Have you heard the saying: “A clean bike is a happy bike”. If that is true, is your bike truly happy? Why should you bother cleaning it if everything is working just fine. Sure, the chain sounds a little squeaky and your tires might have a slow leak, but nothing a little dab of chain lube and a few pumps of the floor pump can’t fix. What about that slow speed crash you took as you descended down the hill? Or all of the mud puddles that you rode through? If your bike is covered in grime/ dirt/ mud/ drink mix that dripped out of your bottle/ etc., then it is time to clean your bike.
As the title of the post states, this is all about cleaning your cyclocross bike. Why did I pick to write about cleaning your CX bike and not a gravel or mountain bike? It’s because it is CX season and during no other time of the year am I washing my race bike every week to get it ready for the following weekend or even the next day of racing. The wear and tear that a CX bike goes through in one season is amazing when you consider the abuse it takes. There is the obvious mud that is always depicted in race scenes, but there are also races utilizing sand, gravel, snow, and even grass (the silent killer of rear derailleurs the world over). All of these things work their way into the small recesses of your equipment so even though you may not see them, they are destroying your bike from the inside, and you have no idea it is happening.
What I am proposing here is not an end of season tear down of the bike itself, but more like a mid-week/ post-race clean up job to get you going for next weekend or the next event. An end of the season tear down should be done when the season is complete and before you are ready to hang the bike on the hook until next year. Putting away a clean bike that is ready to race for next year is a nice feeling in that you can pull it down off the hook and other than checking brake fluid (if you are running DOT fluid brakes), putting fresh sealant in your tires and then pumping them up, you should be good to go.
With that in mind, after each race day, this is my process that I would like to share with you. I am sure there are other ways to do this and some of them might be better, but I know this works for me and I have full confidence in my bike the next time I am ready to go out and race.
The first thing is to have some of the essential tools for the job. In my case, those things are:
- Multiple brushes (different sizes and thicknesses depending on where and what you are cleaning)
- Dental pick (just like the one your dentist uses as it can get into the smallest of spaces to get that hard-to-reach grime)
- Pressure washer (My personal choice is the Muc-Off pressure washer as it comes with all the attachments and their soap solution is fantastic. Plus, the pressure washer nozzle is designed specifically for bikes, so you won’t blast the grease out of your bearings with water or soap)
- Portable repair stand to work outside (don’t do this in your house/ apartment as the pressure washer will make a mess…)
- Air compressor (blow out the water at the end of the cleaning job)
- Plenty of rags and microfiber towels
- Chain degreaser and chain lube + a chain cleaning tool
- Torque wrench
- Assembly Grease
I do recognize not everyone will have access to this equipment for a variety of reasons. When I first started cleaning my bike while I was living in NYC, I lived in an apartment building and had no access to a hose or bucket to wash the MTB after each race. As such, I used to disassemble my bike as best I could and go into the stairwell of my building with a dental pick and a brush and remove all of the dirt out of the components. I would then sweep up the dirt from the stairwell, lube my chain back in my apartment (the bike was too big to lube in the stairwell) and the bike was ready for the next event. Times have changed a bit since then, but the process of cleaning the bike remains the same.
After setting up my portable bike stand and getting the pressure washer hooked up and the air compressor turned on, I pull the wheels from the bike so that I can get behind the drivetrain when cleaning. If the bike was in a muddy race, I will use the brushes to knock off any dried-up dirt from the bike as the big clumps are pretty easy to knock off. From there, I will use the dental pick to really start getting into those hard-to-reach spots. Pedals are notorious for holding onto dirt and if you can’t clip in and out cleanly in a race, you run the risk of crashing and hurting yourself. Thus, it is important to clean your pedals and get all the dirt out of them. Shimano pedals have a lot of nooks and crannies for dirt to hide in, so the dental pick does a great job of really getting in there. Other good spots for the dental pick include your derailleurs (front and rear), as well as behind any exposed parts of bolts and even behind the crankset and in the chainrings. Don’t forget about the rear derailleur pulleys either as they are most likely clogged up with something that will prevent your drivetrain from running smoothly.
Once you have really gone over the bike with the brushes and the dental pick, it’s time to get the bike wet with either your pressure washer or a hose. If you are using a garden hose and it is adjustable, put it on the “shower” setting as the higher-pressure settings can knock the grease out of bearings. Rinse off the bike to get it fully wet and don’t forget to rinse off the wheels as well (both sides please). Now that everything is wet and if you are using the Muc-Off washer, switch out the gun attachment to the foam sprayer attachment and spray down the bike and the wheels. If there are any clumps of mud/ dirt/ etc. still stuck on the bike and looking like they won’t come off, use your brushes or fingers to knock it off while the bike is still soapy. Brush the area down again to get the residue off. By now you should be able to swap out the foam sprayer attachment for the water sprayer attachment and spray off the soap off the bike and the wheels. The Muc-Off solution does an excellent job of dissolving the dirt/ grime/ etc. while protecting the finish of the bike.
If you are using the garden hose concept, after you have sprayed down the bike and you have the Muc-Off solutions, spray the bike down with those bottles and let it sit before hosing it down. Before I started using Muc-Off, I would use my brushes with a bucket of water and some Dawn dishwashing detergent. It worked great and it was easy on the parts of the bike. After everything was soaped up, I would spray it down again to get it all off. The beauty of the pressure washer is that it saves a TON of time and is effective in getting out the dirt in some of those hard-to-reach spots.
Repeat the processes above with the wheels.
Once everything is sprayed down and the soap is all gone, I use the air compressor to blow the excess water off the bike. I take very special care to avoid any areas that have grease in them like bolts, derailleurs, bearings, etc. as the last thing you want to do is blow the grease out of those items. The air compressor does a great job of getting those little pools of water out of the recesses where they can hide and rust out parts that you are not paying attention to. I then use a combination of microfiber cloths and rags (old t-shirts work great) to dry everything down. Get into those small crevices with the rags and make sure everything is dry. Again, the air compressor does a great job of getting out the moisture that you would otherwise not know is there.
I do like to use the air compressor on the chain as well. It blows out the clumps of dirt that could still be stuck in between the pins/ rollers/ plates as well as any moisture that is in there. Since we will be degreasing the chain at the end, there is not much need to worry about drying out your chain for the moment.
Once I am done with the air compressor and the rags, I will go over the bolts on the bike at least once to make sure everything is torqued to the correct spec. If I accidentally hit some of the bolts with the air compressor, I will back them out and re-apply a fresh coat of assembly grease to the threads before torquing them down to spec again. As I said earlier, “A clean bike is a happy bike”, but I should also add “A quiet bike makes EVERYONE happy”. There is nothing worse than a creaky bolt that you must chase down later to find the source of the noise. Better to tackle it now and make sure everything is done correctly.
After the bike and wheels are dry, and the bolts are all torqued down to spec, it’s time to put the wheels back in the bike and lube up the chain. First, I will wipe the chain down with a rag just to make sure there is not anything on there still. Then I will make sure the pulleys are clean too as you don’t want to add fresh chain lube to dirty pulleys which only compounds the problem. Once that is done, I use the Park Tool chain cleaning tool and liquid degreaser to clean the chain. After I have run the chain through the chain tool a few times, I will wipe off the excess degreaser and let the chain sit for about 30-60 minutes. I will come back and wipe down the chain one more time and then apply the chain lube.
I have used a variety of lubes over the years for a variety of different conditions. There is not one lube that does the job perfectly for everyone. It is dependent on your environment and the conditions you ride in, as well as your personal preference for what you like. As of this writing, I am using the Silca Super Secret Wax chain lube. It goes on like a wet chain lube, but it dries like a wax. I have found that it lasts quite a while in dry conditions and does a great job of deflecting the dirt. I have used it in multi-day gravel races and never lubed my chain during those multiple days. However, when racing CX and in the mud, all bets are off and it is better to just clean the chain again and call it good. Some people like to apply their lube pin by pin in a very meticulous manner. Others just slather it on and call it good. Personally, I prefer something in between. One run full cycle of the chain ensuring I hit every pin but not dousing the chain in lube is where I end up. I then wipe off the excess lube after it is applied and let it sit until race day. Since it is a wax lube, it is better to keep it on the chain rather than trying to wipe it off. A clean chain is a happy chain and a happy chain is a happy drivetrain. I see many people over-lube their chains and there is no good reason for it. One coat of lube is all you need. Excess lube picks up more dirt/ mud which can clog your drivetrain. Keep it simple. Keep it clean.
When all is said and done, your bike should be free and clear of dirt/ mud/ grass/ grime/ etc. and your drivetrain should be running smoothly and quiet. All bolts should be checked for the correct torque spec and you should do a visual inspection of the entire bike to make sure there are no cracks or other unforeseen things that you may not have noticed before but could become a problem later. When the bike is dirty, you will not see these small details and this could lead to failure down the road.
Remember the mantra: “A clean bike is a Happy bike”