Your commuter bike doesn't have to be immaculate. It just has to work properly and not get dirt onto your clothes or, if it lives indoors, any internal flooring. Minimise the cleaning you have to do by fitting full-length frame-fitting mudguards. They help keep the bike clean as well as you. A chainguard that covers at least the top run of chain will keep the drivetrain cleaner, while a full chaincase all but eliminates the need for chain care.
When to clean your bike
When you have to! This will vary massively depending on usage. A mountain bike might need cleaning after every off-road ride; a road-going hub-gear hybrid might go months between washes.
The two key areas are the tyres and the chain. Anything offensive on the tyres needs cleaning off before it flicks off onto you or gets tracked in somewhere.
Whenever your bike has been ridden or parked in persistent rain, spray the chain with a water-displacing lubricant such as WD40 or GT85. This will prevent rust and help reduce the build-up of grime. How grimy should your chain get before you clean it properly? For a derailleur bike: when you can't read the words stamped on the chain links. For a hub gear or singlespeed bike: when the chain won't back-pedal smoothly and quietly.
What you'll need
Choose an outside space near to a drain, with a surface that can be sluiced clean.
- Big soft brush
- Small stiff brush (e.g. washing-up brush or old toothbrush)
- Chain brushes (two nailbrushes or a dedicated chain cleaning device)
- Car shampoo or mild detergent
- A few sheets of newspaper
- Spray lube (WD40, GT85, etc)
- Chain oil
- Spray-on bike cleaner
- Claw-style bike brush
- Nitrile gloves to keep your hands clean
- Disc brake cleaning spray
- Silicone spray for suspension
Washing the bike
Wash your bike from the top down to prevent having to clean stuff twice. Bike cleaning spray isn't required, although it does help shift dried-on muck. If you use it, it goes on first: spray liberally, then wait a few minutes.
Fill your bucket with water; hot is best, cold is okay. Mix in your preferred bike wash to get some suds. Cheap car shampoo or washing-up liquid works fine. Some contain salt but it's a tiny amount when mixed with a couple of gallons of water. You won't turn your bike into rust.
Using your big soft brush, wash anything that needs cleaning – frame, fork, shocks, controls, tyres, rims, brakes, etc – but NOT the drivetrain. You don't want to smear oily grime over the rest of your bike. Rinse the suds off with clean water. If you use a hose, don't squirt water directly at the hubs, bottom bracket, headset, or suspension seals.
Cleaning the drivetrain
Refill your bucket. Use your small stiff brush to scrub any dirt from clipless pedals and derailleurs. Now take stock of the chain. If it's covered with a congealed paste, you'll want to use degreaser. Apply it, then leave it to soak in for a few minutes.
Next – or first - clean any crud off the jockey wheels. Hold the scraper end of a claw-style bike brush against the side of the jockey wheel and pedal the cranks backwards by hand. The crud will peel off. Do both sides and both jockey wheels. (If you don't have a claw-style bike brush, a flat-bladed screwdriver will serve.) When you've got the worst off, repeat the procedure with a small stiff brush or nailbrush.
Scrape and brush the chainrings clean the same way. To clean the cassette, scrub with a small stiff brush or nailbrush. If there's dirt you can't get at between the sprockets, use a claw-style bike brush or a strip of rag held taut like dental floss
To clean the chain, hold your nailbrushes in one hand and clamp them around the lower run of chain. Clamp them top to bottom first, then side to side. Turn the cranks backward so the chain is drawn through your brushes. (A dedicated chain cleaner works much the same way and can be filled with degreaser.) Once done, rinse off.
Now take a sheet or two of newspaper and place it behind and under the lower run of chain, so it lies on the ground and against the side of the rear wheel. Spray your water-displacing lubricant down onto the lower run of chain. Hold the can steady and backpedal by hand. If the chain has a special joining link, start and end there to ensure each link is covered. Let it drip for a couple of minutes, then wipe off any excess by backpedalling the chain through a rag/kitchen roll.
Using the same method, drip chain oil down onto each chain link. Leave it to soak in for a couple of minutes, then wipe off any excess.
If necessary, lightly oil the bike's other moving parts – e.g. the derailleur pivots, clipless pedal bindings, brake levers, shift levers, and cables – with the same spray lube as before. Use a rag/kitchen roll to prevent spray going where you don't want it… especially onto braking surfaces!
Spray lube can also be used to get rid of oily smudges on the frame. Spray a bit onto a rag/kitchen roll and polish the frame clean.
If your bike has suspension, spray the stanchions/rear shock lightly with silicone spray and work them up and down a few times. If your bike has disc brakes, spray the rotors with disc-brake cleaner, an alcohol-based fluid.
Leave the bike to drip dry over two or three sheets of newspaper. Sluice down your work area and wash your hands.
You're all done.
You don’t need to look like a racer for the journey to work. Normal clothing is fine – as long as your bike is properly equipped.
It’s colder, darker, and wetter, but cycling to work can still be the highlight of your day if you have the right equipment and attitude.
Spread the cycling message by logging your journeys and encouraging colleagues and friends to ride. There are prizes – and prestige – to be won.