How to clean your bike

Keep your bike in tip-top condition

How to clean your bike

We’d never claim that cleaning a bike is as much fun as actually riding it. However, there is something therapeutic about the process and something rewarding about seeing a gleaming machine at the end of it. More importantly from a practical standpoint, clean bikes work better and don’t wear out as fast, so you’re extending the life of your cycle and saving money, too. Cycling journalist Matt Lamy explains how to return your bike to tip-top condition.

Step one – The drivetrain

Before we start focusing on any specific area, give your bike a good dousing with the hose to remove any large accumulations of dirt or mud on the frame and tyres. Now we’ll begin in earnest by cleaning the drivetrain: the chain, chainset, cassette and derailleurs. This tends to be quite a mucky job and may splatter onto the frame — which is why we’ll clean that afterwards. Don’t forget, for a really thorough cleaning it is possible to remove the drivetrain from the bike (see ‘Ultimate bike cleaning’ in the sidebox), although you can do a decent job with it in situ.

To clean the chain it is possible to use a chain-cleaning tool (follow the instructions supplied with it), however, we’ll go for a more manual approach here. Liberally apply degreaser or chain cleaning solution to the chain and give it a thorough scrub with a stiff brush to remove as much dirt as possible. Occasionally hold a rag around the chain and spin the pedals, so that the chain passes through the rag and deposits dislodged dirt onto it. Repeat the process over and over until you are happy your chain is as clean as you can make it.

Now use degreaser and a firm brush — ideally one with a thin head — to clean the chainset and cassette. Make sure you try to remove any mud or grime that has built up between ring teeth and in between the rings themselves. Then give your derailleurs a brush with degreaser, paying special attention to the two jockey wheels at the rear mech, which is a favourite place for dirt to cake on.

Step two – The rest of the bike

Once you are happy the drivetrain is clean, the rest of the bike is relatively easy. The simplest method is to use a bucket of diluted cleaner or some spray-on bike wash and start at the handlebar, working your way back and down so that you are not dripping dirty water onto the areas you have just cleaned. Some people use a sponge to dislodge dirt and clean the frame, however, I find they tend to be ‘eaten’ by sharp parts on the bike and I prefer to use a large soft-bristled brush instead. Important areas to concentrate on are: under the saddle; between the seatstays, chainstays and any seatstay bridges; the inside surface of fork legs; around the bottom bracket; and any underside surfaces.

Don’t forget about wheels and brake pads — it might be more convenient to remove the wheels and clean them separately. This will also allow you to really access the inside surfaces of the fork, chainstays and seatstays, and you can have a good look at the surfaces of your brake pads if your bike has rim brakes. Remove any grit or foreign objects from brake pads and give the calipers a good clean as these may be covered in brake dust. Refit the wheels and give the drivetrain one last going over with bike wash. Then spray everything off with clean water.

Step three – Drying and lubing

I’m lazy, so I quite like to wash my bike on a sunny day and leave it out to dry in the warm air for an hour or two before relubing it. However, circumstances don’t always allow for this relaxed method, so you can use some soft clean rags to remove most of the water that is still apparent. Also give the frame a quick spray of a dedicated ‘protect and shine’ product.

Once you have dried the majority of the bike, it’s important to use a water-displacer such as GT85 or WD40 in the areas where water may collect and cause rust. Again, start at the front of your bike and work backwards, giving a quick squirt to any component pivot points or moving parts. Make sure you don’t get any of this fluid on braking surfaces, as this will drastically hamper braking performance.

Although these types of water-repelling sprays do act as a lubricant, it’s also important to use a dedicated bike lube or grease. Bike lubes come in a range of options but the most popular are wet, dry, and ceramic. Wet lube isn’t easily washed off but does tend to attract road grime; dry lube is great for the summer, but can be washed away by repeated exposure to rain; and ceramic lube is almost a halfway house that works well but does cost a bit more. Pop a dab of lube anywhere on your bike that you spot a pivot point or moving part.

The last and most important job is to re-lube your now super-clean chain. Before applying lube, make sure the chain is nice and dry. Now understand that it’s the rollers, pins and inner faceplates of the chain do all the work, so make sure the lube gets onto them. Slowly and methodically work you way along the entire length of the chain, directing the lube exactly where you want it. Once you’ve treated the whole chain, run it through a rag to remove excess lube and use your gear levers to go up and down the gears, checking everything is operating smoothly.

Step four – Final check

Before you take to the road or trail on your clean machine, double check all brake cables are reattached, brake surfaces are free from any kind of contaminant, all controls are working, and all bolts and quick releases are secure.

Now enjoy the ride and be proud of your clean bike!

Different bikes, different strokes

The kind of bike you’re cleaning may have an effect on the way you clean it, or at least which areas you may need to pay special attention to. So here are a few tips for specific types.

Mountain bikes:

Not only will mountain bikes almost certainly pose a greater cleaning challenge than other types of bikes — because they tend to get a lot muckier — but their specific design also involves some special considerations. Particular areas to clean are underneath the saddle and underneath the fork crown, both places where mud thrown up by the wheels tends to collect.

Also have a good look underneath the bottom bracket to make sure that area is clean, too. If your bike has full suspension, make sure you get a relatively small brush and give the moving frame parts and any associated springs and shocks a good clean as well. Again, remember to re-lubricate any moving parts afterwards.

Road bikes:

Road bikes are relatively simple although be particularly careful with any lubricate around rim brakes. Also, as a way to complete a successful wash, fitting some new bar tape is a finishing touch that will leave you feeling like you’ve got a new bike.

Touring, commuting and hybrid bikes:

The basic frames of touring, commuting and hybrid bikes are generally pretty simple to clean, however these types of bikes may also be fitted with mudguards, bottle cages, racks or a range of accessories. In the case of mudguards, it is possible to fire a strong jet of hose water up the inside of them to clean away mud.

If that doesn’t work, remove the wheels and give the inside surface of the mudguards a quick brush with bike cleaner. In the case of other accessories, you may find it is sensible to remove them so you can access as much of the bike as possible when you clean it (don’t forget to put bolts back into accessory mounting points before cleaning to stop water ingress, though!).

Then refit everything when the bike is sparkling. 

What you will need

As any good workman will tell you, to do a good job it’s important to have the right tools. To give your bike a decent clean you will need:

- A working garden hose or supply of clean water

- A bucket

- Bike wash / cleaner

- Degreaser

- Selection of clean brushes and a sponge

- Chain cleaning tool (optional)

- Rags

- Protect and shine spray

- GT85 / WD40 or similar

- Lube (wet, dry or ceramic)

Ultimate bike cleaning

The drivetrain is the most obvious area where you can go an extra mile and take bike cleaning further than simple in situ attention. However, before you pull your bike apart, one clever product you can use is bike ‘string’ or ‘floss’ to really get in between the rings and teeth of your chainset and cassette.

If you want to do more than that, you could remove the chain, chainset and cassette from your bike and bathe them in a tub of degreaser to give them a thorough clean. Some cyclists bathe their components in petrol, diesel, white spirits or pretty much any other liquid you can think of, but degreaser is the safest option (and the only thing we'd sensibly recommend here!).

Cleaning on a budget

Bike-specific cleaning products are effective but it can cost a small fortune to accumulate a shed full of different cleaners, lubes and degreasers, not to mention brushes and other bits of kit. But there is a way to clean your bike quite effectively without spending too much in the process.

In truth, although I’ve used some fantastic bike-specific brushes over the years, my go-to brush for cleaning a bike frame is still a medium width house painting brush as I can direct it exactly where I want around components. Just make sure it is clean and free from solvents before you start.

And what about bike cleaning fluid itself? That household staple, washing up liquid works well as a general cleaner and degreaser. Use a relatively weak solution with a few bubbles to clean the majority of the bike, and you can use a slightly more concentrated solution on grimy or oily drivetrains.

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