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Ultimate Bicycle Cleaning and Maintenance 101


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Welcome to Bicycle Cleaning and Maintenance 101. The following steps are what I consider my “weekly” and “monthly” cleaning or maintenance.

Of course, how often you clean your bike will depend upon how much mileage you put on your bicycle. The weekly clean-up represents perhaps 150 + miles of cycling per week. If you are not covering that much mileage in a week, than you can perform this maintenance once per month.

Before I go on, let me say, you do not need to purchase a bike stand. A bike stand will make things easier, and I do suggest you consider the purchase if you plan on sticking with this sport or at the very least, you continue cycling. Some folks will use their stationary trainer when performing cleaning or maintenance on their bikes.

  ** Steps 7 and 8 are part of my “monthly” tune-up. I recommend this as a once a month performance once a month, especially in the summer months.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I also suggest you put on some old clothes and even some protective eyewear. When using the toothbrush to scrub various parts, there will be some spray back of the degreaser so protect your eyes.

Typical Areas of Dirt, Grime and Rust Build-up on Your Bicycle

Below are the typical areas of the bicycle where dirt and grime will build up over time. Wet or damp roads, salt from coastal areas and sweat all contribute to the build up of dirt, grime and even rust. And taking 30-45 minutes once every week or two (depending on how much mileage your ride during a week), to clean your bicycle will add years to the life of your “machine!”

I also included a picture of the headset and stem bolt. Because triathletes spend so much time in the aero position, sweat can and will drip on these components and seep down into the handlebar stem as well. I have seen handlebar stems frozen in place due to rust because of the sweat factor.

Necessary Tools and Supplies for Cleaning Your Bicycle

Below are the basic tools and supplies needed for your weekly and monthly tune-up. None of the items are very expensive.

The Chain Cleaner is probably the most expensive and will cost around $25. But the initial investment will pay for itself within the first month or two. Furthermore, the supplies will last a long time. I have had my Chain Cleaner for almost 8 years now and it is still working fine!

The Tri-flow and bike grease will also last you years. The remaining supplies can be found in any hardware/ grocery/ automotive store or around the home!

1. Chain Cleaner – This is a Park Chain Cleaner and can be found in most cycling catalogs.  There are other excellent models on the market as well. It will be the most expensive supply in which you will have to invest but it is well worth the money for it will provide years of service.

2. Degreaser – Get a good degreaser. There are several excellent degreasers on the market. Degreasers can be found at auto parts shops as well as bike shops/catalogs. Get on that is biodegradable.

3. Waterproof Grease – I recommend a good waterproof grease. I have Phil Woods for years. There are others on the market.

4. 5mm Hex Wrench – A 5mm Hex should fit the bolts we will be referring to in this maintenance plan.

5. Teflon Spray – A good Teflon spray is necessary and can be found at most bike shops. We recommend Finish Line Dry Bike Lubricant.

6. Plastic container, old rags and a few old toothbrushes

Cleaning the Bicycle Chain

The first step in you weekly bicycle maintenance routine is cleaning the chain. Many bike shops will completely remove the chain and let it soak in a vat of degreaser while working on the bike. And there is nothing wrong with that. However, there is no real need to remove the chain with the chain cleaners available today.

1. Start out by filling the chain cleaner with degreaser (photo 1). This particular chain cleaner is a two part system with a top and bottom portion. The top portion holds the degreaser. The bottom portion contains the build in cleaning brushes and stores the leftover degreaser.

2. Attach the chain cleaner to the chain and lock into place. (photo 2). Whatever model chain cleaner you purchase, directions will be provided.

3. (Photo 3) Take the cleaner with your left hand. This particular model has a small black button on top that when depressed, releases the degreaser so as to clean the chain. Take the pedal with your right hand. Begin turning the pedal and crank arm counter clockwise and with your left hand, push the black button on top of the chain cleaner. To help the flow of degreaser, keep the cleaner as level as possible.

4. Follow this procedure until the all the fresh liquid is used. Remove the chain cleaner and pour the remains into a container. Then take an old rag and take hold of the chain while turning the pedals counterclockwise again. This will help remove any excess dirt and liquid.

5. Refill the container as in step 1 and perform steps 2- 4 two more times. You will notice by the third or fourth time, a froth develop. This means that chain is pretty darn clean! Take a rag and wipe off any excess.

Cleaning the Bicycle Wheels and Rear Cassette/Freewheel

After cleaning the chain, I then move to the back of the bike to clean the rear wheel and rear cassette/freewheel. This does require that you remove the wheel. And you want to perform this step AFTER cleaning the chain because dirt and grime from cleaning the chain will make its way down to the cassette/freewheel.

NOTE: With the exception of the rear cassette/freewheel, you will perform the same steps on the front wheel as well. If your cassette/freewheel was gunked up with dirt, the shifting may be off just a bit once it is clean. Therefore, after completing the bike clean-up, practice shifting the gears and adjust if necessary.

1. After cleaning the chain, I then move to the back of the bike and begin cleaning the wheel and cassette/freewheel. To do this, it is best to remove the rear wheel. And you find it much easier to remove if you remove the chain from the chain ring. First make sure the chain is shifted down to the small ring of the front crank system.

Then take your index finger wrapped with a cloth (photo 1) and start at the bottom of the chain ring. Place your finger between the chain and chain ring, pulling down on the chain just a bit so the chain is about a half inch off the ring.

Then, run your finger along the chain, while slowly guiding the chain to the inside (photo 2). Then drop the chain to the inside of the chain ring, resting it on the bottom bracket tube (photo 3). This will release the tension of the chain and allow you to pop off the back wheel.

2. Fill you plastic container with some degreaser (photo 4). Grab your toothbrush, your container, your rear wheel and an old t-shirt or rag to lay across your lap. Find a comfortable place to sit and get ready to clean that wheel! (photo 5)

3. Once the rear wheel is removed, remove the skewer. (photo 6). It is fairly simple. Just unscrew one end. Once removed, loot at the springs to see if there is a build up of dirt/grime. If there is, drop them in your container filled with degreaser to soak while you clean. If the springs are clean, then reattach the skewer so you do not loose any of the parts and put it off to the side (photo 7).

4. As mentioned in step 2, lay a cloth or old t-shirt across your lap to keep the grease and grime from getting all over you. Dip your toothbrush into the container and begin scrubbing away at the cogs of the cassette. Make sure to get in between the teeth. Be liberal by keeping the brush wet and clean (photo 8).

5. Once you have given the cassette a good cleaning with the toothbrush, take a rag and make a fold pulling tight enough to slip the fold in between each cog (photo 9).

Now, the cassette will only move in one direction. So, once the rag is between the cogs, turn the cassette with the rag then drag the folded cloth backwards cleaning a small portion of the gap. Continue the back and forth motion (similar to a ratchet wrench) until you complete the circumference.

Then drop down to the next gap. Do this until you have cleaned between all the cogs. Repeat this step by folding the cloth in a new spot, apply some grease directly on the fold and run through each gap again. This will pick up any loose dirt and grime (photo 10)

6. After cleaning the cassette, take the rag adn wipe down the hub (photo 11)

7. Clean the spoke nipples. Dip the toothbrush into your container of degreaser and scrub the spoke nipples. The spoke nipples are usually neglected and shouldn’t be. If ever you have a loose spoke, it is important to be able to tighten it. If your spoke nipple is rusted or oxidized, you will not be able to adjust it. After cleaning the spoke nipples, wipe down the hubs and spokes (photo 12).

8. Finally, shoot a little Teflon spray in the shoot of the hub before putting skewer back on the wheel (photo 13).

Cleaning the Rear and Front Derailleur

Next we move to the rear and front derailleur to remove any excess dirt and grime. This step is fairly simple but a very important one. These two components of the bicycle attract a great deal of dirt and grime so keep them clean and smooth running is a must.

1. Rear Derailleur – Nothing scientific about this step. Simply get out the toothbrush, dip it in your container of degreaser and begin scrubbing away at the rear derailleur. The main area of build up will probably be the pulleys (two small toothed rings in the derailleur). Get your rag and dry the derailleur and pulleys. Try to get in all the nooks and crannies. And make sure you wipe down the pulleys. This will be hard to dry so use some ingenuity with rag. Its doable!

2. Front Derailleur (not pictured)- Follow the steps as you would with the rear. You will not have pulleys to clean, but you will have to get into some tight corners. So do the best you can.

IMPORTANT: Once you have finished cleaning both derailleurs, shoot some Teflon spray on the springs and tight areas to help lubricate the system

Cleaning Your Bicycle Brakes: The Brake Calipers and Brake Pads

Cleaning and maintaining smooth working brakes is crucial for smooth stops and overall bicycle safety! Follow these steps for both the front and the rear brake system. Cleaning the brake system is a simple process but as I mentioned, is extremely important! It is best to remove both wheels to perform this step

1) Dip your toothbrush in your degreaser and scrub away! With the wheels removed, pinch the break pads together to get to expose the difficult-to-reach areas.

2) Also scrub the pads. There will be dirt between the treads of the pads.

3) Certain parts of the calipers have been known to attract rust such as the adjusting screw and exposed cable. We will go over care for the exposed cables later.

Cleaning the Bicycle Crankset or Crank System

The crankset of crank system is a major dirt “magnet” and keeping it clean is necessary for maintaining a smooth pedaling bicycle and is a key step in your weekly/monthly maintenance.

However, it is important to note, you do not have to remove the entire crankset from the bottom bracket each time you clean. By removing the chainrings, you can access those “hard to get” areas much easier. And you do not have to remove the chainrings each time you clean. How many miles you cover on your bike will determine how specific you get in the cleaning process.

Regardless, I think it is important to clean your crank system once a week to twice a month. Typically, I will keep the chain rings on for my weekly cleaning and remove them for my monthly cleaning.

1. Take the 5mm Hex wrench and remove the chain ring bolts (photo 1). Grab a hold of the pedal for leverage. There are two parts the chain ring bolts. After unscrewing the front, you need to remove the other located at the back of the small chainring. After removing the chainring bolts, let them soak in a small container of your degreaser while you continue. When removing these bolts, TAKE YOUR TIME! Be careful of your knuckles when unscrewing these bolts. The sudden loosening of a bolt could find your knuckles/hand becoming one with the teeth of the chain ring…and believe me…the chainring teeth WILL cut you up.

2. After removing the screws, line up the right side of the crank system with the right crank arm pointing straight down (12 and 6 o’clock). (Photo 2) You will notice two numbers located on the chainrings at the 12 o’clock point. These numbers represent the number of teeth on the each chainring. These are important to remember upon putting the chainring back together. They must be facing you. Some larger rings will also have a pin on one end (Photo 2) that lines up directly behind the right crank arm at the 6 o’clock point. Once removed, you scrub away on the chaingrings!

3. Remove the chainring. First remove the big ring from the front (Photo 4) the remove the smaller ring from behind the crank system.

4. You will now have access to your chain. (Photo 6) Simply take the chain and lift it around the crank arm so you can now access the bottom bracket tube. (Photo 7 & 9). Dip the toothbrush into the solution and begin scrubbing. And don’t forget the underside as well. (Photo 8) This area is often neglected and is a dirt magnet.

5. And while you are at it, clean your pedals! (Photo 10)For some pedals, the build up of dirt and grime will actually comprise the fit of the cleat as well as the float.

Now Lets Put it all Back Together

Important: Before putting the chainrings back on the crank arm, lift the chain back over the crank so it is inside the crank arm and resting on the bottom bracket tube.

1. When putting the chain rings back on, begin with the small ring first. While facing the chain ring, fit the small ring from behind. Make sure the number on the ring (39 or 42) is facing you. Then replace the large ring from the front with the number facing you (53, 56, etc) Both should fit snug in their respective positions. Also make sure the pin or dimple on the larger ring is lined up with the crank arm.

2. Attach the screws, making sure the holes line up. They should tighten down on their own.

Cleaning the Exposed Cables on Your Bicycle

Cleaning and maintaining any and all exposed cables on your bicycle is another one of those minimal tasks that if neglected, can cause problems in the future.

Much will depend on the geographic area or climate where you live and ride. In warmer climates with high humidity, rust can appear on your cables in as quickly as a week. Combine that with the “sweat” factor and problems could develop rather quickly. Now, this won’t affect some of your newer bikes with internal cable routing.

However, you will have exposed cables on your brakes and your front and rear derailleur. I have seen these cables snap because of rust brought about by neglect. The process takes about two minutes of your time so take the time and add some protection.

1. This is one reason I like to use a water proof grease. Phil Woods is my favorite, but there are others. This is also something that you will want to do every week no matter what, even if you do not perform a total bike clean-up. It is not full-proof but it will help.

2. Prior to this step, you will want to remove any existing dirt or rust from the cables. This can be as simple as wiping down the cables with a cloth doused with some degreaser. If there is too much rust, you have to use other means. I do not recommend using sandpaper to remove the rust. If the cables are in poor condition, it would be easier to replace them. Cable only costs a few bucks. Otherwise, use bronze wool (which you can pick up at any hardware store) and some naval jelly (again at any hardware or boating store) to remove the rust. Use gloves as well.

3. After cleaning the cables, put a little grease between your fingers (photo 1) and run your fingers along all exposed cable (photo 2). This will put a light film along the cable and help ward off moisture until your next cleaning.

Cleaning the Bicycle Seat Post

Maintaining your seat post does not require you to clean each time you ride or even once a week. However, if you are riding several times a week, it is a good idea to remove it and clean it once a month. I have seen seat posts frozen in the seat tube because of rust and corrosion.

You may not realize it, but it is a definite sweat magnet. And sweat = rust on certain parts of the bike depending on the material used. Obviously, during the summer month’s this will warrant keeping an eye on things.

However, if you are spending time on the stationary trainer during the winter months, the sweat factor is very real.

1. To check for any rust build-up, remove your seat post. Before you do so, mark your spot with tape. I have chosen a blue masking tape for visibility reasons. This tape will not hold. I normally use black electrical tape.

2. After loosening the seat post binder bolt, pull out the post. Wipe it down with your rag. You will probably notice the copper color of rust on the rag. After wiping it down, cover the post with grease below your mark.

3. Then slip the post back down the seat tube and tighten the binder bolt. There will be some grease that will gather at the top edge of the seat tube. Just wipe it off.

Cleaning the Handlebar Stem and Headset of Your Bicycle

This is another step that I suggest you do once a month. Even more so than the seat post. This area is another victim of body sweat! Especially for a triathlete riding in the aero position.

This is a photo of a traditional handlebar stem or quill stem. However, today’s newer ahead stems will also be subject to rust and corrosion.

ONE POSITIVE NOTE: Because today’s ahead stems basically “wrap” around the fork post, you do not have to remove the stem for cleaning. If you have an older quill stem your brake cables may be routed in such a way that it will be difficult to remove your handlebar stem. Especially a traditional stem. If this is the case, I suggest you consult your local bike shop to ask them what they would do.

1. Like your seat post, mark your spot with some tape before removing the stem. On a traditional quill stem, begin by loosening the stem bolt. This will require a large Hex wrench.

2. Once the bolt is loose, you should be able to lift the seat post up and out.

3. Wipe the stem post with a rag. Then cover the post with grease below your tape mark. Slide the stem back into place. Grease will gather at the top of the head set. With your finger, draw a bead of the left over grease around the stem covering the corner between the stem and headset. This again will help ward off future moisture until your next cleaning.

4. Just as you did with the exposed cables, put a little grease between your fingers and wipe on your head set just enough to put on a light film. No need to be liberal. Again, just a preventative means to help ward off moisture. Every little bit helps!

Final Cleanup of Your Bicycle

At this point, just get your rag and finish wiping down your bike, removing any smudges, dirt spots, etc. This won’t take but a couple of minutes.

Initially, this basic clean-up may a while. However, once you it becomes habit, it should only take about 45 minutes to an hours. A step that could save you $40 bucks next time your bike needs cleaning. I like to perform my maintenance once a week on a Sunday after my long ride.

Put on your favorite music, some old clothing and knock it out! Good luck.

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