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How to clean your bike chain and drivetrain in 5 minutes

Keep your drivetrain running smoothly by giving it a thorough but quick clean

Stu Bowers Peter Stuart
11 Jul 2022

Words and presentation Stu Bowers Videography Peter Stuart

Everything you need to clean your chain

  1. Chain cleaning device  
  2. High quality water-soluble degreaser  
  3. Stiff scrubbing brush  
  4. General grime/dirt removing spray  
  5. Bucket of hot soapy water  
  6. Sponge  
  7. Clean water to rinse  
  8. Cloths  
  9. Chain lube  

How to clean your bike chain and drivetrain like a pro

You don’t need large amounts of time or a fancy workshop to clean your bikes properly.

This video from former elite-level racer and Cyclist deputy editor Stu Bowers proves you don’t even need a hosepipe to get your drivetrain back to ‘good-as-new’ in double-quick time. Not only will this mean your machines stay looking nice and working correctly, it’ll save you a heap of cash by preventing premature wear.

So, no excuses for not keeping your chain and components spotless.

Step 1: Chain cleaning device goes to work 

Start by filling the chain-cleaning device with the indicated amount of degreaser and attach it to the lower part of the chain – roughly in the middle between the lower jockey wheel and chainrings.

Once attached hold it in place and rotate the cranks backwards to start the chain running through the device. Count around 30-40 pedal revolutions. Check the chain to see how it is looking.

Continue with further pedal rotations if the chain is really grimey (shame on you) and needs more cleaning. Consider adding further fresh degreaser to the chain cleaner if the grime is really stubborn.

Step 2: Brush your teeth (and jockey wheels) 

Degreasing cassette

Use a degreaser and a stiff brush to scrub and agitate the grime throughout the drivetrain, paying particular attention to all the cassette sprockets, rear mech, jockey wheels and chainring teeth – basically anything that moves.

Using a generic bike cleaning spray/grime remover (not degreaser – please note the distinction here! Degreasers are for removing oil/grease from chains – general bike cleaning sprays are just to help break down road dirt/grime. The latter will not effectively clean a chain) can help with the exterior parts too at this stage.

Step 3: Rinse and rinse again  

Degreasing water rinse

Once everything is scrubbed thoroughly, it will no doubt look a complete mess. But worry not! Now is the time to flush it all away, using hot soapy water, and the sponge, to help disperse the grime.

This is a really important step. Make sure you thoroughly wipe and flush the chain and all other components with the hot soapy water.

A hosepipe can also be used at this stage (if you have one, but it is not a necessity) but be aware to keep the water pressure low – you don't want to force water past your bearing seals.

One final rinse with clean water is the best way to end, again to make certain all the degreaser is flushed away – bear in mind if there is degreaser still left behind, it will start to act upon any new chain lube you apply and immediately turn it to a messy black goo (a mistake many often make).

Step 4: Dry then reapply lube

Dry the chain thoroughly – a good starting point is to spin the cranks fast to effectively ‘fling’ water out of the links. A good microfiber cloth is the most effective here. An old t-shirt will do the job, just not as well.

If it’s a warm sunny day, it’s not a bad idea to leave the bike in the sunshine for a short while to dry naturally too.

Only once you’re happy everything is sparkling clean and dry should you apply new chain lube. Don’t over-apply – a common mistake – the best practice is little and often.

Cleaning your chain frequently and keeping it topped up with fresh lube will ensure a long life, which will save you a fortune.

If you clean your chain after every few rides (and after every wet/filthy ride) it will require relatively little effort. If you leave it to build up heaps of grime and mess, it will be much harder to clean and may never be completely gunk free.

Look at it like this: If you don’t clean your teeth regularly you will have dental issues in no time. The same goes for filthy drivetrains. They don’t last long, and they’ll cost you a fortune to put right.

All that can be avoided with a simple five minute clean.

Pro mechanic tips

Don’t get busy with the soapy water to start with – getting things all wet and soapy first will just reduce the effectiveness of the degreaser. So, always degrease first and foremost.

Never add fresh chain lube to a dirty chain. It will just turn to a gooey horrid mess, and be much harder to clean in the long run plus do untold damage in terms of sealing in the filth, which will wear out your drivetrain much faster.

Don’t over-apply chain lube. Modern lubes are very efficient, so you don’t need to pour on gallons of the stuff. As a good starting point, apply lube between the lower jockey wheel and the chainrings (same place you attached the chain cleaner) and apply a steady stream for about 5 cranks revolutions. That’s all.

Finally, avoid applying chain lube immediately before you go out to ride. Best is to apply (to a clean chain) at least the night before a long ride, to give the lube time to penetrate deep into the links and settle.

If you pour it on then ride immediately chances are most of it will end up spraying all over your bike frame and wheels - not to mention the danger of disc brake contamination.

After some advice on chain lubricant too? Check our buyer's guide to the best options you can buy here

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