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Bicycle chain cleaning myths debunked

The question of how to clean your bike chain has to be one of the most common questions in bike maintenance. Since I ride on bikes decades old, I don’t want to prematurely have to replace hard-to-find and expensive parts. And a squeaky chain makes my ears bleed. I’ve had many different chain clean and lube strategies through the years. These experiences eventually led to the strategy which turned out to be both the best and cheapest way of cleaning your bicycle chain.

Let’s face it. There are a lot of spandex wearing tech-heads who’re looking for ways to throw money at their already expensive bikes. If you asked me, this has caused a lot of misconceptions with respect to chain cleaning involving complicated processes and expensive products. I’m going to discuss a number of these bicycle chain cleaning myths and demystify them for you.

Myth 1: A dirty chain will wear faster

Probably the biggest myth is that a dirty chain wears faster than a clean one. That’s true only if the dirt get’s between the moving parts, where it slides over the teeth of your crank and sprockets. I’ve seen chains dirty beyond comparison on decades old bikes, where the crankset was in perfect condition.

Cleaning incorrectly might actually move fresh dirt and grit into the area between chain and teeth and cause extra wear. Especially if cleaning includes simply moving a cloth over the outside of the chain, pushing the dirt inwards. So it’s not a dirty chain that causes the wear, but a fresh influx of dirt to the innards of the chain that’s the biggest culprit.

Myth 2: You need to remove the chain to get the best cleaning result

You can only remove a chain with a chain breaker. That means that cleaning a chain this way means you need a pretty expensive tool and know how to handle it. Breaking and re-connecting a chain also constitutes a safety hazard if done incorrectly. The last thing you want is to have an incorrectly connected chain breaking on you while you stand on the pedals. So I would never recommend doing this just to clean the chain.

A bike chain cleaning process which involves removing the chain is also much lengthier than the 5-minute chain-and-lube I’m looking for. A loose chain is also very difficult to handle. Much more difficult than one you can turn with a single hand, while the other one is used to clean it.

Myth 3: It’s best to use cleaning products especially made for bike chains to clean them

Absolutely not. Of course there are many people who would like you to believe that spending a whopping €20.99 on a mere 750ml of drivetrain cleaner will actually make you ride faster. But life is expensive enough as it is. And your bike restoration hobby will hardly make you money, so keep it in your pocket.

Myth 4: Using household products to clean your bike chain is bad for the environment

For me restoring a bike is all about sustainability. And yes, mineral spirits (or turpentine) is my preferred product for cleaning a bike chain. But using mineral spirits is only bad for the environment if I’d simply dump it in the sink afterwards, which I don’t.

And it’s not only about reusing a product which is incredibly easy to obtain, even at your local grocery store. But expensive 500ml bio-degradable drivetrain cleaners in their plastic bottles are gone very quickly, adding to the heap of plastic already out there.

Myth 5: It’s best to use gloves when cleaning your bike chain

We’ve just talked about the environment. But a lot of people also recommend using throw-away gloves each time you might get your hands dirty. When done properly your hands won’t get any dirtier than anything that can be dealt with properly with water and hand soap.

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