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How To Clean Your Bike

This is a task every triathlete should learn how to master.

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We treat our bikes worse way worse than roadies—though maybe not as bad as off-road riders. You’ve probably done some pretty abusive stuff to your bike over the last year—you’ve probably stuck things to it, you’ve probably spilled things on it, you may have even taken a “nature break” on or too close to it. But you may not know how to clean your bike properly. Aside from the smell or the fact that you might need to call the mold remediation guy, a clean bike is good for three big reasons:

1. You’ll ride faster (and better)!

This is always a good thing. In fact, a study by the Friction Facts test lab showed that not cleaning and lubing your chain after a muddy ride can actually cost a rider 12 watts for someone putting out 250 watts on a ride. And that’s just the chain. Dirt, grime, dust, sweat, and Gatorade can get inside other moving parts like your bottom bracket, wheel hub bearings, and headset bearings, wreaking havoc not only with your efficiency (and precious watts), but also your bike’s handling.

2. Your bike will last longer.

Sweat in particular is a huge issue for metal components, as the sodium in our perspiration can damage bolts, bearings, and more. Particularly if you’re spending time riding inside, you need to keep your bike not only clean, but dry. (For more on this, check out our story on protecting your bike indoors.) Better yet, try to cover the areas between you and the bike while on the trainer, but still be sure to give everything a light coating of WD-40 after washing and drying. Corroded parts are more than just ugly, they can require costly mechanic work to drill out and replace. Don’t wait until spring, you should be cleaning an indoor-bound bike every three to four weeks.

3. You’ll want to ride more.

Save thousands of dollars on buying a new bike, and just keep yours clean. Market research has shown that there is a large population of people who will buy a new car simply because theirs is extremely dirty. Just think about how much money they could save with a deluxe detailing! Do your trusty bike proud by treating it right, and you may want to use that pretty old thing even more than you thought—and you’ll be less likely to lust after something else new and shiny. Not only that, but when you learn how to clean your bike properly, you’ll have a greater sense of pride and ownership in the thing you sometimes abuse.

How to Clean Your Bike

So how do you clean your bike (correctly)? Follow our 12 easy steps for a pro-level wash:

  1. Take it outside

    No serious cleaning can really be done inside. It’s a challenge, do this right.

  2. Ideally hang it from a stand

    Again, this will make a legitimately serious cleaning much easier to do.

  3. Remove the wheels (if possible)

    This will allow you to get a deeper clean in the drivetrain and bottom bracket—two of the most important places to work on.

  4. Prepare your tools

    Fill a bucket with sponges, brushes, rags, water, and household dish soap (or biodegradable degreaser). Two of these setups is even better—one for the drivetrain, one for the rest.

  5. Use a garden hose to spray it down

    There are different schools of thought on using high-pressure or not, but just to be safe, save the pressure washer for your patio. 

  6. Get to scrubbin’

    Scrub off as much as you can with the tools you’ve got. If you can only buy one cleaning tool, get a chain cleaner as it’ll do the most for you.

  7. Pay extra attention to the chain, cassette, and chainring

    Even if you don’t have a specialized brush for each of those, spend more time on these items than anything else. Also, try to segregate the drivetrain tools/water from the rest—it’ll be a mess.

  8. Let the soap set

    Give the soap five minutes to penetrate the grease, even after scrubbing.

  9. Rinse everything off

    If you need to do another round, go back to step six to remove tri seasons of yesteryear.

  10. Cloth dry

    Don’t just let the bike air dry, as it can cause corrosion on unlubricated parts. Take the time to be thorough here, you’ll be glad you did.

  11. Lubricate

    Be sure to lubricate the chain with your lube of choice, following the directions on the bottle. If it needs to set, let it set up; if it needs to be wiped down immediately, do it. Be sure to apply to the inside of the chain and spin for a few revolutions. If you’re mostly training inside, put a touch of grease on bolts exposed to sweat.

  12. Be proud!