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The Compulsive Soul's Guide to Cleaning the Bicycle

By Douglas A. Rogers

It is said that a clean car does not necessarily run better. This logic does not apply to a bike.

Drive train components aren't safely hidden behind seals and cases, as is the case with cars, but are open to the vicissitudes of Mother Nature and the roadways. They must remain clean and properly lubricated to ensure long life and efficiency — a clean bike is a fast bike.

Bike Chains
We'll start with the component that has the most moving parts, the chain. You do not need one of those fancy chain cleaners made by Park or Finish Line. Sure, they work, but your chain does not require one of these devices in order to be properly cleaned.

There is only one catch in this cheaper solution: if you have a Shimano or Campagnolo chain, you will want to replace it with either a Wippermann or Sachs chain. These chains have an easily replaceable master-link that allows you to remove the entire chain easily without much fuss. Also, these chains do not require expensive pins to remount the chain onto the drive train.

The Wippermann chain in stainless steel is especially nice as the metal is corrosion-proof. This characteristic, however, does not preclude proper cleaning and lubrication. Consult your local bike shop for proper installation of new chain. If the chain and cassette are old enough, you may want to replace the whole set.

After removing chain from the bicycle, put the chain into a butter tub and saturate with self-cleaning lube. If the chain is extremely dirty, use a degreaser (like Simple Green) and a toothbrush to brush off all the buried dirt and debris.

After rinsing and drying thoroughly, start to soak the chain in self-cleaning lube. I like to agitate the chain in the butter tub, then wipe it thoroughly using a rag. Wipe several times.

Doing this after every wet/dirty ride will ensure that your chain is easy to clean and stays well-lubricated. This also prevents lubricant from dripping all over the floor. Clean your butter tub with degreaser afterward.

(For more information on chain-cleaning, see this article on Slowtwitch.)

Spray a toothbrush with degreaser, then brush thoroughly. Make sure you get every nook and cranny. I do not advocate spraying directly onto the cassette as over spray can creep into bearings and dilute the grease. Let degreaser soak for a minute or two. Rinse thoroughly, taking care not to use too much water pressure.

Clean the wheels with a sponge, regular dishwashing detergent and water. With your sponge, clean the tires, then rims, then in the spokes and the hub. Do not get detergent onto the bearing seals. Rinse thoroughly, using the same method suggested on cleaning cassettes.

Dry off the wheel and tire. On the rear wheel, take a thin rag (like a pair of old underpants) and rub it in the space between the cogs. This will ensure that the cogs are clean.

Chain rings
Remove them from the crank (you may need a special inexpensive wrench to remove the chain-ring bolts; ask your local bike shop), put them into a sink, bolts and all. Spray degreaser onto all of the surfaces. Brush thoroughly, let soak for a minute or so. Rinse thoroughly and either allow to drip-dry or dry with towel.

One note on steel chain ring bolts: Dry immediately and apply your favorite grease to the threads and on a thin layer to the other surfaces of the bolts. If unsure of the grease to use, consult the mechanic who usually does your bike repairs.

This is where the most help is needed. I have seen many Cannondale Headshoks need an expensive bearing replacement after an overzealous rider decided to use a pressure-washer or run the bike through the car wash. Tri bikes don't generally get quite as dirty, but if there's a rainy race with a bit of mud on the street, the bike can look quite nasty.

With chain still off of the bike, look over the drive train. If the rear derailleur's pulleys leave a spot of dark grease on a rag, it is a good indication that the pulleys need to be cleaned. There will most likely be a crusty dirt/lubricant hybrid on the cage of the front derailleur, as well as a lot of gunk on the brakes.

On the pulleys
Spray degreaser onto the toothbrush as described in the paragraph covering cassette cleaning. Brush thoroughly, avoiding the bearing of the pulleys. You can also clean the cage, but be careful of the pulley bearings.

Then, you should clean any other place on the bike that has crusty dirt with degreaser and toothbrush. If the front brake looks bad enough, remove the front brake to make sure and clean the area of the fork that is covered by the front brake.

With your cup of dishwashing detergent and water solution, clean the bike from the saddle down. This includes bar tape, as well. You do not want to get into the greasy parts of the bike until last, as the grease can get onto your saddle and bar tape. Avoid the headset and bottom bracket bearings. On a sealed headset, you can gingerly clean the cups, just avoid the openings and wipe with clean rag immediately.

Rinse the bike thoroughly, using minimal pressure. Avoid water pressure on the bearings, but do rinse the cups if there are suds in that area. Rinse from the top down.

Dry the frame and components thoroughly, using an old towel.

After you dry the bike thoroughly, inspect the frame for any chips in the paint. This is also a good time to inspect any of the joining areas for cracking. A clean bike does not hide cracks in the frame.

If you find any paint chips, there are two ways to fill them.

If the chip only shows grey: After cleaning area with lint-free cloth and rubbing alcohol, use well-shaken (according to manufacturer's directions) touch-up paint (supplied from painter, bike manufacturer, auto parts store, or stash of nail polishes) sparingly, applying thin coats. One to three coats is all that is needed. If you want, use clear coat, as well.

If the chip goes to bare metal or other material: If you see rust, sand the area of the chip until metal is shiny. You can feather into surrounding paint, but chips on bikes are usually small. Clean area with rubbing alcohol first. Use well-shaken primer, usually one coat. This dries pretty quickly. Then apply one to three coats of desired touch-up paint; allow to dry, then clear coat if desired.

On clear-coated carbon fiber: sand with high-grit (400-600) sandpaper, feathering edges of clear coat and rendering it smooth. Clean area to be repaired with acetone or rubbing alcohol. Then mix a small amount of clear household epoxy according to manufacturer's directions. Apply the mixed epoxy into the area that is scratched only, and feather into the old clear coat. This will help, but not completely even out the surface, as well as help with the UV protection.

Allow to dry completely (overnight), or keep covered until the other steps in reassembling the bike are done. I would only suggest wet sanding completely cured epoxy (three or more days) for the brave and completely experienced.

With wet or dry lube, drip lubricant onto every conceivable pivot point of the changers, brakes, shifters, etc. Make sure the springs are lubed, as well. Wipe off any excess with clean rag.

Many bolts for brake mounting are made of a durable, but easily rusting steel. These should be lightly greased with a good bicycle grease.

Aluminum seat posts in metal bikes ought to be removed and greased. It is very important to clean the inside of the seat tube with a rag, inserting in, then pulling the rag out with a twist. While you're at it, re-grease the bolt for the seat-post collar.

Carbon seat posts should not be greased, but the inside of the seat tube should stay clean, as the seat tube can cold-weld carbon as well as it can aluminum. Just make sure it stays clean inside.

If you have a steel-frame bike, a very important step is the use of J.P. Weigle's Frame Saver. This $10 - $15 can of liquid gold is IMPERATIVE for the life of any steel bike. Cover up the vent holes of your freshly cleaned steed and make sure to wipe the excess from your uncovered vent holes. The frame will stay clean if you wipe immediately.

Make sure to lube any exposed cables, even if they're made of stainless steel. This ensures clean, rust-free cables.

Install chain onto bike after wiping once again. Make sure to wipe any excess lubes or grease from any surfaces that you have lubed.

When reassembling the chain wheels onto the crankset, make sure to grease the threads on the chain ring bolts. This is as imperative on both steel and aluminum bolts. The thin coat of grease on the bolts described in the paragraph pertaining to them is not necessary on aluminum chain ring bolts, but necessity on steel ones.

Any bolts you have removed must be greased before reinserting. Wipe excess grease from surfaces after tightening.

Install the wheels, and admire your handiwork.

This article originally appeared on the online triathlon journal Douglas A. Rogers can be reached at

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