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by Dave Rome
May 14, 2018
Photography by David Rome
Your bicycle’s chain is like a mechanical log of your riding adventures: road grit from that last wet ride, red mud from adventuring in the desert, clumps of pollen from the springtime blooms. But if your chain is left dirty, that grit will form an impressively effective grinding paste, causing expensive wear, poor shifting, rough pedaling, and wasted efficiency.
If you’re looking to get more performance out of your bike, but without spending a lot of money, keeping your drivetrain clean should be a priority. As the saying goes, a clean bike is a fast bike.
How often you clean your drivetrain, and to what extent, will vary depending on your lube selection, riding conditions, and mileage. And of course, the better you are with your preventative maintenance, the less frequently you’ll need to do a full clean. But if your drivetrain is leaving you with a calf tattoo after every ride, is sounding gritty, or you’ve got an upcoming event, it’s probably due.
There are many different ways to clean a drivetrain. I’ve broken it down into four levels of detail, with each level requiring a little more mechanical aptitude, but each providing better end results.
– Just how many watts does a dirty chain steal?
– The best degreaser for bicycles
Limited on time and space? An easy-clean can be done just about anywhere, and all you need is a rag and your choice of chain lube.
Don’t have time for a full clean? Just backpedal your chain through a clean, lint-free rag. This is good to do anytime, especially before you re-apply lube.
In this quickest of methods, simply wrap the chain with a clean, lint-free cloth, and then backpedal the drivetrain through it to wipe off the exterior muck. Repeat the process until the rag stays mostly clean. You can use the rag to scrape crud off of the derailleur pulley wheels and chainrings. Alternatively, baby wipes work pretty well, too.
Once the chain is reasonably clean, you can re-apply lube as needed. Oil-based lubricants also help float contaminants to the surface of the chain, so you can also repeat the wiping process a few more times until the outside of the chain looks clean.
Depending on your lube choice, it might be a good idea to clean your chain like this after every ride. As already mentioned, regular light cleanings like this will make more thorough cleanings a rare task. But if your drivetrain is already extremely filthy, one of the more in-depth methods to follow would make more sense.
Note that I haven’t recommended using a rag soaked in degreaser. While that may yield better visible results, it also mixes degreaser with your dirty lube, instead of removing it. Ultimately, you’ll just end up with diluted chain lube that won’t perform as it was designed.
Apartment tip: If doing this indoors, use a drop-cloth or tarp to collect any mess.
If you watch professional race mechanics at a road or cyclocross event, you’d be impressed to see how quickly they get a chain sparkling clean, without removing it from the bike. A huge part of this is preventative – especially in the pro ranks, the drivetrain they’re cleaning was probably cleaned one ride ago – but the method used by pro mechanics is still well-proven.
Jason Quade of Abbey Bike Tools is a seasoned race mechanic himself, and a strong proponent of cleaning chains on the bike. “With few exceptions, I don’t remove a chain from a bike unless it’s going into the trash. I’ve seen enough failed quick links to drive this opinion.”
As long as your chain isn’t terribly dirty to begin with, washing it on the bike can yield excellent results. Requiring both degreaser and water, this is best done outdoors.
Remove the rear wheel.
A bicycle-friendly degreaser can be held in an old bottle on the seat tube.
Use a chain keeper to keep excess degreaser out of your hub bearings and away from your braking surfaces. We recently reviewed nine of the best chain keepers; you can find a link to this at the bottom of this article.
Brush degreaser on the chainrings.
Brush degreaser on the derailleur pulley wheels.
Brush degreaser on the chain. Backpedal chain through brush for several crank revolutions.
Brush degreaser on the cassette. This is easier with the wheel removed from the bike.
Rinse with water.
Apartment Tip: Use a self-service car wash if your bike is really grubby. It’s a washer on demand, with fluids collected and recycled.
Alternative: Use a chain cleaning device instead of brushing degreaser on the chain. These use a number of rotating brushes that automatically scrub the chain’s inner links, outer links, and rollers. You can also use these to better contain the mess of washing, or as a final rinse by replacing the degreaser with water.
A product we’ve reviewed on CyclingTips, the Park Tool CM-25, is an extremely good chain cleaner, but the CM-5.2 does the same job for a fraction of the price.
In my experience, the chain cleaning tools from Park Tool are great (such as the CM-25 or CM-5.2), and do an even better job of getting the nastiest muck off of chains as compared to the traditional brush method. CyclingTips US tech editor James Huang uses the Pedro’s Chain Pig himself, but as Adam Kerin of Zero Friction Cycling warns, none of these tools do a great job of getting the finer particles out from inside the rollers. For that, we have the next cleaning level.
The on-bike method described above will be the way to go for most, but sometimes a more thorough clean is warranted. The method we’re about to go through here is not only more meticulous, but also better contained, which may be useful for those with limited access to an outdoor cleaning space. I’ll do this level of detailed clean when I install a new chain and want the whole drivetrain to look new. Likewise, a number of professional workshops will offer this level of detail above and beyond the usual cleaning services.
Washing parts off the bike has its advantages, but it does require a little more mechanical know-how.
The detailed clean involves removing the chain, cassette, and chainrings (or crankset) from the bike. It also serves as the perfect periodic maintenance opportunity to inspect and service other bits such as bottom bracket bearings and freehubs.
Apartment tip: Use a stainless steel laundry sink as your parts washing basin. Only use environmentally-friendly degreasers if you do this.
Ultrasonic cleaners are fast becoming popular for a hands-off approach to the degreasing bath. You’ll get mixed results with really stubborn grit, but it’ll do an impressive job at getting in all the nooks and crannies. Pay close attention to the heat and solvent used in order not to cause plastic or anodisation damage.
Ultrasonic cleaners can be picked up online for reasonable money. Some people swear by them. I like mine, but it’s certainly not a must-have item.
Win Allen, owner of Wins Wheels in Westlake Village, California, and two-time consecutive winner of the Mechanics Challenge at Interbike, uses an ultrasonic cleaner filled with diluted Dawn dish soap after running the components through a separate parts washer. This ensures the solvent is thoroughly flushed out, and that any further hidden dirt is removed.
Are you more of the OCD (Obsessive, Chain, Degrease) type? Did you read the “Holy Grail of chain lube” articles and are now keen to get the most life and best performance from your chain? This section is for you.
“Many drip lubes (and obviously a must for wax submersion) will work their best if they have access to the chain metal,” Kerin explained. “So cleaning a chain should always be viewed as a two-part process. Part one is getting the chain clean, and the second part is ensuring there is no film left on chain from what was used to clean it.”
Adam Kerin’s ultra-thorough cleaning process comes from the knowledge that some lubricants, especially wax-based ones, will only work if they can adhere to the bare metal of the chain. That means all traces of oil and solvent must be removed.
According to Kerin, petrol, diesel, and many popular degreasers leave a heavy film behind, making it difficult for drip lube, and impossible for wax, to properly adhere to the metal surface as the lube manufacturer intended. Getting a chain visually clean, and then actually clean inside of the rollers, are two very different things, and for that, Kerin suggests that the previous methods mentioned above just don’t cut it.
In particular, Kerin warns that cleaning fluids will quickly get contaminated in ultrasonic cleaners, so it won’t be possible to get a sterile finish.
“It is like trying to get clean glassware out of filthy sink water,” he said. “I use mineral turpentine for the first cleaning part; it does a great cleaning job and is cheap to buy. Once the chain is coming out clean in the turps, I’ll do a couple of agitated rinses with methylated spirits (denatured alcohol).”
Kerin reserves an ultrasonic cleaner only for the final cleaning stage, and then follows it with a rinse in methylated spirits. Other methods and chemicals will work, he says, but it’s hard to beat this once you price it up. Whatever chemical you use, be sure to dispose of it responsibly. (The methods vary depending on where you live, but many councils commonly offer quarterly chemical collections. If in doubt, call your local council.)
Brand new chains can be ridden straight from the packaging, but there are reasons why some people first clean the stock grease off.
Got a brand new chain? Both Kerin and Jason Smith (formerly of Friction Facts, now with CeramicSpeed) believe new chains should be stripped of the packaging grease prior to using your preferred lube. The packaging grease is certainly fine to use, and is often reasonably durable, but it isn’t great from an efficiency point of view. Likewise, many of the better chain lubes won’t mix or adhere well with the factory grease.
So whether you want to get an old chain prepped for a submersive wax treatment (the gold standard, according to the recent Holy Grail chain lube article), just want it feeling like-new, or want the packaging grease stripped from a new chain, the method described below is the way to go:
Chain maintenance all starts with proper chain lube selection and use. If you prevent the chain from getting overly gritty and greasy in the first place, you’ll rarely need to give it a thorough clean. Using a lube that attracts little grit, and then keeping it clean, can help you get as much as 15,000km from a chain before it needs to be replaced, not the more common 3,000km most people see. And as a bonus, this increased lifespan also comes with reduced friction and greater operating efficiency.
Some chain lubes are far better at keeping a chain clean than others. Traditional “dry” oils offer little lubrication and still collect grit, while thicker “wet” lubes offer decent lubricant but quickly get gritty. The general advice is to use a little of a wet lube (such as the Silca NFS) and consistently wipe away the grit, or get a wax-based lube that doesn’t collect the elements. Examples of the latter include Squirt and Smoove.
“Cleaning really starts with the application of the lube of choice,” says Quade. “I’ve long said the more anal you are about putting the lube on, the lazier you can be in taking it off.”
Whichever chain lube you use, ensure you use enough to penetrate inside the rollers. Applying lube to the rollers on the lower span of the chain while backpedaling will carry the lube into the links. If it’s an oil-based lube, wipe off any excess with a rag once it’s had time to settle in. Be sure to always read the application instructions, and if a lube calls to be left on the chain overnight before riding, definitely do so.
If the chain is dirty, and you’re in a rush, consider lubing it anyway (and following the easy clean process).
“I’ve not seen any negative efficiency effects of at least re-lubing between rides,” said Smith, “even if re-lubing over a dirty chain, if a user does not have time to clean their chain.”
Staying on top of chain wear and replacing before it becomes worn is the best way to prolong the life of other components, since a “stretched” chain will wear the matching cassette and chainrings more rapidly than a fresh one. Our article on chain wear explains the concept and how to check it easily.
Generally speaking, if you’ve worn your chain past 0.8mm wear, you’ll likely need to replace your cassette. And if it’s more worn than this, then you may need new chainrings. If you’re keen to push it to the limit, install a new chain and take it for a careful test ride. If the chain is skipping at the back under power, you’ll need a new cassette. If it’s grabbing unusually on the chainring, making weird noises or shifting poorly on the front, new chainrings are likely needed, too.
A chain wear indicator, such as the Park Tool CC-3.2, allows you to easily check the condition of your chain so you can replace it before it causes excessive wear.
Much of what’s been described here may sound onerous, but it doesn’t have to be a time-draining exercise, especially if you have good habits to start with. Whether you want to do the bare minimum, or have a chainring you can eat off of, there’s an approach for you.
In the end, the general advice is to keep your drivetrain clean with a smart selection of chain lube, and a consistent routine to ensure gunk doesn’t build up. If you do this, you’ll only rarely need to use degreaser, and when you do, you’ve got plenty of options.
Wondering what degreaser is best, or simply safest, to use? We’ve recently answered that in our best degreaser feature.