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Why bother cleaning and lubricating your bicycle’s drivetrain? Besides avoiding unsightly rookie marks on your legs, you save pedaling energy with a clean drivetrain, allowing you to go faster. And depending on what method you use, the amount of energy you have to expend to do it varies—as does the environmental impact.
Studies by the Friction Facts test lab showed that not cleaning and lubing a bike chain after a muddy ride cost 12 watts for a rider putting out 250 watts (~5 percent of his or her power), and after a rainy ride, the power loss was 6 watts. Even on a one-hour ride without mud, gravel, dirt, or rain, the average friction increase due to contaminants adhering to a cleaned and freshly-lubed chain during the ride is 0-4 watts.
Traditional hydrocarbon solvents made from petroleum-based ingredients like heptane or naphtha typically are the quickest and most effective cleaners. They’re fast at dissolving thick layers of grease/oil/grime, but they are neither biodegradable nor non-toxic.
Green or “bio” solvents, like ethanol, that are derived from agricultural crops don’t tend to dissolve grease/oil/grime as well, but are generally considered safer for the environment. That, however, does not mean they are non-toxic, especially after they are black with grime from your chain. You still don’t want this stuff getting into storm drains and ending up in a stream. Ideally, you want the cleaner to be: 1) biodegradable, 2) non-toxic, and 3) have a high concentration of base solvent for cleaning effectiveness, which may not be disclosed on the label.
The bottom line: To have the least impact on the environment, keep your drivetrain so clean that you need no, or very little, solvent.
Here’s a quick, easy method for cleaning your chain. For best results, do it daily (no solvent needed), and use rubber gloves.
Wipe the chain
Turn the cranks while grabbing the chain with a rag. Wipe the jockey wheels. Holding a rag, squeeze the teeth of the jockey wheels as you turn the cranks.
Floss the cogs
Slip a rag (or, better yet, a piece of Gear Floss absorbent string—available at bike shops) between cogs of the freewheel and work it back and forth to clean each cog.
Wipe the derailleurs and the front chainrings with the rag.
If your chain has a master link, remove it, and follow these directions:
- Put the chain in an old water bottle quarter-filled with solvent.
- Shake the bottle vigorously.
- Hang the chain to dry.
- Install the chain on the bike.
If your chain has no master link, use a chain-cleaning unit that you fill with solvent, clamp it closed around the chain, and turn the crank backwards.
Pedro’s Oranj Peelz is extremely effective at removing grease, oil, and grime—as far as bio-cleaners go. Note: the water-soluble degreaser is good for metal, bad for plastic.
Pedro’s Pig Juice is safe to use on any material and is biodegradable, solvent-free, plant-derived, and zero-VOC (volatile organic chemicals). Expect it to cut through grime more slowly than Orange Peelz.
The lowest environmental impact is with a dry rag. Wipe and lube your chain daily, and you will minimize damage to the environment while still keeping your bike moving efficiently.