How to wash your cycling kit
Sure, you could just throw it in the washing machine. But if you want to do it properly, there are some things you should know.
Sure, you could just throw it in the washing machine. But if you want to do it properly, there are some things you should know.
Cycling kit is becoming increasingly advanced and, in many cases, more expensive to boot. Winter jackets, summer jerseys, gravel bibs, gloves, mitts, all sorts of base layers – there’s a specific, and usually highly technical garment for almost every cycling discipline and climate these days. Thankfully, modern kit is very durable, but still, overwashing or poor care will see that kit deteriorate quicker. Given most of our kit gets washed as often as it gets used, what’s the best way to clean cycling kit and avoid damaging it?
I’ve been riding and racing bikes for 20 years, and somewhere along the way, I picked up a basic rule of thumb for washing cycling gear that has served me well. It’s quite simple; a cool 30 °C wash, avoid fabric softener, and never tumble dry. While I was on the right track, I picked up a few new tips while researching this article, and as it turns out, I needn’t have been so tumble dryer-averse.
Not every garment needs to be washed after every ride. Layering garments and accessories may be fine for multiple rides, especially in good weather. By contrast, next-to-skin layers – bib-shorts, base layers, socks, etc. – will need washing after every ride.
Ryan Schoeck of Assos explains that’s not the case for many outer layers. “Outer layers might only need a simple wipe down or quick rinse,” he explains. Rain jackets, gloves, gilets, caps, etc. can often come back from a ride as clean as when they left or even just mildly dirtied. Identifying items that simply need airing or rinsing can reduce wash loads and reduce the number of potentially damaging wash cycles the garments endure.
According to EnergyStar.gov’s laundry best practices, “Clothes washers use about the same amount of energy regardless of the size of the load, so run full loads whenever possible.” Unless you live in a house full of cyclists, one ride is unlikely to create enough washing for a full load. How we store those next-to-skin or dirty items waiting for the next wash can be important.
Bacteria love warm damp environments … such as dirty kit stuffed in a wash basket. Given the chance, bacteria build-up makes for dirtier and smellier kit, which will ultimately require more intensive cleaning. Hanging less-dirty items to dry before storing can prevent nasty odour build-up, making them easier to wash later. More-soiled items, especially those with road spray or mud (see below), will require a pre-wash rinse and immediate full wash. The longer a stain has to sit on a garment, the harder it will be to lift, so aim to pre-wash and wash dirtier items shortly after your ride.
Another tip, and perhaps one of the easier habits to adopt, is to wash kit inside out. No need to feel lazy about leaving garments inside out as you strip them off. As Schoeck suggests, “turning garments inside out for the wash can help preserve the colours in cycling kit.” This is a claim backed up by Graeme Raeburn of British clothing brand, Albion, who suggests the sublimated colours on modern kits are less damaged when the kit is washed inside out.
Zippers and velcro are the enemies of kit, and both the experts we spoke to warned of the potential damage they can cause. Ensure all zips and velcro are closed and securely fastened before throwing your kit in the basket or machine. Loose zips can damage both clothing and your machine, while open velcro can easily stick to and damage other kit.
I’ve used laundry bags for years, but only when away racing with teams. The bags keep each rider’s wash separate, saving the need to sort through a vast mass of kits to find your missing arm warmer, sock or glove. However, those laundry bags can serve a purpose at home also.
The rough and tumble of a wash cycle can damage lightweight or delicate bibs and jerseys. Simply stuffing this kit into a bag pre-wash can protect the kit from harmful agitation and twisting. Many brands now provide a wash bag with their kit specifically for this reason.
All of this sounds like a lot of prep work to simply wash kit, but many of the recommendations here are simple adaptions to what we already do.
As different as many of our garments look, the fabrics used in their construction are often remarkably similar. Look at the labels of many of your garments, and you will likely see names like polyester, nylon, merino, etc. Raeburn suggests we can separate most of our kit into three categories: 1) Basic synthetics, e.g. jerseys, bibs, and some base layers; 2) Merino products, e.g. pure merino and merino blend base layers, gravel jerseys, etc; 3) DWR (Durable Water Repellant) garments, e.g. soft-shell wet weather garments such as “the Gabba”.
Raeburn suggests each category requires a slightly different laundering process with different wash and drying techniques to ensure the best clean and performance longevity. The basic synthetics are usually quite delicate, require washing after each use, and don’t like heat or biological detergent (more on this later).
The merino-based garments again like low temperatures and “non-bio” detergent (more on bio and non-bio detergents in a moment), but they are more odour resistant and can usually go longer between washes. The big difference with merino relates to drying. Tumble dryers should be avoided entirely (again, more on dryers later) and many merino garments are best dried flat. Merino-specific detergents are also available, and Raeburn suggests merino garments can often go in with general non-cycling garments.
Raeburn’s final category covers all garments with a DWR treatment. The DWR treatments that give these garments their super power deteriorate over time and wash cycles. Surfactants in washing detergents, both bio and non-bio, offer deep-cleaning powers but penetrate the DWR treatments and deep into the fabrics, diminishing their water repellency and breathability. Raeburn suggests a once-a-week/fortnight wash for DWR garments only, with a specific technical wash cleaner designed to revitalise the water repellency of these wet weather garments.
While the whole topic of DWR treatments requires a dedicated article, one thing to note is the bad rap these treatments have for being toxic and damaging to the environment. Many outdoor and waterproof clothing brands initially used C8 DWR treatments containing dangerous perfluorochemicals (PFCs) which were toxic, carcinogenic, and severely damaging to the environment. Thankfully, C8 has since been phased out and banned, replaced by C6 DWR treatments which are non-carcinogenic but also not as water-repellant, durable, and still not great for the environment.
Many environmentally focused brands are now shifting to fluorine-free and sustainable C0 treatments. These treatments are PFC-free and plant-based, wax-based, or silicon-based. While again not as effective as C8 DWR treatments, washing C0-treated garments does not drain harmful PFCs into the water system. Furthermore, and getting back to our dirty washing, some brands such as Nikwax now offer PFC-free technical wash treatments revitalising water repellency and garment longevity without the harmful side effects.
It might seem like we’d never get there, but finally, we have made our way to the washing machine. What now? Raeburn has a simple rule of thumb for all three kit categories: never use bio washing detergent. Raeburn explains that the word “bio” is often misconstrued as an environmentally friendly offering when it comes to washing detergent. In actual fact, the “bio” is short for “biological”, meaning the detergent contains a biological enzyme.
These biological enzymes are great for removing stains at low temperatures, however, as Raeburn explains, the biological catalyst is an enzyme which also attacks the elastane, lycra, or spandex, degrading our garments much quicker.
Picture a really old pair of bibs, with no shape, loose grippers, and fabric that has turned a greyish-silver and slightly transparent. The enzymes in the biological detergent will speed up this breakdown process quite significantly, leaving kit looking old before its time. The damage is even worse for merino garments.
Avoid fabric softeners too. Although they will leave your kit lovely and soft, they can cause deterioration similar to that of biological detergents. Worse still, softeners seep into fabrics, trapping stains and odours next time you ride, and hampering breathability.
Instead, Raeburn suggests using non-biological detergents (with the basic synthetics and merino garments) or a dedicated sportswear detergent. The non-bio detergent contains surfactants that separate dirt from the textiles suspending it in the water, to be drained away. However, not all non-bio detergents are created equally and some can be quite harmful to the environment. We will cover this in greater detail in the environmental considerations section below, so for now, the shorter version is to choose eco-friendly non-bio detergent.
Assos, Bend36, and NickWax all offer cycling-specific laundry detergents. Furthermore, countless brands offer sports laundry-specific detergents all promising powerful stain and odour removal properties while still being kind to delicate fabrics. Having experimented with a few detergents while researching this article, my new favourite is a homemade, environmentally friendly and chemical-free detergent. More on this later.
Modern washing machines offer a wide range of temperature settings but avoid the temptation to turn up the heat. Manufacturers recommend a cool 30 °C wash for almost all cycling gear. Increased temperatures will severely damage or even destroy even the most robust kit. Furthermore, according to EnergyStar.gov again, heating water “consumes about 90% of the energy it takes to operate a clothes washer.” Raeburn suggests a 30 °C wash is perfect for most washes while upping the temperature to 40 °C can help with tougher stains without damaging kit.
This one is a little complicated. Cycling kit and laundry detergents do not make happy cohabitants. Selecting an extra rinse on your wash machine can ensure most or even all the detergent gets rinsed out of your clothing. However, that extra rinse will use more water and energy, further increasing the environmental impact and cost of our clothing over multiple wash cycles.
Many resources suggest that a longer and/or faster spin cycle is a more economical option across the whole wash and dry process because it reduces the time required in the tumble dryer. However, things are a little different for cycling kit.
First off, when possible, we should avoid tumble dryers for drying cycling kits. As for the spin cycle, less tends to be better for cycling kit. The spin cycle in a washing machine drys the clothing within by forcing water from the garments under extreme force from the centrifugal effect of the incredibly high speed rotating drum. The centrifugal forces pin multiple garments on top of each other, against the drum wall, effectively squeezing the water out like a sponge.
Needless to say, this is not ideal for the delicate fibres and fabrics in our highly technical cycling gear. While a 1,500 rpm spin might be great for everyday clothing, opt for lower settings when it comes to your cycling wash. Schoeck suggests 600-800 rpm maximum.
Again, how we dry our kit can have a lasting effect on many cycling garments. As mentioned initially, I’ve always avoided tumble drying cycling kit. The heat and the tumbling, creasing, and folding effects of the dryer will hurt the delicate fibres in many garments, especially merino wool items.
However, go to any stage race hotel and you will see teams tumble drying kits on a nightly basis. While the pro kit is often identical to what we mere mortals are using, the reality is the kit is not intended to last for anything more than a calendar year. Furthermore, pro riders tend to get a ridiculous quantity of kit, so clothing lifespan is well down the list of priorities.
Graeme Raeburn of Albion suggests “there is no reason to tumble dry most garments with synthetic fabrics that very quickly air dry. In fact, something like a 100% polyester product will come out of the machine already almost dry if it has been washed next to a cotton product which will have absorbed much of the liquid.”
While Raeburn recommends air-drying garments, he did acknowledge we sometimes need a chamois or thermal garment dried for a ride the following day. In this scenario, he suggests a low heat short tumble dry is fine from time to time, but again, regularly tumble drying will deteriorate garments quicker.
Alternatively, the old pro trick of wrapping garments in a towel and lightly twisting it to squeeze the water out still works well. Just remember it’s not a competition – a gentle squeeze is all the kit needs to remove most of the water.
Again though, given the time, air drying out of direct sunlight is safe and effective for drying cycling gear. Woollen garments tend to hold more water which can weigh them down and cause stretching. As such, it is best to lay woollen clothes flat to dry.
Lastly, what about the radiator? Radiators are typically fine so long as not too hot. Raeburn suggests a radiator that is only warm to the touch will be fine for drying kit. If the radiator is too hot, it can create the same damaging over-heating and melting effects of a hot tumble dryer.
According to EnergyStar.gov, the average American family washes about 300 loads of laundry each year. Add in a cyclist or two and that number might increase significantly, especially in colder and wetter regions. It is estimated all this washing contributes to more than 75% of a garment’s total life cycle impact on the environment. As such, not only is it better for our kit and our wallets but reducing our water and detergent usage even a little can go a long way to reducing our cycling kit’s impact on the environment over its lifespan.
Waiting for full loads in each wash will make the biggest difference, but all things equal, is hand washing or machine washing the more environmentally friendly option? Considering the electricity required to power a washing machine and heat the water, it seems logical that hand washing our kit might be kinder for the environment.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite so simple. Modern washing machines use much less water and require less power than older models. All machines are now delivered with labels denoting how efficient they are. The EU uses the European Union Energy Label with an A to G rating making it easier to choose the most efficient models. On the other hand, the impact of handwashing is much more difficult to measure given the variability of water and energy used from user to user, the type of heating used, and the size of the load each individual sink can hold.
That said, with a bit of care, washing your clothes by hand can use as little as half as much water as a less eco-friendly machine. Less water means less detergent, which can further cut expenses and over longer periods the environmental impact of washing cycling kit. Careful though, despite much of the energy used in a machine wash going into heating the water, that can still be more efficient than hot water from a tap. Opting for colder water and extra elbow grease can provide significant environmental and budget-friendly savings for those willing to put in the effort.
Better yet, try foot-washing your kit in the shower. Double up washing body and kit together.
As mentioned above, non-bio detergents are much better for our kit than the bio alternatives. However, those surfactants doing the dirty work in the non-bio detergents can often be synthetic and harsh on the environment. Instead, look for “eco-friendly” non-bio detergents which ditch the nasty petroleum-based synthetic surfactants in favour of natural options derived from plants, like soaps. These natural and “eco-friendly” or so-called “green” options are much kinder to the environment, especially marine life which synthetic surfactants are especially damaging for.
As an added bonus, eco-friendly detergents are often concentrated meaning less is needed for each load. Furthermore, the eco options work well at cooler temperatures and hence use less energy for a double whammy environment- and wallet-friendly option.
You could always make your own detergent/soap and there are countless how-to guides online. Making your own detergent means you have full control and oversight of each ingredient, ensuring no nasty chemicals or nastiness. DIY detergents are remarkably easy to make and require very few ingredients making this perhaps the most environmentally and economically friendly detergent option.
I have tried a few recipes while researching this article. Below is the one I have settled on and that we are now using for all our family washing. Better yet, all the ingredients are available in plastic-free packaging, offering an extra bonus in the environmentally friendly stakes. Here’s what you’ll need:
Again, we mentioned it above, but using cooler water can save both energy and the environment. The cooler the water, the less energy used. Plus cooler water is just better for our lovely kit.
Laundrettes tend to use commercial washing machines which are much more efficient than smaller domestic machines. As such, heading to the laundrette can be a more environmentally friendly option for washing any of our clothes.
Energy Saver, the U.S. Department of Energy’s consumer resource on saving energy, published its 16 Ways to Save Money in the Laundry Room. Unsurprisingly, many of these money-saving tips focus on reducing energy usage so while great for cutting the cost of doing your laundry, many will also reduce the environmental impact of washing your kit.
Ah, the age-old problem: how to get mud and road spray out of white cycling kit, or any cycling kit. If you are a fan of white kit you have probably encountered this problem at some point. Fans of cyclocross might assume national and world champions jerseys are for the bin after a particularly muddy race. However, with some quick action, most jerseys can be saved.
Pro cyclocross riders get it somewhat easier, with pro mechanics on hand with power washers to blast the mud out immediately after the race. While you A) might not have a power washer and B) don’t particularly want to wash your kit with one, there is an alternative.
One of the first tips I picked up racing in Belgium was the pre-wash mentioned above. After a wet race, our kit would be caked in road spray and all manner of dirt. The problem here is two-fold: firstly stains left to dry are much harder to remove, but more importantly, the wet, dirty kit will contaminate an entire wash cycle. The muddy water from a few wet and dirty items will circulate through the entire wash, leaving everything looking pretty bad.
Thankfully, a quick pre-wash rinse can prevent such contamination. My preferred method is to hand wash each item under a cold water tap until the dirty water draining from it runs clear. While not the most water-usage-conscious option, this is perhaps one scenario were ensuring the kit can be used again is more eco-friendly than replacing stained kit.
Once the water is running clear, add some elbow grease and rub particularly stained areas against each other to agitate and lift any spots of dirt. Following that, post wet rides are one instance you definitely want to fully wash your pre-rinsed kit as soon as possible.
Maximising usage and lifespan is the best way to reduce a garment’s environmental impact. The longer and more frequently we can use a garment, the less often we need to buy a replacement. This entire article has focused on how to increase the lifespan of a garment by reducing the damaging impact washing can have on our kit. Until now. Increasing the temperature and perhaps even using biological detergents might just save a severely stained garment from early retirement.
Increasing the wash temperature will help loosen lipids and lift oil-based stains. Again, not for everyday washing, but in extreme circumstances ignoring everything I have already said might just keep a jersey in action for a few more rides.
As pictured above, pro teams all have washing and drying machines on hand after every stage to ensure the riders have their kit ready for the following day. But there was a time the pros were like us mere mortals and post-stage recovery involved handwashing their kit in hotel bathrooms. I remember Sean Kelly telling us of practical jokes he played by hanging his wet kit over a balcony in exactly the right place to drip dry onto a rival’s kit and shoes on the balcony below, meaning a soggy ride for that rival the following day.
While the peloton practical jokes may have moved on, the bathroom handwash still works every bit as well as it ever did. Again, speed is key. The sooner you can get handwashing your kit, be that in the shower with you or in a bath later, the more drying time it will have.
The hand wash can be very similar to the wet day pre-rinse mentioned above, except on dryer days one sink of water should suffice rather than a running tap.
Drying is equally straightforward. Wrap the kit in a bathroom towel and squeeze dry. Despite being relatively straightforward, towel drying can often be the biggest mistake many riders make with the hotel room wash. Again, while it is tempting to wrap and squeeze the towel as tightly as possible, such strain can seriously damage kit. Lightly squeeze any excess moisture from the kit and hang dry overnight. If the kit is still damp in the morning a quick blast with a hairdryer can dry it off.
So there we go. A comprehensive guide to washing cycling kit. Follow the advice above and your kit won’t just last longer; you’ll also reduce your environmental impact in the process. Win-win.