by Asa Salas
Imagine yourself on a perfect sandy beach, half naked and covered in suntan lotion. Roll around in that perfect sand - feel how it sticks to your body - how it works its way into every nook and cranny.
Ok, without rinsing off, grab your trail shoes and go for a 10 mile run. How's that feel? A wee bit chafed?
Now go look at your favorite bike. Is the chain black? Do the teeth on the front chain rings look like they have been eating mud pies and dirt cookies? Grab a rear derailleur pulley between your fingers and rub them together. Remind you of your day at the beach? That nasty, gritty buildup will grind up your drive train like sand in your shorts will grind up your, well, you get the idea. Road or mountain, every bicycle requires a good scrubbing now and then. I guarantee components will last longer, run quieter, and perform better when cleaned regularly and thoroughly.
First, get a portable bike stand if you don't have one already. A stand will get the bike up off the ground, preventing your lower back from urging you to skimp on the details and go lie down. Lean the bike against the fence if you have to, but you may soon tire of it falling over and hitting you on the head.
Next, assemble your cleaning supplies. You will need:
Cleaning your bike involves removing the wheels & the chain. Take a good look at your chain routing - the way your chain travels around the cogs and pulleys. Familiarize yourself with how your drive train fits together so that you'll feel comfortable when the time comes to put it all back together again.
Put your bike in the bike stand and remove the front and rear wheels. This will allow more access to those hard to reach areas.
To remove the rear wheel, shift to the smallest cog and disconnect the brakes. On a road bike, simply flip the release lever at the side of the brake to the "open" or "up" position. For V-type brakes, (typically found on mountain bikes) push both of the brake arms simultaneously against the rim. This will create enough slack in the cable to remove the aluminum "noodle" from the slot on the brake arm. Now the wheel can be removed without damaging the brake pads.
To drop the wheel, pull the quick release lever to the "open" position. It may be necessary to open it further by loosening the nut on the opposite side. Slide the wheel out carefully past the rear derailleur. Presto! The front wheel is even easier to remove.
Fill the bucket or dishpan with hot water and lots of dish soap. Now remove your chain. If you have a Shimano chain, this will require a chain breaker tool and a new Shimano connector pin. Follow the directions that come with the tool to break the chain, then drop that filthy beast in the bucket of soapy water. (Hint: skip the connector pin and get a Sachs Power Link from your favorite shop, they work dandy).
If you have a Sachs chain, you can disconnect it at the Power Link, the best invention since V-brakes. The Power Link is easy to spot, since it is a different color than the rest of the chain, usually black or gold. You may have to wipe off the chain to find it at first. You will notice that both plates on the Power Link are slotted in front of the connector pin. Gently wiggle the pins toward the center of the link. Once the pins reach the ends of the slots, the chain will come apart. It may be necessary at first to lube the Power Link for it to release with ease. While the chain is apart, practice connecting and disconnecting the link until it is a no-brainer.
Now that the chain is off and soaking, grab the sponge, and wipe down the frame and fork with soapy water. This should be easy with the wheels off. Next, spray the chainrings and the derailleur pulleys with citrus degreaser. Let that sit for a few minutes while you fish the chain out of the bucket. Shake off the excess water and spray the chain with degreaser, soaking it thoroughly, then hit it with the small brush.
Now drop the chain back in the soapy water and unleash the fury on those chainrings. Use the big brush to knock loose the big stuff and the small brush to get the leftovers. Be sure to get all the sludge out from between the teeth where the chain rides. It is not easy to remove all the junk from your chainrings, but with a little patience it can be done.
Once the chainrings sparkle, hit the front derailleur and pedals with the small brush and soapy water.
The rear derailleur pulleys will likely require the scrubber side of the sponge to free them from chain sludge. Do this by pressing the scrubber side against one side of the pulley while turning it with the other hand; this will scrape off the buildup. Once the pulleys are clean, use the small brush and sponge to clean the rest of the derailleur. Don't be afraid to be anal about cleaning your drive train - your bike is just a fancy scooter without it!
Brakes are just as important and often just as neglected as the drive train. Apply the small brush and soapy water to them as well. Take the opportunity to inspect the pads for wear and replace them if necessary. If the pads look glazed or shiny, gently rub the surface with a little sand paper to remove the glaze. Also remove any metal chunks from the pads with a pointy tool (be creative). Performing these small tasks will improve braking quality and extend the life of the rim.
By now, most of the little bits hanging off the frame are clean, so hit the whole package again with the sponge and soapy water, including carefully detailing the shift and brake levers.
To rinse the bike, remove the power nozzle from the hose and toss it in the bushes. Then turn the spigot to "dribble". Rinse the soap out of the sponge and use the sponge and hose to rinse the bike. NEVER blast your bike with a hose, even if you have sealed bearings. Trust me, when pitted against a power nozzle, there is no such thing as a sealed bearing. Once the bike is thoroughly rinsed, dry it off with a clean rag.
Once again, fish out the chain and soak it with degreaser. It should be much cleaner now. Put some dish soap directly on the chain and brush it down one last time then rinse it with clean water until all the soap is gone. Shake it out, wipe it off and hang it to dry.
Use the big brush and scrub your wheels. You may need some fresh soapy water by this time. The most important parts of your wheels to have clean are the cassette and the braking surfaces.
To clean the cassette, first spray the cogs with degreaser and scrub it with the big and/or small brush. To clean between the cogs it may be necessary to use a narrow scraping tool of some sort. Park makes a cassette brush with a built in cassette cleaning "hook" on the end that works great. Now hit the cassette again with the brush and soapy water to remove residue.
To clean the braking surfaces, use the scrubber side of the sponge. That black stuff coming off is aluminum and brake pad material. Yuck! As a final touch, scrub your tires, hubs and spokes with the big brush. Now rinse with the dribbling hose and sponge and dry with a rag. Repeat with the front wheel. Hint: spin the cassette and bounce the wheel gently on the ground to remove excess water.
Put the wheels back on: Well, now you have a clean bike, but it is all in pieces. First, reinstall the rear wheel. Be sure the brake pads are out of the way so the tire does not knock them out of whack, and be extra careful to seat the axles all the way into the dropouts (the slots where the wheel bolts on). The quick release should close firmly, but not so tight that it hurts your hand to close.
To make sure the wheel is properly seated, close the brakes, flex the lever a couple of times, and give the wheel a spin. If one side or the other rubs (but didn't before) open the quick release and pull up on the wheel to seat the axles. If you have trouble keeping the wheel in place while you close the quick release, try holding the wheel up with your knee. Or, remove the bike from the stand, straddle the bike backwards, push down on the back of the frame to seat the axle then close the quick release.
If you are sure the wheel is correctly installed, but still have brake rub, it is possible that the brakes are out of adjustment. If you have the know-how, go for it. If not, take it to someone that knows how. Repeat the process for the front wheel.
Put the chain back on: Lots of people are afraid to take off their chains. Not because they are hard to take off, but rather because they perceive it to be hard to put back on. There is really nothing to be afraid of. By now your chain should be shiny clean and dry, and hopefully you have not misplaced your handy Sachs Power Link.
First shift your derailleurs so they are over the smallest cog in the front and rear. Thread one end of the chain through the front derailleur from the back and on to the small chainring. Turn the cranks so that the chain drapes over the cog and hangs down enough so the cranks don't roll backwards and drop the chain.
Next, the tricky part. Take the other end of the chain and drape it across the top of the smallest cog in the back. Now wrap it around underneath the cog and over the top of the top pulley. The top pulley is the one closest to the cassette (Check out the picture in Step Two again). Thread the chain through the derailleur cage down to the bottom pulley and drape the chain over the top of the bottom pulley. Be sure the chain runs inside the guide tabs, not on the outside. The guide tab is the small, bent over tab of derailleur cage that keeps the chain from flying off when the going gets rough. There is one on the underside between the two pulleys, and one over the bottom pulley. When the chain is installed correctly, it should not touch either one.
Next, connect the two ends of chain with the Power Link (or your chain break tool, if using a Shimano chain & connector pin), and spin the cranks. You will know right away if you did it correctly.
If all seems well, shift through the gears, lube the chain with your favorite poison (any bicycle specific chain lube), pat yourself on the back and call it a day. Oh, and clean up your mess! I sometimes forget that part.
Asa Salas is an expert-ranked cross country and DH mountain bike racer. Her sponsors include Independent Fabrication, Truvativ, Suga Clothing, Velocity Gear and Cycle Path. She is also an avid road cyclist. Asa has worked as a mechanic at "The Bike Shop" in Fair Oaks, California for six years, and has been training and riding competitively for eight.