With chain grease still caked under his fingernails, Ian Boehm holds forth on the various options for keeping your drive train whirring along smoothly-and also reveals a peculiar preference for eau de kero…

iBoehmIAN BOEHM joined Audax late last century, is a card carrying geek and is as comfortable riding his recumbent as he is waving Allen keys or soldering iron at it. He entertains himself on long rides with electronic gadgetry or planning further improvements to whatever he is  riding.

CHAINS ARE a bit like Churchill’s view of democracy:
they are the worst form of power transmission except for all the others that have been tried.

We are stuck with them until something better comes along and we’ve been waiting for about 120 years for that to happen. As Karl Marx might have said, “workers of the world unite, you have nothing to use but your chains”. A promising start – Churchill and Marx misquoted in paragraph one.

Here’s my view on how to get the least worst service life from that evil black contraption that wends its way between your chainwheel and the cluster. The words of the late, and much missed, Sheldon Brown (sheldonbrown.com/chains.html) will give you a lot of technical and historical information and is worth reading, as are his other writings.

For all its manifold faults, the modern chain is a very efficient means of transferring power from your cranks to the back wheel. “When new,clean,and well lubricated [my emphasis] and when sprockets with a minimum of 21 teeth are used, a chain transmission is highly efficient (at a level of maybe 98.5% or even higher)” (David Wilson, Bicycling Science, 3rd ed.,MIT Press).

How doesthe chain get dirty? Chains operate close to a dusty, gritty road surface and collect all manner of abrasive rubbish from your passing tyre even when the road is dry. In the wet the road muck is liberally flung onto the chain allowing it to work its way into the lubricant you might have lovingly deposited on the bearing surfaces and much of that lubricant will wash away. Regular cleaning and oiling will slow down the rate of wear and allow you to use as much as possible of your hard found energy in actually going somewhere.

Reduce the chain pain

Chain cleaning is a tiresome, messy affair and the sort of activity that brings out the closet procrastinator in the most self­ disciplined of cyclists. There are ways to spread the pain.

1. Alternate between two chains.

This simple measure allows one to do a quick swap of the dirty chain for the clean one you’ve prepared earlier. To ensure your chains are easily removed and replaced, they must be fitted with some type of quick link. To my knowledge there are only two brands of chain that are sold with this feature being Connex/Wippermann and SRAM. KMC might sell chains with suitable links but its website isn’t as helpful as it could be. Shimano and Campagnolo recommend that their chains be re-joined with a special use-once pin, another excuse not to clean that chain ‘just yet’. Connex and SRAM links are sold separately and can be used with other chain brands. KMC sells re-usable and use-once links so choose carefully. Be sure you select the correct link for your particular chain thickness. If you are not sure, get your local bike shop (LBS) to measure the thickness of the chain and to supply the correct link.

2. Make sure the chain is not too worn to use again.

Chain wear gauges are readily available and are referred to in the trade as ‘The Money Maker’. This is not entirely fair as using a chain that is badly worn will accelerate wear of those expensive toothy bits and make shifting less reliable.

Chain makers make gauges and if that sounds like putting the fox in charge of the chocks then buy one from an independent manufacturer like BBB or Park Tool. Mine is a Connex. As an aside, chains don’t stretch. The elongation of the device over time is entirely due to wear inside the links as they flex and straighten in use. The force needed to pull the steel past its elastic limit in a true stretch is well beyond that generated by any cyclist.

3. If possible, have a bike for each purpose.

Yeah I know the optimum number of bikes = n+1 but many members are quite happy with just two. Using the same machine for commuting and Audax rides will often mean a rushed ‘lick and a promise’ pre­ event clean-up job after a week of riding to work in indifferent weather. Better to spend the time ensuring that the events bike is ready to roll and clean up the commuter if and when time permits.

The nitty and gritty of chain cleaning

This method discusses the full immersion of the chain. Some chain cleaning techniques I’ve seen or heard about seem to be mostly cosmetic. The grot on the outside isn’t what causes chain wear. Resolutely sluicing out all those nasty little bits of abrasive from the inner workings appeals to my sense of justice.

What liquid to use

I use that blue kerosene available in one and four litre bottles from hardware shops and supermarkets. Its advantages are:

  • It is reusable. The black stuff simply settles to the bottom of a container over a couple of weeks and the clear liquid is decanted off and used over and over again. The small amounts of lubricants dissolved in the kero don’t seem to affect its cleaning power and a four litre container should last for some years.
  • It is inexpensive.
  • It is very effective.
  • Kerosene is relatively benign. As none of it should end up in the sewers, soil and waterways ,its environmental impact is very low. Only a small amount is lost to evaporation each time it is used.
  • It is relatively safe. Certainly it is flammable but not especially volatile so is fine to use in the open air with sensible precautions against fire.
  • The smell is not strong and less unpleasant than some other petrochemicals.
  • Other liquids you could consider are mineral turpentine and diesel fuel though I’ve not tried either.
  • Don’t ever use petrol or Shellite as the risk of self-immolation using these is unconscionable.

What equipment is needed?

As well as a supply of kero you should have to hand:

  • A suitable container to perform the cleaning operation.
    Best is the 600 ml PET soft-drink container.
    Thoughtfully left on nature strips by the local knuckle­ draggers, the one to go for is the wide mouthed type found around the alleged energy drinks.The narrow mouthed one also works but extracting the chain is more tedious.
    Wash the remaining contents out with water then rinse the bottle with a splash of metho to speed the drying process.
  • A couple of empty one litre PET bottles to receive the dirty  kero.
  • A cheap plastic or metal funnel that will fit into the neck of the bottles.
    Worth the money to reduce spillage and to chuck the filthy kero in quickly before the sand grains start to settle out.
  • A cheap sieve that fits into the mouth of the funnel. This is to stop loose chain components from entering the bottles.
  • An old spoke with a nipple screwed on it. This is to fish the chain out of the bottle and it is the perfect tool for the job.
  • Some cotton rags for wiping chain muck off your hands and elsewhere and for initial drying off of kero soaked parts.

Let’s clean our first chain

a. Break the chain and snake it into the 600ml bottle including the links.

b. Pour in clean kero to about 2/3rds full. Screw the cap on firmly.

c. Shake the bottle vigorously for a bit.

d. Set up funnel and sieve on a one litre bottle.Empty kero into this  bottle.

e. Check the sieve for links and rollers and return any found to the 600mL bottle.

f. Repeat steps b. to e.several times untilyou are satisfied with the cleanliness of your chain.
Leaving the chain to soak for days is useful especially with a bit of agitation when you remember.

g. Using the spoke,fish the chain out and hang it in the open air to dry. Soak up excess fluid with a rag.
Below: In the wet the road muck is liberally flung ontothe chain… [Ian Richman]

h. Sniff the chain regully to check for when it is dry.You think I’mjoking don’t you? Might be best to check for the presence of nearby loved ones lest they start to question your sanity. Oh that’s right, we’re cyclists.

i. Leave the one litre bottle(s) of dirty kero to stand for a week or two to allow the solids to settle.
Some of the grot is attracted by magnets so, if you were keen, you could use a largish magnet to play with a bit of magnetic flocculation (look it up).
Gravity on its own works just fine.

Once the liquid looks clear, carefully decant the clean stuff back into the large good-kero container.
Over time this will mean an accumulation of black gunge in the bottle which can be poured onto newspaper,allowed to dry then added to your garbage bin. Ihave a bottle labelled ‘dregs’ to receive such sediment.

If the chain is to go back on the bike then now is the time to clean the cluster and chain rings.
No point in soiling your gleaming chain with the grot from those components.

Cleaning these bits needs less diligence but it’s worth a few words.
These components are best removed from the bike as it is very difficult to cleanthem in situ without soiling the frame and the rear wheel.
You will need a 5 mm Allen key to undo double chain rings and removing a granny gear means removing the right crank completely though with care you can get away with cleaning it in place.
Removing the cassette needs a chain whip and the correct splined toolto fit your particular set-up.
Shimano/ SRAM splines are different from Campagnolo.

A 230 mm diameter pie tin is the duck’s guts for attacking a chain wheel of up to 53t and for cleaning cassettes.

Using the one you have in the kitchen might result in unseemly domestic friction so buy your own, perhaps in stainless steel.

Kero and a dead toothbrush do a fine job of cleaning these bits.

Be warned that the toothbrush will spatter your clothing with permanently staining black spots.

If keen you could buy one of those long bristle brushes from the LBS to help speed the cleaning of the cluster.

Pour the filthy kero back into the bottle via the sieve and funnel.

Marvel at the bits of shiny metal and other detr itus that you’ve found.Dry the component ry and re-install it.

Other techniques tried

Some years ago I bought a chain cleaner of the ‘rotating brushes in the plastic box’variety.

It was exceptionally good at depositing lots of dirty kero over the frame and back wheelbut it was an abject failure as a chain cleaner.

A while back I bought an ultrasonic cleaner (sonicator).
From Wikipedia:”Ultrasonic cleaning uses high frequency sound waves to agitate in a liquid. Cavitation bubbles induced by the agitation act on contaminants adhering to substrates like metals…”

I have found it to be reasonably satisfactory especially as one can do other stuff while the cleaner is running.

I use citrus cleaner diluted with water and this has promise especially as the liquid can be re-used. Rather than rely on the liquid to do all the work,

I give the chain one ordeal-by­ immersion in kero then transfer it to the sonicator for 20 minutes or so. Cassettes come up nicely in an ultrasonic cleaner.

As the citrus cleaner is water­ based,the cleaned chain will take a while to dry.

Rinsing the wet clean chain in a small amount of metho allows the chain to dry in a matter of minutes on a decent day.


Now here’s a topic of heated debate.

Firstly don’t use car engine oil.

This class of lubricant contains detergents and such additives are just the ticket for use in car engines.
However on a chain in the rain the detergents mix readily with the water and the whole mess washes out of the chain very quickly.

I heartily recommend chainsaw bar oil, any brand.
It is inexpensive,easily obtained and it is designed to work well on a chain in harsh,wet conditions i.e. when cutting green timber.

It has another more subtle and endearing characteristic in that it is sticky.

Bar oil is thus very good at staying where it is put though one should mop up the excess with a rag after application as this excess will migrate albeit slowly.

Another lubricant I like is Triflow.

This product is a thickish oil dissolved in a volatile solvent so it is quite thin out of the bottle and flows nicely into the inner workings of the chain or whatever you apply it to.

The solvent evaporates leaving the thick oil right there where you want it to be.

It’s not cheap and you can get a litre of bar oil for about the price of a 1OOmL bottle ofTriflow.
Worth having some about nevertheless.The empty bottle can be refilled with bar oil.

Whatever oil you use it will attract dust and this will adhere to the chain eventually reducing the effectiveness of the lubricants.

There are some wax based products available that claim not to attract dirt.
I’ve tried some but wasn’t convinced that sufficient useful product had made its way into the rollers.
Dirt seemed to make its way onto the chain anyway so I still use conventional mineral oil on no more scientific a basis than that.

I’ve bent your ear for long enough. Now get out and sort that chain.

Further  reading/viewing:

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