Friday, October 10, 2008

The Art of the Bike Wash

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):

Brush Selection
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.


Anonymous said...

I was once taught an adage that I pass on to as many people as I can. It goes like this:
"A clean bike is a fast bike"

Thanks for the tips on keeping the bike clean and fast.

Radio Freddy said...

Its true, a clean bike is certainly a fast bike. And it looks nice too.

Boz said...

I keep a canister of WypAll waterless hand wipes to clean cassetes - get 'em at a auto parts store. That way, you dont have to spray water directly at the casette, especially older ones that don't like water intrusion. Handy to have in the shop.

Anonymous said...

This is a sweet post - thanks for the breakdown. My boyfriend has always used Simple Green... what are your thoughts on that?
Bob - great tip on the WypAll

Anonymous said...

Ahh yes - the dreaded post-cross bike cleanup - the rain is turning to snow and its too cold to hook up the garden hose... the PRO way is to use a garden pressure sprayer filled with HOT water. Save the last little bit for your hands at the end and you'll have feeling back in a hour or so...

Daniel Maurice said...

One thing I have learned is to never use terrycloth rags...the fibers cling to any/everything and make you look like a true goober...might not help the chain either. I opt for the cotton rag/sheets from the home depot...yeah.

Radio Freddy said...

snarkypants - Simple Green is simply the finest, non-harsh chemical for washing almost anything, let alone bikes. Great on the drive train, and the bar tape.

Anon - The garden sprayer is full-on PRO Cross style and a staple for anyone who is racing cross. I don't own one myself so I over looked its importance. Thanks for the mention.

Daniel - I hear your thoughts, I must confess I am a cotton cloth junkie. But you are correct, there is nothing less-PRO than little cotton tails hanging off everywhere.

CK said...

My white bar tape is looking un-pro. I'm going to try a new, natural brush.

Thanks for the information.

Anonymous said...

Nothing is more PRO than having someone else wash your bike.

I prefer that Jo Jo do it.


Unknown said...

Most useful post EVER! Thanks freddy.

Unknown said...

Diesel fuel and the drive train is an art in itself.
Bike wash is the only reason to accept swag t-shirts from races.

Anonymous said...

Hello, can you say something about "art of the cassette, chain and crankset wash"? This the worst part for me, and i'm looking for practical advices..
Greetings from Poland..

Radio Freddy said...

Poland - Hello. Thank you for taking the time to read. The long arm of BKW is impressive. I will take some time to collect my thoughts on the drive train cleaning techniques and I will create a separate post. Stay tuned. - RF

Anonymous said...

hey freddy
Tie a shoelace around the hub , run a few gonzo tt laps around the hood and a perfect clean spanking hub .Not so PRO but pretty darn kool . Thanks EURO TRASH (NYC)

Anonymous said...

Some quick comments from the jouneyman.
I had been on a trip with another mechanic, who had spent a season in Europe, based in Belgium. On the first evening of bike washes, he sent me to fill the buckets, and get the wash are ready. It was above 40 degrees, Farenheit, so it wasn't freezing. I walked down the two flights of stairs, to a spigot that had hot and cold running water. I filled one bucket with warm water, and the other with warmer water. I intended to use the warmer water bucket for drivetrain. I carried the buckets back up to the wash area, and set-up the stand, and had my bike stack all set to start. The guy from Europe walked over, and stuck his hand in the bucket.
"Hey, did you put hot water in here?"
"Yeah, I thought it would clean the drivetrain better."
The guy from Europe gave a little dry laugh, and slowly kicked both the buckets over, emptyting them onto the pavement area we were working on.
"There no hot water to wash bikes in Belgium, go back down and fill 'em with just cold."
I had some very dark thoughts about him as I went back down to refill the buckets. At the end of the wash and tune-ups, the guy from Europe said,
"That took to long today, you've got to do this job faster, and more accurately."
Lesson learned, if I had already been washing when he had checked the water, I'd have been done sooner.
Thank you for the great post, Freddy.

Anonymous said...

How do I keep my drivetrain clean like the pros? I can clean it perfectly, but once I apply lube (conservatively), it gets dirty immediately. How do the pros keep their chains/cogs SO clean even after a hard race? It's like they hardly use any lube at all.

Radio Freddy said...

When it comes to cleaning the drivetrain I have a few rules to follow:

I replace the chain and cassette every season. This reduces the overall level of dirt and grime.

I leave the factory installed lube on the chain until it wears off. No supplemental lube.

I lube the chain only when it begins to make noise, not before every ride.

These practices allow for the chain to remain as clean as possible. But when the chain has seen a lot of tough, dirty miles here are the cleaning tips:

1. Using a small screwdriver scrape off any dry and caked lube/dirt from the cassette. You can do this while pedaling the bike slowly. Take this opportunity to clean the der. pulleys too.

2. Using Simple Green at full strength, spray the shain and cassette and allow to sit for a few minutes. While the SG does its job, mix the Dawn and hot water and suds it up.

3. Using the natural bristle, cone shaped brush, begin srubbing the cassette/chain at the rear of the bike, pushing the chain against the cassette. Do this for the full length of the chain. Rinse, repeat. If the chain is very dirty you may need to do this multiple times.

4. Remove the rear wheel and clean the cassette alone. Paying special attention the cogs used most.

5. Wash the crank and chain rings from the inside as well as the outside. I find that a stiff, short bristle brush works best here. This brush will work well on the chain too, make sure you scrub the top, bottom and sides of the chain. (Do not waste your money on a plastic housing with solution that you place on the chain. It uses plastic bristles and will make the mess worse.) Be sure to clean the valleys between the chain ring teeth. If you use a square taper bb such as Campy cranks pre-Ultra Torque, try to avoid removing the crank arms. With each removal and re-installation, the cranks will sit further in-board and eventually they will rub the frame.

Be sure to continually dip the brush in the hot, soapy water, removing the grease from the bristles. This will eliminate the grease from the picture.

5. Re-install the rear wheel, re-lube the chain and apply sparingly. Allow a few minutes for the lube to soak into the chain and then remove excess with a clean towel.

There you have it, the Radio Freddy drive train cleaning.

Anon - I like the shoe lace trick. It works like a charm. Thanks for the tip!

- RF

Anonymous said...

I actually just take off my chain and cassette and pop them in the dishwasher and the rest of the bike is really quite easy with a bucket of soapy water and a brush. Regarding lubing the chain, I apply the chain lube and then wipe it off with a paper towel, I think it's just to keep the chain from rusting and keeping it flexible.

Anonymous said...

Where to find the natural brushes?

Thx - Great article!

Radio Freddy said...


Thanks for dropping by to read; my apologies for the delay. I had a hard time finding a brush source, but this one should be okay:

- RF

L said...

Use a Mr Clean Magic Eraser sponge to clean your white bar tape. It works like, um, magic.

julie said...

i'm a fan of El Duke's degreaser. any cleaning product that's drinkable has to be good. though i wouldn't recommend drinking it unless there's a bet involved. it tastes really nasty.

wile said...

I clean the cassette, freewheels, etc. with an old toothbrush and simple green. Just give it a quick squirt with water, spray on full strength simple green while pedaling backwards with your other hand. Hold the toothbrush head-down against the cassette and pedal backwards. Move from largest cog to smallest, probably letting each get 10 pedal rotations with the toothbrush. Press the toothbrush against each side of the free-wheels and continue to pedal backwards. Rinse with hose while pedaling backwards. This process will remove every last chunk of grease/dirt and leave your cassette sparkling in about 2 minutes.

stratobiker said...

Great blog, great post, and some excellent responses, esp Freddy.

I'd like to add my wife's bike wash guide. She's been washing my bikes for many years. She uses Sh1t Shifter certainly keeps my drive chain looking good.

Blog on.... SB

Anonymous said...

Great advice! Thanks Freddie!
And if it's OK I'll add my 2 cents,
A couple of time during the season and or when the drive train is looking really ugly (fugly), I tear down the cassette and using a wire tie (used by computer people to bundle wires together) I keep the order of cogs and spacers in order and put them in a small ultrasonic cleaner I bought on ebay for $50.
I make a mix of a little hot water and SG and in 5 minutes they are spotless. while they are in the "bath" I carefully unbolt the chainrings from the crank and in an old plastic wash tub I stole from my wife years ago. I go at them with a short hogs hair brush getting in every little spot again using a little hot water and SG.
The chain also gets a turn in the ultrasonic cleaner and since I use a quicklink it makes the job safe and easy. this is a good time to also give the rear mech. a good scrubbing and if I feel ambitious I dissasemble the pullies and give the area a good goin over. Reassembly should not be rushed and carefull attention to lubrication proper torques should be paid attention to.
A clean bike is a fast bike!

Anonymous said...

Kitchen dishwashing gloves, the thicker yellow gauntlet type, are good for keeping hands warm and dry while washing your bike in cold weather.

Anonymous said...

I have found a source of rags that are recycled T-shirts--tougher than those blue disposable things, leave less lint on a bike than terrycloth, far cheaper than "real" shop rags. My local industrial supplier sells them @18 lbs. for $25. They are strong enough to use for an on-bike cassette cleaning as well as soft enough to scratch nothing.

Anonymous said...

Can you provide a single photo shot of the brushes you use? Better than a description.

Rick Cummings said...

Great read with lots of nuggets. The biggest challenge I have is finding natural bristle brushes. I can find bottle brushes but they all have plastic bristles. Any suggestion on where to get natural bristle brushes? I would really like to find a cone brush.

Anonymous said...

Now where did I see this exact post at least a couple years ago. . .

Anonymous said...

I've heard horror stories about chains left to soak in a SG bath, and they explode a ride or two after. Seems that prolonged exposure causes small fissures in the links, and the breakdown comes at the worst time (see sprinting, grinding up a climb). It seems to be ok for quick cleaning jobs, but resist soaking.

Anonymous said...

Keeping a clean bike is extremely important. Dirt and dust act like sandpaper against components.

I use Suzuki Motorcycle Wash on all of my rides. Rinse the bike off, spray on the wash, let it sit for a second and then rinse off. Everything is gone without leaving residue or damaging components. Even the tires look brand new.

Don't ask me how it does it, but it is the only cleaner out of the many that I have tried that work this well.

Here are some other tips on making sure that your bike runs smoothly.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for great Storys about Cycling...
Belgium Knee Warmers is the best Cycling Blog ever !!!

Anonymous said...

I bought a cone brush about three weeks ago, before reading this and you are right.

Why didn't I get one before?
Why wasn't one included in my 'Muc-off' brush kit???

Now to check out the garden sprayer...

Arturo said...

A trick I was shown by a European pro mechanic is to use neat Jizer on greasy parts and wash it with plain water before a soapy all over wash with car wash soap (washing up liquid has salt in which attacks everything you're trying to protect!) Finish off with Mer car polish to deter the next lot of mud from sticking to the frame too quickly. - A clean bike is a fast bike - just go with what works best for you.

Wade Wallace said...

have you ever tried babywipes to clean your bike? Give it a shot. They're amazing:

Thanks for the post. Excellent hints