How Do I Wash Thee? Let Me Count the Sprays
Here's one from the Monday Mailbox:
The other day I asked my LBS how they got my bike so clean after a tune-up and they told me they use a pressure washer. I was surprised, because everything I have read online suggests a pressure washer can damage your bike. However as the recommended method of "sponge, soap and water" does nothing for my clogged drivetrain, I am wondering what I am doing wrong. Do I need to remove components and clean them separately? Is a pressure washer okay to use after all?In high school I had a rather wonderful history teacher. He made events from centuries past come alive with gossipy candor. He kept a small bottle of rum in a locked desk drawer. And whenever anyone asked him for clarification on how to complete an assignment, he would grin, shake his finger at the inquisitive youngster, and reply with a horrible little proverb: "There are more ways than one to skin a cat." These grim words of advice remain with me to this day, and I believe they are applicable to the bike washing situation: Yes, people use pressure washers. Yes, people remove components and soak (or boil) them. Yes, soap and water can also work. You can do it any which way.
That said, I am lucky enough to live next to a farm, and, consequently, to have firsthand experience with an industrial pressure washer. I can tell you it is a thing of formidable power that could probably snap a carbon fibre derailleur pulley were you to aim it directly at it and from a close enough distance. The bigger concern though is that pressurised water can penetrate sealed bearings and cause damage.
Still, mechanics at bike shops and cyclocross races use pressure washers all the time. I have watched them in action and they wield the things skillfully; they know from what distance and angle to aim the beasts so as to wash bicycles quickly without causing damage. So if the idea of a pressure washer appeals to you and you have access to one, my advice would be to ask a bicycle mechanic who has experience with them to teach you how to use it.
I "developed" this technique after moving to Ireland, where the road conditions are such that even with mudguards attached, debris attacks my roadbike relentlessly, jamming itself into every nook and cranny of every component. After what seems like only every few rides, I examine my bike to find gritty, hard packed dirt lodged in between all the cogs in the cassette and in the derailleur pulleys. Even the carved-out brake calipers become storage containers for compressed debris. Sitting there and cleaning it all out with a toothbrush after every few rides would drive me nuts. The baby wipe flossing achieves more or less the same goal, but quicker.
When my bicycle looks like it needs it, I use the wipe to clean the chain links, then floss in between the cogs, derailleur pulley crevices, etc., and in minutes my drivetrain, if not exactly sparkling, is at least sufficiently de-gunked to ensure a quiet and functional ride. Just don't forget to oil the chain after.
Much like human hygiene and beauty regimens, I find that bicycle cleaning practices are highly individual and only partly reflect what is actually necessary to keep one's bicycle functionally clean. Some people are simply more fastidious than others. Others enjoy the ritualistic, or tinkering aspects of the process. I have a friend who finds few things more relaxing than removing all of his bicycle's components and soaking them in a home-brewed solution, before re-assemblng the machine from the frame up. He does this at least once a year to every bicycle which he owns and rides regularly, which keeps him in soak-happy paradise on a semi-permanent basis! It is a method that fills me with as much dread as my wipe-flossing technique - or the pressure wash, for that matter - probably fills him. After all: there are more ways than one to skin a cat, so are there more ways than one of cleaning a bicycle. What is yours?