Keeping a clean drivetrain increases the life span of a bike’s chain and gears.

How to Clean Bicycle Chains and Gears Without Expensive Tools

Nearly all modern consumer bicycles have an open chain, gear, and derailleur system — called a drivetrain — to provide motion when a rider pedals. The problem with available drivetrains is that, with lubricant, they collect dust, dirt, and road grime. This combination of sticky and gritty acts as an abrasive on the drive train, wearing down expensive parts and shortening their life span.

Bicycle supply companies and some bike manufacturers have lines of expensive chain cleaning tools, cog brushes, bicycle degreasers, bicycle repair stands, and more for keeping drive trains clean. Fortunately, the same results can be achieved with inexpensive household items, following these simple steps.

Items needed: well-ventilated area, drop cloth, rubber gloves, mineral spirits or some comparable degreaser, old toothbrush, pail (if removing chain), rag, chain tool (if necessary), bicycle chain lubricant.

Place the drop cloth in a well-ventilated work area.

Removing a Bicycle Chain

With the bicycle over the drop cloth and while wearing the rubber gloves, remove the chain, taking careful note of how it winds through and around the drivetrain. Depending on the type of chain, a chain tool may be necessary to remove it altogether. Some chains have a master link that can be unlinked by hand. Chain tools are available from a local bicycle shop. A chain must be unlinked to altogether remove it from most bicycles.

Roll up the chain neatly and place it flat in the pail. Pour enough mineral spirits in the bucket to cover the chain and let it soak.

If no chain tool or master link is available, flip the bike upside down, so it rests on the seat and handlebars. Pour some mineral spirits in the pail and, using the toothbrush, scrub and soak the entire length of the chain in mineral spirits, spinning the pedal arms as necessary to reach all heights of the chain. Maintain this process till the chain is as clean as possible, preferably when the mineral spirits run clear. When finished, wipe the excess mineral spirits off the chain with a rag. Then, remove the chain from the chainrings (gears at pedals) and cassette (gears [cogs] at the rear wheel) by pushing the bottom of the rear derailleur toward the rear of the bicycle to release the pressure on the chain and unhook it from the chainrings and cassette. It will free the other components to be adequately cleaned.

Cleaning Bicycle Gears

Rinse the toothbrush in the metallic spirits and use it to clean as much of the chainrings and cassette as possible. Soak these parts well with the mineral spirits.

Using a rag, insert an edge between the chainrings as if flossing teeth and work back and forth until clean. Be sure to clean the outside of chainrings as well. Occasionally wetting the edge of the rag with mineral spirits may be necessary to clean the remaining grease off the components. Repeat this process with the cassette.

On the rear derailleur are generally two more gears (pulleys) prone to collecting dirt and road grime. Take the rag soaked in mineral spirits and clean the buildup off the entire circumference of both pulleys.

Pick up the pail and swish the mineral spirits to dislodge grime between the chain links. For extra measure, systematically brush all four sides of the chain with the toothbrush, then repeat swishing. Remove the chain, wipe off excess mineral spirits with the rag, and hang somewhere to dry.

Lubricating a Bicycle Chain

After the chain and components are dry, replace the chain in the same way it came off.

Spinning the pedal arms, apply to the chain a lubricant specifically designed for bicycle chains. Wipe any excess off with a rag. It will minimize a new collection of grime on the chain and components.


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