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5 Tips: Care and feeding of your bicycle's chain

The chain might be the most important component on every bicycle. Composed of hundreds of plates, links, and rollers, the chain contains more moving parts than the rest of your bicycle combined. So, regular maintenance of your chain is essential to keeping your bike working smoothly and reliably.

The advice we give to every new bicycle buyer is to regularly "clean and lubricate your chain." So, how exactly do you go about doing this? And how often is "regularly?"

The following 5 Tips provide some basic pointers for cleaning your chain, properly applying lubrication, and other ways to take good care of your chain.

1. Do a "quick and easy" cleaning using a rag and some degreasing solvent.

You can get most of the built-up dirt, grease, and gunk off of your chain using this method. Put your bike in a workstand if you have one, or lean it up again a wall or shelf so that you're able to freely rotate the pedals backwards. Take a rag, fold it over a couple of times, and pour or spray a generous amount of degreaser on it. Wrap the rag around the lower part of the chain and hold it in place with your left hand while you pedal backwards using your right hand. Hold the rag firmly enough to wipe the gunk, but loosely enough that the chain is able to move freely. Apply pressure to the chain alternately to the sides and the top and bottom. Remove and re-apply the rag so that you re-position the chain to a clean area of the rag. Repeat this process several times until the chain appears about as clean as it's going to get. There will still be some gunk inside the rollers and between the plates that you won't be able to get to, but this is good enough to get you going in a pinch. Apply new chain lube (see #3 below) and start riding!

2. For a complete and thorough cleaning, use a chain cleaning device.

A chain scrubbing device (such as the Park Tool Cyclone, pictured at left) is ideal for giving your chain a complete cleaning. You fill it with liquid degreaser, place the chain inside the device (you don't have to remove the chain from the bike), and spin the pedals around. As the chain moves through the device, several sets of brushes get inside all the nooks and crannies of the chain to thoroughly clean all the gunk off.

An even better method of completely cleaning your chain is to remove it from the bike, and let is soak for several hours in a bucket of degreaser. Many chains have a quick-release master link that make it easy to remove and re-install the chain without the need to use a tool to disconnect the chain links.

Wipe the chain with a clean rag and let it dry before re-applying chain lube.

3. Apply lubricant to the chain and wipe off the excess.

Shift your bike into the middle gear on your cassette or freewheel (the set of gears on your back wheel). With your left hand, hold the tip of the chain lub bottle over the chain near the gears, and pedal backwards with your right hand. Squeeze the lube bottle to make a light but steady stream onto the chain. You want to lube the chain only; it's not necessary to put lube on the gears. Keep spinning the pedals until you're sure you've gotten lube on the whole length of the chain. Take the lube bottle away, and spin the pedals a few more times and let it sit for a few minutes to be sure the lube has a chance to work its way into the rollers and pins of the chain. Then, take a clean rag and wipe away excess lube from the outside of the chain.

There are many different brands and types of chain lube, and which is best for you depends on the type of bike you have, and the conditions in which you ride. Stop into our stores and talk to our experts for help on choosing the best chain lube for you.

4. If you do anything at all, it's better than doing nothing.

Many people go for months, or even years, without doing any cleaning or lubricating of their chain, either because they don't have the time or knowledge to do it. Or, they are afraid that unless they can do it perfectly, they should try it at all.

Yes, it's better to clean your chain before re-applying chain lube, but if your buddies are tapping their feet waiting to get started on a ride, and you notice that your chain is dirty and squeaky, it's better to give it a quick squirt of lube than to leave it dry. Yes, it's better to do a complete cleaning as opposed to the "quick and easy" cleaning, but doing the quick and easy cleaning is better than no cleaning at all.

5. Check your chain periodically for wear.

As your chain goes through its range of motion over the course of months of riding, the surfaces inside the link rollers wear down, effectively making the chain slightly longer. This is sometimes referred to as "chain stretch." As the chain stretches, space between the links no longer matches up exactly with the space between each tooth on your gears. At this point, your chain starts wearing down your gears.

The key is to periodically check your chain for stretch before it gets to the point where it starts to wear down your gears. It's a lot less expensive to replace your chain than it is to replace your gears. However, even with replacing your chain on a regular basis, you will eventually reach the point where you'll have to invest in a new cassette or freewheel to replace your worn gears, and eventually even worn chainrings on your front crankset.

Park Tool CC-3.2 Chain Wear IndicatorThe best way to keep an eye on your chain wear is to use a chain wear indicator gauge, such as the Park Tool CC-3.2 (pictured here). One side of the chain tells you if the chain is stretched to the point of requiring replacement, and the other side indicates that both chain and your cassette/freewheel need to be replaced. This is the same tool that we use in our workshops, but it's a worthwhile investment for even the casual do-it-yourself mechanic to keep tabs on your chain.

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