It did not occur to me that cleaning my bike was something I needed to do until one of my coworkers mentioned he spent a Saturday doing just that. Considering I’d been riding around the grimy streets of Denver for over a year without cleaning my bike a single time, I set out to rectify the situation.
Coincidentally, REI was also launching its Force of Nature campaign and kicking off a summer of free outdoorsy classes for women. I quickly signed up for the Bike Maintenance Basics class.
I decided that to establish a good baseline, I’d fork over the cash to have REI clean my bike since it was pretty horrific. I did really try to “shop local” here but I was also cost-sensitive, and REI had the best prices and most convenient hours. The silver service level gave my bike a thorough once-over and cleaning, but also cost $65 so I knew I wouldn’t be doing that regularly.
Now it’s November and my bike is letting me know loud and clear that it’s been another seven months since it’s been cleaned. So I waded through product reviews on Amazon, reviewed what I learned from REI, and for less than $45 and about 20 minutes of my time, it’s squeaky clean again and I’m feeling like a very independent woman.
Here’s how I did it.
I chose these materials and supplies based on personal preference of what REI talked about, best prices, and what was easily available on Amazon or already in my garage.
ParkTool Cyclone Chain Scrubber
This tool was demo-ed at the REI class as an easy way to clean your chain. It has a bunch of scrubby brushes that you put your chain in and snap the lid on. It helps to be right-handed to use it, and it did take a few tries to get the hang of it, but it ultimately made it super easy to get all the grime off my chain with no mess.
I chose to get just the scrubber and not the cleaning set because the cleaner included in the set was a really small bottle. For only one dollar more, I got a GIANT bottle of cleaner that will last way longer.
Simple Green Cleaner
This brand was also mentioned at the REI class, and I liked it because it’s biodegradable. I was cleaning my bike at home on my deck, so I’d rather not pour a bunch of chemicals straight into the ground if I can avoid it. Plus, this was cost-effective with a million good reviews on Amazon. It lived up to the reviews.
Finish Line Teflon Dry Lube
Dry lube sounds like an oxymoron, but it is the less messy of the lube options. It’s still a liquid, but it turns into wax on your chain (according to the packaging). Finish Line’s dry lube also had good reviews and the four-ounce bottle will definitely last me a long time, making it another cost-effective option.
Ace Hardware or Home Depot brand wiping cloths
You need some sort of “wiping cloth” for lube and general cleaning. Wiping cloth is just a weird way of saying “piece of fabric that is softer than a rag or towel.” I had some leftover from a previous home improvement project, but they are also super cheap and easy to find at any local hardware store.
Water from my sink
Also for general cleaning, and because I didn’t realize I had foam cleaner and a chain cleaning tool that needed to be filled with liquid until I opened everything up in my backyard.
How to actually do the dang thing
First, stabilize your bike in a well-lit area that you don’t mind getting wet or dirty. You can buy a fancy bike stand to hold your bike up on…or you can just flip it over. The seat and handlebars are a steady enough base, and despite my extremely limited upper body strength, I was able to easily flip my bike over by myself.
Now, you clean.
Like I said, I accidentally got foam cleaner instead of liquid cleaner, which is what the Protool chain cleaner needs. It worked out fine, though. I just followed the instructions on Simple Green by wetting my bike down with water and spraying a thick layer of foam all over the chain and gears.
Then, I filled the Protool with water (way past the fill line because I didn’t realize there was a fill line, but again it turned out fine) and snapped it onto my chain. This is where it’s easier if you’re right-handed. You hold the Protool up with your right hand while pedaling your bike BACKWARD (so the tire doesn’t move) with your left hand.
It took me a few times to get the hang of how fast to pedal and how hard to hold onto the Protool. I continued pedaling until the water inside the Protool turned black, and then repeat the two steps above. I did three rounds of that before the water no longer looked like the Shadow Monster from Stranger Things, but it still only took me about 15 minutes. So even if you’re like me and forget to clean your bike more than once a year, you don’t have to invest an entire afternoon in this activity.
Disgusting, black chain debris-water versus what I started with (after finding the fill line).
I spent a few more minutes taking the wiping clothes to clean in between the gears on the back tire (aka your rear derailleur) and the gears by the pedals (aka your front derailleur). You can buy “bike floss” that’s basically a rope version of the wiping cloths, but I wanted to use what I already had. I could definitely see how the floss would be easier to use, but it’s not a must-have.
Next, I poured water on the chain, gearshift, and derailleur to make sure I got all the cleaner off (the packaging said in giant letters to not let it dry on your bike so I, of course, panicked about this for the entire time I was cleaning).
Once the chain was dry, it was time to lube up. This is pretty straight-forward. Just squeeze a little bit of lube on each part of your chain, pedaling if you need to do move the chain around to apply lube. Then, I gently held a wiping cloth around the chain as I slowly ran the chain through my hand (again, by pedaling backward).
And that’s it! I test rode my bike down the alley to see if I could tell a difference, and it was definitely shifting gears much more smoothly than it had been before.
Cleaning my bike myself wasn’t nearly as time-consuming as I envisioned, and saved me a ton of money. The $43 in supplies I bought will last dozens of cleanings, particularly since the Parktool was the bulk of those expenses.
Plus, I learned a lot more about how my bike works when it came to shifting gears (the markers on my handlebars have worn off so I was basically just guessing what gear I’m in). And, I totally felt like a badass lady to be able to do all of this by myself and with only limited Googling (“can I use water on my bike or will I ruin it forever????”).
It’s the little things.