How to Clean Your Drivetrain – Comprehensive Bike Maintenance

Guest Writer, Lance, Takes You Through Drivetrain Cleaning

Disclosure: This article may link to affiliate sites/feature complimentary products for review purposes.

In this second article on drivetrain maintenance, you’ll learn just how to give your bike the deep clean it needs to keep you hammering the hills in style. In case you notice a difference in voice, Lance from the CycleButtCrack blog (yep, seller of “cheeky” jerseys) approached us about appearing as a guest writer. We nodded our heads at his request, and are happy to include Lance’s tips for achieving a clean bike here. Read on!


Drivetrain Maintenance: Part 2, The DEEP CLEAN

The Deep Clean is a more intensive servicing of your drivetrain than the wipe. It is best done at least once a month depending on weather conditions. During my Seattle winter commute season, I may need to deep clean my drivetrain once a week. I also always make sure to do this before a big ride like a century. Before we get into this serious maintenance, let’s take a moment to talk about drivetrain wear.

Your chain, cassette and chain rings are designed to be replaced as they wear. For a Clydesdale like me, depending on the chain, I have to replace mine every 500 to 1,000 miles. In theory, the cassette and chain rings need to be replaced every third time you replace the chain. In practice, I have had cassettes last several years before the teeth became too worn and I have only ever replaced one set of chain rings on my mountain bike. The chain rings I have on my Giant road bike have nearly 20,000 miles on them and still work great!

Replacing the chain at regular intervals prevents wear on the more expensive chain rings and cassette. As a chain is used, it stretches and a stretched chain wears the teeth of the cassette and chain rings to match the stretched chain. When the chain is eventually replaced, the shorter chain does not mesh with the teeth of the cassette resulting in chain hopping or skipping. Worn teeth on the chain rings result in chain suck where chain sticks to the chain ring. In some cases, this can lead to breaking your rear derailleur. If you want to avoid all this hassle, replace your chain when it is worn!

So now let’s get started on the deep clean. The procedure is as follows:

  1. Check to determine if your chain is worn. There is nothing worse than cleaning a chain which needs to be replaced. Cleaning the chain is the most time consuming part of the process. Chain wear can be done with a ruler, but I have never used this method. I prefer to take it to a bike shop. They will usually check it for free, give you an idea how much life your chain has left and sell you a new chain if necessary. If you want to check your chain yourself, you can get one of these tools.
  2. Follow the steps of the wipe. It is easier to get some of the crud off before your start.
  3. Wipe down the derailleur pulleys. This is easier with the chain on and takes care of most of the mess. Pinch a rag on each of the pulleys as you turn the pedal backwards. It takes a little trial and patience to avoid sucking the rag into the drivetrain. Go slow.
  4. Remove the chain. The newer Shimano chains are directional. Take note of any directional indicators before removing the chain. I prefer my chains to have a master link rather than having to mess with a chain tool. Here are the directions for opening a master link. I find chain removal easier to shift to the smallest chain ring in front and smallest cog on the cassette in the back. I find it is also helpful to wiggle the chain side to side as you push the links together.
  5. Cleaning the chain. My favorite method for deep chain cleaning involves shaking it like a Polaroid picture. In a plastic bottle, pour in some citrus degreaser and a little water. Add your chain, put the lid on the bottle and shake. You will shake for a while. The more degreaser you add, the faster the chain will get clean. If the bottle has a wide mouth, in theory you can use a spare spoke to remove the chain. In my experience, the chain gets wrapped around itself and will not come out. I prefer to cut the bottle open to retrieve the chain and recycle the bottle. I do use a spoke to periodically grab the chain to see how clean it is.
  6. Rinse and dry the chain. If you replace the chain wet with degreaser, any chain lube you add will be worthless. Thoroughly rinse the chain with water to remove the degreaser and immediately wipe it dry with a rag. Set the chain aside.
  7. Take a closer look at your derailleurs. Now that the chain is gone, it is easy to wipe them down and to check for bent or worn pieces.
  8. Remove the wheels. Check for any grease coming out of the hubs, signs of wear or cracks on the rims, and check for loose spokes.
  9. Wipe down the brakes and check for worn pads, now that the wheels are out of the way. Most have a wear indicator. Wipe the grease and grit off the brakes.
  10. IMG_2784Clean the cassette. Set the wheel on your lap with the cassette facing up. Take a rag (I use old t-shirts for rags) and slide it between the cogs on the cassette and forward and backwards. The freewheel means the cassette will spin in one direction cleaning the entire cog. Remove the rag and move to the next cog.
  11. Clean the chain rings. This is a pain. I find no matter how hard I try I cannot get into all the nooks and crannies. A brush helps, but still leaves behind residual grease. The important thing is to remove the majority of the mess. Some may use a spray degreaser, but in my opinion, spraying pressurized degreaser anywhere near bottom bracket bearings, hubs or derailleur pulleys is a bad idea.
  12. Replace the wheels.
  13. IMG_2787Replace the chain. I find this is easiest with the bike upside down. Gently move the rear derailleur to a vertical position and guide the chain through the outside of the lower pulley, inside of the lower pulley and outside of the cassette. Gravity does most of the work here, but you will have to direct the chain on its path. Pull enough chain through so it is accessible from the top of the cassette. Now set the chain on the smallest chain ring. You will have to reach down to guide it through the front derailleur. The hard part is done. Now just pull the two ends together and replace the master link per the instructions.
  14. Lube! Lube the pivot points of the front derailleur, rear derailleur and brakes. Wipe away the excess. Lube the chain. Since the chain is totally lube free, I lube generously while spinning the pedals backwards. Wipe away the excess. Even with all the cleaning, you may find you wipe away a bit of black grease on your rag.
  15. Run through the gears. Be sure the shifts are smooth and accurate. If not, a tune-up may be in order. If any cables are sluggish or sticking, you can drop a little lube in the housings. Better yet. Just have them replaced. Fresh cables and a tune will make your bike feel brand new. (If you have to take it to your local bike shop, your mechanic will appreciate working on a bike that is not a dirty, filthy mess.)
Read Also >>  The Henty Wingman Bag Lets You Commute Wrinkle-Free - Interbike 2015

You are done.

This process gets faster as you practice. I did both of my road bikes for this article. The first one took me almost an hour. The second was complete in under ½ hour. Yes it is a little tedious, but there are few things nicer than a clean bike with a clean, smooth drivetrain. Plus it will save you a lot of headache down the road (literally, eh?).

Drivetrain maintenance was originally published here by Lance Oyler.

About Bek 301 Articles
SLO Cyclist's former chief editor and recovering road snob, Bek made sure everything ran smoothly around here. She was also the one who reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously--unless it involves black socks. Black socks are always serious.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.