How To Clean Your Drivetrain

How To Clean Your Drivetrain

Reading Time: 5 minutes

When I decided to come to Utah six years ago for mountain biking, skiing, and a little school, my mom made sure that I knew how to properly do my laundry and clean my clothes so that they would last.

After this year’s epic winter and fairly wet spring, the Wasatch Mountains experienced what we call a mud season. Now, you shouldn’t go riding your bike through the mud, but as the snow melted and the weather stayed clear for a few days, curiosity and excitement had me out on the trails. When I would get home from a ride, I would take all my muddy clothes and dump them in the wash just like Momma taught me. But what I was never taught was how to clean my bike after it gets dirty.

So I walked down the hall to talk to my buddy Paul Boyle, a former White Pine Touring bike mechanic and current Data and Production Manager for, to find out the proper way to clean off your drivetrain after a good ride.

A rag is used to clean off a bike chain
Use a warm wet rag to wipe off your chain. Photographer: Sam Rice

When should you clean your bike?

The bike doesn’t have to be caked in mud to need to be cleaned; dry and dusty trails will also make for a dirty bike. As a general rule of thumb, for every hour you ride, you spend a quick 5-15 minutes of post ride maintenance. It’ll keep you shifting smooth and help prevent any unnecessary wear and tear that could lead to needing an expensive repair.

Cleaning a bike cassette with a bristle brush
A bike specific brush makes for quick work of a dirty cassette. Photographer: Sam Rice
A bike specific brush makes for quick work of a dirty cassette. Photographer: Sam Rice

What will you need?

  • Bike stand (optional)
  • Warm soapy water (couple drops of dish soap or Simple Green is perfect!)
  • Assorted bristle brushes (your old toothbrush plus some basic cleaning brushes from the hardware store will do the trick)
  • Rag(s) (old T-shirts work great)
  • Chain lube (light to medium bike-specific lube, NOT WD40)
  • Warm water for rinsing (no soap)

A toothbrush cleaning the front chain ring of a bicycle
Put your old toothbrush to work. Photographer: Sam Rice

Where should you start?

Start with a low pressure rinse, no need to break out your power washer as this could end up doing more harm than good. Focus on rinsing the chain and your derailleur(s) as this is where most of the debris accumulates. Once all the large clumps of dirt and gunk have been rinsed away we can get down to the details. This is basically like the prewash stage when doing your laundry, separate your load and making sure you spot treat any stains before pilling it all into your machine.

Lubricating a bike chain
There is such thing as too much of a good thing, go easy with the lube. Photographer: Sam Rice

When do I use my t-shirt and brushes?

When cleaning and scrubbing it is important to apply enough pressure to clean but not so much pressure that it could mess up alignments or bend anything out of place.

To start, dip your rag into the warm soapy water and begin to scrub your chain, gears, and derailleurs. I like to put my bike on a bike stand. It makes it easier to reach all parts of the bike. If you don’t have one, flip it over or lean it on a tree or wall – this works just as well. If your bike is up on the stand you can hold the rag in place and pedal to move the chain. If you are using the leaning technique simply pedal backwards while holding the rag in place. Adjust the rag several times to ensure that you have clean spot to use for grime removal.

Use bristle brushes to get into all the nooks and tough-to-reach areas to get everything out. These work ideally for cleaning off your gear rings, the derailleur gears, and getting in between chain links. After you loosen all that, go back over with your rag to make sure all the grime is removed.

A bucket filled with warm soapy water
If you don’t have a hose, a bucket of water can do the trick. Photographer: Sam Rice

Soak, Soap, Repeat – Just Like Your Washing Machine?

Exactly! Cleaning your bike should follow the same cycle of rinsing, cleaning and rinsing. After all the scrubbing and brushing and soap suds, it is time for the final rinse. Grab your hose or a bucket of warm water and pour it over the drivetrain to remove any last remnants of dirt and soap residue. Then dry off your bike with a dry rag or old t-shirt to prevent rust.

Now that it’s clean, what do you do next?

Grab your chain lube. Place the bottle on the top of the chain at about a 45degree angle and pedal the bike to coat the entire chain. Go easy with the lube, a little goes a long way. Any excess will make dirt and dust stick like glue and mean more work for next time.

I recommends after you lube it to shift through all your gears once or twice to really work it in. The lube will reduce friction and make shifting that much smoother. By reducing the friction it also helps increase the life of your chain.

Grab your dry rag again and give everything one last light wipe down to remove any excess lube. That is it, you’re ready to go ride!

Make your Momma and Paul Proud

Cleaning your clothes just like your mom taught you will keep you looking your best; while cleaning your bike the same way Paul does will keep your bike riding its best. Cleaning off all the dirt and gunk that can accumulate while riding means that your bike will shift smoother and your components will last longer. Remember a clean bike is a happy bike, and a happy bike makes for better rides. Happy trails!

Scott Eliot, Production Coordinator,