Studded tires, winter clothes… but what about the bike?
Fenders or no fenders, it’s getting trashed riding in the winter. For me it is the heavier than normal tires, the snow, or hauling a trailer as a traffic-calming device that add extra strain to the drive train. Couple that with the snow and salt as scouring compounds and the mechanical bits on the bike will need some attention if you want them to last longer and work more reliably.
Unlike a car, the whole drivetrain of a bike is exposed to the elements. The car has everything encased and bathed in semi-permanent fluids. Not much is getting destroyed by the elements, The bike? Everything is exposed, and even if you have a Gates belt drive you’re going to want to give the bike some regular attention.
There are a million different opinions out there on some of these habits and suggestions I have, but the biggest deal is to keep the bike cleaned regularly and always keep the chain well lubed. Well-lubed and quiet will last longer than a dry and noisy chain. A dirty lubed quiet chain is gross and gives many mechanics and super type-A bike mechanics fits – but – well-lubed and dirty is better than dry and squeaky; just make sure you either clean it up before bringing it to the bike shop or bring beer (if it’s only a little dirty a six pack is fine, but if it is super gross, better bring a two four…).
I’ll try and break it down into a couple focal points. Cleaning the bike, lubing the bike, and between-cleaning protocols. All very contentious. But it is best to start somewhere. I did once and now I’m that old bearded mechanic who’s worked on everything, tried every lube, and rides in all conditions year-round. I’ve actually been dumb/patient enough to give a new lube a try for an extended period of time. I could probably do a whole column on chain lube alone, and hey that might happen just to get it out there. Not right now. Save the really juicy stuff for later when we don’t have hordes of salt-encrusted bikes squeaking all over the country.
If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere that doesn’t salt, chances are they are going to sand everything heavily and you’re more likely to wind up with sandy abrasive dirt sticking to everything, so pretend that it’s salt and treat more or less the same way.
Cleaning the bike can be done at many different levels. Ultimate inside, occasional outside, shower inside, sponge bath.
Ultimate is having a nice indoor wash station in your house. So no matter how cold it gets you can roll in, hang up the bike and clean it with warm soapy water, dry it and get it re-lubed and ready to go easily. Now, if you have that set up? You probably are set with knowing what to do so we’ll kind of move on and just keep this as the sort of dream, you know to go with the hydro-disc brake internal geared hub belt drive drop-bar full-fendered Firefly commuter bike you have.
Most hoses are outside, frozen solid (especially if you’re like me and are washing the bike after cyclocross races and then you wind up forgetting to drain it and it sits all winter as a frozen snake, countless nice sprayer nozzles destroyed by ice, oops), so unless you’ve got your indoor set up, yeah well you’re going to want to clean it a bit differently.
Now if you get lucky enough to have a few random warm days or a hose that doesn’t freeze, wash the bike with light pressure, a bit of car wash soap (cheapest generic stuff works the best) and a brush, but don’t spray the bearings. Soap it all down, then rinse. There are a nice pile of different shaped brushes you can get for washing the bike, the best brushes are going to be natural bristles. Think about painting. When you paint with oils you need natural brushes, when you paint with acrylic or other water based paints you need synthetic bristles. When you wash your bike coated in oils/grease/lube you’ll want to use a natural bristle brush because you can actually wash them clean. Nylon bristle brushes just collect grease and turn black and get gross and stop cleaning pretty quickly. Conical brushes are great for tight spaces, big wide flat brushes are good for the frame and bars and wheels, but you can make do with whatever seems to work. Wet it down, soap it up, rinse it off. Sometimes it is best to take the wheels off if you have a bike stand that holds the bike.
Key is to get all that dirt and salt off. Keep it all from building up, keep the shiny bits shiny and the rest in good shape.
You don’t need to do this full wash every day, or even once a week, but you shouldn’t go more than 10-20 rides between a good full bike hose down.
If you have a hose and say it was just a wet slushy ride and the hose isn’t frozen, a quick rinse before you get changed and head inside will dramatically extend the life of the bike bits and make a full soap down cleaning that much easier.
Now to help with between cleanings the best thing you can do is get everything nice and waxed down. The frame and any non-moving parts (avoid the rims and brake pads, saddle, and bars). Some people like a good hard carnauba wax, turtle wax, or other paste like stuff. Goes on nice and thick and lasts pretty well. Personally I prefer the can of lemon-scented Pledge. Now it can be store brand, no big deal, but the spray makes it pretty easy to cover all the surfaces, Then wipe it down. You’re left with a nice protective finish with a minimum of effort.
Final bit would be lubing up the chain. I prefer the homemade chain lube. Three parts Odorless Mineral Spirits (not the green kind, the old fashioned metal can stuff) and one part synthetic motor oil (5W-30 works for me). I make a gallon at a time and having that much on hand means not skimping on the fancy stuff. I use it in my Park chain cleaner too. Usually I will run the chain cleaner on the chain before washing it. After the chain cleaner then the soaping and washing of the bike, the chain is always spotless with this lube. Dry it off with a rag after washing the the whole bike then give it a good coating. Wipe the excess off. Done.
So what if you don’t have a hose? Shower? Yup. Plenty of my friends actually double purpose their bath/shower for washing bikes and bodies. Maybe not ideal. Probably want to clean the chain and dry it all off before getting it in there to minimize greasey residue. But that’s a good place for simple green (to clean the bathtub, not your bike). NEVER USE SIMPLE GREEN ON THE CHAIN. EVER. Ever ever ever ever. The degreaser has a higher affinity for the metal than the chain lube, you get simple green in the rollers and between the plates and it’s going to stay there and de-activate your lube and let the metal rub on metal. Not good. Cleaning the bathtub to keep your roommates in the dark? Yes, that’s a good choice for Simple Green.
Shower cleaning is tricky though, and a sponge bath may be easier. A bucket and a rag can clean most of the dirt off outside – soap it up, then rinse it off. Anything is better than letting the bike get all gross over the winter. An alternative to the bucket and rag is a spray bottle of a glass cleaner, spray and wipe. Not really ideal but it can help with the build up enough to make a difference.
For cables and non-moving metal parts, a coating of Boeshield T-9 is the best thing out there. It is a terrible chain lube (doesn’t last long and you get a nasty waxy build-up everywhere that is really hard to remove without heavy solvents or lots of work).
If you need to get all the water off the bike before it freezes a bit of WD-40 is magical stuff. Spray down the derailleurs and other moving parts and it will get any of the last bits of water out so they don’t freeze when you head out in the morning.
Between washing and cleaning the bike, just keep the chain clean and lubed. Using that homemade lube it is best to put it on after the ride. The nice part of the application process is that it also doubles as a cleaning. When you get home put a nice, coating on the chain, work it in for 30-60 pedal revolutions, and wipe the excess off. Done. Bike is ready to go for the next day. Wipe any excess bits off, put a drop or two on moving parts and that’s about all you need to do.
- Clean the bike at regular intervals.
- Wax after full cleaning.
- Make sure the chain is lubed and quiet at all times.
Simple, no? The small amount of time invested in keeping the bike clean will pay back in reliability and longevity of the bits on the bike.
Cleaning the bike is a good time to inspect the cables and housing. If you see cracks developing, make note and get them changed before too long. Also get a good chain measuring device; if you have a 10-11sp (# of cogs on the freewheel not total number of gears) this is one of the easiest to use: http://www.parktool.com/product/chain-wear-indicator-CC-3-2. Get it changed between 0.5 and 0.75 and you can avoid the costly replacement of a cassette as well. Let it get worn past the 0.75 mark and you’ll need to change everything or suffer through skipping and poor shifting.