How to clean a bike chain and drivetrain

If you’ve been riding all winter or your drivetrain hasn’t seen a rag since gas was under $3 a gallon, chances are your chain, cassette and chainrings are looking pretty gritty. There’s nothing more empowering than performing some good old bike maintenance. It’s also the perfect way to save your hard-earned money for bike shop bling. Now, roll up your sleeves and let’s get to work!

What you’ll need:

  • Your bike, preferably set up in a stand
  • Old rags or towels
  • The bike lube of your choice
  • Chain cleaner tool (optional)
  • Bike degreaser

Step 1:

Quick quiz: What is your bike chain’s natural color? If you answered black, you may have to perform this step several times.

Finish Line Chain Cleaner, bike chain, clean bike chain

A chain scrubber makes chain cleaning a snap.

Shift the chain into the middle of the rear cassette and onto the small ring or middle ring of your crankset.

If you have a chain cleaner, fill it with diluted bike degreaser and warm water. I’ve been using Finish Line’s Shop Quality Chain Cleaner for several years, and it continues to thoroughly scrub the grime off my chain. If you don’t have this gadget, a rag will do. Repeat this step until your chain links appear clean and degreased.

Step 2:

Using a rag, give the chain a squeeze while backpedaling. Try to wipe off any excess grease and water.

Step 3:

Grab a dry rag and get ready to beautify the rest of your drive train. If your chain was pretty grimy, chances are your chainrings and cassette are too. Spray the cassette, rear derailleur and crankset with the degreaser.

Stand behind the rear wheel of the bike with the cassette on the opposite side. Reaching over the wheel with your rag taught on one side, slide the rag in between the largest cogs on the rear cassette. Using a sawing motion, clean the teeth and the small space in between each cog, working your way down to the smallest cogs.

Step 4:

Wipe down the crankrings (both sides) and derailleurs. Clean the grime off the jockey wheels, the two black cog-like wheels that spin the chain through the derailleur. A small brush or toothbrush will also work.

While you’re enjoying an intimate moment with your drivetrain, check the teeth on the cogs and chainring for wear (ie: shark-like teeth) and measure your chain’s wear using a chain wear indicator or with a ruler. This may sound like a pain, but it’s much easier than ignoring a worn chain and then having to replace the cogs or chain rings.

Step 5:

Chain-L No. 5 Chain Lube, lubing bike chain

A little lube goes a long way.

Lube the chain. The bike market is saturated with bike lubes. Everyone seems to have a favorite, so I’ll throw my two cents into the mix. For wet days and achieving high mileage between applications, I prefer Chain-L No.5 Bicycle Lube. Call me a social striver, but this potion keeps a girl—and her chain— happy for a long time, 1,000 miles to be exact (though expect less than that if you’re using a degreaser to clean your bike regularly).

Your local bike shop can hook you up with the perfect lubricant for your riding conditions. Generally you want to begin applying lube at the chain’s quick release and then continue with a drop on each link until the quick release magically appears again. Follow the directions for your specific lube. For all lubes, you want to be sure to remove any excess product. Don’t be afraid to run the chain through a clean rag several times. All that extra viscous goo will only attract dirt, speeding up the need for another cleaning.

Now admire your work!

cat with bike, cannondale, crankset, FSA crankset

Unlike the cat, a drivetrain won't clean itself. But now you know how to do it!




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