Easy fixes for 3 common bicycle chain problems

June 30, 2015

It's easy to forget about your bicycle's chain until it gets so dirty that it leaves greasy stains on your clothes or noisy that it spoils the tranquility of your ride. With a few simple tools, you can easily remedy these three common bike chain problems and be back on the road before you know it.

Easy fixes for 3 common bicycle chain problems

[Image credit: iStock.com/PJ66431470]

Problem #1: chain caked in dirt

If not cleaned, a dirty chain can not only wear down prematurely due to the grinding action of the grit, but may also leave horrendous greasy stains on your pant legs if you rub up against it. Moreover, a greasy chain acts like a sticky dirt magnet.


Deep clean it using a few household items.

  • A chain that has become caked in dirt over a period of time may not come clean when treated with degreaser. However, you can restore it to pristine condition with some more aggressive cleaning.

To clean a chain

  1. Split the chain with a chain tool and remove it from the cogs and derailleurs. You can purchase a chain tool inexpensively at your local bike store or sports equipment retailer.
  2. Scrub the chain with degreaser to remove as much dirt as possible. WD-40 spray is excellent for removing gunk, but you could also try with an ordinary household detergent.
  3. To clean between the links where brushes can't reach, arrange the chain in a single coil in the bottom of a cheap or old pan.
  4. Pour a strong (1:10) mixture of household detergent and water over the chain and then heat the pan to bring it to a boil. (It's best to do this on a camping stove outdoors rather than in the kitchen, as it is a smelly process.) Then simmer the chain for a few minutes. This treatment should dissolve any congealed grease.
  5. Drain off the liquid and repeat, this time using only clean water.
  6. Drain again and heat the chain once more, this time with no liquid at all, to evaporate any moisture in the chain.
  7. Allow the chain to dry fully before reinstalling it using the chain tool.

As always, be careful handling the hot solution – wear gloves, safety glasses and ensure the detergent you use is not flammable before heating it up!

Problem #2: chain is noisy

Although a noisy chain may seem more of an annoyance, it signals your chain is under “stress” and could (if ignored) lead to early wear and tear on the sprockets and derailleur.


Clean and lubricate the chain and derailleur (near the rear wheel of your bike) properly to ensure a smooth ride. A dirty derailleur is one of the most common causes of gear problems. Ironically, over-lubricating your chain and cogs can make your gear-shifting even worse.

To clean the derailleur

  1. Clean the chain, sprockets and derailleur by scrubbing them with degreaser, then rinse them with water and allow to dry. (An old toothbrush helps you easily get into the tight areas.)
  2. Next, lubricate the chain sparingly. Simply apply a drop of lubricant to each barrel on the chain – not the connecting links – and turn the pedals 10 times to spread the lubricant. Household lubricating oil tends to attract gunk because it’s sticky. Choose a lubricant specially made for bicycle chains.
  3. Leave for five minutes to allow the lubricant to penetrate into each barrel, then wipe off any excess with a clean rag.

Problem #3: chain makes a rubbing sound

Any rubbing may cause your chain to wear down prematurely, which has the potential to only make it noisier and more difficult to shift gears.

Check the chain and chain rings. A kink – two seized sections of chain – can cause the chain to rub; a loose chain ring on the crank arm can have the same effect.

It could also be that your derailleur needs adjustment, in which case there are small screws to adjust how far the derailleur moves when you change gears.

  • Consult your bicycle owner’s manual for details about how to adjust the derailleurs properly.
  • If the rubbing is caused by a kink, you’ll need to lubricate the chain.

To lubricate a chain

  1. Lubricate the chain by dribbling lubricant along the full length of the chain and on both sides. Use a piece of cardboard as a shield to protect the wheel rim. Any lubricant that gets on the rim may prevent you from stopping when applying the brakes!
  2. Loosen any kinks by working them back and forth.
  3. There are five or six bolts that mount the chain ring to the crank arm – make sure that they are fully tightened.

The right tool for the job

To remove or install a bike chain, you'll need a simple and inexpensive device called a chain tool (mentioned above), which you can buy from any bike store. The tool is comprised of a shaft connected to a screw thread and handle, and a clamp that firmly holds a chain link.

  • To break a chain, position a link in the tool, then screw the shaft clockwise to dislodge the pin holding together two adjacent chain links.
  • To install a chain, use the tool in reverse, pushing the pin in to join adjacent links together.

Keeping your chain in good working order is an important part of overall bike maintenance and doing so is easy with the simple fixes described above. If you feel it’s beyond your capabilities, take your bicycle to a local bike shop where they can remedy the problem quickly and inexpensively.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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