Maintaining Chain and Drivetrain | Barton Haynes

Barton Haynes here in Spokane, Washington. If you have been following my blog, you’ll realize that the tagline is a little different from before – I now live in Spokane, having moved from San Diego! While I’ll miss the consistent, year-round riding weather and bike-friendly atmosphere of San Diego, Spokane has a ton of excellent and far less crowded rides, most of which are on paved trails rather than roads. It’s a trade-off, but one I’m excited for. 

In this article I wanted to look at chain and drivetrain maintenance, because it’s probably the thing I see that is most neglected among regular cyclists. I try and be aware of chain maintenance, but I’ll admin that I sometimes slack too. I have found that ritualizing chain maintenance procedures are a good way to stay on top of it. By ritualizing, I mean: I do this chain maintenance at this time period, and that chain maintenance at this period, and so on. 

I have broken down my chain maintenance schedules as follows:

  • A quick and easy maintenance at least once per week or after a long-ride
  • A more involved chain cleaning at least once per month or before a century race
  • A detailed cleaning once per year, at the end of the cycling season in fall

Fortunately, the required tools are few, and even detailed cleanings don’t take much effort. Proper chain and drivetrain maintenance is less about hard work and more about consistency.

And importantly, don’t overdue the lube! Too much wet lube is actually counterproductive, and will attract grime!

The point of chain lube maintenance

The point of chain lube maintenance is to keep your drivetrain clean, which is important for:

  • The longevity of your drivetrain
  • Cycling power output
  • Shifting efficiency

Dirt and grime build up in our chains as we ride, which will act as a grinding stone against our drivetrain, and can drastically reduce its life – this can get expensive. 

Also, as dirt and grime build up, your shifting will be less smooth, you are at risk for your chain falling off which is a pain in the middle of a ride, and because there is more friction on your drivetrain you will output less power.

Tools needed for chain maintenance

The tools needed for proper maintenance are not many:

  • Proper lube (for most people I suggest having both dry and wet lube)
  • Degreaser
  • A rag or baby wipes
  • Stiff bristle brush, such as a chain brush 
  • Larger brush
  • Optional: gloves

There are other specialized tools you can get, such as a chain keeper or chain cleaning tool. But I keep things simple and find that the costs of such items don’t provide enough gain in efficiency for as seldom as I have to do this activity – however it’s your choice. 

1 – Choose the right lube for your cycling conditions (wet or dry)

Proper chain and drivetrain maintenance first starts with choosing the right lube – either we or dry lube.

Here’s an overview of wet lube, which is what most people think of when they think of chain lube:

  • An oily, greasy substance that stays wet on your chain
  • Good for humid, wet conditions
  • Good for long rides 

Here’s an overview of dry lube, which you may not be familiar with:

  • Several substances, such as a waxy or graphite like substance, that stay dry on your chain
  • Best for dry, dusty, and dirty riding
  • Good for short and moderate distance riding, as longer rides will require reapplication at some point during the ride

If you live someplace like, say San Diego, dry lube is great most of the year. Now that I’m in Spokane, I will definitely need to use dry lube in the summer, and wet lube in the spring and fall. 

2 – The weekly/long-ride drivetrain clean (5 minutes)

This drivetrain maintenance activity is easy. It simply involves the following:

  • Get a rag or baby wipes
  • Backpedal and hold the chain with your rag/wipe until the rag stays fairly clean
  • Use the rage to rub off any noticeable crud
  • Reapply lube

I perform this maintenance about once per week, usually directly after my weekly long-ride. 

3 – The monthly/pre-race drivetrain clean (20 minutes)

This chain and drivetrain cleaning is a bit more involved, and is designed to get your drivetrain in pretty clean shape. Here’s how to do it.

  • Use your brush and degreaser on your chainrings and derailleur pulley wheels
  • Use brush and degreaser on your chain, moving the brush at different angles as you backpedal
  • Use your large brush and degreaser to work in between the cassette sprockets as you backpedal
  • Rinse off your drivetrain with water, such as from a lightly pressurized hose or garden canister
  • Let dry thoroughly
  • Apply lube

4 – The yearly drivetrain clean (60-90 minutes)

There is a final cleaning that I recommend doing once per year, at the end of your heavy cycling season. Now, you can either do this cleaning yourself or, if you have some budget, simply pay your local bike shop to do it. It’s usually not terribly expensive, and it will save you quite a bit of time. Unless you really know what you are doing, I recommend taking it in to a shop. 

Note, if you do it yourself you will need tools to remove the cassette. I recommend following a video (rather than a blog) to perform this cleaning. But here’s the low-down: a thorough cleaning basically involves

  • Taking off all components of your drivetrain
  • Cleaning them thoroughly with brushes
  • Soaking them in degreaser bath
  • Rinsing them with water
  • Drying components
  • Assembling and reapplying lube

I hope these tips help with your regular drivetrain maintenance. Happy riding. 

Happy cycling,

Barton Haynes