FOAMING AT THE MOUTH: BIKE WASHES EXPLAINED
Bike shop shelves literally groan under the weight of grime busting convenience sprays. Michael “Blow-over” Stenning explains the science behind the solutions before putting a few through their paces.
Washing up Liquids, Bike Washes, they’re basically the same thing-right?
Only in the sense they work to similar scientific principles. Both use ionic surfactants, which are designed to etch into caked on grime, breaking it down on a molecular level before the pair are flushed away with fresh water. Manufacturers of bike stuff are understandably tight lipped about composition, sticking to the absolute essentials in case of spillage or accidental ingestion.
Those found in kitchen detergents tend to be simple salts (sodium), which produce a very caustic reaction with warm water - hence why bikes should be treated to cold pre-washes first during winter. Introducing warm (or hot!) simply accelerates the corrosive process.
Careful alchemy will produce something super dilute; roughly on par with bog standard bike formulas - pro mechanics used this along with 50/50 petrol diesel mixes in the days when steel ruled supreme. However, given racing teams pensioned off their machines after only a season or so, their effect upon delicate finishes was hardly a priority.
Carbon fibre and care of, is a hotly debated topic with some pilloried for suggesting it requires specialist potions. Unlike steel, aluminium or magnesium alloys, the mighty weave is a relatively inert material, generally resistant to salts, detergents, UV light and other harmful elements. Roads are littered with residual oils, petrol, diesel and similarly unappetising contaminant a1fter all. Stock cleaning products are unlikely to cause damage - especially on painted/lacquered surfaces. That said, chipped clear coat can leave aluminium alloys and carbon composites vulnerable.
It’s also very active electro-chemically, which can induce surprisingly rapid corrosion - sound arguments for specially tailored greases and avoiding strong solvents/other chemicals.
What to look for
Given the wonder weave’s ubiquity, look for products marked safe on all surfaces. Some citrus based formulas are extremely effective, smell lovely and won’t do anything nasty to skin, soil or aquatic/animal life.
However, they can be surprisingly harsh - ditto more conventional types using alkaline agents and emulsifiers (soaps). Streaking, fading, tarnish and skin irritation are common side effects of long term use.
Several brands tweaked their recipes accordingly, employing specialist substances that supposedly work on a molecular level, loosening grime, while leaving a protective film behind. Certainly more efficient, their protectant qualities are less obvious.
Most formulas work really well on mud and similar organic gloop, though increasingly stiff petrochemical lubes merit something stronger. Along came concentrate refills, allowing mixtures to be tweaked to suit. In concentrate form these are essentially degreasers, 50ml product diluted with 450ml tap/rainwater are generally kindest and ideally suited to post ride winter cleaning but require more elbow grease.
At the other extreme, 10ml of neat product gently agitated with a brush is usually sufficient to strip a cassette, rings and derailleur cages/ jockey wheels of grot within a minute. Extend these times at your peril and rinse everything through with fresh, tepid water. Wear latex/similar examination gloves if you have sensitive skin.
5 litre variants are intended for commercial contexts but represent excellent value for multi-bike households. Being a perpetual fettler, I brew several strengths to suit, though generally err towards a 30/70% (concentrate and water) mix for mucky cyclo cross and mountain bikes. Shorter waiting times and use of beeswax furniture/polymer car polishes mitigates the chances of anything nasty happening but again, risk is my own.
These are designed to deliver stuff quick and easily, while gently agitating the chemicals so they get to work on contact. I prefer those capable of producing a rich, foaming lather for badly soiled machines, although this obviously uses more product. Those capable of being used upside-down are another boon when you’ve missed a bit.
Tips n’ Techniques
Thirty minutes should be sufficient for a really thorough scrub-including re-lubricating. However, a few simple tricks can recoup a lot of time.
Aside from harvesting buckets, brushes, sponges, spray and chain lubes, pour some neat concentrate/degreaser in an old cut-down water bottle and pop this in the bike’s bottle cage. Simply dip and baste over the cassette, chain, derailleurs and rings. Give the rest of the bike a good generic blow-over with bike wash and the two can be swept away in a single rinse.
Removing the rear wheel is best when the cassette is scuzzier than normal and allows full access to the rear triangle. Flush residual degreaser away using an old pump spray bottle filled with water - its’ quicker and keeps grimy puddles to a bare minimum.
Most bearings are reasonably well sealed these days but its good practice to drive any residual moisture out from moving parts. Reinstate the wheel if appropriate and turn the cranks by hand for a minute or so, Introduce some WD40/GT85 etc to the chain, springs and derailleur pivots will purge any remaining moisture, leaving a thin lubricating primer behind.
You should have five minutes or so to spare - a quick mist of furniture polish buffed with an old, soft cloth leaves a lasting sheen (though don’t apply to matt finishes, obviously).
Some will pillory suggestion of micro-fibre cloths. However, these (and old, soft towelling) ensure waxes remain on their host longer, compared with kitchen paper, which can actually drag it off.
Bike safely inside; use any remaining clean water to flush puddles, or spent degreaser away to avoid staining - citrus versions will do this latter stage for you. Products may be biodegradable but its best to minimise their contact with flowers, soil and waterways.