, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

Supercharge your riding life and get exactly what you need with Bicycling All-Acces.

Become a Member