Bike Care 101 for Triathletes Part 1: Washing your Bike and Cleaning Your Chain

Veteran Bike Mechanic Corey Burtell shares guidance for triathletes on how to properly clean your bike and chain.

Bike Care 101 for Triathletes: Part 1- Washing your Bike and Cleaning Your Chain

Triathletes are notorious for being many things. They are goal oriented, driven, passionate, time management ninjas. But they are NOT always diligent when it comes to bike care, a critical component of cycling.

As a bike mechanic for nearly 10 years at Ridgewood Cycle Shop, I have seen it all: bikes that are complete rust buckets and would cost two months rent to fix, to downhill mountain bikes with street tires. 

To help out my multisport friends I’ve put together a three part series that will cover the basics to make sure your bike is in top condition, rides faster and lasts longer. 

Part 1: Cleanliness is next to godliness. A clean bike is a fast bike, literally. In this series we’ll cover to proper way to keep your bike shiny and new. 

Bike Care 101 for Triathletes

To wash or not to wash?

Keep your bike clean and free of dirt, salt, and road debris. This will maintain its healthy function and increase the lifespan of its components. Believe it or not, it also reduces drag and increases speed. 

When cleaning your bike, please do not power wash it or take it through a car wash (yes people have done this and no, it is NOT recommended)

All your bike really needs is a quick spray and wipe down with a wet rag and dish soap to remove excess dirt and road grime from the frame, wheels and components. 

If you prefer not to spray it down with soap and water, another option is to use a bike wash spray such as Muc Off NanoTech Bike Cleaner. You can find these at your Local Bike Shop (LBS) or online. Simply spray onto a rag or directly onto your bicycle (conservatively) and just wipe it off. 

Be forewarned, there is such a thing as too much cleaning. I’ve found that completely soaking a bike, too often, can result in the rusting of certain parts of the bicycle, including the internal steel parts (e.g., bearings). Therefore, I’d say washing your bicycle at least once a month is good practice. Doing so will keep it happy and running smoothly for years to come.

A preventative measure to keep your bike shiny and clean is to use a polish. Bike polish should be used after each wash, just like on cars. It keeps dirt, debris and oils off the bicycle. Certain polishes also help the paint maintain its integrity and luster.

How to clean and lube your bike chain

How to Clean and Lube your Bike Chain

I’ve noticed that many triathletes are actually scared to touch the chains. Whether it’s the fear of breaking something or the aversion to getting dirty, you’ll need to get over it…quick. The chain needs love just like the rest of the bike. A clean and properly lubricated chain can save you five to 10 watts of power. 

There are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to chain care. 

Do clean and dry the chain BEFORE adding lubrication. Lubricating a dirty chain will create floating debris, which can get into the chain and cause more damage.

Don’t lubricate a wet chain. Lubricants will only adhere to a dry chain.

Do Apply the right amount of lubrication. If the chain is under lubricated, you may hear a chirping sound or an occasional squeak. If you apply too much lubricant, you will be able to see the excess. This is problematic because it can spread down the bike as you ride and settle on the brakes. 

Don’t lubricate other components. The chain is the only part of the drivetrain that needs lubrication. The cassette and chainrings do not need any lubrication. It’s ok to lubricate the derailleur pivot points and the pulley/jockey wheel’s screws, but the chain is the only thing that truly needs to be lubricated. 

Cleaning your chain while on the bike

Cleaning your chain on your bicycle is easy, I believe the best and simplest method is to apply a degreaser, or soapy water to a rag and give the chain a good scrubbing. If your chain is excessively dirty then you may have to do this a couple times. 

Don’t expect your chain to become spotless, it’s best that you get it clean enough to where you can see the chain’s color.  Allow the chain to dry completely before applying any lube. 

Cleaning your chain off the bike

If you remove the chain, soak it in some degreaser, soapy water, or mineral spirits for 20 to 30 minutes, then scrub or wipe down.If you like to take it further, hang it to dry or take an old shoelace and run it through the chain to really get the gunk out.

When to replace your chain

Over time, chains naturally stretch out from the force of riding. Once a chain reaches a certain length of elongation, it’s time to replace it. 

Using a ruler, a new chain should measure exactly 12 inches across 12 links. For bikes with 10 or more gears on the cassette, this threshold is 0.5% of additional stretch. (Ex. If it measures more than 12 and 1/16 inches its at the threshold)


Cory Burtell is a tenured bicycle mechanic with over 10 years of experience. Most recently he was a lead mechanic at Ridgewood Cycle Shop, in Ridgewood New Jersey. Also an avid mountain biker, Cory is very familiar with the anatomy and care of bikes as a rider and a professional.