The chain and drivetrain are typically the dirtiest parts of your bike, and this dirt spells bad news for bike longevity and performance. Specifically:
This article and the above video provide you with the basic knowledge you need to keep a clean-running machine.
Before each ride, look at the entire chain by standing to the side of your bike and lifting the rear wheel off the ground. Use your free hand to slowly rotate the closest pedal, inspecting individual chain links for dirt buildup, rust and/or tight links (links that do not bend easily as they pass through the rear derailleur). Check for adequate lubrication by listening for squeaks while riding. If you find either condition, your chain needs at least a spot-cleaning.
To spot-clean the chain while it's still on your bike:
For a more thorough cleaning, use a chain-cleaning tool. Attach it to your chain for a quick, deep cleaning.
Every few months or so (more often for mountain bikes), completely remove your chain using a chain-removal tool. Brush it well and completely immerse it in a chain solvent to get rid of built-up grime that brushing can't remove. Let the chain soak until most of the dirt has been freed from the links and bushings. Dry the entire chain using a clean rag. Make sure that the solvent has completely evaporated, then relubricate the chain and re-install.
Chain links that don't bend smoothly as they pass through the curves of the chain path may contain tight links. To spot them, pedal your chain slowly backwards and watch as individual links pass through the tight turns of your rear derailleur.
Most tight links are caused by dirt or corrosion between link plates and can be fixed with a good cleaning, some lubrication and a little flexing back and forth. Others are the result of improper pin installation (the pin that holds the chain links together is not fully inserted through the links and rollers) or serious chain damage. Occasionally, poorly installed link pins can be worked back into position by shifting them back and forth inside their chain plates by using either a chain tool or your hands. Damaged chains should be completely replaced.
By Steve Tischler
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Last updated: 02/19/2014
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