5 Bicycle Cleaning Tips

Keep your bicycle in tip-top shape for a smooth ride.
Keep your bicycle in tip-top shape for a smooth ride.
Digital Vision/Thinkstock

When your ride has two wheels instead of four and runs on pedal power instead of gas power, to get where you need to go in style, you need to put some muscle into your mileage. Maintaining your vehicle so it looks good and rides well takes on a whole new meaning, too. Let's look at five bicycle cleaning tips that will keep your spokes whistling (or not), and your gears smooth and even. The beautiful thing about a bike is that it can give you a superior ride today and still be a keeper when your son (or daughter) is ready to roll -- without the training wheels.

Tools and Supplies

Bikes are all-weather vehicles that have lots of moving parts. They need to be cleaned regularly and maintained properly. That requires good tools. If you have the right tools on hand, you'll be more likely to use them as part of a regular cleaning program. Here are some suggestions for your toolbox and bike cleaning kit:

  • Lint free rags -- Soft cotton cloth works well, and finding good candidates in your rag bag shouldn't be difficult. Try old T-shirts and retired cotton towels. Wash a few and keep them in reserve.
  • Brushes -- Bicycles have lots of crevices that can harbor dried mud and grease. Having a variety of small brushes around to reach into tight corners will make bike cleaning day less frustrating. You can find car detailing brush kits on sale periodically that will work just fine -- or just save your old toothbrushes.
  • Cleaning solvent -- Invest in a quality bike cleaning solvent (degreaser) to remove grease from the bike chain and other moving parts that can accumulate gunk. Avoid some of the old standbys you may have in your garage like turpentine and kerosene. Newer formulations are just as effective at cleaning but much gentler on the environment. As long as you're going green with pedal power, do the job right.
  • Bike lubricant -- Bicycles require regular lubrication. Your bike's manufacturer will have some recommendations about how to lubricate the moving parts of your bike and may also have suggestions about what type of waterproof grease and bike oil you should use on their equipment in different riding conditions and weather extremes. If you still have it, read the maintenance instructions. You can also try visiting the manufacturer's Web site.
  • Bike multi-tool -- Bike multi-tools are available with all the basic tools you'll need to maintain and make minor adjustments to your bike. One nice thing about a multi-tool is that it's easy to take with you on rides for fast trailside repairs. And having everything in one handy location is neat and convenient, especially if you're prone to leaving your tools lying around. Tip: Make sure the tool you decide on is bike specific and includes a chain tool that will fit your bike's chain style.
Wash Your Bike Regularly
Just be sure your bike dries thoroughly to avoid rust.
Just be sure your bike dries thoroughly to avoid rust.

A clean bike will look better and last longer, too. Depending on where and how often you ride, your bike may be exposed to weather extremes, mud, chemical residues and road salt. Your first thought may be to let a pressure washer do the lion's share of the surface cleanup, but that's a bad idea. Pressure washers and even your garden hose at full capacity can force water into your bike's bearings, which is something you want to avoid. Grab a bucket of warm, soapy water, a cloth and a brush and give your bike some up close and personal attention. Have a plan, too, like working in sections from the back of the bike to the front. That way you won't miss anything.

You might also consider making drivetrain maintenance on your bicycle a little easier by investing in a chain cleaning system that works with the chain in place. You'll save time and might end up performing bike maintenance more frequently that way.

Lubricate Your Bike

After a good cleaning, lubricating your bike's chain and other components is a must. A little lubrication protects your bike's moving parts from damaging friction and oxidation. It's easy to use too much lube, though. Laying it on a little too thick can make a gooey mess that will attract dust, pollen and flying insects. Trapped particulates in that extra layer of lubricant can be abrasive and damage your bike, too. Oh, and when you're in the company of other cyclists, it can be pretty obvious and embarrassing when you've gone a little heavy on the lubricant. They don't call it grease for nothing.

A number of factors will have an impact on the type and amount of lubricant your bike components need. For example, if it's the rainy season in your area, lubricate your bike more frequently. If you live where it's arid and dusty, consider using a lightweight oil that will attract less dust and grit. There are a number of variables to keep in mind. If you're paying attention, you'll get better at responding to them with the right oil in the right quantity.

Lubricate these bicycle components regularly:

  • bike chain
  • brake cables and derailleur cables
  • brake and derailleur assemblies
  • bearing components
Check and Tighten Bolts
Loose bolts can equal disaster on the road.
Loose bolts can equal disaster on the road.

Bikes are made up of many parts that contain screws, nuts and bolts that can work loose over time. It's tempting to tighten everything with an extra tug or two before a ride to avoid squeaks and vibrations, but over-tightening your bike's parts can cause damage and reduce the life of your components. A better option is to check your bike before every ride and make tension adjustments in small increments. If you detect a wobble or rattle, tighten the bolts in that section of the bike at your next rest stop or when you get back home. This is another excellent reason why you should always carry a bike multi-tool as part of your bike gear.

Get a Tune-up Occasionally

Even if you clean and tweak your bicycle after every ride, have it checked by a professional bicycle mechanic once a year -- twice a year if you use it regularly on punishing terrain or on long trips. Although bicycles look simple, it can be difficult to diagnose problems in components like the derailleurs and cable systems. Taking this extra step will help identify small problems before they become big ones and ensure that your bike will be around for years of interesting daytrips -- and great exercise.


Quiz: Do I Really Have to Wash This?

Quiz: Do I Really Have to Wash This?

Take this HowStuffWorks quiz to find out your how your cleaning skills stack up.

Related Articles


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  • Fiske, Brian. "How to Wash Your Bike." Bicycling Magazine. (5/9/12). http://www.bicycling.com/maintenance/repair-maintenance/how-wash-your-bike
  • Instrutables. "Bicycle Cleaning." 2010. (5/9/12). http://www.instructables.com/id/Bicycle-Cleaning/
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