Rust is problematic for many reasons. It ruins your components, hinders performance, and is a sign to other riders that you don’t take care of your bike! Rust can occur when you least expect it and seemingly pop up overnight.
Fortunately, it’s preventable (and even reversible in most cases). If you want to prevent your bike chain from rusting, or need to know how to get rid of rust that’s already set in, keep reading!
How to Prevent Bike Chains from Rusting
Bike chains (as well as drivetrains, derailleurs, bearings and any other metal component on your bike) can be affected by rust. If left untreated, these components can fail, potentially causing serious injury.
But by taking the proper steps, you can minimize the potential for rust to eat away at your bike’s chain. Let’s look at what you can do depending on the conditions you ride in:
In Dry Conditions
If you mostly ride in dry conditions, rust will not be as big of a concern as if your riding season is usually wet (think riding in Arizona vs. the Pacific Northwest!) However, this does not mean that rust won’t occur.
Even if rain and snow are scarce, the climate you ride in may be very humid. Moisture in the air can cause metal components to rust as well.
So how do you protect your bike chain from rust in dry conditions?
1. Wash Your Bike After Every Ride
Washing your bike after a ride is the first step in preventing rust. Even if your bike doesn’t look dirty, small particles can work their way into every part of your bike if you let them. These small bits of dirt or mud can carry moisture into sealed parts of your bike (such as your fork, shock and bearings) and cause performance issues.
So if dirt and moisture can infiltrate your bike’s seals, imagine what it will do to components completely exposed to the elements.
Wash and scrub all the debris from your bike, especially the drivetrain. If necessary, you can remove your bike chain and soak it in a detergent and hot water to work small bits of dirt out from between the individual links.
2. Dry Your Chain Completely
Washing your chain is important, but leaving it wet is an invitation for rust to form, especially in humid climates. Use a microfiber towel to completely dry your chain. Leave your bike in a cool dry place to drip dry before storing it.
3. Use Dry Chain Lube
Bike chain lubricants are classified based on the riding conditions they should be used in. A dry chain lube is therefore specifically designed for dry conditions.
What makes dry chain lube different?
It features a relatively thin formula that will do its job of protecting your bike chain from dirt and debris without gunking up your drivetrain. Chain lube attracts debris so it gets stuck in the lube rather than sticking to the chain itself. This is similar to how hand soap bonds with germs and is then washed away, carrying the germs with it.
It’s important to apply chain lube after washing and drying your bike. FIrst, you don’t want to apply lube to a dirty chain. Lube can prevent debris from attaching to your chain, but it can’t remove debris that’s already there!
Second, lube is a liquid…and liquid doesn’t bond well to other liquid. Chain lube won’t be able to adhere to your chain if it’s wet.
Lube also needs time to set and dry before it can be effective. That’s why I recommend applying lube after your ride, so it has time to work it’s way into your chain and is ready to go the next time you take your bike out.
In Wet Conditions (Including Rain/Snow)
If wet conditions are the norm, then rust is going to be a major concern for you. Leave your bike wet, and rust is guaranteed to set in…fast. I found this out the hard way on a recent mountain bike trip to North Carolina. In the span of a 12 hour rainy drive back home, my bike chain and cassette were completely covered in rust!
So how do you battle rust if you live in a climate where rust seems inevitable?
1. Wash Your Bike After Every Ride
The cure for rust caused by moisture is to…add more moisture?
It sure is. You need to get all the mud and grime out of your bike’s components so the moisture they carry can’t soak into those hard to reach areas and cause issues down the road.
But there’s another reason to wash your bike if you ride in wet conditions. The water you’ll come across on the road or trails isn’t as clean as the water coming out of your faucet or hose back home. All sorts of chemicals can get thrown up on your bike and speed up the deterioration of your components.
If you ride in the snow, then you’ll also have to contend with road salt. Road salt is great at corroding your bike’s metal components, so you’ll want to wash this off as soon as possible.
2. Dry Your Chain Completely
Same rules apply here as for those who ride in dry conditions. Drying your chain completely will remove all that excess moisture. It will also prevent the water on your chain from contaminating the rest of your drivetrain.
Leave your bike in a cool dry place to dry completely before putting it in its designated storage space.
3. Use Wet Chain Lube
Just as dry lube is specially formulated for dry conditions, wet lube really shines when the weather turns sour.
Wet lube is much thicker than dry lube, enabling it to stay on your chain in even the worst muddy conditions and torrential downpours. Wet lube protects your chain from thick mud and water intrusion much better than dry lube.
Though this comes at a cost.
Due to its thicker formula, wet lube has the potential to gunk up your drivetrain much faster. This is another reason it’s important to wash your bike after riding: washing off the mud will likely remove much of the wet lube as well, ensuring you don’t add layer upon layer every time you lube your chain. Too much lube can be just as detrimental as too little!
Bonus Step: Consider a Coated Bike Chain
Regardless of the conditions you ride in, one extra way to proactively prevent rust is to look at the material your bike chain is made out of.
Most bike chains are constructed from steel. While very strong, steel is also prone to rusting. However, some bike chains are treated with special coatings to better withstand rust. Nickel-coated chains are one of the most common options. They will be a little more expensive, but will hold up much better, especially if you frequently ride in wet conditions.
Why Bike Chains Rust
Rust occurs when metal is exposed to moisture and oxygen. Water and air combine in a process called oxidation. While neither is harmful on its own, together they can wreak havoc on your bike’s metal components.
Rust produces a telltale orange color. But the effect is more than just aesthetic: over time, rust can begin to corrode and break down metal, leaving it weaker and unsafe for use.
Since your bike chain is made up of hundreds of tiny metal parts, all with even tinier crevices for water to intrude, it’s at greater risk of rusting than many other components on your bike. The most common way rusting occurs is when you fail to dry your bike chain or, even worse, when you store your bike outside in the rain or snow. You’re just asking for rust to attack your bike!
However, rusting can occur even if you store your bike inside. A bike chain stored indoors will rust if it hasn’t been properly dried. And to be honest, it can be difficult to completely dry your bike chain: there are so many little areas for water to hide.
This can be compounded if the place where you store your bike is humid or damp. A humid, damp environment can cause oxidation just like exposure to rain or snow. Even a brand new chain may rust if left unprotected in damp or humid conditions.
Properly cleaning, drying and storing your bike or new bike chain and keeping it out of damp, humid conditions is the best way to prevent rust from occurring.
Does WD-40 Prevent Rust on a Bike Chain?
If something doesn’t move and it should, use WD-40.
This is the unofficial slogan of the most well-known degreaser and cleaning agent. But WD-40 does more than just lubricate. It can be used in many places on your bike…in fact, WD-40 now even makes bike-specific products such as chain lube and grease.
WD-40 can also be used to remove rust from metal components. While their regular degreaser will work, they also make a rust removal-specific product for rust that’s extra difficult to get rid of.
For more detail on where you can use WD-40 on your bike, check out our previous article, Can You Use WD-40 on a Bike Chain?
Can a Rusty Bike Chain be Saved?
Preventing and protecting are great, but what if your chain is already rusty? Is it too late to save it?
Of course not!
A rusty chain is salvageable by following the steps below:
- Remove the chain from your bike
- Spray with a degreaser and allow it to sit for 20 minutes
- Scrub with a stiff-bristle brush to remove the rust
- Rinse with hot water
- Repeat the above three steps if necessary until rust is removed
- Dry with a microfiber cloth and allow chain to air-dry completely
- Reinstall the chain on your bike and apply proper chain lube for riding conditions
This process will remove rust from even the nastiest of chains. But before going through this process, make sure to visually inspect your chain.
If it’s been rusty for a while and it looks as if it’s been damaged or otherwise compromised, it’s best to just replace it with a new chain rather than risk your old chain breaking during your ride.