It’s The Most Muddiest Time Of The Year

It’s that time of year again! The nasty, gritty, sometimes-muddy-sometimes-not time of year, where I get about 20 minutes of riding time before I have a whole symphony of clicks and cracks and squeals coming from my drive-train. Some of you may wonder, “how do you deal with this?!” The most common answers I’ve heard are either don’t ride (which you really shouldn’t, unless you know that your trail systems are okay to be ridden on while wet), or to switch to a dyer, wax-based lube (theoretically, wax-based lubes will collect less junk as you ride. I haven’t found this to be exceptionally true, but your mileage may vary). The other option, assuming you have half an hour or so to spend, is to clean. You don’t even have to go spend a zillion dollars on fancy cassette brushes or chain cleaning boxes!

The first step is to find somewhere open, relatively clean, and un-stainable (or at least covered with something you don’t care too much about). Clean bikes are nice, yes, but if you don’t own the floors you’re walking on I can guarantee whomsoever does will not be happy about having big blotches of greasy mud on their carpet (sorry dad).

You can’t really wipe that off the carpet, it wrecks towels, and tends to soak through newspaper relatively quickly. Trust me: use a cement/linoleum floor, or do it outside.
Found somewhere you can get dirty? Great! So now, the fun part: all you need to do a good job, really, is a toothbrush, some degreaser, and a little bit of patience. The process is hugely important, though (it isn’t, really)!  Make sure you follow a vigorously strict regimen of “dip, scrub, dip, scrub, dip, scrub.” Occasional breaks to maintain sanity and rinse off your drivetrain may be warranted as well. When you’re pretty sure things are clean, wipe down the chain and cogs with a clean towel, give it all one more scrub, then rinse. Let it sit for a few hours to properly dry off, then throw on whatever you’re currently using as a lubricant. Personally, I’m fond of Phil’s Beard Oil, though I do occasionally use White Lightening.

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, or perhaps have just decided you’re going to do a final clean before you hang your wheels up for the season, you should at least take your chain off – most multitools will have some form of chainbreaker, and you can buy one at your local shop for under ten dollars. If you have a smallish box (or bowl – glass or metal are preferable, because if you use a plastic one it will never be clean again), lay your chain out in a zig-zag pattern so it’s flat against the bottom, and dump in a bit of your degreasing solution. Theories abound to help you get the most of the grit out – let it sit in degreaser on top of your washing machine’s spin cycle, mix degreaser and sparkling water, mix degreaser and vinegar, etc. All that really matters is that you have enough solution to fully cover the chain, and that you can agitate the box a bit. Once you’re done, make sure to give it a quick rinse and a light coat of oil!

While you’re at it, it might be worth taking apart your rear pulley system. Most of the time, two or three small Allen-head screws will hold the two halves of the cage together. You should be able to get the cogs plenty clean just by popping the cage apart and brushing, but if you feel the desire to remove the cogs make sure you pay attention to which position they were in! Some designs use different materials – for cogs and bearings – in the different spots.

That’s pretty much it, really. Knowing how to properly clean and lube your bike is a skill that seems to be unfortunately lacking from many riders’ repertoire, but in terms of effort versus reward it’s one of the best things you can do for your machine. In addition to allowing your drive-train to last longer (less grit grinding between the moving parts means less wear), it will familiarize you with your bike, give you a good opportunity to check over the seldom-seen sections of the frame for nicks and cracks, and – as any mechanic will tell you – a clean bike means a happy LBS.

Happy trails!

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