Cleaning a bicycle

If you ask ten different cyclists about the best way to clean a bicycle you'll get ten different answers. To some extent the cleaning regime depends on the type of bicycle and the type of dirt. My son rides a mountain bike with an alloy frame and it gets covered in mud and grass, whereas mine is a steel framed road bike that accumulates road grime over a period of time. I like mine clean but my son doesn't bother about his too much.

Dirty chainset

My son's mountain bike

I spent a good part of yesterday spring cleaning my touring bike after a winter of cycling almost daily. Wheels off, chain off, remove jockey wheels and get to work. It looks much better but it still isn't clean. It will take me another half day to do it properly. Compared to cleaning a car, cleaning a bicycle takes a ridiculous amount of time.

Clean bicycle

My road bike after spring clean day one – day two to follow

With the bike upside down I began by loosening the caked mud on the inside of the mudguards with a spoon, then used a suction cleaner to vacuum it up. The mudguards still aren't clean though. There are speckles of road tar stuck on hard and they can be removed only with solvent. The mudguard rivets and the stay clips would need more work with a toothbrush and warm water, but none of this really seems worth doing given the mudguards' primary purpose of catching mud. This simple acceptance means that the bike will never be returned to showroom condition unless I fit new ones. And that's just the mudguards.

A bicycle chain can only be properly cleaned by removing it and soaking it in a bath of something like white spirit, then jiggling it around for a while before rinsing it in water and hanging it up to dry, then re-applying a suitable lubricant. During that time, another chain needs to be fitted for the bike to be ridden. Given that a chain costs only £12 or so, this rigmarole hardly seems worth it even if it means replacing the cassette periodically (£22).

The owner of my local bike shop – an experienced cyclist and bicycle mechanic – just wipes his chain with a rag occasionally, and replaces the chain and cassette every 4,000 miles. They're consumable items after all. So I wiped my chain with a rag soaked in proprietary bike cleaning fluid. I removed it only to access the front and rear mechs and the jockey wheels. You can read what Jobst Brandt has to say about cleaning a chain. He uses one chain per year at about 10,000 miles. Or read the chain cleaning Gospel according to Mick F on the CTC forums.

With the bicycle still upside down I wiped off most of the underside dirt with a combination of, and in no particular order, (i) warm water with washing up liquid (applied with a toothbrush), (ii) wet wipes passed through places hard to access by hand then pulled back and forth by the ends, and (iii) white spirit worked in to the mechs and jockey wheels with a special bike cleaning brush (Muc Off I find useless for degreasing), then (iv) wash again and wipe down dry with paper kitchen towels. Then I squirted WD40 into the ventilation holes in the frame and fork, and also around the various braze-ons and the cables where they pass through the guide beneath the bottom bracket.

I then repeated this whole process with the bike the right way up on the repair stand. Then squirted some special lube into the front and rear mechs. Then wiped them clean again with kitchen towel. Then wiped the frame clean where WD40 and other wet stuff had dripped onto it. And so on...

All the way through this I use as little water as possible, and I try to make sure that no fluids of any sort seep into important bearings like the bottom bracket and headset, or drive grime into crevices on the bicycle that might harbour moisture and cause rust later on, like mudguard fixing bolts and brake pivots. At all times you have to angle the bike so that fluids flow away from these areas rather than towards. Which is why the Hollowtech II bottom bracket set is still dirty. In fact if you look closely, the whole bike is still dirty.

Dirty chainset

Oily grime and grit around the bottom bracket

The bottom bracket external bearing housings and the chainset are the hardest parts to clean properly. Perhaps the bottom bracket doesn't matter, although it does seem desirable to prevent dirt entering the seals, so I'll clean this area with white spirit and a small stiff brush, with the bike tilted down on the side I'm doing.


Bottom bracket after cleaning with white spirit

Eventually my bicycle will be clean after the winter, and ready for the drier roads of spring. Choosing your time for a deep clean is part of it. You don't want to be doing all this too often. But spring does seem to be here at last. My mountain biking son takes a different approach to cleaning his bicycle. From time to time, when he can no longer see his front mech, he uses a hosepipe followed by half a can of WD40.

Of course there are cyclists whose bicycles are always clean, either because they cycle only on dry roads or because they wipe down their bikes little and often. It must help if you have a workshop or spacious garage. I don't. The garage is full so my bike is kept indoors on a clean carpet, but I don't let the prospect of road dirt prevent me from cycling throughout the winter.

9 comments on “Cleaning a bicycle”

  1. Chris wrote:

    I wonder if you’ve come across the chain maintenance method suggested in this book:

    Richard’s Bicycle Book

    (This is a revised and expanded edition from 1979, contents of which – specifically relating to the way to deal with an aggressive dog – were removed from later versions at the request of the publishers.)

    Richard’s advice on looking after a chain is as follows:

    ”The most economical lubricant is paraffin wax, available in hardware shops. It is cleaner than oil. Remove and clean chain. Melt paraffin wax in a coffee can, dip chain, and hang to dry so that drippings fall back into can. Once a month.”

    I must admit I’ve never tried this method. Lately I’ve been protecting the wheel rims, spraying the chain with GT85 and rubbing down with rags. Then I put a drop of Finish Line Wet Lubricant on each link.

  2. Patrick wrote:

    No I haven't either! (nice jumper)

    When I used to ride a mountain bike all I did was use a hose pipe and WD40 every couple of weeks (like my son), and replace the chain and sprockets when the bike stopped working. There's something to be said for that on an MTB, I think.

    Really, I take the view that the chain, and to a lesser degree the cassette, aren't worth spending a lot of time maintaining as long as they're not so filthy they slow you down. Just replace them when required, with wipe downs in between. The main thing is to begin the next tour with a bike in good shape – including the parts you can't assess visually, like the bottom bracket, headset, and hubs.

  3. Mary wrote:

    I love cleaning my bicycle, and during the winter months I completely strip the bike to bits and wash everything down really well, using tooth brushes and those wet wipes or old cut rags. Job is done monthly unless the bike is really grimy.

    I dont use washing up liquid though... sort of gasped when I read that. There is a huge amount of salt in this, and I use Muck Off. Its pricy, but by crikey it does what it says on the tin so to speak. It does a first class job of de – salting my tourer and is even better when its cleaning my mtb. My mtb though is cleaned every time I ride it out on the tracks, they wear down faster than a fast thing wearing down unless they are carefully looked after.

    I do use a touch of alcohol in places to swab off road grease as well.

    Nothing better than to be finished and the gleaming machine carefully re-assembled and put away. This essential part of cycling raises many different wear and tear issues, and ensures the bike gets a good at home service as its when I check my brakes, check gear cables etc. I discovered a shredded cable on my Rohloff doing such a clean, it would of left me somewhere without a paddle had I not noticed it.

    Leave me in a shed with hot water, muck off and a bike.... heaven.

  4. Chris wrote:

    I must try this Muck Off stuff. I've been adding Stardrops to warm water. That's probably not very good if washing up liquid is bad too.

  5. Patrick wrote:

    Mary wrote: I do use a touch of alcohol in places to swab off road grease as well.

    I might try that. Where do you buy it? Muc Off wouldn't shift whatever it was that was smeared all over my mechs and chainrings. In the end I used turps substitute (which I assume is the same as white spirit). That cleared it completely but then you have to clean off the white spirit with warm water with washing up liquid in it. Then a touch of WD40 (or GT85).

    Polishing a bicycle in warm sunshine is relaxing to be sure. But over the winter I usually get back from a ride when it's almost dark and bring the bike straight into the house, where it's kept. There's no way to clean it there, so it stays dirty from November to March.

    We've just had a week of good bike cleaning weather and now it's sparkling clean. So is my wife's – I cleaned that too.

  6. Mick F wrote:

    Hi guys!
    I clean my bike every few weeks and rarely let it get too much of a job. My method is a bowl of hot soapy water and an old hand brush or washing-up brush. I liberally scrub the frame and wheels, the chainset (both sides) and a quick whiz on the rear mech. I pay particular attention to the brakes. Depending on how dirty the bike is, I may take off the wheels and scrub the rims and tyres. This gives better access to the brake blocks.

    Then, I get hold of the garden hose and set the nozzle to "Sprinkle" and rinse the whole bike and let it dry in the sunshine(?).

    Providing you're quick and brisk with the hot soapy water and also the hose, you won't affect any of the bearings.

    The chain comes off easily, and quite often, and as I have two chains I put the other on but not before wiping the chainrings and jockey wheels. I lubricate the chain with White Lightning Clean Ride which I find is great for my riding though it wouldn't be too good if you rode on mucky and wet roads. I've toured extensively in all sorts of weathers and it's been fine for me but I am aware that other people don't like it at all. Maybe it's only suitable for shiny Campagnolo equipment!

    I use very little lubrication on the bike. I don't think I've ever put any oil on the bike at all, not even the brake pivots or the derailleur mechs. It's all either stainless or chrome pivots, and providing they are clean, they work beautifully. The cables are lubricated for life and I never touch them.

    The rear hub takes a bit of maintenance, as it's Campagnolo the drive-side bearings are under heavy load and they need greasing every 1000 miles or so. It's a quick enough job with these hubs and they come apart very easily and adjust very very easily even whilst tightly QR'd on the frame.

    Every now and then, I'll do a complete strip down and polish the frame with car polish, strip and clean all the components even the headset and BB. This is usually a two of three day job.

    I enjoy bike maintenance, and take a pride in it. No doubt you can tell!


  7. Patrick wrote:

    Mick F wrote: ... The rear hub takes a bit of maintenance ...

    One of my ambitions for 2010 is to learn how to strip down the hubs and put them back together again. Last year's techie ambition was to build some wheels and I succeeded with that, so fingers crossed for the hubs. I'm not a natural mechanic. I have an instinctive fear of taking things apart. Plus I don't like dirty hands. I bought the tools for hub stripping a year or so ago but haven't used them yet.

  8. Arron wrote:

    WD40 is not a lubricant and shouldn't be used anywhere on a bicycle aside from cleaning!

  9. James wrote:

    Here's my regime FWIW:
    Fenwicks FS1 on a cloth over the whole group, then a tiny amount of Finish Line wet lube spread across the top of the chain above each chain pin. Leave to dry overnight. Result:Silent running in the morning. Done regularly chain stays clean and the chain will last longer (I hope!)
    I change the chain when it reaches 0.75 on the chain measure or soon after.
    I always put on new chain before a tour.
    I take a small bottle of FS1 on tour, and clean the group every 100 miles.
    Result: Lovely clean bike every day with no grinding noises going up hill 🙂 Expensive XT cassette has lasted for more than 4 fully loaded mountain tours.
    I use HG93 after a couple of bad experiences with PG970s snapping (but which were most likely due to me not following the procedure above)

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