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I do understand that this may sound like a troll question but please bear with me.

I've always been a maniac about drive train cleanliness until I got a 11 speed bike and realized I didn't want to spend the ca$$$h on the only reusable 11 speed chain link. Cleaning with the chain on the bike is too messy for my taste. Therefore I rode ~2k miles (new bike) with only periodic lubrication (using a good lubricant). Result? Nothing obviusly bad happened. Drive train is unsightly but quiet. Shifting is impeccable. Which made me wonder why should one clean a drive train at all: the process is cumbersome and a shiny drivetrain gets messy in no time with road only use under dry conditions. So why bother at all? Is there any objective study on the effectiveness of drivetrain cleaning?

  • Why bother cleaning the bike as it will only get dirty. – paparazzo Dec 25 '17 at 16:50
  • 1
    It is not at all messy to clean a chain with a "chain washer'. The reason for cleaning a chain is that it significantly reduces drive train wear. – Daniel R Hicks Dec 26 '17 at 3:39
  • Paparazzi, your analogy is incorrect. The chain gets dirty infinetly faster compared to the bike. I clean my bike because it's stored inside an apartment, I don't want to spread dirt around. And if you want more reasons: cleaning the chain is messy and tedious. I don't own a chain cleaning tool but I'd guess it's messy too: how do you prevent the cleaning liquid from bein sprayed around by the chain, crainrings and cassette? It's obviously something you don't want to do inside an apartment and some can't be bothered to take the bike outside for proper cleaning if the gains aren't obvious. – user3671607 Dec 26 '17 at 10:49
  • Daniel R Hicks, with a good lubricant (I'm not sure if I'm allowed to write the make) I never perceive any of the grinding which occurred when I was ignorant enough to use engine oil. I'm not sure if that's what happens but I'd guess the dirt is pulled away from inside the rollers with the good lubricant. I feel I need to emphasize that I never ride in the rain or mud unless I don't have an option. Still, there seems to be enough fine dirt on the road where I live to make the chain look like a mess in no time. – user3671607 Dec 26 '17 at 11:00
  • Paparazzi, I do read cycling news and reviews and I do know that to many anything less than the absolute is sacrilege. I never race, and I don't ride in bad weather. I still believe your analogy isn't accurate because in my world the rate at which the chain gets visibly dirty is at least one order of magnitude larger. Unless you are riding in the mud on a regular basis, I can't understand how that doesn't apply to your bike(s). I still periodically clean the chain of my road bike mainly for aesthetics but at the same time I'm starting to suspect it carries no objective benefit. – user3671607 Dec 26 '17 at 14:21
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A lot of people are now out of the habit of doing chain cleaning beyond wipe down level.

The reason to clean thoroughly is a marginal improvement in wear life and performance. But the key word is marginal. What you get for the effort is below the threshold of what many would consider worthwhile, especially riding recreationally.

Note that the expense level of your chain is a major factor here. It takes the same amount of time to clean a $13 basic 8-speed chain as it does an $60 Campy Record 11 chain, so clearly there's more economy in maximizing the service life of the latter.

  • 1
    What is your basis for marginal? – paparazzo Dec 26 '17 at 8:17
  • While I basically agree based on anecdotal evidence - I found the improvement of cleaning vs not cleaning not worth the time spent, it would be interesting to see any actual research on the subject. And it should be noted this heavily depends on the type of bike (no fender vs proper fender) type of weather and type of road. – stijn Dec 26 '17 at 12:17
  • I'm undecided based on anecdotal evidence: not giving a damn about cleaning the chain (KMC x93 10spd) resulted in toasting an SLX cassette in under 1000 km (chain was still fine). Next: SLX cassette + two KMC x93 10spd chains, swapping chains and doing a full degrease and clean as I felt needed (conditions depending = 30km to 300km) and the cassette was still in great shape after over 2000 km, before the bike was stolen. I think it was not cleaning in wet and gritty condiions that was the issue. However I've also left a single speed with no cleaning with no noticeable ill effects at 3000 km. – Purr Dec 30 '17 at 3:25
  • One of the advantages of not cleaning your bike or your. Gain is that it’s less likely to get stolen. :/ – RoboKaren Jan 1 '18 at 8:32
  • Nevertheless, if you put a price tag of just 10$ per hour on your time, I guess it's much more economical not to clean the chain, even with the expensive one. If your chain lasts 10% longer due to cleaning, you'll be buying nine chains instead of ten over the course of some years, and the 60$ for that one saved chain need to make up for all that time lost cleaning the nine chains over and over again... – cmaster Jul 2 at 20:45
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The cleaning and maintaining of a bike chain may seem pointless in and of itself. That is due to the fact that more should be done not less.Cleaning and maintaining a chain should be done along with routine maintenance of the whole bicycle. When you clean the chain you notice other issues. A tire in need of replacement or one with glass in it. You see your deraileurs needs adjustment or there is gunk caught up in the gears.

I could go on ad nauseum but you get the picture. Maintaining your chain means less chance of a breakdown on the road.

  • 2
    That is a fair point. I remember when I accidentally looked at my rear tire and thought damn, it's well past due retirement date. Why didn't I notice that before? – user3671607 Dec 25 '17 at 17:56
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    You only check your tires if you clean the chain? You are not checking the tires enough or cleaning the chain too much. – paparazzo Dec 25 '17 at 19:57
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    I have never cleaned my chains, I often even forget to lubricate them enough, but I have always gotten worn tires before they failed. (45+ years of riding cycles) – Willeke Dec 25 '17 at 21:29
  • This answer does not make sense to me. I agree that periodically checking the bike is good, but why do I need to clean the chain at the same time? – sleske Jul 3 at 11:47
5

Answering the Question

Is there any objective study on the effectiveness of drivetrain cleaning?

The short answer is that I have not seen or done any objective studies specifically addressing the pros and cons of cleaning a bicycle drivetrain.
All of the bicycle chain studies I have seen involved clean chains. There are two examples linked at the bottom of this answer.

My thesis is that there are no studies of this type is because they are very difficult to set up, very controversial (questionable parameters), and it would be difficult to turn the results into something people could use in the real world.

Sheldon Brown "Chain Maintenance"

Chain maintenance is one of the most controversial aspects of bicycle mechanics. Chain durability is affected by riding style, gear choice, whether the bicycle is ridden in rain or snow, type of soil in the local terrain, type of lubricant, lubrication techniques, and the sizes and condition of the bicycle's sprockets. Because there are so many variables, it has not been possible to do controlled experiments under real-world conditions. As a result, everybody's advice about chain maintenance is based on anecdotal "evidence" and experience. Experts disagree on this subject, sometimes bitterly. This is sometimes considered a "religious" matter in the bicycle community, and much vituperative invective has been uttered in this regard between different schismatic cults.

The Rest of the Question
From the original post:

Drive train is unsightly but quiet. Shifting is impeccable. Which made me wonder why should one clean a drive train at all: the process is cumbersome and a shiny drivetrain gets messy in no time with road only use under dry conditions. So why bother at all?

Your criteria for success are:
- Drivetrain is quiet
- Shifting is impeccable
- Duration 2000 miles

In your experience you didn't clean your chain and it was still quiet and shifted well - so why bother cleaning a chain at all? It's a reasonable question.

Here are some reasons people might bother:

  • Cleanliness, this person would say "I want a clean chain above all other considerations"
  • Performance, "I want my bike to perform at it's best." Friction would be one aspect of performance.
  • Appearance, "I want my bike to look good at all times"
  • Durability, "I want my drivetrain to last as long as possible no matter what"
  • I like working on my bike""

Usually people are looking for a "sweet spot" between two critera. For example, effort vs. improvement in durability. Others may have a complex set of criteria that change over time. The search for a sweet spot based on personal criteria is the reason an objective answer is so difficult to arrive at (as Sheldon points out).

Here are some studies that focus on reducing friction in the drivetrain.
"Chain Efficiency Testing" looks at how chain wear affects friction.

"Chain Lube Efficiency Tests" focuses on which chain lube reduced friction the most.

  • Thanks for the answer. You're right, this is a very subjective issue. Since I posted the question I found a very cheap, quick, and effective way. I still clean my chain very rarely, although I've increased the frequency I'm lubricating it and the results are good - unmeasurable wear on my current cheap KMC chain compared to my old SLX one which died at ~3800 km. Ther's this solution I found at a local supermarket (spray type). I take the bike to a self service power wash and with the aid of a long handle brush I manage to achieve a perfectly clean drivetrain in 10 minutes. Can't beat that. – user3671607 Jul 2 at 21:02
0

There are good answers here already, and it is true that some people opt to simply skip anything beyond a wipedown because of the semi-disposable nature of cheap chains, but the reality is that even if particulates cannot immediately be seen the chain picks up everything you ride through and cycles it throughout the bike with force and friction. Dry materials like sand and grit especially eat away at metallic and composite parts without much warning. Not cleaning your chain is a quick route to degrading all of the other parts of your drivetrain and reducing the overall longevity of the bike. For many riders there's no need to get to the level of a white-glove inspection, but the proper application of degreasers and lubricants are a small investment up front to protect your large investment in the long run.

Citation: My work experience in the bicycle industry.

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