Dec 9, 2010

Keeping your bicycle clean: why and how.

On one of the first rides I ever did with the morning group here in San Francisco, Ken asked me, "Is that a new bike?" "No," I said, "why do you ask?" "It looks so clean," he said.

Right there I knew I was doing something right. My usual practice is to wash my bike once a week. Some people clean theirs even more often, while others don't even think of washing their bike until they can use a chisel to chip the grime away. There are a few reasons for keeping your bike clean.

You can often spot trouble spots before going out on the road. Washing your bike implies that you will take a rag and wipe the entire frame of your bike, including wheels, derailleurs and whatever other bits may be attached to your rig. This gives you an opportunity to look over your frame, check for cracks, make sure your derailleur hanger is properly aligned and address any irregularities you may find. Once, I was washing my bike and noticed that my seat clamp was at a somewhat odd angle. When I started to unscrew the bolt to realign it, I discovered that somehow, at some point, the bolt snapped and the only reason the seat post wasn't sliding down was because the angle of the seat clamp wedged it in place. Well, this was a disaster waiting to happen - the last thing you want is for your seat post to disappear under you as you're climbing up that big hill, or sprinting for the finish line.

The other major reason to wash your bike is out of courtesy to your fellow riders. Now, if you always ride alone, then this doesn't really apply. However, most bikers jump into a group ride with at least some regularity. Whenever I see someone I don't know well show up at a group ride with a filthy bike, I immediately think, "I wonder how many undetected problems that bike has and in how many ways can it possibly fail?" That bike is not the wheel I want to stay on during a ride. In fact, that will be the bike and rider I will stay the farthest from. Coming to a group ride with a filthy bike implies that its owner doesn't care for it very well and may be putting members of the group in danger. 

Regular bike maintenance takes considerably less time than very infrequent maintenance. Washing my bike every week takes about 30 minutes. If I let my bike go uncleaned for over a month, it could take well over two hours to scrub the grease and grime from all the parts and re-lubricate. Here are some "how to" tips.

Wash your chain first, before you do anything else. Shift your chain to somewhere in the middle of the cassette, take a rag and spray the rag with an aerosol degreaser (pictured below). Then grip the chain with the rag and rotate your pedals backwards. This should get most of the dirt off the chain. If, however, you haven't bothered to wash your chain in a while, you may need to resort to a chain-wash tool to clean out the built up dirt in the links. 

This is typically what I use to get most of the dirt off the chain. Can be found in your local bike shop.
Chain cleaning tool. There are several of these on the market.
 After you've washed the chain, you will want to remove both wheels. Take the rear wheel and center it on a wash bucket or over a laundry sink, or simply lay it on the ground. Then spray the cassette with the citrus degreaser and let it sit while you're working on getting the rest of your bike clean. 
Don't be afraid to be generous with the spray.
There are two schools of thought on washing your frame: one involves a spray bottle with some mild degreaser solution, the other involves a garden hose. Often, the garden hose approach saves you time in getting the most of the bike clean in the shortest amount of time, but it actually ends up taking longer. If you opt for hosing down your bike, make sure to wipe it down and use light lube to lubricate all the joints and bolts to prevent rust. 

Personally, I prefer the "spray bottle and rag" approach. Spray the area you intend to clean next, clean it and move on. For small parts like derailleurs, just spray the rag and give them a good wipe down. On the rear derailleur, make sure to remove the built up dirt from the pulleys. Don't be afraid to really scrub your handlebar tape - it's designed to be cleaned and if it was applied correctly, shouldn't move anywhere during the cleaning process.

Don't neglect your brakes and brake pads, they accumulate a lot of brake dust, not to mention they are first on the receiving end of whatever your wheel rides through. Once a month, I suggest taking a small piece of fine sand paper, or a nail file, and giving your brake pads a rub. This will soften up the surface, improve braking and prevent that brake noise that always irritates the ears of everyone around. 

A few seconds on each side is all you really need.
The question I get asked the most about cleaning is "How do you clean your cassette?" Well, I clean my cassette the same way I clean my teeth - flossing. While you've been doing all the cleaning described above, your cassette has been sitting there, soaking in citrus degreaser. Now, it's time to wash it. Stand the wheel up and lean it against your body with the cassette looking away from you. Then, with a cloth,  get in between all the cogs and floss the dirt away. Your cassette should come out looking nice and shiny. 

Flossing the cassette.
The final step is washing your wheels and tires. Wash your rims and spokes, checking for any stressed spokes or any cracks at the rim or the hub. If you detect cracks in either, don't ride the wheel, it won't lead to anything good. You may be wondering why you should wash your tires - they're just going to be in contact with the ground again. The main reason is to inspect the tire for cuts and embedded objects, like small sharp pebbles and glass. Generally, small cuts on the tire are normal and won't lead to any trouble on the road; however, if you see that the cut is very deep and wide, it may be time to kiss that tire goodbye. With regard to small objects, pick them out with a small flathead screwdriver, or another sharp metal object - just make sure not to damage the tire any further. If something is really stuck in the tire, deflate it and you should be able to squeeze it out like a pimple.

Finally, put the wheels back on the bike and lube the chain. Remember, you just took all the grease off, so it's important to relube to prevent rust. Because the cassette has also just been degreased, I like to shift my chain through all the gears a couple times just to make sure some of the fresh lube from the chain ends up on the cassette.

Have a question about cleaning your bike? Post it in the comments section and I'll get to it as soon as I can.

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