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Cleaning Your
Chain & Drivetrain


Round up the following:

Check the chain for wear. If you’ve logged mega miles, the chain may be worn out. If so, rather than cleaning, you should replace it. To check, shift the chain onto the large chainring. Now, rest a ruler alongside the lower run of chain and see if you can measure exactly 12 inches between two pins 24 links apart (photo). If so, your drivetrain is okay. If the second pin exceeds the 12-inch mark by 1/8 inch or more, your chain is worn out and should be replaced.

Keep in mind that if you use a new chain with a worn cassette, you may experience “skipping” while pedaling, which could cause a crash. Skipping is dangerous because under hard pedaling pressure, the chain rides up, off the teeth on the rear cog it's on and jumps forward, which can surprise you with a loud noise and slipping sensation at the pedals. Skipping means you should replace the cassette along with the bad chain. If your new chain does not skip, your cassette is fine to use.

This filthy chain shows no wear
Wipe the links clean Wipe the chain clean. The easiest way to clean a chain is to put on some disposable gloves and wipe the links with a rag dampened in your favorite chain lubricant (mine is ProGold ProLink Chain Lube). As long as the chain isn’t really grimy, you’ll be able to wipe off the greasy mess (photo) with a few minutes of scrubbing. Remember to clean both sides and the top and bottom of the chain. Note that using lube for cleaning instead of solvent ensures that your chain remains lubed.

Scrub the chain clean. A chain caked with sludge requires more drastic measures. You can put some solvent in a bucket, place this under the chain and brush the links to dissolve the grime. By dipping often, brushing and, when the chain is clean, wiping off the excess solvent, you’ll get things spic and span. An easier way is to use a chain-cleaning tool such as the one sold by Park Tool (photo). You fill it with solvent, snap it on the chain and pedal to brush the links clean. This keeps the mess to a minimum making cleaning relatively easy.

Note that pro mechanics use diesel fuel as a solvent (you can also just use your favorite lube) because it contains oil and won't completely strip the chain of lube. You don't want to strip the chain because it's difficult to get lube back between the small parts that comprise the chain and if you don't, it can develop squeaks that won't go away.

The Park Tool chain cleaner
Brush your teeth

Clean the crankset. Lift the chain off the small ring and rest it on the frame. Clean the large chainring and the inside of the small chainring with a rag. Knock off any grimy deposits on the surfaces between the rings with a small screwdriver and then use a brush (photo) and the rag to clean off the rest.

If your crankset is a big mess, another way to clean it that takes more time but is really satisfying when you see the results, is to remove the chainring bolts and remove the chainrings and scrub all the parts with solvent, rags and brushes, then reassemble it. Just be sure to pay close attention to how it goes together BEFORE you take it apart (take a photo with your cellphone). The chainrings and bolts only go on one way.

Clean the cassette. Remove the rear wheel and rest it on your workbench with the cassette facing up. Rest the wheel so the tire touches the wall to keep the wheel from turning as you clean the cassette.

Now, dampen a rag with solvent or lube and slip the wet edge of the rag between two cogs. Use a shoe-shine motion with the rag (photo) to clean the cogs (this will rotate the cassette ensuring that you clean the cogs entirely).

Then repeat with each pair of cogs until they’re clean. Also get under the top cog to clean its backside and wipe off the lockring (the inner ring on the outside). Reinstall the wheel.

There's actually a pretty cool product available for cleaning between the cassette cogs called Finish Line Gear Floss.

Shine those cogs

Wipe off the grime
These are textured gloves but rubber ones work too

Check the derailleurs. Inspect the pulleys on the rear derailleur and wipe off any built-up sludge (photo). If you find any hardened grime deposits, chip them off with your small screwdriver. Then run a rag through the front derailleur cage to clean it thoroughly. As a last step, apply fresh lube to your chain and derailleurs.


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