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A Beginner’s Guide to Cycling, Part 9: Chain Cleaning Made Easy

Back in July, I thought my beginner's series was done. I had written about all sorts of beginner topics from buying a bike to how to ride it. I stopped with some basic ideas on chain lube because that is something that I think is important: it makes your bike more efficient, it helps your more expensive cassette cogs and chainrings last, and it keeps you from annoying everyone else on the ride when you squeak like an SOB because your chain is dry.

The one thing I assumed was that people had a clean chain to begin with, and that was probably a bad assumption. I recently put on a couple new chains, and I keep the factory grease on for a while. When it starts to gunk up, I completely clean the chain and start anew. I noticed that my new SRAM chain was starting to gunk up, so I decided to use today's rainy weather to clean and lube the chain. I figured I would share how I did it.

1. Thorough cleaning

The first thing you need to do is to put some latex gloves on and remove your chain from the bike using the quick link. Set the quick link aside, and put the chain in a glass jar or plasticware of some kind. It's a real pain in the ass to use, but plain old gasoline is a great chain cleaner. Odorless mineral spirits also work quite well. Use just enough solvent to cover the chain (I have mine lie flat as I can get it), and agitate the solvent by shaking the vessel side to side. You will immediately see black gunk coming off the chain. Let it sit anywhere from 30 minutes to 24 hours.

Meanwhile, clean your cassette, chainrings, and pulleys. There is no sense putting a soon to be sparkling chain back on a dirty bike. I sit my rear wheel over a bucket and use odorless mineral spirits and a toothbrush to clean the cassette thoroughly. Then, I rinse down into the bucket, and give the cassette a thorough spray of Simple Green degreaser. I rescrub the cassette and then rinse again with water. This step removes any of the oils from the mineral spirits and gets the cassette clean as a whistle.

Then, I use the degreaser on a towel to get the chainrings clean, and use a wet wipe to finish them off. To get the pulleys clean, I use a flat head screwdriver and spin the pulley while scraping the gunk off. It works like a charm. I follow up with Simple Green on a towel to get them as clean as I can. You can also floss them with micro-fiber floss like the ones sold by Finish Line. (Old tee shirts cut into strips can work as well).

2. Thorough degreasing

When you return to your chain, extract it from the vessel and use a funnel and filter (I use one from my Chemex brewer) to filter out the black gunk so you can reuse the solvent. Store it safely in a glass jar. Let the filter sit. The oils will evaporate and eventually it will be safe to dispose of. Rinse the chain off with water. This is where the magic happens. I bought a cheap ultrasonic cleaner at Harbor Freight that does the next step so well. I fill it with Simple Green and hot water in a 1:1 ratio. I run it through a few cycles, and it not only removes any of the oil from the gasoline or mineral spirits, but it gets any residue out from the inside of the chain as well. The chain comes out clean and shiny and grease free. Rinse the chain with water and dry it thoroughly.

The degreasing process can be done any time your chain is dirty. I do just this when I feel I don't need a complete cleaning, i.e., no gasoline or mineral spirit bath is needed.

I always prefer to clean the chain off of the bike, as spraying degreaser around is never a great idea in my book. The ultrasonic cleaner will make short work of the job, and your chain will be ready for lube and last a lot longer. You can also use it to deep clean any bike parts or hardware you want.

3. Remount and Re-Lube

Wipe down the chain thoroughly and reassemble. Make sure that you know the quick link manufacturer's recommendations for if you can re-use it and how many times. Re-lube your chain, and you are ready to go. Remember that you have stripped nearly all the lube away, so you will need to apply a little more lube than you do when you are just maintaining an already lubed chain. So, if I use my beloved NFS, it use 12 drops, and if I use the Squirt or the WD-40, I apply one drop to every link.

Warnings and Tips

Make sure you use special precaution every time you handle a solvent or lubricant. Only use solvents and lubricants in well ventilated areas or outside. Do not mix solvents. Never store them in food jars or anything that might be confused for a drink. Keep them away from children and pets. If you use a Bell jar or Ziploc container to store "used" solvent, write POISON on it in Sharpie. Use thick latex gloves to avoid contact with the skin. Use eye protection to avoid splashes. Let the dirty solvent evaporate in a safe place. Do not throw solvent soaked rags in the trash.

Save those old toothbrushes, as they will come in handy for cleaning your drivetrain. Save old tee shirts and cut into strips, so you can get into tight areas and clean the bike thoroughly. Keep some baby wipes on hand, as they as handy for cleaning your frame, chainrings, hands, and gloves before you take them off. They also are great for the race bag for a quick freshen up after a race.

Keep your chain clean and well lubed and you will be doing yourself a huge favor that will pay dividends long down the road.

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