No matter what the season, bicycle chain maintenance is pretty much the same. The ultimate goal is to keep the chain clean, free of dirt and lubricated.
Cleaning the chain can be achieved in many ways. The basic way is to clean the chain with solvent or lubrication. This helps break down oils and dirt that have solidified or dried into the chain. Chemical or petroleum solvents will break things down more easily, but are harder to dispose of when done. It doesn’t take much of these products to do the job. A rag, well-soaked with mineral spirits, for example, is all you need.
Citrus-based solvents do almost as well and are much less harmful to the environment. Applying these can be achieved in many ways. They come in different types from paste to liquid.
Once you've broken down all the dirt and grease the next step is removing it from the chain. We recommend wiping the chain continually until the chain is clean. To do this, you should cycle the cranks with one hand and hold the chain in the rag with the other. Cycle your chain through the rag over and over until no more dirt is coming off. This process will leave several dirt tracks on your rag. In the shop this usually means 15, 25, 45 track marks on the rag until it is clean.
There are mechanical chain cleaners that can be purchased to aid in the flushing process. Some are equipped with brushes that run the chain through a bath of cleaner while the brushes expel dirt from your chain. The Pedros Chain Pig is a great example of this type of device. It does an excellent job of removing dirt and grit from a chain.
Once clean, the final step is applying lube. In a perfect world, you could crawl inside of each one of those tiny little chain rollers, and apply one little perfect drop of lube to each roller. In the practical world, it's easier to shoot a stream of lube on the chain while you cycle through one complete rotation. About 3 1/2 turns on the big ring will cycle the chain completely. Shoot a stream of your favorite lube on the chain while the chain is moving. After you’re done, wipe it down with a clean rag.
In the winter, these processes should be practiced often. Pretty much any time the chain is showing signs of dirt, grease, or salty build up, cleaning is recommended. In the summer, heavy cleaning is not as important and only lubing and wiping might be necessary. Usually once or twice a summer will work if you stay out of the rain.