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How to Clean a Mountain Bike

Cleaning your bike is essential to keep it ready and functional for your next outing. Cycling expert Eli Schumont-Shipley breaks down the easiest way to get rid dirt and grime.

Photo by John Gough

After ripping through dirt, throwing up dust, and blowing through puddles, mountain bikes get filthy quick. While it isn’t a problem if your bike gets dirty (of course), it can become one if the muck is left to sit for too long. Buildups of dirt and road grime can work their way into the moving parts of the bike, which can cause performance issues and increase wear. Giving your bike a regular cleaning is essential to keeping it going in the long term.

But, how often is “regularly”? Like most things, it all depends on the circumstance. If you are riding during the rainy months (if your locale has them) and constantly slogging through mud, you will probably need to clean your bike after every ride. On the other hand, if you ride mostly on hard, dry trails, a bi-weekly cleaning is likely sufficient. Usually, your individual case will be something in between. Check your bike after every ride, and if you see dirt starting to build up, take it over to the hose.

A mountain bike rider kicks up a cloud of dirt while turning on a trail
Photo by Irene Lasus

The Necessities

Cleaning a bike only requires a few low-cost materials. You need a water source, cleaner, brushes, and rags.

Using a garden hose as your water source will save a lot of time. One with a more intense spray is helpful, though if it is a powerful stream, you should make sure not to spray it into your bearings—it could easily wash out all the grease and ruin them. If you don’t have a spray head attachment, use the old finger-over-the-opening trick to direct the spray. If a hose isn’t available (and even if one is), grab a bucket of clean water.

You will also need something to clean your bike with. A dedicated bike cleaner is best, as this sort of product is designed to go easy on the paint and brake pads of your bike while still loosening up the grime. I like Muc Off, but any cleaner you get will do the trick. If you don’t have access to a similar product, grab whatever you use to wash your dishes.

You will also want something to clean your chain with. A degreaser or chain cleaner will ensure that all the most stubborn sticky bits get removed, but if you don’t have any, your bike cleaner will do. Dish soap will also work, as a last resort.

Lastly, you will want a soft bristle brush, a stiff chain brush, and some clean rags to scrub everything off with. I use shop rags, but even old t-shirts will do. Don’t use something that is already dirty—you don’t want to be adding more grit when you are trying to clean it off.

A dirty mountain bike leans against tree trunks
Photo by Ronal Restrepo

The Process

The Bike

First, you will want to wash off the cakes of mud. Start off with the hose and spray all the excess dirt off your bike. I usually start with the tires, as they will be the grimiest part of the bike, and then work from the top down for the rest. Pay close attention behind the fork and suspension linkages, and to your bicycle’s chain.

When you have your bike looking a little more manageable, grab your bike cleaner (or soapy water) and soak your entire bike with it. It’s good to use a lot to make sure it can overcome the stubborn spots. Make sure to spray behind the cassette, to soak the chain, and to cover both sides of the bicycle.

It’s best to leave the cleaner to soak on the bike for a few minutes. Once it has had time to penetrate the muck, grab your brush and go to work, scrubbing aggressively. Cover every inch of the bike, and make sure to clean out your brush often. If you don’t, you will just be moving dirty water around.

When you have thoroughly scrubbed your bike, wash off the cleaner with your hose. Try and be just as thorough as with your first wash, as the cleaner can gum up if it is left on. The bike should be looking much better at this point.

A hand cleans a bike suspension with a blue and white cloth
Photo by D-Burton

Now, you will be done cleaning everything but your drivetrain, so dry the rest of the bike completely. Once it is dry, grab your degreaser and chain brush.

The Chain and Drivetrain

A dirty bike chain
Photo by Patrick Hendry

It will help to have your bike up in a bike stand for this part so that it is easier to reach the bike. If you don’t have one, flip your bike so it rests on its handlebars and seat. Either way, you want to be able to easily reach your pedals with your hand so that you can backpedal while you clean. This means to rotate the pedals in the opposite direction than you would pedal, which will move everything but the wheel.

Give your chain a good coating of degreaser, if you have it, or just regular bike cleaner if you don’t. Spray it on while rotating the chain a few times to ensure that it is coated from every angle. If you use a chain-cleaning device, it will make this process go faster, but I usually don’t bother—scrubbing by hand works great.

Then move on to the cassette (the collection of gears on your back wheel), scrubbing it while continuing to backpedal. This part will require some elbow grease, as you want to get deep into the cassette with the brush. While you scrub the cassette you should also be scrubbing the chain. Then, make sure you get the inside of the rear derailleur, the front cogs, and the rest of the drivetrain.

After you are done scrubbing, remove the cleaner with your hose or water, making sure that all of it gets washed off. Once it is all sprayed down, run the chain through a rag until it is dry. This is essential, as you don’t want to leave any water that can rust up the links. Keep at it until the chain is fully dry and there isn’t any water or grime coming off on your rag. Then, grab your chain lube.

While backpedaling your bike drip chain lube on the top of the cassette, making sure not to get any oil onto the disk brake (if you have one, it will be the metal disk on the opposite side of the rear wheel from the cassette). After a few revolutions, stop oiling and continue pedaling to let the lube really fill your chain. Then, wipe off the excess with a rag. Excess oil will cause even more grime to get stuck on the chain.

Don’t forget to relube your chain, as a dry chain will make a horrible noise, rust quickly, and probably give you shifting issues.

A mountain biker jumps over some small rocks
Photo by Mark Northern

When you are done with the drivetrain, you will have a fully cleaned bike. Take a moment to appreciate it, and then get back to the trails to get it all dirty! Mountain bikes shouldn’t stay freshly cleaned too long! Happy ripping.

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Written By
I started mountain biking with my father when I was twelve. He took me out on my cheap bike and I struggled to keep up with him for hours. It was a hot summer day. I was exhausted and barely made it back to the car. I couldnt walk without groaning for days. Still, I loved it, and have loved it ever...

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