Spring sprang a couple weeks back. The occasional April shower is going about bringing the random May flower, and as such, the shop is brimming with bikes rescued from a winter of non-use. We’re busy and it feels good. With all of this repair work though, I have become increasingly aware of an epidemic in cycling. One that should be taken care of—nipped in the butt, as it were, before our city’s mechanics are sent to therapy, driven to the brink by the endless stream of sugar coated tri-spaceships, muck-covered MTBs, and road bikes covered in some kind of black road sludge I don’t even want to talk about. Clean your bikes! There was a time when a clean, well-maintained bicycle wasn’t a rare bird, but a badge of honor that most would be embarrassed to be without.
Maybe it’s our fault. Maybe the bike mechanics of the world haven’t done a good job explaining it to people. Well if that is the case let me be clear beyond any doubt: Keeping your bike clean is the single most important thing you can do in maintaining your ride. So many issues—from slow shifting or bad bearings to creaks and rusted cables—can be wholly avoided by keeping your bike clean and dry. It’s not hard. It doesn’t take any special tools. It doesn’t take any special skills—in fact, if you can operate a spray bottle and move your hands back and forth in a basic wiping motion, then I’m gonna go out on a limb and say you would probably make a good bike cleaner.
So that’s our soup de jour: Dirt, mud, sports drink, and road grime and how to rid your ride of them.
I get asked often what is best to use when cleaning a bike. Is there some kind of magic potion that melts the mud away with no effort? There might be, but I haven’t found it. If it does exist, it’s probably ripe to give you cancer down the road and contaminate your drinking water. So I’ll just stick with soap and water. Crazy right? Soap and water: you have it right now under your sink at home. The only other things you need for this rocket-science-meets-brain-surgery-type procedure is a few rags (old t-shirts work great) and maybe an old soft bristled paint brush if you really want to get in the nooks and crannies—which you should. You also want to have some basic lube on hand. Cleaning is crucial, be re-lubricating everything after you clean it is the cherry on top of the whole situation. It’s what makes the cat purr if you will.
So you’ve got your supplies, now let’s get to cleaning. Start with the simple things. With your soap and water mixed into a small spray bottle, wet your rag and wipe down the frame and wheels. You may want to spray some directly on the bike, which is fine, but be mindful of where you are spraying. If you’re cleaning an MTB, you have to be very careful of avoiding the discs and brake pads—which can become easily contaminated. Disc brake rotors are best cleaned with denatured alcohol and a lint free rag. Though it’s not as big of a deal on a road bike, I also try to avoid the braking surface on the rim, as it causes some loud brake squeal until all of the soap residue has burned off. Again, alcohol and a clean rag work best for braking surfaces. Keeping braking surfaces clean—regardless of what type of brake your using—improves brake pad life and will save you money down the road.
Be detailed about your work. Take pride in getting the bike looking good. It will motivate you to ride and give you a sense of pride in your steed. It makes you feel faster. Spray onto the paint brush and use it to get into all of the small frame and fork crevices, then wipe clean with your rag. Don’t forget the bottom of your down-tube and under the bottom bracket. Those are notoriously dirty areas that are easy to overlook.
Now on to the not so obvious. Cleaning the drivetrain will help the bike keep shifting well. Derailleurs get clogged with road grime pretty easily, and will begin to bike and respond slowly if they are dirty. Use the paint brush to work up a later of soap on both derailleurs to wash out any built up dirt or sticky residue. Wipe out as much of the soapy lather as possible. If you have any kind of compressed air on hand, this is an ideal place to use it. Blow out the derailleurs to get rid of any leftover soapy water and then relube all of the pivot points. Use the same technique on any road brake calipers to keep them moving freely and your braking feeling crisp.
Keeping your chain and cassette clean is something that takes a lot of attention, but will pay large dividends in the life of your chain and cassette if you are attentive to them. The best way to clean a cassette is to remove it from the bike and clean each cog individually, but if you don’t have the tools for that, use your brush to work some of the dirt loose and then floss between each cog with a thin rag or old shoelace. Built up dirt and lubricant on your cassette can cause slow shifting and will wear your cassette faster. Keep it clean and your wallet will thank you.
Clean chains are a matter of correct lubrication techniques. Depending on which lube you choose to use, you will have to lube your chain more or less often, but the rules remain the same. After the lubricant has soaking into the chain, you should run it through a rag until it looks clean on the outside. Excess lube on the outside of your chain actually attracts dirt—which will in turn make your entire drivetrain dirty and impair performance.
You can then take the money I just saved you, and use it to buy me a beer while we sit out on the patio of one of the great pubs in this city, enjoying this great spring weather. You’re welcome.