The dreaded chainring tattoo

First of all, thank you to all who rightly threw my whining back in my face and told me to get out and ride some different routes to break out of my pity party. Today, I did. Temperature in the high 70sF, no wind to speak of, and bright sunshine — a glorious day for biking. I rode in an area southeast of the city where I’ve ridden on club rides, but this time I did it alone. I took some roads I haven’t been on before. It was a “lollipop” route: 10 miles out, then a 10-mile loop on some decent country roads, then back home on the same 10-mile route I took to get out there. It’s the longest I’ve ridden since the MS ride last month, and when it was over, I felt great.

One of the attractions on this particular route is an exotic game ranch. If you’re lucky, you can see lots of African wildlife from the road. This morning I saw some antelope with the twisty horns, deer that are different from the North American whitetails, and even a zebra. But I had only my cell phone with me, and the pictures are no good. Next time I’ll take a decent camera.

While I was stopped to look at the critters, I straddled my bike. Not the brightest thing to do, because in no time at all, it was there — the dreaded chainring tattoo.

I’ve heard lots of talk about chainring tattoos being the sign of the rookie biker.  What’s a chainring tattoo? It’s that nice greasy mark on your calf from touching the chainring of your bike — usually the large ring, when the chain is on the small one. Sometimes you’ll hear it referred to as the “amateur mark.” I’ve been riding almost two years, and I still get them. So what’s amateur about that?


My own “amateur mark.” A particularly good specimen, I think.

I figure if you’re on the bike, you’re bound to come away with a tattooed calf. Not much you can do about it, and furthermore, it’s not something I’m going to go to great efforts to prevent.

The biggest problem is, it’s tough to completely remove in the shower — even with a slightly abrasive skin cleanser. Oh well, it’ll fade away in a day or three.

Any thoughts about the “amateur mark” slander that accompanies these things?


  1. Ramon H. says

    I too would like to know what makes it an amateur mark. If anything, to satisfy my own sense of curiosity. I get these when I stop at traffic lights. I don’t get them on my skin, but I get them on my socks :)

    • Charles Davis says

      I am seriously considering an actual tattoo of a sproket and chain on my right calf to flaunt my interest in riding. It might be fun to see the reaction of people when I sit on their sofa! I have looked for a prototype but may have to create my own.

  2. says

    Glad to hear you tried a new route. Sounds like a fun one!

    Your post made me realize I haven’t had an “amateur mark” recently. It’s certainly not due to a concerted effort on my part to avoid it, so I’m not sure why. I used to get them frequently, and I’m sure now that I’ve said this, I’ll get one soon.

  3. says

    Best way to take off grease is to use pure soap on dry skin. Rub it in and then rinse it off. Mark should come right off. Dish soap works well :-)

    • says

      You’re right — back in the day when we had to change ribbons in printers and typewriters, I used dish soap a lot. But I typically don’t take it into the shower with me.

    • tracywilkins says

      Another option that helps a lot is to use a wax based lubricant. It needs to be re-applied more frequently, but with it the dirt and junk collected on your drive train isn’t quite as “greasy”. I tend to wipe my chain down and re-apply it every 100-150 miles and most of the time my chain and drive train still have some shine left on them. It seems to wash off your leg a little easier as well.

  4. Dana says

    The best thing to remove that grease is Pam cooking spray or a little olive oil. Works like a charm! I use it all the time when my hands are grease covered after cleaning the drivetrain.

  5. says

    Forget the word “amateur” and ride your ride, Noob! My joy is in the pedaling, not in caring about what other people think of my riding. I am a nice guy and want to get along with everybody, but I am not a big fan of folks who want to differentiate and classify riders. Keep up the great work!

    • says

      Thanks, Mike. It turns out that — from no less an esteemed source than Bicycling Magazine’s online site — that the mark gets the “amateur” name because experienced bikers are supposed to keep their chainrings clean, as Jon alluded to above. I just spent an hour making the drivetrains shine on both my and my wife’s bikes!

      • Ramon H. says

        Yea, and I just cleaned the drivetrain last week and this week they are already dirty as heck. Seems that the cleaner you get them, the dirtier they get :)

  6. says

    My “chainring tattoos” are in the form of two separate scars. One is neat little row of teeth marks on the top of my thigh (I still don’t know how I managed to wind up underneath the bike) and the other is on the back of my ankle where the big ring sliced my leg open thus requiring a trip to the emergency room and stitches and all. After that the grease seems trivial… nothing a little spit and the backside of a glove can’t remove.

  7. John says

    I’ll bite on this one. I had a much easier time keeping my drivetrain clean with the wax lubes, but got tired of applying it so often. With the lube I use now, it only takes a few miles to make it look like I never cleaned it, so I get a lot of these “tattoos.”

    I also have the Mtn bike variety, since that is what I ride. One set looks like claw marks from when I was not quite used to riding clipless pedals and did a slo-mo fall. The other set is still healing – a line of puncture marks on my calf from being careless while trying to scoot around end of a vehicle gate on a dirt road.

    The scars, I could do without. But the grease marks: Tattoos, indeed, but I sure wouldn’t call them amateur – the only drivetrain that stays clean is one that isn’t used!

  8. Bob says

    Funny, I’ve never heard of it being called amateur before. I don’t quite get that, and frankly could care less what people think about it. At what point do are you not an amateur? I’ve been riding for years, used to be pretty fast (although not racing caliber), felt I was a good climber… I held my own with some pretty good riders. Still, I get these from time to time. I actually think they’re pretty cool lookin’ and have thought I might get a real tattoo someday. Maybe I’m weird. :) Someone above said it best… “My joy is in the pedaling, not in caring about what other people think of my riding.”

    • Owen says

      I’m with you Bob they are cool lookin’ I have also been thinking of getting a tattoo as when i see the chain mark its at the end of a great ride and it reminds me of that and makes me smile. In the end, its all about what you get out of it, not what others take from it.

  9. Chuck says

    Straight soap is the answer – liquid hand soap seems best. I am considering getting an actual tattoo of a sprocket on my inside right calf – the more realistic the better. It would be my first and last tattoo but I think it would be kind of fun to scare people when I start to sit on their sofa. Does anyone know of someone with this actual tattoo?

  10. Adam says

    I have an appointment for tomorrow to get that tattoo. 15years biking and I don’t find anything amateur about it, just means we enjoy biking so much we don’t care about getting dirty..

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