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    Bicycle cleaning: the moral debate


    Guilt, neuroses and OCD behaviour: Matt Seaton on the cyclist's inner need for a clean machine

    Matt Seaton
    Benedict Campbell
Man, white, thirties, cyclist, cyclo-cross, dragging bike across mud, Cyclo-

Cyclo-cross has induced this bad habit in me: I half-think it’s okay to clean any bike with a high-pressure hose and then squirt some cheap lube here and there. I know better, of course. Jet-washing the mud off a CX bike adequately so that it runs all right when it hits the dirt the next week is one thing, but this is lowest common denominator bicycle cleaning.

Using a jet of water to clean a chain and cassette only seems allowable if the mud has already acted like a bargain-basement version of a facial scrub and removed all the oil from the transmission with a silica emulsion before you start hosing. And then your remedial action is to use a water-replacing lube like WD-40, which is essentially horrible as a chain lube since it doesn’t create a lasting low-friction coating and ensures that the chain attracts every nasty particle of grit going. 

But there is a guilty part of me that thinks this isn’t care; it’s negligence. It’s not maintenance, but abuse. With a CX bike, you accept the cost of such atrocious behaviour — which is that almost all mechanical parts will need replacing every season, if not more often. But should you treat a road bike the same way?

My inner moralist resists the idea, but really, what’s to lose? Sealed bearings have reduced the penalties of spray-washing — and increased the temptation to extend CX-style cleaning methods to road bikes. If there’s no risk that a jet wash will strip out the grease from an old-style set of cups and ball-bearings, then — one reasons — why not treat every bike like a CX bike? 

Of course, the crude simplicity of cleaning a modern bike is not cost-free. There’s no such thing as a free wrench.


Sealed bearings are only ever semi-sealed. The shield or bushing has to leave some gap if it is not to interfere with the friction coefficient of the bearings. So, in practice, sealed bearings are ultimately better at keeping out a mechanic than dirt or water. The result is that maintenance has been deskilled: manufacturers make you buy new by preventing you from cleaning and fixing old. When was the last time you even saw a ball bearing, in fact, let alone had to go prying under the skirting board with a screwdriver to retrieve the one that rolled away?

In short, as long as I can afford the replacement bottom-bracket cartridge and free-hub body, I can’t really complain. Fiddling around with cone spanners, trying to get a wheel to spin freely but without too much play, is an overrated pastime. If that’s your idea of an hour well-spent, communing with your artisanal craftsman side, you’re not getting out enough. 

But I remain a bike-cleaning moralist in this respect. Since cleaning your bike is so point-and-squirt simple these days, why don’t more people do it more often?

I take it for granted that one of the things most bike racers share is that we’re all high-functioning, borderline OCD cases. We fixate on our equipment and its technical specifications. We pore over our performance telemetry and coaching manuals. We’re maniacs for routine and scheduling. It’s just as well you can't iron creases into Lycra because I know guys who absolutely would do that if they could.

So why, I want to know, if we’re all necessarily obsessive-compulsive — because that is what our sport demands and because it’s who we are — do some guys not clean their damn bikes? What is wrong with these people, I wonder. Even going out to train, let alone turning up to a race, on a bike that’s covered with road grime, with a filth-encrusted chain and brake-block compound-smeared wheel rims, is to me like thinking it’s okay to go to work in yesterday’s underwear turned inside-out. Have you no shame, no basic sense of decorum and decency, my people?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not perfect, certainly not perfectionist. I wouldn’t always want to eat off my downtube. On occasion, a wipe with a white cotton rag might disclose a couple of weeks’ worth of dust between my spokes. As I said, as far as being a clean weenie is concerned, I’m a borderline case. I’m only “on the spectrum”.

But if I seem to put this all in moralising terms, that’s not actually how I think of it. It’s more a physical, visceral thing. It’s the squeaky jockey wheel phenomenon: basically unbearable. How can you concentrate on your training when the noise of that dirty, stretched, worn-out chain is actually deafening? And I can’t ride on your wheel, I’m afraid, because your seatpost is so caked in grime that I can’t avoid noticing it: it’s distracting and distressing.

Neurotic, moi? Perhaps. But I prefer to restate the problematic issue here as: insufficiently neurotic, toi. Never mind the friction losses in that grubby transmission, we’re talking about marginal gains in self-esteem here.

I apologise for sounding judgmental or critical here. I’ll try to work on my issues with some aversion therapy. Here’s what I propose: I’ll clean my bike half as often. As long as you clean your bike twice as much.

This column originally appeared in issue 57 of Rouleur



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