The bicycle chain is arguably the most technically advanced piece of engineering on a bicycle, but it gets very little respect from some people. Without a chain it would not be possible to have gears, and to be able to go fast as we do we’d still be stuck on big-wheeled Penny Farthings.
A modern chain is made up hundreds moving parts – Outer plates, Inner plates, Pins & Rollers. All these parts come under considerable pressue, so it pays to look after them.
1) Clean your chain occasionally
Chains that are covered in oil will attract dirt and other particles. This dirt mixes with oil and forms a ‘grinding paste’ which will start to wear out your chain. So, it’s a good idea to clean your chain once in a while before applying fresh lubricant.
You can buy bike degreaser in small bottles, or get 5 litres of it from a garden centre. Brush it on and let it soak in for 10 minutes or so, then wash off with a sponge and a bucket of water (or hose). An alternative method is to remove the chain (another skill you should learn at some point) and drop it in a small plastic bottle with some degreaser in it. Replace the lid and give the bottle a good shake to dislodge the grease. Again, let it soak for a while and repeat the process a few times. If you use washing up liquid then be aware that one of the ingredients is salt, so make sure you rinse it off thoroughy.
You can also buy chain cleaner devices that allow you to keep the chain on your bike but still give it a good scrub. Just fill the device with degreaser, place over the chain, turn the cranks with one hand while holding the device with the other. Leave then rinse.
2) Use the right oil
Don’t use WD-40 to oil your chain. It’s too thin and will evaporate. You can use it to dry your chain after cleaning it, but the most WD-40 will ever do is help prevent your chain from rusting. WD40 is not a good chain lubricant. Instead, use a good quality bicycle-specific lube which you can get from your local bike shop. Small ‘dropper’ bottles make it easy to apply but are relatively expensive. They can be topped up from bigger containers which will work out much cheaper in the long run.
UPDATE – WD40 now do a bike specific version. If you’ve tried it then please let us know how you get on with it.
3) Apply liberally
The manuals advise you to apply the oil one drop at a time on each link, but that can take ages. Instead, spin the cranks slowly and use a dropper bottle to coat the chain with oil. Put enough on to be sure that the oil will penetrate all the moving parts (basically, every component of a chain is a moving part). It needs to go under the rollers and between the plates.
A spray bottle/can is wasteful and you may get oil on your brakes and tyres. Oil on the brakes means you won’t be able to stop, and if you get it on the tyres they may perish early.
4) Wait & Wipe
Let the oil soak in for a while (overnight is good, but 10 mins is fine) then, using a lint-free rag, wipe off all the excess. An old shirt, tea towel or terry nappies make a decent oily rag.
By wiping the chain you’ll still be leaving the oil where it’s needed – between the rollers and plates – but you’re less likely to pick up dust and dirt, and your skirt/trousers/socks will stay cleaner.
For the bike geeks out there you may want to check out this page which goes into lots of detail.