The weather was finally starting to warm up, so I went out to my garage to retrieve my mountain bike. Upon retrieving my bike from the rafters, I noticed that I had forgotten to winterize the chain correctly, and the chain was pretty seized up and rusty.

Replacing a bike chain due to a bit of rust is not only excessive, but it can also be a challenging hassle. Most of the time, you can easily remove rust from a mountain bike chain with a few simple tricks. It’s easy, it’s effective, and it will save you the time, money, and hassle of replacing the chain in its entirety.

Tools Needed To Deep Clean And Remove Rust From A Mountain Bike Chain

There are several different tools you can use to remove rust from bike chains. Essentially we are working with a standard steel alloy and oxidation. Therefore, we can apply most de-rusting techniques and tools.

Here is a list of tools you can use to remove rust from a bike chain. Keep in mind these will apply to most rusting metal applications, not just bike chains. However, we’re keeping in mind the minor nature of the components, so some of these tools or products work best on more minor things and would be a waste of effort when applied to larger surfaces.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Clean Rust From Bike Chain
Clean Rust From Bike Chain

Rust Removal Recommended Tools

Steel wool – Steel wool works well to remove rust from metal. However, you have to be cautious with getting the steel strands stuck in the links. They are just small enough to get in the fine cracks, which are suitable to remove rust but slightly inefficient given the nature of the link shapes.

Wire brush – The tried, tested, and proper tool for rust removal of bike chains. The wire bristles are excellent for removing rust and get in between the outer link plates. Also, using a stabbing motion with the bristles, most wire brushes are semi-adequate to remove rust from in between the outer link plates.

Plastic tub – If you can remove your chain and let it soak in a rust-inhibiting solution, all the better. Similarly, having a tub to clean and scrub the chain, so you aren’t getting greasy, sandy crud in your sink is a wise idea. Do the cleaning outside to avoid mess indoors.

Bicycle Chain Cleaning Kits – These kits generally have one tool worth the price of the kit – a 3-brush brush shaped in a U-shape with the bristles pointing into the center from 3 sides. These brushes are incredible for cleaning bike chains and can save a lot of time. Check out a kit like this one from Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Cleaning-Accessories-Scrubber-Mountain-

Bike Chain Cleaner
Bike Chain Cleaner

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Bicycle Pro Chain Cleaner – You read that right; it’s a tool with built-in brushes that cleans your bike chain. However, it won’t work against anything other than dirt, mud, and the lightest of surface rust. These work great after a trail ride, but don’t rely on them as a rust prevention tool. You can pick them up relatively cheap from Amazon here:

Beneficial Other Tools

  • Bike stand – Nothing makes home bike repairs easier than having a good, professional bike stand. This stand by Park Tool is one of my favorites for the garage; you can find it here on Amazon.
  • Penetrating Lubricant – A penetrating lubricant like WD-40 is excellent for cleaning rusty bike chains. You don’t want to use these products as actual lubricants for your chain, but they work fantastically to clean them. Here’s a good combo of WD-40 products that make an excellent team for cleaning. As well, it has a specially formulated lube made just for bike chains.
  • Compressed air – Whether you have an air compressor or pick up one of those cans of air for cleaning keyboards, compressed air is great for blowing off rust dust without using water. Make sure you use eye protection and breathing protection, though.

Caution: Ensure you have your tetanus shots up to date before working on any rusty metal components.

Steps to Remove Rust from a Mountain Bike Chain

Assuming you have a wire brush at the very least, here are some basic steps to ensure you get the job done right when you clean the bike chain to remove rust.

Before you begin, if the bike is dirty, muddy, or otherwise not clean, give it a good cleaning with pressurized water like a suitable hose with a sprayer. Starting your work on a clean bike will be better, especially to remove sand and dirt, so it doesn’t get in the chain links once we clean it.

  1. Move the bike to a place that you can work on the wheels and drive assembly. If you have a bike repair stand, mount the bike in it.  Or just flip it over onto the seat and handlebars. Remember to lay down some rags or cardboard first, so you don’t scratch the handlebar components or seat on the ground.  The job goes much fast if you can turn the pedals and move the chain around quickly.
  2. If you have a chain breaker, remove the chain from the bike to clean it. If you don’t, then it’s just going to be a bit more challenging. Let’s proceed.
  3. Depending on the degree of oxidation, you may need to replace the chain. Start with a good inspection. Place your tub under the chain. Using your wire brush, briskly brush the chain in a rusty location. Look in the tub. If you see large flakes of rust/metal, then you should replace the chain. If you see only dust and sand particles or more minor flecks, then the chain is salvageable.
  4. If you have to replace the chain, do so now and don’t bother cleaning the old one. Check out my article on shortening bike chains for more information about cutting and removing the chain for replacement.
  5. If your bike chain is salvageable, continue with cleaning the chain using a dry wire brush. No solvents are required at this stage. Keep in mind that you will likely wind up tearing several pairs of rubber gloves during the cleaning process. Sometimes, if a chain is horrible, I’ll use thick leather work gloves instead. Holding the chain and cleaning it with a wire brush is challenging if you don’t want to stick yourself with the sharp wire bristles. That’s why I like the chain cleaning kit tools the best.
  6. Continue cleaning the chain; as you brush off all visible rust, you should be left with a bright and shiny chain surface. Move the chain along its path and clean sections at a time until you’ve thoroughly cleaned the entire chain.
  7. Next, I like to use compressed air to blow off any excess rust dust that may still be on the chain. This way, I remove the dust without using water that could accelerate oxidation.
  8. Once the chain is free of dust, I apply a coating of penetrating lubricants like WD-40 or a similar product. I allow it several minutes to soak into the links. I also use a technique I like to call chain bending.
  9. Wearing gloves, spray the chain with penetrating lubricant. Working your way along the chain, bend each link in both directions, and give it some lateral flex in the directions the link is NOT supposed to bend. This process allows the penetrant to get into each link, into all the smallest of spots. The motion also helps to free up and remove debris from between link components. It is the trick I use to free up old and rusty chains.
  10. Continue working the oil and the chain until you have completed the entire chain and the whole thing moves freely.
  11. Next, take a rag (preferably old-towel sort of material, like cotton but ‘fuzzy’ like a towel) and completely clean the chain, attempting to remove as much of the penetrating oil as possible. You don’t want to use water or soap, just a dry rag. It leaves a microscopic layer of penetrant on the chain.
  12. Let the chain sit for a few moments, so any vaporizing chemical additives that were in the penetrant have a chance to evaporate from the chain.
  13. Lubricate the chain completely using grease or lubricant specially formulated for chains. I like to use a semi-liquidy oil or lube that will be applied with a brush and then dabbed with a rag to remove excess.

How can I Prevent My Bike Chain From Rusting?

Rusting bike chains are caused by oxidation of the metal as it reacts with the surrounding air. Water, salt, and other things can speed up the rusting or oxidation process, so the goal is to keep foreign chemicals and air away from the metal.

To prevent air from oxidizing the metal alloys that comprise your bike chain, you need to coat the metal in an oil-based substance. Typically the best substances are the very oils and lubricants that work best to maintain the best use of the bike chain. These lubricants coat the metal in the same way that oil coats your frying pan at home. The oil prevents the air from reacting with the metal and thus prevents rusting.

When to Replace an MTB Chain

As mentioned earlier, when we inspect a bike chain using the wire brush and tub method, we can see the extent of oxidation damage to the chain by what debris falls off from the initial contact with the wire brush.

Measure Mountain Bike Chain
Measure Mountain Bike Chain
  • If the debris coming off the chain is flakes of rust/metal – the chain has lost structural integrity and should be replaced.
  • If the debris coming off the chain is fine dust particles of rust – the chain is salvageable if maintained.
  • If the chain has deformed, bent, or stretched beyond reasonable limits – you should replace the chain. Use a tool like a chain wear indicator like this one by Bikehand found on Amazon. This tool is good for most chains on bikes from 7 to 12 speed. There are all kinds of specialty wear indicators for other sizes as well, so just grab one like this to match the chain size you have: https://www.amazon.com/Bikehand-Bicycle-Chain-Indicator-checker/dp/B00811WQW0/ref=sr_1_8?dchild=1&keywords=bike+chain+measure+tool&qid=1621290672&sr=8-8

How to Select the Correct MTB Chain

Mountain bike chains come in a variety of sizes. To select the right size for your bike, I recommend removing the chain and measuring for replacement. I’ve got a great description and sizing chart in my article about cutting an MTB chain you can read here: How To Cut A Mountain Bike Chain.

Where to Get a New Bike Chain

A bike chain is readily available at most major department stores that sell bikes, every bike shop, and of course from our friends at Amazon. Amazon sells the brand I recommend SCRAM for 6/7/8: https://www.amazon.com/Finish-Line-Lubricant-Squeeze-Bottle/dp/B00Z779USE/ref=sr_1_8?dchild=1&keywords=bike+chain+lubricant&qid=1612980464&refinements=p_72%3A1248957011&rnid=1248955011&s=sporting-goods&sr=1-8

For 9 Speeds I would recommend the SCRAM:  https://www.amazon.com/SRAM-P-Link-Bicycle-Chain-9-Speed/dp/B000RWE868/ref=sr_1_4?dchild=1&keywords=sram+mountain+bike+chain&qid=1612981455&s=sporting-goods&sr=1-4

Recommended Lubricates for MTB Chains

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●     All In One Chain Lubricant Finish Line 1step 

If drippy oils aren’t your thing, then check out this great product by Finish Line. The 1-step cleaner and lube come in a gel-like format, so it doesn’t drip all over the place. Keep in mind; you don’t want to keep this product in the sun as it liquefies a lot in the heat of the sun, making it runny.

●     Dry Chain Lubricant Finish Line Dry Teflon

One of my favorite lubes for those dry, hot summer day conditions when you’re biking in dusty areas is an excellent dry lube, again by Finish Line. This product goes on wet but dries fast to form a barrier over your chain that prevents dust and debris from getting into the chain while lubricating the chain at the same time.   

●     Wet Chain Lubricant Finish Line Wet

If wet conditions or extreme rides are on the menu, you should include a wet chain lubricant like this one from Finish Line. The wet lube works excellent to fend off moisture in extreme conditions or long rides, so this lube is great to have on hand for those sorts of conditions. https://www.amazon.com/Finish-Line-Lubricant-Squeeze-Bottle/dp/B00Z779USE/ref=sr_1_8?dchild=1&keywords=bike+chain+lubricant&qid=1612980464&refinements=p_72%3A1248957011&rnid=1248955011&s=sporting-goods&sr=1-8

SAFETY TIP: When working on your bike, whether it’s lubricating the chain, packing grease into bearings, or even just performing general cleaning, ensure that you keep lubricants away from your brake pads and wheel rims or disc brakes (depending on the brake type you have). Good braking requires good friction, and lubricants are friction’s enemy. Keep those brakes clean and dry – no lubes allowed!

The Best 3 Tips for Reducing Rust on Your MTB

  1. Keep your bike oiled. Using lubricants that leave a protective film is the best final stage of cleaning your bike. Take an oil-based lubricant and put some on a rag and wipe down your whole bike after cleaning it. It will help prevent rust like nothing else.
  2. Keep your bike clean. Water and salt are deadly for your bike’s metals. Keeping the bike clean of all mud, dirt, and debris ensures that winter salts (if you live in the North) don’t get on the metal and speed oxidation.
  3. Fix scratches right away, even if it means keeping a can of clear-coat Tremclad metal protecting spray paint to touch up scratches. The paint on your MTB protects it from the air, oxidizing the metal frame and parts. Keep scratches repaired to prevent further oxidation.

Get Out and Roll

We’ve discussed chain condition, replacement, cleaning, sizing, and more. By now, you’re that much closer to being a bike pro and knowing all the little details about your bike and bike chain that make you a serious and dedicated MTBer.

Remember to keep that MTB clean, keep the chain free-moving and lubricated, and most importantly, get out there on your bike and have fun!