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How to wash a bike the pro way

Bike washing
Stu Bowers
3 May 2016

After a winter of filth and grime, it’s the right time of year to give your bike a proper scrub-up – the way the pros would do it.

The correct way to clean a bike is a much-debated issue. A glance at the cycling forums reveals a lot of questions about the best methods and tools, and some of the answers are not always that helpful – one suggests ‘waiting for dirt to dry, then riding around the block a few times until it falls off’. So maybe the best advice you can get is from the guys who make a living from ensuring that bikes are spotlessly clean and functioning at their best.

‘There’s nothing better than that feeling of a smooth running, well-maintained drivetrain,’ says professional bike mechanic Rohan Dubash, perhaps better known as Doctor D ( ‘And it’s not just about look and feel – friction is your enemy. There’s no point worrying about being aero if you’re riding on a filthy chain or one that was worn out 300km ago. There are watts being squandered.’

He’s not joking. Plenty of research shows drivetrain wear and dirty components sap your precious power through a loss of efficiency. Granted, we’re not talking hundreds of watts here, possibly more like 10, but every little helps. It was enough of a deal to prompt UK company Muc-Off to develop a test rig to ensure Sir Bradley Wiggins’ chain was cleaned and lubed to be at its optimal mechanical efficiency for his successful Hour record attempt last June.

It’s not just a mucky drivetrain that can cost you. Elsewhere on your bike you’ll find yourself shelling out frequently for replacement parts such as cables, tyres and brake blocks if you don’t keep on top of your cleaning, plus it’s during the time you spend doing a thorough clean that you can properly inspect parts to spot damage and potentially avoid trouble.

Nick Walling, mechanic for Team GB and Team Wiggins, says, ‘Clean things individually and check them while you’re doing it. It’s one of the best tips any mechanic can offer. This is when you’ll find things like loose spokes and worn rims and brake pads, or cuts or debris in your tyres. Tyres especially should be inspected frequently. I like to use a Scotch-Brite pad [the washing-up sponges with a scouring side] to lightly scrub the tyre treads, as it will help pick out some of the flint or whatever else might be lodged in the rubber. If I find just small cuts or holes I often Super Glue them back together.’

Where to start?

‘I go for the complete disassembly approach, where everything comes off to be cleaned more thoroughly,’ says Dubash. ‘A lot of people ride their bikes year-round, so when it comes to the start of the season there’s a good chance their bike has basically been jet-washed by nature for the past few months. Things like the bottom bracket bearings, rear brake calliper and lower headset bearings in particular are good things to check, as they all take a hammering. And if you use a turbo a lot you can still do damage. Seatposts seize and upper headset bearings suffer from sweat too.

‘If you’ve spent good money on a lovely bike then spend a bit on having the tools and cleaning products to look after it properly,’ he adds. ‘It’s worth investing in a tool to take the cassette off, for example. That way you can immerse it completely in solvent/degreaser to get it fully clean, away from the hub bearings. It’s always best to keep degreasers away from the bearings. Spraying cleaners and degreasers over everything usually means a big repair bill in about eight weeks’ time. Chainrings and cranks are easy to take off now too, most requiring just an allen key. I wouldn’t ever use diesel or anything like that. It’s horrible stuff. I tend to go for something bike-specific and water-soluble like Finish Line’s EcoTech. I get through gallons of the stuff as it’s an essential part of a proper clean and service.’

Degreasing a bicycle chain

Walling doesn’t entirely agree with Dubash’s full strip-down approach. ‘I don’t go for the full dismantling unless things are just so dirty and ingrained, like you get if someone has left their bike all winter. I certainly don’t think it’s good to continually split and re-join chains as even the split links shouldn’t really be re-used, so with the rear wheel out I use those little gadgets that act as a “dummy hub” to let you still pedal the chain through without it scratching the chainstay. Then you can use a dedicated chain cleaning bath and plenty of degreaser to really give the chain a thorough scrub.’

When it comes to the right products for the job, Walling and Dubash are in agreement. Walling says, ‘I’m not a believer in some of the more “industrial” cleaners you can get. People buy engine degreaser or truck-wash because you can buy it cheap from car places, but I stick to bike products that are water-soluble and biodegradable. I like citrus-based degreasers. You’ve got to be aware of the concentrations and chemical content of the products and be aware where you are using them. Used incorrectly it can damage paint or anodising. I always use water-soluble chain degreaser as you need to be able to rinse away the muck, so before I get anywhere near the bike with a hose or soapy water I get busy with my degreaser.’

Read more - Step by step guide on how to clean a bike chain

Walling has a little trick for this too. ‘Get an old drinks bottle and cut the top off, fill it with some degreaser and put it in the upright bottle cage. Then you can use a paintbrush to apply the degreaser and work it in thoroughly around the chain, chainrings and rest of the drivetrain where all the muck builds up. That should always be the first process, and that gives it a chance to get working. Don’t get degreaser everywhere though, especially not too close to your bearings or disc brakes if you have them.’ 

Know your apples

Using the right products will save heaps of time and effort when it comes to bike cleaning. There is no single ‘do-it-all’ product, so the best bet is to make sure you have a few key items at hand. Degreaser, bike cleaner and washing-up liquid will help you greatly, but it’s important to appreciate the fact they do different jobs.

A degreaser – such as Park Tool Citrus Chainbrite, Finish Line EcoTech2 or Juice Lubes Citrus Degreaser – is a chemical formula with powerful ingredients to break down old chain oil and grease. It should be applied sparingly and reserved for the muckiest parts of the drivetrain. This is not to be confused with a bike cleaning solution (Muc-Off, Finish Line Super Bike Wash or Fenwick’s Bike Cleaner), which is a more generic cleaning aid to break down grime on frame tubes, brake callipers and the like.

There’s little to be gained by simply wiping things with a rag, as you’ll just move the dirt around. The only way to get clean is to flush out the grit and that means one thing is certain – the need to make a mess. Don’t try this in your kitchen or on your newly laid patio.

Specific brush sets may also help you get into nooks and crannies, but you could just do as Walling does and use an old paintbrush or toothbrush. ‘I use them all the time,’ Dubash says. ‘Keep all your old T-shirts too. You can never have too many rags.’

Suds away

With your bike (and hands) now almost certainly looking decidedly dirtier than when you started, covered in filth and dripping in degreaser, then it’s time for phase two: the rinse.

‘Jet washers are the preserve of professional mechanics who don’t really need to care that much about how long parts last, plus they’ve probably got 18 bikes to clean before they can get their supper,’ says Dubash. ‘It’s never good for bikes to be blasted with high-pressure water.’

‘I don’t condone the use of jet washers, although we do use them,’ Walling agrees. ‘It’s a case of knowing what you’re doing, and not blasting bearings and so on. Preferable is just a big bucket of really hot soapy water. Loads of suds. People don’t use enough soap.

‘I always have two sponges on the go – one I don’t mind getting oily and one I keep clean,’ he adds. ‘Start at the top of the bike, with the seat and bars first, that way the water will be washing stuff lower down as it runs off.’

Both Dubash and Walling suggest now’s the time to pay special attention to your rim surfaces and brake block health. ‘Clean the little grooves out on the brake blocks. You’ve got to keep them clean otherwise the muck that sits in there just forms a grinder,’ says Walling. ‘It’s a bit like with the chain. If it’s filthy it’s going to wear things out faster. Check they are not scored badly, or hooked over or under the rim. Taking them off is the best way, and a good tip is to place a piece of sandpaper on a flat surface, then just take the brake block in your finger and thumb and lightly rub it up and down so you just lightly re-face it, taking out small fragments that might be stuck in the rubber, plus de-glaze the pad, to make sure you get maximum performance.’

Finally, with everything now looking clean and shiny, there’s one more step before you put the kettle on – drying and re-lubing.

‘I swear by my compressor [to rapidly air-dry components and chain],’ says Walling, who concedes this is a luxury few home mechanics have access to, so instead suggests, ‘A thorough drying with a clean cloth and bouncing the bike gently will help, as will rotating the cranks backwards to spin-out the remaining droplets of moisture from the chain links.’

The use of water-dispersing products at this stage can also help (WD40, GT85 etc – note these should not be considered chain lubes!) but, as both our expert mechanics suggest, with disc brakes now prevalent, be extra careful not to get any spray from an aerosol anywhere near brake discs or pads, as this will contaminate them, which for a disc brake pad will render it useless.

‘People are obsessed with oiling chains,’ says Dubash, ‘but unless you want it to end up looking like the bottom of a railway carriage, don’t over-lubricate. Also, use lubes that don’t congeal and build up. Better to use a cleaner lube and then re-lube more frequently.’

Read more - Step by step guide on how to oil a bicycle chain

Walling too is an advocate of the lighter lube: ‘I find lighter oil, often recommended for “dry” conditions, is best year-round. It will attract less dirt when you go out. It won’t last as long but I think that’s a better bet than a big coating of thick, gummy oil that picks up everything in sight, and wears everything out rapidly.’

‘I tend to go for drip-on oils,’ Walling adds. ‘I’m not an individual link-luber. I run the chain in a smallish sprocket as this puts the chain through tighter bends to help the lube penetrate better. I apply it to the inside of the chain as I rotate it – so between the lower jockey wheel and the chainrings. This also keeps the oil low down and away from disc brakes if you have them. After I’ve run the oil in for a while, I take a dry cloth and wipe away the excess. There’s no point having loads of oil on the outside – it’s inside the workings of the link where it’s needed most to stop friction. Wiping off the excess keeps down the amount of dirt it collects.’

If you follow these expert tips then Sunday afternoons will be more about putting your feet up and watching re-runs of the Classics or the Tour than being up to your elbows in grease.


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