Disclaimer: What follows in this article are personal practices based upon casual research, others people’s advice, and my own experience over the years as a bike commuter. Here at Bikecommuters.com, we realize that each person does things differently, and we encourage diversity and constructiveness of thought. So if you have some of your own methods on bike cleaning/ maintenance, feel free to comment.
RL put it quite well for me when I suggested a refresher on this topic: “…be prepared to get some people saying that your technique is wrong. Chain lube and lubing, as the “Elder Statesman” (Jack) had once said, ‘is like the topic of religion, everyone does it differently.’”
A perusal of the current online content regarding “bike cleaning tips” (1) will generate an enormous array of practices, products, and recommendations. However, an initial review of the literature, including an excellent article by our own Jack “Ghost Rider” Sweeney (2), reveals a few common themes in the arena of bike cleaning. Throughout the years, I have practiced these themes on my own bike, and with the same components over the past 3 years (7000+ miles), the bike has been running pretty smoothly. That being said, those of you who ride double, triple, quadruple or more the distance of what I do may have a different cleaning routine, and appropriately so.
1. Avoid jets of water for the initial “rinse down.” If you must use a hose, use a gentle SPRAY. Jets of water can force water and debris into bearings, the drive train, etc. making them wear down faster.
2. Use a degreaser. Lots of brands.
3. Wash down your bike with water, soap, and a soft bristled brush.
4. Use chain lube. Lots of brands. Brief explanation about dry versus wet lube:
- A dry lube’s basic purpose is to be applied wet but dry off to form a smooth, dirt-repelling coat on your chain. They can be wax-based or teflon based. However, these lubes can wash off in wet weather.
- A wet lube is a hydrocarbon based lubricant that stays “wet” on the chain and is more resistant to washing off, so it is better for wet weather. These can be petroleum or plant based.
The frequency of cleaning is critical; cleaning your bike once the symptoms of severe drive train wear appear is moot. The entire point of cleaning is to perform it frequently and consistently enough to delay the onset of component wear. The past year has allowed me to commute about 80 miles a week (16 miles a day, 5 days a week), and with these distances, I found that I cleaned my bike about once a month (~every 300 miles on paved roads, SoCal weather, a.k.a. no weather). The first signs I pay attention to that signal the need for cleaning comes from the drive train:
1. Chain starts to get noisy
2. Shifting is not as smooth.
3. The beginning of a grime layer depositing on my chain and cogs.
Once these start to appear, it’s time to clean. Here is my routine:
1 large soft bristle brush
1 old toothbrush
Soft lint-less cloth
Screw driver (Flat head)
Latex gloves (to keep your hands cleaner)
Degreaser (Simple Green featured in this article)
Gentle dish soap (NOT dishWASHER detergent)
General bicycle lubricant (Tri-Flow)
Chain lube (Finish Line Dry)
1. Degreasing: I like Simple Green. I spray it on thick along the drive train (chain, front gears and derailleur, rear gear cluster and derailleur). It stays on as a very satisfying foam layer. I let it sit for 5 minutes, and in the meantime, you can prep for the next step.
2. Get some soapy water ready in a nice big bucket. Some are proponents of warm water, and I agree that this definitely helps loosen dirt and grime better. But for me, cold water is easier to get and cleans fine. I use a gentle dish soap like Palm Olive (NOT dishwasher detergent). I then get a large brush and toothbrush ready.
3. Take large brush and scrub the chain, rear and front derailleurs with the soapy water. Use the small toothbrush for detail work in the drive train. Do this several times. Change the soap water in between washes as needed.
4. Change sides on your large brush to the cleaner side (the side that hasn’t been scrubbing the drive train as this side will be dirty) and use the cleaner side to scrub wheels, frame, basically everything else. Or you can always get a different brush.
5. Change water in bucket. Do not add soap this time. Using your large sponge, soak up a bunch of water and squeeze the water onto your bike, rinsing away the soap and debris. I find that a sponge allows me to direct a gentle stream of water for effective rinsing without generating any potentially damaging jets. Sponges also help me conserve water instead of pouring bucket after bucket to rinse the bike.
6. Get your bike clamped to a work stand.
7. Rear derailleur detail: Personally, I have never needed to diassemble the pulleys on a rear derailleur for cleaning.
- Using a screw driver, gently place the flat edge flush onto the walls of the pulley and freewheel as you do this, allowing the screw driver to gently scrape off the grime that has accumulated. Do this for both pulleys and both sides.
8. Clean and dry your bike with a soft cloth towel. Use 2 different towels: one for the drive train and another for everything else.
- To dry the chain, freewheel the chain as you hold the chain with your towel.
- Pay attention to detail: use this opportunity to look at your bike more carefully. If you see any dirt or grime on the frame, wipe it off with the towel. Clean the wheels, spokes etc.
9. Lube time:
- lube your chain: wet or dry, freewheel the chain as you drop the lube onto each link. Wipe excess off! Dry lube should dry, but wet lube stays wet, and if you have too much, it will spray everywhere, especially your rear wheels when you start pedalling fast. This will make for ineffective and very NOISY rear braking.
- Apply bicycle lubricant to front and rear derailleur moving parts and springs, moving parts of your braking mechanism, as well as your CABLES. To apply lube to cables, just put a couple drops of lube onto your gloved thumb and index finger, pinch the cable, and run your fingers along. Don’t overlube, and if you do, wipe away excess.
10. Test run your bike by riding around the block a bit, making sure your shift through all of your gears, allowing the lube to settle in and penetrate the moving parts.
11. Enjoy the smooth ride. Tailor the frequency of your cleaning based on how much you ride.
Do good and ride well.
1. Google search terms: “bike cleaning tips.” Search performed August 17, 2013