Bicycle Maintenance:  Cleaning / Lubricating A Drivetrain

By: Paul Hughes

One of the most important aspects of proper bicycle maintenance is many times also the most overlooked or ignored.  That is cleaning and lubricating the drivetrain.  The drivetrain includes the chain and the front and rear gear sets.  I have tried several techniques and products to clean a bicycle drivetrain from soap and water to household degreasers to rubbing alcohol.  Keep in mind, some of this was tried many years ago before it became critical to keep internal components from being exposed to water as much as possible.

After a lot of work and trial and error, I have found one product that makes cleaning a bicycle chain and gears a snap!  Keep in mind this is in no way an endorsement for any particular product, I am just sharing my personal experience.  What I now use and am completely satisfied with is White Lightning Clean Streak.  It is a DRY degreaser that leaves no residue behind.  It comes with a straw that fits into the spray nozzle so it is very easy to direct the degreaser exactly where you want it to go.  Another benefit of this product is there is basically no scrubbing required.

In order to clean a drivetrain, simply take your bicycle outside and find a suitable location where you can lean the bicycle against something and the pedals can be spun by hand.  Also, a side note here, find a location that you don’t mind having the dirty, greasy residue accumulating.   Cleaning it inside the garage will leave black residue on your concrete, as my wife has pointed out to me several times.  J

Take the can of Clean Streak and spray down the rear gear set and the cogs of the rear derailleur.  It does not take much and you can easily see when the grime and dirty, old lubricant is gone from the rear gear set.  Next, as you spin the pedals by hand, spray down the chain.  The best way to spray the chain is a little out from the lower rear derailleur cog.  Spraying the inner portion of the chain will push the dirt and old lubricant outward causing the chain to be completely cleaned.  After spraying the chain for three or four revolutions, take a rag and squeeze the chain on the top and bottom and turn the pedals again.  Swap around the rag often to assure complete cleaning of the chain.  Once the chain has been wiped, take the rag and wipe down the rear gear set and use the edges of the rag to get between each cog.  Finally, wipe off the front gear the chain is not currently running on.  Then change gears on the front and rear and wipe down the other front gear and the rear gear the chain was originally running on.

Once this has been done, you have a completely clean drivetrain and you are now ready to apply new lubricant.  There are many types of lubricant on the market and the opinions of what type to use are as varied as types of lubricants.  The main thing to remember is there are two primary classifications of lubricant: dry and wet.  Dry lubricants are wax based while wet lubricants are oil based.  The biggest argument for dry lubricants is they don’t attract dirt as bad.  My personal opinion is using wet lubricants.  My experience with dry lubricants is they don’t last as long and when they start wearing off, shifting is not as smooth.  Again, this is my opinion and it will be very easy to find someone who thinks otherwise.  What I suggest is you try the two classifications for yourself and you decide what type you like to use best.  I have settled on a ceramic wet lube that is somewhat of a hybrid and pretty much gives you the best of both types.

Well, enough discussion, on to applying the lubricant so we can get out and do what we really want to do, ride.  The best way to apply a lubricant is to place a drop on each link of the chain on the inner side of the chain.  This will allow the lubricant to penetrate through the chain from the inside out.  Your selected lubricant may have specific application instructions and if so, be sure to follow them for best results.  After applying the lubricant to the chain, I normally apply a small amount to the cogs on the rear derailleur and then slowly spin the chain several revolutions to help work in and spread the lubricant.  Finally, take a clean rag and again squeeze the chain on the top and bottom as you slowly turn the pedals.  Doing this removes any excess lubricant which will help prevent attracting dirt back onto the drivetrain.  Rub the chain with your bare fingers to verify the excess lubricant has been removed.

One last note, for a road bike, you need to keep up with the mileage on your chain and I suggest replacing a change every 1,200 to 1,500 miles.  A chain is much less expensive to replace than gear sets that get worn due to an overused chain.  On my mountain bike, I usually let replacing the chain be dictated by how much dirt and grime builds up in the chain and how the chain reacts on the mountain bike.

Now, go enjoy a long bike ride and see how much better a clean drivetrain pedals, shifts, and rides!