Dirt Is Slow: Clean Your Bike

When it comes to washing your bike, don’t reach for the dish soap and pressure washer. There’s a better way.

When it comes to washing your bike, don’t reach for the dish soap and pressure washer. There’s a better way. 


Trek Check Point getting washed


Stuck at home and need something to do? Brush up on your bike washing skills so you hit the road, gravel, or trails next time looking so fresh and so clean. Bike washing isn’t rocket science but with the right tools and techniques, you’ll get more of the grit and grime washed away in record speed. Plus, all the dirt on your bike just makes you slower. So, boost your bike’s efficiency and your speed by cleaning it.  


The biggest mistakes riders make when washing their bike is blasting sealed bearings with pressurized water, and dousing the frame in detergent that could degrade the frame. Water and detergent are both necessary to get your bike clean, but Matt Bracken, co-owner of Pedro’s Bike Lubes and Cleaners says to use the shower setting on your hose or pressure washer, not the power setting. Also, choose detergents and cleaners with non-toxic, plant-based chemistry that won’t harm your bike, the environment, or you. 


“Every material, whether alloy, composite or carbon fiber can handle water,” said Bracken. “Bikes are made to get wet. But today’s bikes are so high tolerance that a little bit of grit in pivot points, the chain, or bearings will make the bike moan, creak, and pop. And dirt that’s worked its way in can also cause premature wear.”


Bike Washing 101


Washing Your Bike Frame

Bicycle specific detergent is designed to lift and encapsulate dirt and remove it. Pour the detergent concentrate into a bucket and add water according to the packaging. Soak a sponge, soft cloth, or gentle brushes in the bucket, and then get to work. 


Bracken says to use soap and water everywhere across your bike and that bicycle-specific detergents won’t harm brake pads, drivetrains, suspension fork seals, or anything else. As long as you’re not applying pressurized water, which can penetrate seals and displace grease in bearings, soap up your bike and let the detergent do the work. Then, once the frame is well covered in suds and all the tubes, parts and pieces have been scrubbed clean, rinse all surfaces with clean water, and pat dry with a clean, soft towel. 


Degrease and Lube that Drivetrain

If your chain is just a little bit dirty and needs a quick fix, add a few drops of chain lube every second link and give the chain a spin. Leave this on for 15 to 30 minutes before wiping down the chain with a rag. Most chain lubes penetrate road grime and dirt, so adding a little lube helps loosen up the crud on your chain so you can wipe it clean without needing a full bike wash. 


Chain cleaning brush


However, if your chain is gummed up with thick dirt and grease, a full wash with degreaser is necessary. Reach for a bike specific degreaser along with a brush that can reach between the bike’s rear cassette teeth and squeeze into your rear derailleurs cages to clean the jockey wheels. Scrub your chainrings (front and back), cogs, chain, and derailleur jockeys well to remove the caked-on grease.


Once you’ve scrubbed the drivetrain clean, rinse with clean water. According to Bracken, you should see grease-free, bare metal surfaces. If you don’t have time to get elbows-deep in chain grease and cleaner, take your bike to the shop for an ultrasonic drivetrain clean. Here, the mechanic pulls your bike chain, chainrings, and cassette and dips them into a small tank that uses ultrasonic sound waves to clean your components. The sound waves create tiny bubbles that blast dirt and oils from all the nooks and crannies of your bike parts for a seriously deep clean.


Ibis mountain bike dirty


Don’t forget to lube your chain after cleaning it. Add a drop of chain lube approximately every two to three links and then spin the chain through its gears to work the lube into the chain. Finish things up by wiping down your chain with a rag to remove any excess lube before your head out for your next ride.  


Spruce up shocks, suspension forks, and pivots

It’s good practice to regularly wipe down your suspension fork stanchions with a clean, dry, and soft cloth after riding to remove dust and dirt. You can also wash the stanchions with a gentle, diluted bike detergent and a soft rag. Be sure to be gentle though, avoid scratching or scraping the stanchions with hard tools or debris stuck to the fork. 


Mountain bike fork


Detergents are helpful because they clear dirt from the suspension fork seals, where it tends to collect. After you’ve finished washing your fork, wipe the stanchions with a silicone-based frame polish for extra protection from the elements. Bracken also advises riders to regularly wash a bike’s pivots with soap and water to reduce the wear and tear, and stretch the time between trips to the shop for service.  


Wheels and tires

To best clean wheels and tires, start first by removing the wheels from your bike. With a soft brush and sponge, soap up the wheels thoroughly. Wash the rims, spokes, nipples, and hubs and then rinse with clean water and dry with a towel. 


Dirty Gravel Bike


If your tires are caked with dirt, a powerful blast from a hose is tempting. Instead, opt for an aggressive scrub brush dipped in a bucket of soapy water. Use a steady stream of hose water to rinse them off at the end. 


What not to do

While washing bikes isn’t complicated, there are a few rules to follow to protect your bike parts and keep everything running and working smoothly. 


Cleaning bike


First, avoid wiping rotors and other brake parts with slippery, silicone based polish. It’s also a good idea to keep all types of lube and oil away from brake pads to avoid contamination. If your pads do become contaminated, wipe them with rubbing alcohol and carefully test their function before heading out on your next ride. Depending on the type of pad, you may need to replace your pads if they become contaminated. 


Also avoid using slippery polishes on your bike’s touch points including your saddle, handlebar, and pedals. You want a solid connecting with your bike in all three of these locations so skip the slippery stuff in these areas.  


Hosing down Bike


Finally, did we mention that pressurized water is a dirty bike’s greatest enemy? Don’t use it! Pressure just squeezes grime into all the tight spaces on your bike and makes it harder to clean. Avoid a creaky bike!


Mountain biking


It doesn’t take long to get your bike back into fighting shape, even if it’s been a while since your last bike wash. Take your time washing it and give your frame and components a solid check to make sure everything is working properly and no visible damage can be found. If you’re unsure about what detergents, degreasers, or lubes to use on your bike, call your local bike shop. Then, once your bike is spruced up and ready, head out and enjoy the smooth and efficient feel that only comes with a clean bike. 




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