The chain is basically the ‘engine’ of the bicycle because it is responsible (together with the pedals) for transferring energy from our leg muscles to the machine. With a rusty bike chain, your bike will be less efficient, producing less total power and a sub-par biking experience.
Growing up, I once wondered how the chains of my well-kept bike in the basement became rusty. The fact that it was a relatively new bike made it even more puzzling. My dad’s explanation made little sense to me at that time until now.
Maybe you’ve been here too, maybe not but here’s the thing, bike chains get rusty all the time and the good news is…it’s not that bad and you can get rid of it without much trouble.
In this article, we’ll go over how to get rust off a bike chain, how to clean a bike chain with household products and rusty bike chain FAQs.
- Bike Chain Rust Removal: Is it worth it?
- How to get Rust off a Bike Chain
- Tools you'll need
- Step 1: Inspection
- Step 2: Remove the Chain
- Step 3: Clean the Surface of the Chain
- Step 4: Run Chain through Scouring Pad wet with Degreaser
- Step 5: Soak Chains with Heavy Grime and Buildup in Degreaser
- Step 6: Scrub away Minor rusts with steel wool wet with Lime Juice
- Step 7: Rinse Away Lime Juice with Soapy Water
- Step 8: Break up Stubborn and Tough Rust with WD-40
- Step 9: Reattach the Chain
- Step 9: Lube the Chain
- How to Clean a Bike Chain with Household Products
- Rusty Bike Chain FAQs
To begin with, it’s important to know that the most significant element that causes rust in your bike chains is exposure to moisture.
Rusty bike chains make shifting and pedaling harder. They also expose your drive chain to damage and accelerated wear. That, of course, is if you don’t find time to clean and maintain your bike after each ride.
Bike Chain Rust Removal: Is it worth it?
Yes it is. It will save you the cost of a new bike chain which could be $10 or $100 depending on your bike.
I’ve met a bunch of people who believe that removing rust from bike chains is just a waste of time and you should replace them once you see that awkward brownish coloration. They believe that a rusty bike chain shows that your chain is already past its due date and you need to replace it.
But the million dollar (actually $100 max) question is “how did the chain become rusty when it was properly kept away?”
Most bike chains are made from iron, steel or alloys containing iron. Those metals react with oxygen in the air (even if you protect it from water, salt, dirt and mud), become corroded and the resulting compound is known as rust (iron oxide).
And in cases of rarely used or stored bikes (like mine), removing bike chain rust is the right move. Throwing away a rusty chain would just be like throwing money away, especially when you can remove it easily with rust removers or even household products.
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How to get Rust off a Bike Chain
Fixing a rusty bicycle chain depends on how far the rust has spread. A simple bike chain clean up may be sufficient if the chain is not heavily rusted. If the rust has really spread, then a little more work may be needed to get the chain back to normal.
Tools you’ll need
Before getting started, make sure you have:
- Latex Gloves
- Lime Juice
- Scouring Pad/Clean Rag
- Steel Wool
- Warm/Hot Water
Removing rust from your bike chain isn’t difficult at all. Here are a series of simple steps you can follow to clean a rusty bike chain.
You don’t have to follow all steps: Step 4 – 8 are alternative ways to remove rust. Once, rust is removed, move on to cleaning, reattaching and lubing your bike chain.
Step 1: Inspection
- The easiest way to inspect your bike chain is to turn it upside down or secure it in a bike rack (if you have one). Turn your bike upside down just so it rests sturdily on the seat and handlebars.
- Inspect the chain carefully to see how rusty it is. Try flexing your chain, if it can flex easily, you don’t need to replace it. If it can’t flex at all, then it’s time to replace it. Cleaning it in this case will likely be of little help.
Step 2: Remove the Chain
- The best way to properly clean your bike chain is to remove it from the bike. First, locate the master link or quick link (it is different from all other chain links and can be easily identifiable).
- A master link is a roller chain component that lets you connect and disconnect a chain with the use of a chain tool.
- Once you identify the master link, disconnect the link from the rest of the chain, then take off the whole chain from your bike.
- If your bike doesn’t have a master link, you should follow the video below. You might need to get a chain breaker tool to remove your chain.
- Note: As long as your bike chain isn’t fully covered in rust, you don’t have to remove it from the bike. You can follow the instructions below to clean the chain while it’s attached to the bike.
- Take clear pictures of the bike chain from different angles before removing it. This will help you remember how to reattach it again later on.
Step 3: Clean the Surface of the Chain
- You’ll have a clearer view of your bike chain after removal. You can now determine which area to begin cleaning.
- Run a piece of cloth to remove all surface dirt or rust.
Step 4: Run Chain through Scouring Pad wet with Degreaser
- Make no mistakes about it, as long as you keep using your bike, the chain will continue to gather all sorts of grease. Most bike chain rust is formed under this layer of grease and a degreaser will help you get rid of this.
- Wear latex gloves at all times when using degreasers (they can be quite harsh and can cause skin damage). Handle all degreasers with care. WD-40 is a common degreaser.
- Dampen a scouring pad (or clean rag) with degreaser to remove another layer of rust on the chain. Pull the chain through the pad to remove buildup and grease. Stubborn buildup might need vigorous scrubbing or buffing before it goes off.
- At this stage, you may need to start using old toothbrushes or a hard scrubbing brush to remove stubborn rust.
Step 5: Soak Chains with Heavy Grime and Buildup in Degreaser
- If cleaning with a scouring pad does not completely remove all the rust, you’ll have to soak the chain in a degreaser for about 20-30 minutes to completely remove the rust and break off particles.
- Use a clean plastic container (preferably an unused one) to prevent residual chemicals from reacting with the degreaser.
Step 6: Scrub away Minor rusts with steel wool wet with Lime Juice
- This technique can be rough on the hands so please put on your latex gloves before you try it.
- Wet a piece of steel wool thoroughly with lime juice and scrub the rusted chain parts to remove rust, then wipe clean with a paper towel.
- You may need to rinse the steel wool in hot water to free it from scrubbed rust that may have stuck to it. Then, reapply the lime juice and continue scrubbing.
- Also wipe the surface of the bike chain clean at regular intervals to see how much rust is left on the surface, especially when you’re dealing with large amounts of rust.
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Step 7: Rinse Away Lime Juice with Soapy Water
- Lime juice contains a significant amount of sugar that may dry up on the bike chain and make it sticky.
- Rinse the chain thoroughly in warm water mixed with little soap to remove the lime juice.
Step 8: Break up Stubborn and Tough Rust with WD-40
- Your chain should now be almost at its original state. However, there may still be some tough and stubborn rust remaining on the chain.
- Break up these stubborn stains by applying WD-40 directly into the rusted parts, let the solution soak for 10 minutes before wiping it down.
- Wipe off the solution with a clean rag to remove any rust residues.
Step 9: Reattach the Chain
- Slide chain through the rear derailleur.
- Refasten the master link to reattach your bike chain.
- Identify both ends of the chain, insert the master link and join the link again. Use your hands or pliers to stretch the chain until it clicks. Now, you’re certain that both ends of the chain are perfectly joined together.
- Ensure the bike chain fits into the cassette correctly and runs smoothly through all components parts of the drivetrain.
- Roll the pedals backwards to test if the chain is properly in place. If it runs smoothly, then you’re good. If you feel any unnatural resistance or irregular noises from the chain, then you may have reinstalled the chain incorrectly and you may need to remove it and fix it again.
Step 9: Lube the Chain
- Use only specially formulated bike lubricant for this purpose like WD-40 Bike lube, UFO drip by CeramicSpeed, and Squirt Chain Lube. Avoid using WD-40 (this is the degreasing solvent), GTA 5, TF2, and other similar maintenance lube. They’re great at dispersing water but they don’t have any lasting lubricating effect.
- Ensure you shake the container properly before application.
- Apply lube to the inner run of the chain while rotating pedals gently until the lube is applied completely. Always use bottles, sprays may disperse and leave your chain messy.
- Once you’ve worked the oil in, wipe off the excess oil by running a clean rag through the chain while slowly turning the pedals. This is very important because excess oil will attract dirt.
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How to Clean a Bike Chain with Household Products
If you don’t have any degreaser at home, there are a few household items you can use to clean your bike chain:
- Wear latex gloves as a safety precaution.
- Pour a handful of Coca-Cola into a clean open bowl.
- Dip a folded aluminum foil into the liquid and scrub the rusted surface of the chain.
- Keep scrubbing till you get your desired result. You can use an old toothbrush to supplement the aluminum foil for maximum effect.
- Wash Coca-Cola off the chain with water and leave to dry off.
- Wear latex gloves before getting started here, White Vinegar can be harsh on the skin.
- Just like with Coca-Cola, pour a handful of White Vinegar into a clean open bowl.
- Continuously scrub the rusty chain with the aluminum foil dipped into the White Vinegar.
- Use the old toothbrush to supplement the aluminum foil for maximum effect.
- Wash the chain with clean water and leave to dry after complete cleaning.
3. Baking Soda
- Wear latex gloves before getting started.
- Mix a handful of Baking soda with water in a bowl to form a thick pasty substance.
- Rub the paste on the chain with a toothbrush and make sure it covers all parts of the chain.
- Leave paste on affected areas for 15-20 minutes to settle properly and remove rust.
- Scrub the paste off the chain using scrub pads and you’ll notice the rust coming off.
- Repeat the process again if the rust doesn’t come off completely until your bike chain is clean.
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Rusty Bike Chain FAQs
Why is my Bike Chain rusting?
Simply put, corrosion. Bike chains made out of iron and steel react readily with moisture and oxygen in the air, a process known as oxidation. This oxidation with iron and its alloys creates rust. If you ride through humid regions or expose your bike to any sort of wetness, you should clean your bike chain and drivetrain after every ride to prevent rusting.
How often should you lube your bike chain?
Once a month. Lubricate your bike at least once a month to maintain optimal performance and adequate protection.
Should I use wet or dry lube?
The general rule of thumb is to use dry lube when riding in dry riding conditions and wet lube when riding in wet riding conditions.
Dry riding conditions produce a lot of debris which may be attached to the chain. Dry lube is great for these conditions as it doesn’t let dirt stick to it. Once applied, the solvent evaporates and dries up. Hence, dry lube does great at not letting the chain accumulate dust, dirt or other debris.
In wet conditions however, dry lube comes off quickly resulting in your drivetrain being creaky and noisy and also prematurely wear out your parts.
Wet lube is great in wet riding conditions as it doesn’t get washed off completely, it is washed down a bit but still lubricates properly and reduces noise from the drivetrain. Using wet lube in dry riding conditions however will cause dust, dirt and debris to stick to the drivetrain and chain.
When to replace a bike chain?
A general rule of thumb is to replace your bike chain once it has markedly stretched beyond its limits. You can check this by following these simple steps:
- Shift to the smallest cog in the rear and the large chainring in front and try to lift the chain.
- If it lifts off the chainring where you can see an obvious gap between the chainring and the chain, then it’s time for you to replace your chain.
Another method for checking chain wear is by measuring with a ruler;
- Each rivet on a new chain is half inch apart, so if you set the first rivet at zero, you should see your 24th rivet at the 12 inch point on the ruler.
- Measure your chain with the ruler and if you fall short by more than 1/16th inch on the 24th rivet, you should consider replacing the chain.
However, the most accurate way to measure chain wear is by using a chain checker tool like the CC-3.2 and CC-2 from Park Tool. Check out this article on how to use the chain checker tool to measure bike chain wear.
You can also track mileage via strava and check chain regularly after you’ve done about 1500km to consider replacing. Bicycling.com recommends changing your bike chain every 2,000 miles. Just bear in mind, this all depends on your usage.
Finally, check the level of rust on the chain. If it is severely rusted, where the bike chain isn’t flexible, then replacing it is your best option. Imperfections in severely damaged chains can also damage other components of the drivetrain, especially the cassette. If the cassette cog is damaged, you’ll have to fork out a lot more money than the cost of a new chain.
How much to replace a bike chain?
Relax, a new bike chain doesn’t cost a fortune. A good bike chain will cost somewhere in between $20 and $60. For a high-end bike, however, you may spend up to $100. Hiring a professional to have it replaced may cost an additional $10.
It’s almost impossible to have a rust-free bike chain for a long period of time. In fact, it will likely occur at some point (no matter how careful you are) and it is a part of the whole biking experience.
At least now, you’ll be safe in the knowledge that you’ve got the skills to resuscitate your bike chain back to life. So when next you find some rust on your bike, maybe after winter, removing rust from the bike chain will be a breeze. Always remember to clean and lube your bike after every ride.
Cheers and happy riding! Got a loose chain? Learn how to tighten your bike chain.