I learned to wash bikes in 1990 from a journeyman mechanic who had just returned from a tour of duty with the 7-11 team. He was a master mechanic in every sense of the word. He carried a suitcase that looked all the spy novel to house his tools of the trade. It was a suitcase designed for electricians: an aluminum case with layers that had individual pockets for tools and small parts. I remember the first day he came to work at the shop he brought his case, a travel stand (in the days before travel stands), a 5-gallon paint bucket, a selection of specialty brushes, and a pair of honest to goodness firefighter boots (complete with steel toes). In the days of old, we simply wiped bikes down with a rag and washed the parts in a solvent tank. Those days were about to become a thing of the past.
I had no idea there were such specialized practices for bike washing. There were special brushes for specific tasks, a special type of soap, and a brush technique for drive trains, brakes, the frame, bar tape, and wheels. Over 3 years, I came to master the art of bike washing. I washed well over 1000 bikes in my day. In the summer, I washed them under the baking sun, in the winter I washed them in the small confines of a dark, dank basement. Below are some tricks I continue to employ today (in no particular order):
Wheel brush - As in wire-spoked British car wheels (not bicycle wheel). This long, cone-shaped brush is ideal for areas that are tight and difficult-to-get-to, from the area between spokes and the hubs to the brake caliper, and below the BB area and the cassette. This brush will also do a number on bar tape, allowing the white to stay PRO white.
Wide brush - This brush is intended for the wheels and sides of the rims and tires. It covers large areas and works beautifully on all flat surfaces. I prefer this type of brush to have a long handle. When the temps are cool and your hands are wet, there is nothing more painful than slipping with the brush and slamming your knuckles into the brake caliper, or worse, the chain rings.
Large sponge or wash mitt - In the old days, brushes were too harsh to use on a sweet paint job because over time they would leave light scratches on the clear coat and create a fog. Today, the concern remains a frame's clear coat but now its carbon fiber's clear coat. Sponges have differing textures, use a softer option so the appearance of the frame is retained.
A note on brushes: Brush selection is a matter of personal preference. When selecting a brush, insure the bristles are made of natural fiber. The plastic bristle brushes have a tendency to hold grease, causing it to spread around rather than remove it. Drop a nasty, greasy natural bristle brush into a a solution of warm water and Dawn liquid soap and the grease literally falls off the bristles.
Avoid harsh chemicals at all costs - If your chain and cassette are so gunked up with spent grease and road grime, it's probably time to replace it rather than clean it. For the really dirty intervals, I use Simple Green, which is a natural de-greaser and all-round cleaner that is ideal for drive trains. Steer clear of harsh chemicals, especially on carbon bikes. Harsh chemicals are not good for clear coats, resins, bonded joints, and good 'ol Mother Earth.
Dawn dishwashing detergent - This blue liquid soap is magic on dirty, muddy, greasy bikes and, if you clean your machine frequently, it's all that is needed to produce a clean, PRO machine. I prefer the original formula and, when mixed with some hot water, there is very little 'ol blue can't tackle.
I opt for frequent washings, this helps to keep the drive train clean and, with the elimination of sand and road grime, the drive train components will not wear as quickly.
Be cautious when spraying water on the machine: avoid spraying water directly into the bearing areas. If your bike is equipped with electronics like an SRM, it's wise to avoid water and chemicals altogether in this area. I use a clean cloth for the SRM and, following a wet Spring, I pull it off and clean the individual components by hand.
In the dead of winter when the hose is in hibernation, I use an tea kettle to perform the rinse. I fill it with hot water and wait until I've washed the entire bike before rinsing. You have to work fast so the soap remains effective but it's key to removing the corrosive salts and oil/grease mixture that lays on top of the roads in winter.
After any wash, I apply a very light coating of lube on the chain and then hang the machine allowing it to air dry. Every mechanic's technique for washing bikes varies and over time everyone develops techniques that work best for them.
I was fortunate to have learned this skill from a complete and utter PRO. A full bike wash takes me less than 10 minutes and a quick wash takes less than 5. In the spring, I'll re-use the same bucket of soapy water for weeks at a time due to the frequency of washes. When I roll in from a soggy ride, the waiting bucket makes it easy to give the bike a quick wash.
A clean machine is a PRO machine and it allows for the components to work properly while reducing wear. Keep it PRO, keep it clean.
"The Art of the Bike Wash" makes it to print in Embrocation Magazine Volume II and we are proud to be among the contributors. Embrocation Magazine is a hand-made brew of personal experiences from passionate cyclists. Check it out.