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A chainring tattoo is common on the right leg when the bike chain is dirty.

Bike Grease Mark: Avoiding a Chainring Tattoo

Cutting Through Bike Grease: Avoiding a Chainring Tattoo

by Jess Leong, HaveFunBiking.com

The accursed chainring tattoo is something that many bikers – whether a beginner or not – has experienced. While known as a ‘noob’s problem’ (a newbie or beginner’s problem), even experienced riders have had their fair share of chainring tattoos.


What is a Chainring Tattoo?

Characterized by the ebony spikes reminiscent of the triangular rays drawn on a sun picture, the design is made from oil and grease. Oil, grease, and debris can gather in the various components of a bike’s chain, cassette, and chainring. When this builds up, it can spill over and a calf can touch it.

The chainring tattoo is coined as such because the grease can be annoying to remove. How does this happen? It occurs when the rider accidentally presses their leg against the side of the bike where those components are. This generally happens at stoplights or stop signs when a rider puts down their leg to brace themselves, but the leg isn’t far enough from the bike. The leg may bump or touch the bike’s side and its very own tattoo.


Why is it Called a “Newbie’s Problem” Tattoo?

Plenty of seasoned riders and pros can be seen supporting a chainring tattoo if one pays close enough attention. However, generally it is considered a “Beginner’s Problem” because many riders learn tricks or find a method that works for them to avoid having their leg touch the bike’s chain, cassette, or chainring. It takes practice and experience, but sometimes that doesn’t even save their calves.

Rest assured that while beginners may seem to get it more often, there are seasoned riders and pros that can still be affected – you just might not notice it!

Having a chainring tattoo just marks you as a rider – and some people go so far as to actually get an ink tattoo. For those riders, the tattoo will stay with them forever as a tribute to how much they love riding their bikes. As some riders say: It’s a mark of a true cyclist.


What’s the Easiest Way to Remove it?

Since it is grease, regular hand soap and water isn’t likely to remove the tattoo from your calf. Instead, opt for some dishwashing soap, water, and a rag or paper towel. Dishwashing soap generally is made with surfactants to remove grease. While different dish soaps can vary in effectiveness to cut through grease, they still work well for us cyclists. Plus, they’re safe to use!

A bicyclist with a dirty bike chain can easily experience a chainring tattoo.

A bicyclist with a dirty bike chain can easily experience a chainring tattoo.

Additionally, you can also use olive oil or baby oil to remove the chainring tattoo with ease. Some riders will either leave the grease on their calves until they return home. Others will carry around some wipes and oil to help remove it on the go.

How Can I Avoid Getting the Tattoo?

Besides trying to avoid touching your leg to your bike when stopping or getting off/on your bike, there’s a few options that other cyclists have been throwing around and some have found useful.

  • Use dry lube rather than wet lube: There is a much lower chance of getting grease stains because dry lube is a lighter lube and therefore isn’t as sticky. Wet lube – what most use for bike maintenance – is known to be a lot stickier. It, therefore, picks up more debris while one is riding their bike. The downside with dry lube is that it tends to need to be put on more frequently and since it is a light lube, it is easily washed away if it gets wet, whereas wet lube would not wash away and has more ‘staying’ power. Dry lube should be used in drier times/climates whereas wet lube should be used in wet locations. Either way, make sure not to layer the two lubricants on one another. Also, always remove excess lubricant to reduce buildup of grease.
  • Clean your chain, cassette, and chainring fairly often. The reality is that grease, debris, and oil builds up: Cleaning your bike chain can be a hassle, but it is something worth doing. It keeps the bike lifespan long and gives less grease marks! Check out our article for information and tips on how to clean your bike chain in 5 simple steps.
  • Chain guard: This puts a physical barrier between you and the culprit. It ensure that your leg doesn’t touch any of the components that can give you a grease tattoo.

Can’t Avoid it? Cover it Up!

  • Roll up your pants legs: This won’t necessarily stop you from getting the grease on your calves, but at least it won’t be on your clothing. Plus, after you get to where you’re going, you can roll down those pants legs and cover up any tattoos. It’s like they were never there!
Cleaning your bike chain and crank ring will help in avoiding a chainring tattoo.

Cleaning your bike chain and crank ring will help in avoiding a chainring tattoo.

Whether or not you decide to support the chainring tattoo with pride or want to cover it up, don’t let it get in the way of your next bike adventure. HaveFun and just Ride On!


Jess Leong is a writer for HaveFunBiking.com.