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A Case For ... Neglecting your bike (a little)

How often should you wash your bike? How much maintenance does a bicycle really need? While it's okay to spend time in the repair shop or garage adjusting and rebuilding your bike, and keeping your bike clean, just make sure it's worth your while. If it isn't, just relax and worry about riding!

Written by: Spencer Powlison

Published on:

Posted in:Opinion

My collegiate ski coach had a philosophy that totally perplexed my 20-year-old self. Whenever Joe would neglect waxing his skis for months or just tromp across a road with them scraping all the way, he’d shrug and say, “They’re just tools.”

Joe’s thinking applied to bikes too. My teammates and I were appalled by his cavalier attitude. We couldn’t comprehend why he wasn’t meticulously maintaining his equipment for hours on end, like we did with great devotion. However, as the years have gone by, I’ve started to realize that maybe he had it right all along. Maybe, like some sort of endurance-sports version of The Dude from “The Big Lebowski,” he had everything figured out in a very unassuming way.

A dirty bike is okay sometimes
Wash my bike after every ride? Well that's just like your opinion, maaaan. 

There is actually refreshing liberation to be had with this laid-back approach to bike maintenance (or skis, or whatever else is in your garage). And that’s why I’m here to make a case for neglecting your bike (a little). It’ll benefit you as a rider and a person, and it won’t really harm your bike all that much.

Now I’ll admit that I love spending time in the garage. It gets me away from the glowing screens that dominate modern life, gives me a sense of accomplishment when I check to-dos off my list, and it is calming to put everything in order.

However, this evening habit of mine has its downsides. If you’re serious about performance — racing (someday?) or just gearing up for a hard ride — standing around in a garage, working on bikes is not the most restful activity. Of course, some time should be spent prepping your gear for a big day in the saddle, but there’s a good reason why pro riders have mechanics take care of their bikes. Focus on efficiency and don’t waste time on unnecessary or redundant tasks. Added stress rarely outweighs whatever benefit is achieved by a spotlessly clean cassette, for example.

Speaking of stress, over the years I’ve learned one fundamental mechanic’s lesson the hard way: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Whether it’s unnecessarily pulling apart a headset or hub, trying to re-tension a perfectly fine wheel’s spokes, or re-wrapping slightly uneven handlebar tape, nothing is worse than embarking on a shop job that turns out to be futile. An hour later, you’re back to where you started. It’s easier to take things apart than it is to reassemble them. Don’t let curiosity get the better of you if you’re not confident that the work is needed or that you can do it correctly.

Fortunately, nowadays bikes need less upkeep and maintenance than ever before. Here’s another argument for benign neglect. Many modern bikes have hydraulic disc brakes and electronic shifting, leaving you with no cables to adjust or replace, no matter the weather. Wheels are now stronger than ever, so you don’t have to true them as often, and with disc brakes, a slight wheel wobble won’t result in unwanted rolling resistance.

Plus, most bikes today have sealed cartridge bearings, which rarely need replacement. In fact, for those of you that can’t resist washing down your pride and joy after every single ride, those bearings might be a good reason to relax and let the maintenance regimen slide a little. Unless your bike is heinously muddy and dirty, unnecessarily frequent washing could be counterproductive. In fact, Santa Cruz specifically advises against over-washing its bikes:

“We did some experiments with bikes that were washed a lot but ridden infrequently, bikes that were ridden a lot but washed infrequently, and bikes that were both washed and ridden a lot. Guess what? Your bike hates only being washed and not being ridden. This test group had the worst results. They became creaky and not much fun to be around, much like the people who own bikes like that. Don't get all angry (you know who you are), you can still wash your bike from time to time — and there are those times where it has to be done after every ride. Everything needs more attention during those times. BUT, maybe you should examine your priorities. It's a mountain bike. You can get dirt on it. It's OK.”

Yes, it’s a bike … it’s a tool. After all, bikes are meant to be used. Spend your energy planning great rides, and enjoying the experience, not stressing about a few little scratches or a bit of dirt that’s accumulated from your last outing.

But like any good tool, it does need a little TLC. So, here are three things I do weekly to make sure my bikes don’t self-destruct. It’s the bare minimum to keep my bike working well and my rides stress free. And if things get particularly dirty, I’ll wash them and degrease the drivetrains.

1. Lube the chain

This task takes only a minute or two but it’s the difference between energy-sucking, drivetrain-wearing friction and a happy, smooth, quiet bike. Unless you’re riding in very wet conditions, apply the lube sparingly, wipe off as much as you can, and be careful not to make a mess of it all over your rims and tires.

2. Check the tires

A bike’s tire pressure can drop a fair bit in just a few days due to the tires’ small air volume. Always check your tires before you ride with a pump or gauge that’s consistent. Just like the chain, correct tire pressure makes your bike faster, cuts down on unwanted wear, and can prevent damaged rims.

3. Keep an eye on things

Okay, this is a pretty broad maintenance tip, but above all, you should cultivate an awareness of what is going on with your bike. If something sounds or feels different, that’s a warning sign! Especially keep an eye on your drivetrain — unexpected noise or mis-shifts are your bike’s way of asking for an adjustment. Also, for your own safety, monitor brake pad wear and replace when necessary. For most common brands like Shimano or SRAM, you should replace disc brake pads if the pad material gets thinner than 1mm.

Now before you go wild in the comments section, let me add one final nuance to the argument: I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t spend hours and hours obsessing over bike maintenance. If that’s your bag, more power to you. I’m merely giving you permission to let it slide a bit, to be a little more like The Dude and a little less like Walter Sobchak.

It’ll be okay, and trust me. You can’t be worrying about that sh—t. Life goes on, man.

“A case for…” is a place for unpopular opinions, weird ideas, and unloved bikes and components. For every cyclist who rides to the beat of their own drum, there’s a case for you. Do you wash your bike daily, or are you content to let the dust and grime layer on week after week? Let us know in the comments!