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I Don't Wash My Bikes Anymore

How often should you wash your bike? Can you wash it too much? I started asking myself these questions, and decided that I'm going to relax more this year and let my bikes get dirty. Maybe that's a good thing.

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:Fun

You know what? This might be fine...

I used to diligently keep every bike in my quiver spotlessly clean. But this year, I stopped. I've gone almost two months without busting out the hose, and now most of my bikes are so caked in dirt and mud, they look like they were unearthed in an archeological dig. What happened? 

My mindset has changed, and now that I’ve let my obsessive bike cleaning fall by the wayside, I think I’m more relaxed and riding better than ever. Here’s why I think it might be a good idea to neglect your bike(s) — just a little bit.

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I raced cyclocross in college on a beat-up steel All-City Nature Boy singlespeed with cantilever brakes (mostly because I couldn’t afford to do anything else). While my fitness was never enough to consistently fight at the front, I often felt like I had a massive advantage in snow and mud. I scored my one and only ‘cross podium thanks to abysmal mud. I attribute my comfort with handling mud to two things. 

How often should you wash your bike?My one and only podium (I'm 3rd). Don't be fooled by the clean podium kit. It was MUDDY. 

First, I didn’t own a car in college. I rode my bike everywhere and in any weather. All the gravel paths turned into pure slop whenever it rained or snowed, but if I had to get to class, I got to class. Second, I treated my bike like a tool. The paint was chipped and every component was beat to hell and back. I sent it hard and often had no problem trying moves that might end in a crash. This utilitarian attitude is what helped build the foundation for all my skills. 

Fast forward a decade, and things have changed a lot. The derailleur and cassette on my current race bike now cost more than my entire college race bike did. In fact, every bike in my quiver is ten times nicer than my old, beat-up Nature Boy. As a result, I baby the crap out of them. I fret constantly about keeping them clean and scratch-free. I avoid riding in the rain and snow because puddles and mud could dirty my bike. Plus, crashing would cause an existential crisis. Unfortunately, my fancy bikes have become showpieces more than tools. To me, that's not a good thing. 

Then I had a sort of epiphany when I raced the Unbound Gravel 200 last summer. Thunderstorms rolled through and turned the back half of the course into a muddy hellscape. At every water crossing, there were riders stopping to rinse off their bodies and bikes. What did I do? I powered straight through. I got the muddiest I have ever been in my life. 

How often should you wash your bike?I'm starting to think that a key ingredient to success is embracing filth.

I was so caught up in the moment, I didn’t care that sticks and mud were getting jammed up in the frame. By the finish, my paint was scratched up and the bike was squeaking and suffering as much as I was. But I beat the sun and came in over an hour under my goal time. I had the best race of my life. I looked at my muddy bike like a trophy. I didn't feel the need to wash it after.

Looking back, I felt I managed to recapture a bit of the attitude that I had back in college — something I lost when I started getting too obsessive about my bikes. One of our core philosophies at TPC is that “Bikes are meant to be used.” Yes, it’s because we sell pre-owned bikes, but it also speaks to the idea that well-used (a.k.a. well-loved) bikes can be just as good as bikes that are fresh and new. Bikes are tools designed to take us places, and a dirty bike does that just as well as a clean bike. 

While doing a bit of self-reflection in the new year, I decided I wanted to reset my relationship with my bikes. I want to ride them hard like I used to. I want go out even when the weather’s bad. I want to take more risks and worry less. For me, the first step to changing my attitude is putting away my collection of brushes, microfibers, and detailing sprays. Allowing my bikes to get dirty and stay dirty is part of how I’m improving as a cyclist. 


How often should you wash your bike?

How often should you wash your mountain bike?

When it reaches this point it's probably time to wash it.

Don’t take the title of my post too literally. I am still going to wash my bikes. But I’m going to treat them like my cats, and only wash them when they really need it. I like to reference a quote I once saw on the Santa Cruz blog, which specifically advised against over-washing:

“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.”

It should be said that even if you truly never wash your bike, you SHOULD ALWAYS keep your drivetrain clean and lubricated. Cleaning and lubing your drivetrain keeps shifting crisp and friction low, and it reduces drivetrain wear, saving you money in the long run (check out my guide here).

I'll still wipe down my chain, chainring, cassette, and pulleys down with a rag. But the hose and soap are only coming out for extreme dirt and mud that might interfere with bike function or cause damage. I’m going to focus on the key maintenance items that impact performance. I'm not going to spend excess time and energy keeping my whole bike in showroom condition. That time and energy is going toward riding. 

How often should you wash your gravel bike?

Yeah, in this case, it's definitely time for a wash.

I'll also do a wash whenever I do my pre-race prep. Clean bikes are much easier to inspect and service, so my bikes will get a bath when I need to check them over and overhaul parts. If you race on an aero road or gravel bike, washing your bike also lets the aero tube profiles do their job. It can shed a few extra grams too. In that case, it's a free and easy way to nab some marginal gains. 

The only other time I plan to do a full wash is before bringing a bike inside the house. My trainer is set up in a carpeted room, and keeping my living spaces clean is something I do want to keep up with. Otherwise, this year is going to be all about riding more, riding my bikes hard, scuffing up the paint, and take grungy photos for Instagram. It feels liberating, and I’m pretty excited about that. 

Ed. note: These are Bruce's personal (and silly) opinions. Just because he does something doesn't mean you (or really anyone) should!

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