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Giving your trusty steed a relaxing spa day once in a while is one of the best ways to extend the life of your bike and all its components. And while there’s certainly a time and a place for them, you don’t need a ton of specialized tools or fancy cleaners. In fact, for your average scrub-down, all you’ll need is a few simple things you likely already have lying around the house.

How often should you wash your bike?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how often you should wash your bike, other than “when it gets dirty.” Of course you’ll want to give your bike a bath after a muddy ride, as caked-on dirt and grime can gum up your drivetrain—and the longer you wait, the harder it becomes to remove. But even if you’re riding in dry conditions, dust can build up on your frame, components, and suspension after a few weeks of regular use, basically acting like sandpaper as leftover grit works its way into everything.

Side note: if you ride a bike with suspension, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of at least wiping down the stanchions on your fork and rear shock after every ride. This prevents dust and dirt from building up on the seals and helps extend the time between service intervals.

What You’ll Need

  • A hose with a low-pressure spray nozzle (you can also use a watering can)

  • A bucket of soapy water

  • Rags or sponges - one for your frame, and another for your drivetrain

  • Soft-bristled brush - an old toothbrush works great

  • Your chain lube of choice

  • Rubbing alcohol, if you have disc brakes

Step 1: Get Your Bike Dirty

This is the really fun part, because it involves riding your bike. And this step will pretty much take care of itself, particularly early in the season when upper-elevation trails are still in the process of drying out. However, it’s worth mentioning that if your bike is getting REALLY muddy, and your tires are picking up muck on more than just the knobs, you should probably turn around and find another trail. Riding muddy trails can leave damage that’s difficult to repair, especially if your local trails have lots of clay in the soil. If you’re not quite sure about when your area’s trails are good to go, check with your local shop or trail-building association.

Step 2: Pre-Rinse

Once your bike is nice and dirty, it’s time for a bath. But you don’t want to go to your local car wash and start blasting your two-wheeled baby with a high-powered jet of water. Using a hose is totally fine, but treat it like a first date—keep things low-pressure. Give your bike a top-to-bottom rinse to loosen up any old dirt, mud, and grease. You’ll want to avoid spraying water directly into your hubs, headset, frame pivots, and bottom bracket, as doing so can flush out the grease that’s needed to keep these bits running smoothly. If you don’t have access to a garden hose, a watering can be a good substitute.

Step 3: Scrub-A-Dub-Dub

After a nice pre-soak, you can go to work with your bucket of soapy water. Make sure to use separate sponges or brushes for your frame and your drivetrain or other extra-dirty bits, to avoid transferring that grease and grime to the rest of your bike. Hold a sponge or brush against your chain and derailleur pulley while pedaling backward to clean out caked-on grease and gunk. If your drivetrain is REALLY gummed up, you can use a special bike-specific degreaser spray, though you should only need to do this once every several washes. (Be careful not to overspray any onto your brake pads or rotors.)

Step 4: Rinse

Once you’re satisfied with your scrubbage, use the same low-pressure stream of water to rinse off your entire bike from the top down. You’ll want to make sure you remove any soapy residue from your frame and components, as well as thoroughly rinsing off any degreaser you may have used.

Step 5: Dry

Flip your bike upside down or give it a few bounces to shake off any excess water. Leave it in the sun to air dry—or if that’s not happening within a few minutes, use some clean rags to wipe it dry. Pay special attention to areas like your chain, cassette, and suspension pivot bolts, which tend to hold water. (Just like you did while scrubbing, use separate rags for your drivetrain and your frame.)

Step 6: Lube Your Chain

Your now-clean drivetrain is ready for a fresh coat of your favorite chain lube. Shake your bottle of chain lube vigorously, then apply it to each link in your chain while slowly backpedaling at least a half-dozen rotations or so. It’s important to coat the entire length of the chain evenly. Wait at least 5 minutes or so to allow the lube to soak in, before wiping away the excess with a shop rag, turning the pedals backward just like you did during application.

Step 7: Clean Your Rotors

Ever heard another rider coming down the trail with their brakes squealing and howling like a werewolf B-movie? Chances are, their bike had contaminated brake pads, which is not only noisy as hell, it can also significantly reduce stopping power. For all their incredible features, disc brakes can be a little finicky when it comes to foreign substances like chain lube and degreaser. To avoid contamination, make sure to avoid squeezing your brake levers while cleaning your bike. At the end of your bike’s spa day, cleaning your rotors with a clean rag and some rubbing alcohol is a good idea, as it will remove anything left over on your rotors that could cause your brake pads to become contaminated.

Step 8: Do It All Again

Repeat Step 1, and work your way back down the list. It’s a dirty, beautiful cycle (no pun intended.)

For other tips on how to clean and care for your bike go here and here and here. And before you head out for the first ride of the season don't forget the six things to check before you head out the door. A clean well maintained bike is a happy bike.

TJ Parsons is a semi-reformed snowboard bum who now has a semi-adult career as a professional writer and creative. He's a self-proclaimed perpetual intermediate who thinks the outdoors are for everyone, and who wants to help dismantle gatekeeping and elitism in outdoor sports. When he's not squeezing brain juice into a keyboard, you'll find him riding boards or bikes throughout the Intermountain West.

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