Cleanliness is Next to…

Let’s see, I write a review and people ask me how I keep my bikes so clean; I write about wrenching and people ask me how I keep my bikes so clean; I write about commuting and people ask me how I keep my bikes so clean, I write about chain maintenance and people ask me how I keep my bikes so clean; I post a photo to Flickr and people ask me how I keep my bikes so clean. Hmmm, I think I see a pattern here. Perhaps I should take a hint and talk a little bit about how I keep my bikes so clean.

First off, realize that I’ll often wash the bikes before a photo shoot, particularly if the photos will be used for a review or product feature. I figure I owe it to our readers, sponsors, and potential converts to present bikes in their best light (literally and figuratively). Also, realize that living in a relatively dry portion of Northern California means I infrequently ride in the rain, and when I do, it’s on a bike reserved specially for that purpose. With those things in mind, here’s a rundown of my approach to keeping our stable clean and shiny.

What You Need

  • A bucket.
  • Dish soap (the liquid handwashing type, not the mechanical dishwasher type).
  • Degreaser. Any biodegradable, water-rinse degreaser will do (I like El Duke).
  • A kitchen sponge like this one.
  • A stiff brush like this one.
  • A plastic grocery bag.
  • An old bath towel.

I keep all of this stuff in the bucket so I don’t have to go searching for it each time.

How I Do It

  1. Cover your saddle with the plastic grocery bag (be sure to tie it in a knot around the seat post to keep the water out).
  2. Decide whether or not the drivetrain needs cleaning. If it does, remove the chain and squirt a little degreaser on the cassette, chainrings, and front and rear derailleur cages. Let the degreaser soak for a minute or two, then scrub down the grungy parts with the stiff brush.
  3. Once you’ve given everything a good scrub, rinse well with water. Some of the degreaser may get on your frame; be sure to rinse it off right away so it doesn’t harm the finish.
  4. Partially fill your bucket with warm water, add a squirt of dishwashing liquid, and throw in the sponge.
  5. Spray the bike down with a hose. Keep the pressure relatively low, and never EVER spray directly into bearing races.
  6. Go over the entire bike with the soft side of the sponge, redipping the sponge in the warm, soapy water numerous times during the process.
  7. If the rim braking surfaces are grungy, flip over the sponge and use the abrasive side to clean the sidewalls (go light and easy on this).
  8. Rinse the bike starting from the top down. Again, please don’t spray directly into your bearing races and keep the water pressure relatively low.
  9. Finally, wipe the bike dry with the old bath towel, taking particular care to dry around bearing races and any areas that might rust like rack mounts and braze-ons.

Once the wash job is complete, apply lube where needed (usually only the brake pivots and derailleur pulleys). Some people like to apply a little furniture polish or car wax to the frame, which is fine, but it’s not something that I do (no reason really, perhaps I should).

The entire process takes a little less than 15 minutes, and washing more than one bike at a time dramatically reduces the overall time devoted to cleaning.

Obviously, there’s nothing special about the above. If there’s any secret at all, it’s that we insist on having fenders with good coverage on all of our bikes. Even though we don’t live in a wet area, fenders still provide a ton of protection from road grime and lawn runoff, minimizing the amount of effort it takes to keep the bikes clean and looking good. The other secret is simply to keep on top of it. If a bike is not particularly dirty, it takes just a few minutes to clean it up. On the other hand, if it’s been months (or years) since a bike has had a good cleaning, getting it back in shape can be an all day affair and a major hassle.

And finally, know that I realize this cleanliness thing is highly individual. I’m guessing many people could care less if their bikes are dirty (some may even feel it’s a badge of honor), and I’m certainly not one to pass judgement one way or the other. I just happen to enjoy keeping our bikes in great shape and I view keeping them clean as one part of that larger maintenance process.

20 Responses to “Cleanliness is Next to…”

  • Mark Rainey says:

    I take a lot of ribbing about “showering” with my bike. I work in a manufacturing plant that has large open showers in the mens room. One of the shower heads had been adapted to accept a garden hose for the filling of buckets & such. I often roll the bike in over my lunch hour an give it a good cleaning. “A clean trucker is a happy trucker”

  • Logan says:

    Fantastic post! Great to have the secret! :) Cheers! :)

  • Brian C says:

    An excellent benchmark (which I sadly fall short of – for some reason I do a much better job in the summer than the winter, and yet the bikes get much filthier from our wet winter streets than they ever do in the summer).

  • bongobike says:

    Pretty much the same thing I do, except if even the drivetrain is grungy, I don’t usually remove the chain, I just scrub it on the bike with the same degreaser I use for the cogs, and then use one of those closed chain scrubbers to clean the chain (twice–rinse and repeat). BTW, did I miss something or did you not indicate what you do with the chain after you remove it?

  • Grasteful says:

    Alan,

    Excellent post.

    I will humbly submit that my bikes are always as clean as yours. I (almost) always wipe the whole bike down after every ride – and always if it’s seen ANY water, (from above or below). If they’re never allowed to get dirty they’ll never be dirty. I never, never, never take a hose to one or allow water to run over it – except when I’m caught in the rain.

    Then every month or two, depending, I just disassemble most of the bike (and some components), check & wipe the bearings and races and regrease with Amsoil grease, thoroughly hand wipe the cassette, then use cloths dampened with Armourall (or the like) to clean every spoke, the hubs, rims, frame, and anything else. When I relube the chain I lube every link individually with Amsoil Heavyduty Metal Protector – it bonds molecularly to the metal. I’ve never had a chain wear enough to warrant replacement – even on one bike that I put over 50,000 miles on, and never had to replace a cassette either.

    So you can see how much I respect your fastidious nature. It SHOWS in your blogs too – hands down the nicest, cleanest bike blogs on the net – my favorite. Thanks for all your efforts.

    Grateful

  • Alan says:

    @bongobike

    “BTW, did I miss something or did you not indicate what you do with the chain after you remove it?”

    That’s for another post. :-)

    I did cover chain cleaning a bit in the waxing post:

    “The first time you use the hot wax method you’ll want to sanitize your drivetrain before starting (you’ll only need to do this once). Remove the chain and strip it using your favorite biodegradable degreaser (my favorite method is to fill an old plastic soda bottle 1/4 of the way with Simple Green, feed the chain in the top, put on the cap, shake like crazy, let it soak for 10 minutes, shake like crazy again, then rinse the chain thoroughly with water). While the chain is drying, scrub your chainrings and rear cogs. Use whatever method you’d like, just make sure everything is squeaky clean and dry or the wax will pick up and absorb the oily gunk that was leftover, defeating the purpose.”

    Here’s the link:

    http://www.ecovelo.info/2010/05/30/chain-maintenance-for-clean-freaks/

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Grateful

    You win. :-) Seriously, you take it to a new level. I’m impressed with your methods and how effective the Amsoil has been at prolonging chain and cassette life. Very cool.

    Thanks for the kind words – I’m glad you enjoy the blog!

    Alan

  • Jim says:

    I had a good chuckle at the first paragraph, because it’s exactly what usually comes to mind when I see your bike photography. “Beautiful, but how are the bikes so clean?” Nice weather and lots of effort, of course. Thanks for sharing your technique.

    Incidentally, some time ago I created a Bathing Bicycles group on Flickr as a home for a funny photo of my bike in the bathtub. Feel free to add any bicycle-cleaning photos to the group!

  • voyage says:

    I have never stored a bike outdoors. Twenty years of keeping bikes in dorm rooms, cramped apartments and condos and finally a proper garage! Needless to say, I quickly claimed and constructed a clean-room bike storage area using 2×4, heavy-duty steel shelves, and shower curtain liners. Eight pricey bikes in there and they are the cleanest in town and yes, they are actually ridden and free of rust pocks, dust, and cat and dog hair.

  • Scott says:

    I’ve never been one to bother with trying to keep my bikes particularly clean. I haven’t found it to make much of a difference in maintenance, and it seems to me that a shiny clean bicycle is more of a magnet for thieves. Yours do like nice, though.

  • Buck says:

    Does anyone know if wax actually does anything at all (beneficial or otherwise) to a powder coat?

  • bongobike says:

    Buck,

    I would imagine wax does the same thing to powdercoat it does to paint and any other hard, smooth surface: provide a nice shiny coat that protects the finish from developing a film of grime and makes it easier to wash.

  • Bliss Chick says:

    Perfect! Great to have such a well-written resource for myself and to pass on to others. Thanks for taking the time to set this out in the blogosphere.

  • StJon says:

    Please don’t use dish soap to clean your bike, they contain salt and everyone knows what that does to your ride. Here in the west coast of Scotland we have high rain fall so lots of cleaning. Wax or silicon spray lubes help the frame shed water and grime, making the cleaning easier.

  • joe says:

    Its interesting that you have the same thinking of me. I like a clean bike. I always say “a clean bike is a happy bike,” lol. Anyways, unless its really muddy, like my MTB gets, or salt from the roads in winter, my cleaning goes as follows:

    1. Take a dry, clean shop rag and “dust” the bike off
    2. Put in stand and remove the wheels, and if the chain has a master link, remove the chain. (chain and drivetrain cleaning are a different matter here, and as I have been waxing my ‘train lately, even less of an issue
    3. Some cheapo “green” furniture polish on another clean, dry shop rag and wipe the frame, bars, crank arms, and what not down. Staying away from the brake pads. But all else gets wiped, and yes, including my leather cardiff saddle. I use Mink Oil once every two months on the saddle, so the rag with the cleaner only “dusts” the saddle off, not enough cleaner to damage the leather.

    The furniture polish seems to put a protecting “film” of sorts on the paint, repelling road grime and dust, the same as it does on a coffee table and whatnot.

    4. Rims and Tires (yes, I like a clean tire too) gets a heavy spray with window cleaner and wiped clean. A soft brush in the rubber makes tires look like new. The alcohol based cleaner will not effect braking performance on the rims once dry.

    5. Hubs and spokes get the same, but only gets cleaned like every other cleaning (about once a week is the norm for me)

    I started cleaning this way years ago as I live in a small townhouse with no way to do a true “wet” cleaning, short of putting the bike in the shower/tub (and yes, that has happened, but if you ask my fiancée, should never happen, lol) This is a fast, efficient, and easy no mess way of making things sparkle, and can be done easily in the kitchen (where my bikes normally get worked on and cleaned) with out upsetting the better half with a messy floor and carpet.

    When things are really muddy or salty, I take the bike to the parents or friends and give it a cleaning a lot like you described

    I have always admired your clean bikes, and can appreciate the “soothing” feeling it gives, and the instant satisfaction at looking at a clean, sparkling bike, but one that also gets ridden.

  • Rick says:

    Sigh. *feels guilty for having dirty bike* Guess I know what I’ll be doing this morning….

  • doug in seattle. says:

    I admit to feeling a bit proud riding a mud-drenched road bike home from a ride, and then letting the mud wash off slowly over time. I’ve never actually washed a bike. I’ll wipe them down with a dry cloth when they get really dirty, but that’s it.

    On the flip, the second there’s even a slight malfunction, I hunt it down and fix it. Brakes and gear changers are kept in perfect condition at all times.

  • DrMekon says:

    I am with Doug. I commute in all weathers in a rural area, and keeping the bike clean would be a never ending task. I focus on keeping the drivetrain clean and attending to any hint of a mechanical problem immediately.

    That said, the day I rode through a 200yd stretch of road covered in pig slurry (I have no idea what the farmer was thinking), the bike got a thorough clean straight away.

  • Bob B says:

    Dish soap may be too harsh for bicycles as this article on motorcycle cleaning discusses: http://bit.ly/c3QwWO
    Another option is the waterless cleaning method using microfiber rags. Progold http://bit.ly/cpMS4N, Lucky Earth http://bit.ly/dyuMPN and Pedros offer biodegradable spray cleaners: http://bit.ly/162NWT

  • Charlie says:

    I find that a big source of grunge is wet braking on Al rims. Solutions: hub brakes, ceramic rims, or disk brakes. Of those, ceramic rims are least well known but are wonderful: last forever, work well when wet, and produce much less grime.

 
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