Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Brief Primer on Bicycle Cleaning

Parking near stainless art emphasizes dirt on your bicycle

Recent rainstorms, most welcome in the desert, have reinvigorated my urge to keep my bicycles clean(er). The idea of never leaving your bicycle dirty at the end of the day is an ideal I aspire to, both for aesthetics and long-term machine maintenance, but do not always succeed at following. In addition, I do see the advantages of an ugly bicycle for commuting, and dirt and splattered mud is an easy way to uglify your machine for bike rack security purposes. Sometimes, I gaze with satisfaction at mud splattered on my plastic fenders, because I don't think it will hurt them, it makes them look like they are doing their job, and it makes them much uglier than they are when I wipe them off and they become black, shiny, and attractive. Big Clyde asked about my cleaning technique, so here goes.

First, to set the table before I serve the snack, I have landed on an cleaning approach based on living in an extremely dry, often dusty, but seldom wet or muddy, place. These are very similar or identical conditions to Tucson, where Big Clyde resides, but will not be very applicable to most people who live in wetter places. For their benefit, I include below some more authoritative bicycle washing references, which hold some good tips for anyone wanting to be thorough in bike washing. 

My personal preference leans heavily toward the NO SOLVENTS OR DEGREASERS school of thought. I like a shiny and gunk-free machine as much as the next bicycle-obsessed person; however, I do not think it's generally a good idea to work solvents and degreasers deep into your chain where you only want lubricants. I've been following the "wipe, lube, and wipe until clean" method of chain maintenance for a couple years, with generally good results. When I've bought or obtained a used bicycle, I will do a top-to-bottom, full-on solvent and degreaser based cleaning with gusto and down to the last spec of varnish-like gunk, but for general cleaning I avoid the harsh stuff and stick with liquid dish soap.

Some Authoritative Bicycle Cleaning Resources:
Jim Langley
Park Tool Video
Belgium Knee Warmers (mechanic who shares my dish soap preference)

My post-monsoon recent cleaning approach, used after a muddy and fully soaking commute ride:
  • Before arriving home, find some deeper standing water to ride through. This removed most of the splattered mud, making the rest much easier.
  • Under cover but still outside, pick up the bike and drop it gently a few times to knock the loose drops off. Also, check for any remaining caked-on mud around the brakes, inside the fenders, under the racks, on top of the seat post, etc. It's much easier to remove when it's still wet.
  • Using rags which do not leave lint or threads behind, wipe off the parts where you don't want grease first: rims (yuck, covered in black grime!), frame, saddle, bars, cranks, etc.  We're using the water picked up in the soaking ride to remove most of the egregious grime here.
  • Switch to a clean rag when they are dirty. Move on to the parts you want to end up greasy or lubed: chain, headset, cogs, chainwheels. 
  • At this point, review the state of cleaning. It may be Good Enough at this point. Or you may need to go and get a bucket of hot soapy water (dish soap) to make things right. Up to you. I was tired, wet, and starting to get cold, so I called it good at this point.
  • After the bike dries off, lubricate. This is important to me because I use a dry lube, which is excellent in Phoenix, but doesn't hold up in the rain at all.
  • Total post-ride clean-up time: about five minutes.

When it's not raining and making everything a muddy mess with standing or running water here, which is almost all the time, I admit that I do not clean up after every commute because it is simply unnecessary. However, if my ride or commute involves any significant mileage on the canal or other path, I take the time to wipe off the fine, accumulated dust which inevitably will get picked up, and which hardens to a rock-like coating if not dealt with in a timely manner (experience talking, there). A slightly damp rag takes it right off, augmented with the occasional more thorough washing with hot water and dish soap. For which, by the way, an actual bike stand is indispensable. Cleaning your bike thoroughly without one is frustrating enough, in terms of awkwardness and unnecessary effort, to deter future washing. Clamping your bike into one, and following some variation of the thorough cleanings above, is actually kind of fun.

Be honest: how often do you clean your bike(s). Solvents and degreasers, or no? Go ugly?



  1. Erm. I never clean my bicycle. I might have spit and rubbed at a smudge once or twice.

  2. My bike doesn't usually get very dirty, but I wipe off grime and splatters with a wet wipe about once a month, then give the chain a quick wipe and re-lube. We keep the wipes around anyway to wipe off doggy paws when it's muddy outside.

  3. Hose down and wipe after every ride.
    It's the ride next to the beach and the salt don't you know.

  4. Once a week I do a general wipe down with old t-shirts (my favorite rags, then oil and wipe the chain. I'm picky about the rims. I maintain those so they are grime-free. I will clean-up after every rainy ride. But like you said it's 5 minute job that's worthwhile.

  5. Nitrile gloves, I forgot to mention, I put on when lubing the chain, and if the clean-up gets super greasy. Under the impression that petroleum distillates and VOCs do not do your skin or your body any good at all.

  6. Thanks for the nod, John.

    Like you, I am living in the desert in Tucson, so my bike doesn't get too dirty. A bike tech told me (about a year ago) to just lube it all in Tri-Flow. Good for lube, but it just attracted all of the dust and grime from the road. Within two weeks, my bike was just caked in grime.

    Thanks for the simpler and clean approach.


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