The more you ride, the more you've got to clean. Does anyone actually like cleaning their bike though? Everyone likes a clean bike but that's not the same thing. Procrastinating only makes it worse but there is a way to help make things a bit easier. The right tools always make maintenance jobs a little easier and there is a right tool for this job.
We put together a list of the best bike chain cleaners we could find to help you keep your chain cleaner, your bike cleaner, and all the pieces last longer. Keep reading to see what we found and why we liked them. If you want to see some other considerations related to using a chain cleaner then jump down to the bottom. We put together a few paragraphs covering what to think about when using a chain cleaner. You might also consider looking at our article about the importance of drivetrain maintenance and our guide on how to clean a mountain bike.
The best bike chain cleaners on the market today
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Muc-Off made a name for themselves right along with Team Sky and Team Ineos. They've worked to make everything just a little faster and a little easier but professional mechanics don't actually use chain cleaners like this one. For those at home who don't take off the chain after every ride, you can still take advantage of the innovation that comes from optimizing everything. The Muc-Off X-3 chain cleaner is the only chain cleaner of its kind that keeps the clean fluid separate from the dirty fluid. Start by filling the top reservoir then use the button to release it and it filters through the chain before collecting in the bottom.
The basic design of almost every chain cleaner involves a handle. You hold the handle and keep the chain cleaner from moving while backpedaling. It's one of those little design features that work but always feels like it could be improved. Turns out Pedros thought the same thing and they did improve it. Instead of a handle, there's a stainless-steel hook that grabs the derailleur and allows the whole system to work hands-free. The added benefit is that not only does that free up a hand for holding the bike or turning the pedals but you can move the chain through the tool faster.
Sometimes the best design is a simple optimization. The more time the chain stays inside of the actual cleaning tool, the more time it's getting cleaned. There's not much space between the rear derailleur and the crank though. Finish line makes just a small tweak by adding a little bit of a curve. It's a slightly longer path without getting in the way of anything and it also makes sure the chain stays in tension against all the pieces. Having a magnet to collect chain fragments is a nice touch too. It lets you inspect the amount of metal your chain is shedding.
Almost every chain cleaner on the market uses a similar design as the Park Tools Cyclone cleaner. The blue color is a staple in most bike shops and if you want to stick with a tried-and-true option then you aren't going to go wrong with Park Tools. Replacement internals are available for purchase at a fraction of the cost of the whole tool but they aren't the same cartridge design as the more expensive CM-25. There's also a reversible handle to ensure that no matter the design of your bike, the Park Tool CM 5.3 Cyclone Chain Scrubber is compatible.
The design of most bike chain cleaning systems hinges on two pieces that have room for improvement. Although they hold chemicals specifically designed to destroy petroleum products they are all plastic, a petroleum product. Over time that plastic will degrade. The other challenge is getting the tool clean after cleaning a chain. The Park Tool CM-25 addresses both of these issues. The housing is die-cast aluminum and shouldn't ever need replacement. Inside the housing is a pair of cartridges housing the scrubbing pieces. That makes them easy to replace as they wear out but it also makes them easy to clean. This is a tool to last a lifetime but the cost is high.
If you are here searching for the best chain cleaner you are probably thinking about the other tools on the list that house fluid and scrub the chain while the chain moves through. There are other options though and the Finish Line Grunge Brush is a great companion piece. The stiff bristles on the smaller brush will help with all the buildup on the jockey wheels and the horseshoe chain side is great for quickly getting dirt and mud off of the chain. Start with the Grunge brush then finish with a wet chain scrubber or use the Grunge Brush at the trailhead follow up with something else at home.
Chain cleaning systems do a decent job. They might even do a good enough job given that chains are a replaceable item. There's no denying though that even after multiple times through a good chain cleaner there's plenty of dirt left behind. If you want to make sure that your chain is completely clean then you are going to want an ultrasonic cleaner. Run a chain through an ultrasonic cleaner a couple of times and you will have nothing but bare metal left behind. Not only that but a good ultrasonic cleaner like the SRA TruPower UC-20D-PRO Professional Ultrasonic Cleaner with a 2-liter capacity isn't limited to just the chain. You'll have to remove the chain but nothing says you can't drop the cassette or even other household items in there.
What to think about when using the best bike chain cleaners
How often should you clean your bike chain?
How often are you really going to use a chain cleaner? Most people are not as ambitious as they might imagine they are. The end of the ride the last thing you want to do is go through a whole process of a deep clean of your chain. You might wash the bike but you might not even do that. Don't worry though, you really don't have to get too involved as long as you do a little maintenance you can stretch out deeper cleans.
At the end of every ride take a couple of minutes with a lint-free cloth of some kind and wipe off the chain. If it's been a muddy ride then you might need a stiffer brush to knock off the dirt first. Just grab your cloth and with the bike in a stand, or even upside down, backpedal for 30 seconds or so. If the ride was wet then use some chain lube so the chain doesn't rust.
Don't forget to check your chain
Anytime you are cleaning it's a good time to do some preventative maintenance. Chains don't really stretch but they get looser as the metal gets worn away. They start shifting poorly and, even more importantly, they start wearing the more expensive cassette. It only takes a second to use a chain checker tool and you can see if it's time to replace the chain. Check often. replace when needed, and the rest of the drivetrain will last a lot longer saving you money on more expensive pieces.
Get a chain keeper
When you are cleaning your chain, the cassette can be a hindrance. It's best to clean the wheel and cassette on its own and separate from the chain. Clean the cassette first and the dirty chain will run off on the cassette. Do it the opposite way and it's tough to get the chain clean as it keeps picking up dirt and grime from the cassette. The obvious problem is that you can't clean the chain on the bike without a wheel, and cassette, present.
The solution is something called a chain keeper or dummy hub. Different manufacturers use different names but this is different from a chain keeper that helps keep the chain from coming off the crank. Instead, it's a small tool that keeps tension in the chain and holds it in the correct spot without the wheel present. There are a variety of options but the end result is that you can pedal the bike to turn the chain without the wheel present.
Don’t forget to clean the jockey wheels
Before even attempting to clean your chain, you are going to need to clean the jockey wheels on the derailleur. There might not be any part of the bike that's dirtier than those wheels. Every bit of mud, dirt, and grease seems to collect on them. It's impossible to get the chain clean without addressing them first.
You can get very involved in this process but probably don't need to. Use something hard, a stiff bristle brush or some kind of stick, to scrape the buildup off as the wheels turn. Then use a rag against the side to get them as clean as possible. If things are really bad it is possible to disassemble the derailleur to fully clean, or replace, the wheels but a lighter clean at each chain cleaning should do the trick.
Do you need to do anything after the chain is clean?
A good cleaning leaves a chain with bare metal exposed. Bare metal will rust much faster than you expect. Make sure that as soon as the chain is clean and dry that you add quality lube to protect the metal and get the drivetrain ready to ride again.