Chain maintenance isn’t the sexiest of topics when it comes to cycling and the glitz of new bikes and shiny components. The drivetrain probably isn’t the first place you look when checking out a new bike, but the chain and associated parts are some of the most important components for a great cycling experience.
If you hear constant squeaking while pedaling your bike or your chain skips around when you shift to another gear, a dirty drivetrain could be to blame. By regularly cleaning and lubricating your chain, your bike’s shifting will feel crisper, your pedal strokes will feel smoother and you”ll get more life out of your components.
So get your hands dirty (actually, let’s keep them clean by wearing gloves), and use these quick and easy tips for cleaning your chain and drivetrain.
General chain care
Wipe your chain. Use a rag or an old t-shirt to wipe down your chain after every few rides. Grab the bottom of the chain with the rag and rotate the crank backwards for several revolutions. Letting the chain run snugly through the rag.
Lube your chain. Apply a small amount of lube after wiping down your chain. Apply lube to the “inside” surface of the chain, which the part that makes contact with the cogs and chainrings. One drop on each link is plenty.
Choose the right lube. Pick a lube that suits your normal riding conditions. Wet lube is stickier and great for wet weather riding because it won’t wash off easily in the rain. Dry lubes are not as sticky so they don’t pick up as much dirt and are intended for dry and dusty riding conditions.
Washing the Drivetrain
How often you need to wash your drivetrain depends on how much your ride, what conditions your ride in, and how often you wipe down and lube your chain. The more preventative maintenance you do, the less often you’ll need to wash your chain. But I’d suggest washing it every few weeks if you’re a regular rider or you frequently ride in wet or muddy conditions.
Wear gloves. Protect your hands from degreasers and chemicals used to wash your bike. Even environmentally friendly, citrus-based degreasers will strip oils from your hands. Disposable latex or nitrile gloves work great for this but reusable, heavy-duty gloves will also work just fine.
Degrease the drivetrain. Use a citrus-based degreaser to remove road grime and grease build-up on the chain. A couple paintbrushes or even an old toothbrush work well for scrubbing the chain, chainrings, cogs and derailleur pulleys. Make sure you get the front and back of each of these until the dark grease build-up is gone.
Rinse and Repeat. Spray the entire drivetrain with clean water as you spin the crank to ensure everything is rinsed clean. If your bike was extremely dirty, you may need to repeat the washing process to fully remove tough, stuck on gunk.
I love the Park Tool Chain Scrubber for degreasing drivetrains. Just pour degreaser into the scrubber’s reservoir, hook it onto your bike’s chain, and turn the crank so the chain runs through the tool. Internal brushes scrub the chain clean without the hassle or mess of doing it by hand. Don’t forget to scrub the chainrings, cogs, and pulleys by hand though!
Replace parts when necessary
Replacing worn out parts of your drivetrain will keep your bike running smoothly. Again, the regularity of replacing parts depends on your riding conditions and volume. Here are some easy checks you can do on a regular basis to determine if something needs replacing.
Check your chain. Over time, the links in your bike’s chain stretch apart from each other and can cause poor shifting and excessive wear and tear on your cogs and chainrings. Use a chain checker tool to determine if your bike’s chain needs to be replaced. Most chain checker tools simply measure the length between several cogs of your chain to determine how much the chain has stretched. They’re easy to use and worth keeping around with your other tools.
Check your chainrings and cogs. If your bike’s chainrings and cogs have teeth that are worn down and look hooked, it’s time to replace them. Put on a new chain when you replace your cogset and chainrings. An old chain on new drivetrain parts will speed up the degradation process of these more expensive pieces. Replacing a chain is substantially less expensive than continually replacing cogs and chainrings.
Keeping up with bike maintenance is the best way to avoid more serious problems down the road. However, if you are unsure about any mechanical issues or maintenance procedures, take your bike into your local bike shop for expert help.
Kristen Legan is an athlete, writer and coach. She raced triathlon professionally from 2009-2013, but has since switched her focus to exclusively racing bikes. In 2012, she was one of six women to complete the entire Tour de France route as part of the Reve Tour. Living, training and working in Boulder, Colorado, Kristen coaches for APEX coaching and has a degree in Molecular Biology & Neurology from the University of Colorado, Boulder.