How to look after your chain

It’s worth looking after your chain because:

  • If it breaks or siezes up – you won’t be going anywhere
  • Without effective lubrication: cycling will be harder; and you’ll damage your gears
  • If you don’t replace your chain when necessary, you’ll damage your gears irreparably making eventual replacement far more expensive

To look after your chain, you should:

It’s tempting to use ordinary oil, but most of it will simply run off. What doesn’t run off will gum up your gears and quickly attract a build-up of gunk. Ordinary oil doesn’t work well at the pressures endured by a bike chain.

Instead use a specialist chain lubricant – known as lube. There are two types:

  1. Wet lube is a thick oil designed for bike chains. You’ll see different grades described as “all weather”, “extreme weather”, and so on. “All weather” wet lube is fine for most uses. It sticks to the chain and is not easily washed off in wet weather. Because it is sticky, however, it attracts dust and sand which builds up as grease. It also takes the shine off your chain and gears (a cosmetic issue only).
  2. Dry lube is tiny particles of wax suspended in a liquid medium. After application the medium evaporates creating a ‘dry’ layer on your chain and gears which doesn’t attract dust and sand like a wet lube. It also allows your chain and gears to shine making your bike look (but not perform) better. Dry lube is, however, easily washed off. If you cycle in rain or wet conditions you’ll need to re-lube more frequently than you would if you used a wet lube.

If the chain has a substantial build-up of grease, consider de-greasing it before you start.

Use the bottle’s nozzle to apply a drop of lube to each join in the chain. You need to get the oil between the plates that join the links of the chain together. That takes some patience, but applying oil indiscriminately will waste a lot of oil and you might not get it where you need it. If you have a power link, start with it so it’s easy to spot when you’ve worked all round the chain.

Apply the oil to the top of the bottom section of the chain – the inside of the chain. That way you’ll reduce the risk of washing dirt into the chain (dirt tends to accumulate on the outside face of the chain).

When you’ve finished, use the pedals to cycle the wheel (easiest if you have a bike stand or you turn the bike upside-down on its sadle and handlebars) to work the oil into the plates.

If you use dry lube, you should apply it the day before you intend to ride to give it a chance to evaporate leaving the lubricating medium on your chain which should be dry to the touch.

If you use wet lube, use a rag to wipe off as much oil as possible – try running the chain through your hands holding the rag, but avoid getting the rag tangled in the gears. This is counter-intuitive because you feel like you’re removing all the oil you just applied. In practice, you can’t remove the oil between the plates – that’s the oil you need. Instead, you’ll be removing excess oil that would otherwise attract dust and sand.

Over time you’ll get a build-up of gunk on your chain. The build-up contains dust and sand which are abrasives. That will increase wear on your chain and will make it more difficult to cycle.

It’s easiest to degrease a chain if you can remove it. If you have a power link you can easily remove and replace your chain. Here’s a video that explains how to remove a common type of link…

There are, however, several different types of link. This article describes the most common types, how to use them and how to undo a hard-to-remove link.

Place your chain in a large, glass jar or plastic bottle and fill with enough degreaser to cover the chain. Shake the jar to work the degreaser into all the links. Leave the jar for 15 minutes or so to allow the degreaser to soak in. Turn the chain upside-down in the jar and repeat. Remove the chain from the jar and soak under a running tap to remove all the degreaser (or it will attack your new lubricant). Dry the chain thoroughly. Put the chain back on the bike and lubricate.

If you can’t remove the chain, use a small, stiff brush to work degreaser into the chain links. When you’ve done, wash the degreaser out of the chain. You might need to repeat if there’s still grease on the chain. Again, rinse the chain with water and dry before lubricating. As an alternative, you can buy a degreasing tool that clips around the chain and, as you pedal slowly, it bathes the chain in the degreaser and brushes it to remove dirt. The tool is not cheap, however, and can be wasteful in degreaser.

Chains are subject to ‘chain stretch’. The chain doesn’t actually stretch, instead the bushings wear down increasing the spacing between the links and making the chain longer. If you don’t replace a stretched chain it will eventually break but, before then, you will probably damage your gears. If your chain starts to slip on the rear cassette it’s probably too late; the damage has already been done.

Chain stretch occurs with distance travelled. If you use your bike infrequently, you might never need to replace the chain. If you regularly go out on longer rides you’re likely to need to replace the chain every 6-12 months. Most people will be somewhere in between.

To detect chain stretch use a twelve-inch ruler and align the first measuring point (0 inches) with the centre of one of the bushings. Run the ruler along the chain and you should find the 12-inch mark lines up with the centre of another bushing. See how much the centre of the bushing exceeds the inch mark (you’ll need to do this while the chain is under tension; preferably on the bike). If it exceeds the inch mark by an eighth of an inch, you need to replace the chain.

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