How to Clean a Road Bike Chain and Gears

A road bike, a bicycle used on paved roads as opposed to rough terrain or racetracks, offers a rider exciting abilities and fun. However, road bikes get dirty, especially their chains and gears, and require regular maintenance.

How to clean a road bike chain and gears? There are as many techniques for cleaning a bike chain and its gears as there are people who ride the bicycles they belong to. However, we have identified at least seven methods to clean a road bike chain and gears.

These approaches include:

  • Using an Ultrasonic Cleaner
  • Giving a Detailed Drivetrain Cleaner
  • Moderately Clean a Road Bike Chain and Gears 
  • Quickly and Easily Cleaning the Bike Chains and Gears
  • Spot Cleaning the Bike Chains and Gears
  • Cleaning a Chain Using a Bike Chain Cleaner

This article will outline these seven approaches and how they are done plus much more information about a road bike and its gears and chain.

Method One: Steps for Using an Ultrasonic Cleaner

Ultrasonic cleaners are inexpensive appliances that allow for deeper cleaning of the chain and gears. After removing them from the bicycle, one can get them clean enough to accept wax and lubrication without problems.

Using a less obtrusive method than using an ultrasonic cleaner may not remove all the cleaner that will all leave a heavy film behind, making it hard for drip lube or wax to adhere to the metal surface properly. Therefore, using an ultrasonic cleaner, while it will not make the chain or gears completely clean, it will make it ready to receive wax and oil.

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The process involves tools that are outlined below.

Tools Required

  • A strong degreaser
  • A jar
  • An air compressor or hairdryer
  • An ultrasonic cleaner
  • Denatured alcohol

The Steps to Cleaning with an ultrasonic cleaner are as follows:

Step One. Drop the chain into a jar of fresh degreaser and shake

Step Two. Repeat the shaking process with a fresh degreaser until the fluid looks clean.

Step Three. Replace the degreaser with denatured alcohol

Step Four. Repeat steps 1-3 until the fluid looks clean 

Step Five. Put the chain into an ultrasonic cleaner filled with cleaner

Step Six. Rinse the parts with denatured alcohol    

Step Five. Apply wax or lubricant

This procedure is especially good for seasoning a new chain to strip it of the packaging grease prior to using the preferred lubrication of the rider. While the packaging grease is okay, it may not be as durable as the owner of the road bike might like, and their lube won’t mix or adhere to the factory grease.     

Method Two: Steps for a Detailed Drivetrain Clean

If the road bike owner has no access to outdoor space to clean their drivetrain, then method two is the way to go. A detailed road bike drive train (gears and chain) cleansing requires removing the chain, cassette, and chainrings from the bicycle and serves as a wonderful maintenance opportunity to look at and repair other parts such as the freehubs.

Tools Required

  • Tools to remove the parts to be cleaned
  • Citrus-based degreaser
  • A stiff-bristled brush
  • A small plastic container (large enough to accommodate the small parts)
  • Water
  • Gloves
  • An air compressor

The steps to the process for method two goes as follows:

Step One. Remove the chain and gears from the road bike

Step Two. Remove the rear wheel and cassette

Step Three. Clean the derailleur pulleys with a clean rag using compressed air to remove grit from pulley holes or other cutouts

Step Four. Clean the cassette, chainrings, and chain by hand in a degreaser bath.

Step Five. Once the parts are clean, rinse thoroughly with water

Step Six. Dry all the components well and reinstall. It is best to use a hairdryer or air compressor to blow the parts dry to help speed up the process and get them thoroughly dry.

Using an ultrasonic cleaner will yield mixed results with stubborn grit but will do an impressive job getting into all the small spaces. Make sure to pay attention to the heat and solvent used in the cleaner to not allow plastic damage.

Method Three: Steps to Moderately Clean a Road Bike Chain and Gears

This method does not include removing the chain from the bike and can be utilized as long as the chain is horribly dirty. This method is, like the two methods above, best performed outdoors.

Tools Required

  • Citrus-based degreaser
  • A stiff bristled brush such as a paintbrush
  • A larger brush
  • A container to hold degreaser
  • A chain keeper
  • A garden hose with spray nozzle and running water
  • Gloves
  • A chain cleaning tool
  • An air compressor

The steps to cleaning a road bike chain and gears involve the following:

Step One. Remove the rear wheel and install a chain keeper in its place.

Step Two. Using a brush and degreaser, remove the dirt from the chainrings and derailleur pulley wheels

Step Three. Brush degreaser onto the chain and backpedal it through the brush using different angles

Step Four. Brush degreaser onto the cassette sprockets with the larger brush

Step Five. Rinse the cassette, chain, chainrings, and derailleur pulleys with a low-pressure spray of water. Do not spray water directly into any bearings.

Step Six. Dry everything well with a clean rag and set the road bike out to dry or use the air compressor to blow it dry.

Step Seven. Remove the chain keeper and reinstall the rear wheel

Step Eight. Apply lubrication

As an alternative, use a chain cleaning device instead of brushing on degreaser as a chain cleaner will use a number of rotating brushes to automatically scrub the chain’s inner links, outer links, and rollers. Also, using a chain cleaner reduces the mess one would have from washing them.

Method Four: Steps to a Quick and Easy Cleaning

If the road bike’s chain and gears are not very dirty, it is still a good practice to do a quick and easy cleaning of them after each use.

Tools Required

  • A few clean rags
  • Lubricant

The steps to method four are as follows:

Step One. Wrap the chain with a clean cloth and backpedal the drivetrain to wipe off exterior dirt

Step Two. Repeat step one until the cloth stays nearly clean 

Step Three. Use a cloth to scrape off tough dirt from the derailleur pulley wheels and chainrings

Step Four. Repeat steps 1-3 until the parts appear clean

Step Four. Apply lubricant 

Do not use a cloth soaked in a degreaser for this or any other method of cleaning a road bike’s chain and gears because the degreaser will mix with the dirty lube instead of removing it. 

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Method Five: Spot Cleaning a Road Bike’s Gears and Chain

Spot cleaning is done while the rider of the road bike is still onboard by using the following method: While seated on the bike, brush out the links with a firm brush like an old toothbrush.

Next, lubricate the links with chain lubricant. Finally, wipe off any excess lubricant with a clean, dry rag.

It is important not to over lubricate because doing so will attract dirt, making cleaning the next time much more difficult.

Method Six: Cleaning a Chain Using a Bike Chain Cleaner

Using a bike chain cleaner can make cleansing a bike chain much cleaner and faster than removing the chain altogether. The device, once filled with degreaser or cleaner, fits over the gears and the bike owner slowly rotates the chain using one of the bike’s pedals.

Bike chain cleaners are easy to use and allow the person cleaning the bike the liberty of choosing the type and brand of degreaser or cleanser to use. A bike chain cleaner also gives the chain a thorough and deep cleaning but is not highly effective if the bike chain is severely full of muck and grime.

A bike chain cleaner works with all types of bikes that have chains and helps to prevent premature wear of the drivetrain. It also helps maintain a smooth ride, and most models are exceptionally durable and give superior performance.

Steps Before Cleaning a Chain and the Gears of a Road Bike

Before endeavoring on the cleaning of a road bike, there are some basic steps to do that will make the job easier, faster, and more thorough.

First, before cleaning the chain, check it for wear using a chain wear indicator. If the chain isn’t worn beyond its service life, then continue to clean it. However, if the chain is worn to the point it can no longer be used, then skip the cleaning and start off fresh with a new chain. 

Use a dummy hub to raise up the back half of the road bike safely and securely while the rear tire is removed to deep clean the chain and gears. Although this step is not required, it can help keep the loosened contaminants away from the wheel and drivetrain components. 

Purchasing a chain cleaner will make life much easier if the gears and chain of a road bike are only moderately dirty. A chain cleaner is cheap and easy to use. Simply fill the reservoir with a degreaser or cleaner and run the chain through it. After thirty revolutions, remove the chain from the cleaning device and pour the solvent into a separate container.

Once the contaminants have settled to the bottom of the container, it can be reused for another cleaning job later. 

Gears and Chains, What Are They?

At this point in the article, it may be helpful to define and explain what gears and the drivetrain (where the chains are located) and what they do.

What are Gears on a Road Bike and What Do They Do?

The gears on a road bike are located in the front or back, consisting of one to three chainrings that are attached to the pedal crank arm and seven to twelve in the back attached to the rear wheel. The gear’s function is to move the chain as the rider pedals, allowing them to shift, so that pedaling feels easier. Without a series of gears, a bicycle has only one speed, that being what the rider can achieve alone.

With gears, a cyclist can achieve a cadence and the speed they need to compete or reach their destination easier and faster. Gears are a fantastic invention that allows a road bike rider to ride faster and get up hills easier. Gears convert the energy placed into them from the rider pedaling the bicycle to a certain output at the wheel. Since human muscle power can produce only so fast, gears optimize this movement and make it more efficient.

The most common gear system in use today is the external drivetrain that allows a rider to ride on terrain and in conditions that would be otherwise impossible. This type of drivetrain has been refined into a simple and lightweight system.

One changes gears using the cassette, a set of sprockets on the rear wheel by the rear derailleur. This shifts the chain up or down the cassette. As the derailleur moves to change gears, it forces the chain against ramps, moving it onto a bigger or smaller sprocket depending on whether the rider is shifting up or down.  

Some road bikes also have a front derailleur that shifts the chain between chainrings attached to cranks. The gears at the front provide large jumps that change the range of gears, so they are more suited to high speed, slow-speed climbing, and flat terrain. 

What is the Drivetrain of a Road Bike, and What Does it Do?

The drivetrain of a road bike consists of all the parts that a rider uses to push (or pull) the bicycle along. The main components include the pedals, cranks, chainrings, cassette, derailleur, and chain.

Road bike drivetrains are developed to transmit power from a rider to a drive wheel by incorporating a freewheel to allow coasting. As the rider glides along the road, they are capable of changing gears because the chain and all the other parts mentioned above pull and rub on each other, forcing the bike forward. 

As the operator of a road bike rides and changes gears, the chain and gears will become worn if they are not cleaned properly and lubricated. In the absence of a lubricant barrier that is clean and not full of muck, the barrier between them breaks down, and this creates metal-on-metal contact stripping tiny shards of metal away from the gears and the chain. This deforms the teeth of the chainring and cogs plus the internal-external parts of the chain.

A worn drivetrain must be replaced if the rider is to obtain optimum speed and control.

Why Clean a Road Bike’s Chain and Gears?

Getting from point A to B is dependent on a road bike’s wheels that roll along the pavement, and the chain plus the gears that move those tires. In fact, the chain is the heart of the bike, and if one wishes a smoothly running chain, it must be cleaned periodically. Not only will cleaning the chain improve the efficiency of the ride, but it will also help other the components last longer and avoid irritating grinding noises from a dirty chain.

The achieve a chain that runs smoothly, the lubricant must maintain its structural integrity because of the brute force exerted upon it by the turning of cranks with pedaling action.

Although sloshing through wet snow is fun, winter is extremely difficult on a road bike with the combination of corrosive road salt, mud, and grime that clings to the bike’s chain and gears. It is vital to keep the bike fully cleaned and lubed.

Cleaning a road bike’s chain and gears after each use is a necessary part of maintenance if the bike is to function well and to save money on prematurely needing to replace both.

Whether the road bike is ridden in the summer, winter, or both, it is vital to remember that if it is wet outside, then the chain and gears need cleaned and lubed as soon as one can after a ride.

What Problems to Watch For When Cleaning a Road Bike

When doing maintenance on a road bike, such as cleaning its chains and gears, there are two vital issues to keep an eye out for, tight links and chain stretch.

Tight links are those that no longer bend smoothly because dirt or corrosion is between the link plates. To spot them, pedal the road bike’s chain backward slowly and watch as each link passes through the tight turns of the rear derailleur. If the chain does not bend smoothly, then the chain needs cleaning. Damaged chains, however, should be completely replaced.

Chains become longer as they wear, and this movement is called a chain stretch. The name isn’t well-suited for this effect because chains do not stretch. Instead, they lengthen as wear occurs between the rollers and the link pins.

The effect of chain stretch is that it creates slop or free play that leads to skipped gears. The chain stretch effect, in turn, causes extra wear on the chainrings and rear cog teeth.

The Best Cleaners to Use When Cleaning a Dirty Road Bike

After reading about the methods to clean a road bike’s chain and gears, it might have left readers wondering what the best cleanser to use in doing so. The best substances to use are either a chain cleaner or a degreaser that is biodegradable and non-toxic.

There are many different degreasers and cleaners on the market to consider; however, for the sake of this article, we shall tackle only six of them.

All of the above cleaners and degreasers are easy on the environment and will not harm animals or children because they are made from natural, plant-based, or other natural ingredients. However, as with any chemical agent, these degreasers and cleaners must be kept out of the reach of children and pets. 

Simple Green Degreaser

Simply Green Degreaser is non-flammable and non-corrosive and is specially formulated to cut through mud, dirt, grease, mud, and other trail soils. Simply Green Degreaser can be used on all of the road bike’s parts, including those made from plastic, metal, rubber, derailleurs, and chains.

Spray on Simply Green Degreaser wait for several minutes, and wipe it off with a clean, dry rag. This allows time for the degreaser to loosen any dust, dirt, salt, or other grime that would inhibit the chain and gears from moving freely.

Park Tool Bio Chainbrite Degreaser

This bike degreaser is a vital part of any biker’s toolkit. Bio Chain Brite Degreaser will safely cleanse plastic, rubber parts, and the metal alloys that make up a bike chain and gears.

Bio Chain Brite Degreaser should never be diluted with water; instead, apply the degreaser straight to the parts and scrub off any grime that has accumulated on the bike with a cleaning brush.

Pedro’s Pig Juice Degreaser

Pedro’s Pig Juice Degreaser is a plant-based formula that is excellent for removing dirt, mud, and grime. Using this product is a marvelous way to degrease the chain and gears of a road bike without involving the use of toxic chemicals. In fact, Pedro’s Pig Juice Degreaser is solvent-free and biodegradable.

To use Pedro’s Pig Juice Degreaser, spray on a little to pre-activate the formula, and the soil and grime will slough off in a matter of minutes. 

Finish Line Speed Bike Degreaser

Finish Line Speed Bike Degreaser is also a non-toxic option to degrease a road bike’s chain and gears using a formula made from orange peel and soy-based extracts.  The product will not harm plastic bike parts and is biodegradable that is safe for use around pets and children.

To clean as well as it does, the product uses low surface tension for rigorous penetration into all the creases and crevices of the chain and gears. Finish Line Speed Bike Degreaser will break down and remove wax, oil, and grease stuck to a road bike’s drivetrain.

Morgan Blue Chain Cleaner

Used by a number of professional cycling teams, Morgan Blue Cleaner is an active degreaser that works well on a road bike’s chain and gears.  The product complies with environmental standards and adds a smoother ride with easier shifts, higher performance, and extends a drivetrain’s life.

Morgan Blue Chain Cleaner is safe for plastic and rubber plus will degrease fast and deeply. To use this product, apply it to the front gears, rear gears, and chain. Do not use it on the fork and frame.

Muc Off Drivetrain Cleaner

Muc Off Drivetrain Cleaner can be sprayed directly or poured onto derailleurs, cassettes, and chains and works in less than a minute. The solution is biodegradable and safe for metal, rubber, and plastic.

Muc Off Drivetrain Cleaner is effective at removing grime in seconds and comes with a trigger spray for easier application. 

(Source: GeekCyclists.com)

What Happens if the Bike Chain and Gears on a Road Bike are Dirty?

There are many reasons a road bike chain will show wear and will eventually need to be replaced, but the reason is because of grit within the chain that slowly grinds away at the metal. The result of the grit being trapped in the gears is a significant loss in efficiency of movement and increased abrasive friction levels.

Increased friction levels from an improperly cleaned and lubed chain will increase the sliding surfaces of each chain link. In a bike chain that goes 95 rpm with a 53t front ring, the chain links articulate 40,280 chain links every minute. That means that every minute, the bending of the links into or out of a ring, cog, or pulley happens 40,280 times a minute.

Due to this enormous movement of the chain, it is vital to reduce friction to minimize damages done to the chain and gears by dirt, soot, and grit.

The higher the friction rate, the shorter the lifetime of the bike, and the slower the bike runs no matter who is riding it.

Extend the Life of a Road Bike by Cleaning It

The chain and drivetrain where the gears are located are the dirtiest parts of a road bike, and the dirt is bad for the longevity and performance of a road bike. Therefore, keeping a road bike clean will extend its life for many years of bicycling enjoyment.

Cleaning a road bike extends the life of it in several ways, including:

  • Decreasing the Rate of Chain Wear
  • Increasing the Flexibility of the Chain Links
  • Decreasing Wear on the Derailleur Assemblies and the Drivetrain Cogs
  • Helping the Road Bike Rider with Shifting Performance

It is vital to recognize when a road bike needs its gears and chain cleaned to ensure the longevity of the drivetrain and to maintain maximum performance of the road bike.

Related articles:

https://cyclingvitality.com/the-5-best-chain-lubes-for-road-bikes/
https://cyclingvitality.com/road-bike-gears-everything-you-need-to-know/
https://cyclingvitality.com/road-bike-hard-to-pedal/