Bike wash with a pressure washer

How not to wash your bike, starring Peter Sagan

Pressure washing a bike: yay or nay?

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The topic of bike washing is weirdly controversial in cycling. Take a deep dive on YouTube and you’ll find a range of advice that spans everything from using only the finest lavender-scented organic wet wipes, all the way through to blasting your bike with a high-powered pressure washer while headbanging to AC/DC. And there are situations where each recommendation is correct. 

A short Instagram clip recently posted by Peter Sagan shows him ‘lovingly’ caring for his bike at a car wash station. The three-time world champion brandishes the high-pressure wand to get foaming detergent into all the hard-to-access nooks and crannies of his Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL7. He pays particular attention to the left-side bearing of the bottom bracket, then (correctly) cleans the chain on the chainrings, before blasting the snot out of the often-dirty spot above the front wheel (also known to bicycle nerds as the lower headset bearing). 

Sagan’s efficient approach to cleaning a bike isn’t necessarily wrong, at least not for a professional rider (more on that in a moment). But his short video is a healthy reminder that the way the pros do something isn’t always the best approach for the regular bike owner. 

Washing bikes with a pressure washer is a common sight in the dirtier pro cycling disciplines. Turn up to a cyclocross race and you’ll see the bikes going through multiple rounds of pressure washing within a single hour. Mountain bike racers have been known to do similar between practice sessions. And they do it because there’s nothing quicker.

However, what you don’t see on these short Instagram videos is the hours of professional mechanical work that often follows the heavy washing in order to get the bike tuned for race day. When done by a professional mechanic, that (more carefully done) pressure washing is often quickly followed by the use of an air compressor to quickly dry the bike before surface corrosion sets in. Then the real work begins.

All the bearings of the bike are often cleaned out and regreased, or perhaps even replaced. The suspension, if present, is also commonly given a fresh splash of oil to ensure maximum small bump sensitivity. All moving components are often carefully prepared for maximum performance. The wheels are regularly swapped out as soon as the tyres show a few cuts. And the chains are typically replaced based on weeks, not mileage or measured wear.

A hose or a lightly-set pressure washer is the go-to cleaning method amongst pro race mechanics. And as a result, it’s rare to find a pro race mechanic without a means for quickly drying things (pictured is an air blowgun connected to an air compressor).

By contrast, veteran shop mechanics know all too well what happens to a bike that’s been lovingly pressure washed on the outside, and left to rot on the inside. The bearings and ratchet mechanism in the rear freehub are often first to rust, the bottom bracket starts to feel gritty, mountain bike suspension pivot bearings seize and start to groove out the pivot bolts or add strain to the frame, while a poorly sealed headset bearing (common on many new road bikes) will soon have its grease turn to a brownish rusty goop.

At first, you’re riding a bike that feels fresh because it looks fresh, but over time everything begins to turn rougher from corrosion and/or grease loss, and if left, can lead to an incredibly big service bill. 

And so I return to Sagan, a professional cyclist who’s paid to ride the product he’s seen washing in this video. Professional cyclists ride a whole bunch, and as a result, they tend to wear through a great deal of product. Longevity is not a critical attribute of a product used in professional cycling. As such, most teams maintain bikes simply to achieve efficiency and performance, and product gets binned and replaced to maintain just that. 

There’s nothing wrong with using a pressure washer to clean a bicycle, but it’s important to remember that most of us are not Peter Sagan. If we blast detergent into our bottom bracket bearings, we’ll probably be needing to pay for that at some point down the line. For some riders, that’s a reasonable trade-off for the speed and ease of washing a bike in this way, while others should be aware that such a speedy approach to bike cleaning needs to be balanced with an increased frequency of detailed servicing.

Either way, there are better ways to handle a pressure washer around a bike than what Sagan shows.

Quick tips for correctly using a pressure washer

If you do plan to use a pressure washer, then there are a few basic things to remember:

  • Use a lower pressure setting – the goal is to remove the dirt, not the paint. 
  • Keep a healthy distance between the nozzle and bike to ensure you’re not forcing water into all the hidden parts of your steed. 
  • Don’t focus the water stream at the entry points for the bike’s bearings. For example, avoid pointing the blast of water directly at the gaps above and below the headset, the bearings next to the cranks, or at the edges of your hubs. 
  • If you have suspension or a dropper seatpost then don’t point the pressure directly into the external wiper seals. Instead, angle the nozzle below the line of these seals.
  • If you do use a detergent-based pressure washer, then gently spray it on the bike from a distance and agitate the dirt with a brush. Wash it off with water from a distance. Forcing this foaming detergent onto the bike will wash out important grease from the bike. Also, beware that some of these automotive detergents may contaminate the surfaces of disc brakes, often leading to noisy braking.
  • Be careful not to blast an oily chain in the direction of the rear disc brake. This too can lead to brake contamination. This is one thing Sagan does correctly by cleaning the chain at the chainring from the non-drive-side of the bike.
  • Always dry the bike as quickly as possible after washing. Most professionals use an air compressor for this, but even a few dry microfibres towels, a hairdryer (on a cool setting), or even a leaf blower will do the trick. Just know that like the pressure washer, you certainly shouldn’t point the high-pressure air directly at the edges of the bearing seals.
  • Don’t ignore the need for routine maintenance and/or servicing. No bicycle is perfectly sealed from the elements.

Personally, my approach to bike washing involves a spray-on bike wash cleaner, a soft-bristled brush, and the shower setting from a garden hose (not unlike what Park Tool recommends). The drivetrain earns most of the attention, and for most, a moderate level of drivetrain cleaning is the one to aim for. Yes, it’s slower than a pressure washer, but it’s also far more gentle on all the sealed elements of your bike. And again, don’t forget to dry the bike afterwards!

If you decide to ignore the above and instead choose to mimic Sagan, then be sure to copy the thumbs up at the end. It’s a nice gesture to your mechanic who’ll now be needing to regrease your lower headset bearing sooner than expected. 

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