How to clean a really dirty bike

After the Siesta Key Triathlon, it was high time to clean my bike.  I thought it would make a helpful post so I’ll show you the way I clean my bike and provide several links to places with more detail.  Before I begin, please note that I am a nursing student, not a professional bike cleaner.  I am, however, open to suggestions or comments because I love learning new things Smile

First you need to gather the supplies: dirty bike, degreaser, lubricant, water bucket and old towels. Optional items include Q-tips, old toothbrush, latex gloves, old clothes (to wear), and bike tools.  I use Simple Green for my degreaser ($12-14 at most bike stores) and Rock N’ Roll chain lube ($7-9 at most bike stores).  I’m not sponsored by either product…just what I used based on word of mouth and personal experience.

Cleaner  Lubricant   Supplies

Second , set up your bike on a couple old towels (they will get dirty).  This can be done inside or outside.  Since I live in Florida, my only option is inside unless I want to sweat to death.

Dirty bike

First a little bike anatomy.  Parts that tend to get really dirty include: front and back brakes, front and rear derailleur, chainring, headset/stem, cassette (rear cogs), and the chain. 


Source from Blog-by-Bike

A close up of the back derailleur. Note- pulley’s get really mucked up with dirty grease.

Back Derailleur

Source from GTinLA

Now for the really embarrassing part…the close up of the sand, dirt, grease, and evidence I have not been very kind to my bike.  Probably comes from the bad habit of not cleaning my car, there is a law in Florida that every time you clean your car it rains that afternoon so I just gave up and let the rain do the work Smile 

Dirty cassette (yes that’s dirt and sand in there)

Dirty casette 

Dirty chain ring (wow that’s just horrible)

Dirty big wheel

Dirty front break

Dirty brake

Dirty crank

Dirty crank

Yup…that’s awful and I can’t believe I’m actually posting these pictures.  Word to the wise and save yourself time and clean your bike on a semi-regular basis.  The whole process took me three times longer than usual because I’ve neglected my bike for so long.

Next, you just follow directions according to whichever degreaser you have.  Simple Green suggests to 1. Wipe down the bike with water 2. Spray with the product 3. Let product sit for several minutes 4. Wipe off product 5. Wipe down bike with water and dry 6. Repeat as necessary and lubricate as needed.

Cleaner instructions

I do one good wipe down with the bike upright and then flip it upside down to take off the wheels and work on the underside, which usually gets the dirtiest. 

Wetting and wringing out my towel 

Wet towel

First wipe down with the bike standing upright

Standing upright (2)

Flip bike upside down and remove wheels and wipe down underside

Rotate bike


Next, it’s time to spray on the Simple Green and let it soak for a few minutes.  I used to be extremely liberal with the Simple Green because I like foam but somebody told me that there are certain parts on your bike that need to remain greased.  My main goal is to get the parts clean that I can see dirt and grime built up. Read up on your degreaser to see if it is corrosive to your chain before spraying down the chain.

Simple Green spray down. Next up is wiping it all off.


After I wipe down all the major parts, I start to focus on the smaller parts like the brakes, cassette, derailleurs, etc.  You have to get creative with the towel to reach the not-so-reachable parts.  I use the edge a lot to reach the narrow spaces and will use my finger nail to push the towel into smaller crevices.  Q-tips come in handy for a few places too.  Some people use toothbrushes but when I tried an old toothbrush it just seemed to smear around the grease/dirt. 

Here’s me using my nail to push the towel into the smaller parts of my front brake.  And a shot of the brake looking all shiny and reflective.

IMG_2614  IMG_2615

The pulleys get really backed up with grease and you can see there are little hard to reach places that I couldn’t reach with a towel so I busted out some Q-tips. 

IMG_2616  IMG_2617

Can you see how much cleaner that small space is? I ❤ Q-tips! Can you tell?


Here’s an example of where to use the edge of your towel. 

IMG_2624  IMG_2625

Much better.


Lastly, is the chain.  The chain probably shouldn’t get this dirty because a well-lubricated chain will last longer and help maintain the life of your cassette and chainring.  Some people will clean it after every 2-3 rides or every Sunday.  Obviously, I don’t do this.  Maybe I will when I have more time, maybe when I have a better bike, and maybe I’ll never clean and lubricate my chain as often as I should. 

One thing I found online was you shouldn’t clean your chain with Simple Green because it can be corrosive to your chain.  That’s why I like the Rock N’ Roll Chain Lube – it cleans and lubricates your chain.  First, I wipe off as much of the dirty grease before lubricant action.

I hold my chain and rotate the chainwheel using the pedal until I get as much of the dirt/grease off as possible.  This step can be done a variety of ways and there are even machines and special brushes out there to clean the chain.  A lot of people will also take their chain off but I never have. If you’re interested in these other (possibly more correct) methods check out the links at the bottom of the post.

IMG_2620  IMG_2622

Lube time Smile I put the wheels back on and bring the bike outside.  Now for some directions: 1. Apply stream of lube onto the cassette (don’t drip).  Get it really wet 2. Freewheel the chain backwards for 5 seconds. 3. Wipe off the excess lube.  All of it! 

Lubricant directions

In order to “freewheel” the chain backwards, I  leave the front wheel on the ground and pick the back wheel up and grab the pedal with one hand and turn it in the opposite direction I normally pedal.  With the other hand I squirt the lubricant onto the cassette.  It takes a little coordination and is easier with another person.  After I apply a stream, I’ll shift through the gears before wiping down the chain.


After wiping down the chain, I did one quick wipe down with a damp and then dry towel. 

Now for some links I found on the topic:

Happiness is A Clean Bike by Asa Salas on Team Estrogen’s website

Basic Bicylce Cleaning and Lubrication Video by Terrybicycles

Bicycle Chain Cleaning and Lubrication by the Nordic Group – very thorough and detailed

Video Tutorial to Clean and Lubricate Bike Chain by Fit Werx on Beginner Triathlete’s website. 

Bike Cleaning and Checklist by Cycle and Style

Any thoughts or comments? This may not have been a riveting post but I thought it would be useful to any newer cyclists out there.

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3 Responses to How to clean a really dirty bike

  1. Colleen says:

    Mind if I bring the Q-Roo & the Giant up for some Courtney love? See you tomorrow!

  2. Feerlessfood says:

    Ha, I’ll clean my bike someday… Although, I’m much more likely to clean that than my apartment… which I still haven’t really moved in to lol.

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