How To Clean Your Bike On A Long Bikepacking Or Touring Trip: Is it even necessary?


I’ve never been the best at cleaning my bike while on a trip, in fact, it was only a year into bikepacking that I realized it was something I should even consider. But after researching for this article I’ve realized just how important keeping your bike clean on a long trip can be. So, why is it worth it, and what is the best way to do it?

Cleaning your bike while on a bikepacking trip or bike tour is very important, not only does it save your other gear from getting muddy, but it can save you money on bike repairs. The best way to clean your bike on the road is by using wet wipes or borrowing a bucket of soapy water from a hotel, pub, or bike shop.

Below we go into more detail about why keeping your bike clean is important, as well as looking at the actual steps you should take to clean your bike, and how often you should be doing it.

Do I need to clean my bike on a long-distance cycling trip?

Basic bike maintenance such as fixing a flat tire, lubing the chain, and even fixing cables are all things that you will likely expect to be doing on a long bikepacking or bike touring trip. But very few people talk about the practicalities of cleaning a bike while on a long tour. You wouldn’t expect to do 10 individual 100-mile cycles on a bike at home without cleaning it in between, so why would a single 1000-mile trip be any different?

We asked a range of long-distance bikepackers how much they spent on maintenance and repairs during their trips. We then asked those same cyclists if they “cleaned” their bikes while traveling. While only a very small amount of the cyclists did not clean their bikes at all, it was obvious from the small amount of data we were able to collect, that the financial impact of properly cleaning your bike on a trip can be huge.

A bar chart showing the average expenditure per day on bike repairs for those who did and did not clean their bikes while touring

How to keep your bike clean while traveling for weeks (or even months) at a time?

You can see this 5-minute video from GCN on the 5-minute bike cleaning routine. While this is a great starting point, obviously this needs to be adjusted for a cleaning routine while on the road.

There are 4 main areas you need to clean on a bike; The Frame, the chain, the wheels, and the brakes.

The Frame

The most obvious piece of a bike to clean, but perhaps the least necessary. The body and frame of a bike often require the least frequency of cleaning, as most of the dirt will be aesthetic only.

There are many ways you can clean your bike frame. The most obvious way is to ask at any hotels or B&Bs you are staying in if you can borrow a bucket of water and some soap, we’ve never had any of them say no to this before. Give the bike a good wash down, wiping away the mud and grime.

If they say no, or you aren’t planning to stay in any hotels, then there are other options available.

Consider asking at a local bike shop. I’ve not done this personally but know some cyclists who have popped into a small town bike shop, borrowed a rag and some soapy water, and even in one case made a riding partner for a day of their trip!

If you are in an urban area, many bikepackers will use a self-cleaning or “pay and spray” car wash. This is a cheap and efficient way to quickly get the bulk of the mud off of your bike. When doing this you need to be careful wherever there are moving parts.

Make sure to spray the hose from at least a meter away and angle it so that it doesn’t get water into any ball bearings.

What’s just as important as getting the mud off of your frame, is to take this opportunity to look out for any areas of damage or cracks that could have formed. Putting in so many miles is not only hard on you but hard on the bike as well.

The Chain and Cassette

When it comes to cleaning the chain and cassette, you can’t just wipe these down with some soapy water and be done with it.

Cleaning a chain requires a more thorough approach.

Put the chain in the big ring and then into the smallest sprocket at the back and spray them both down with some WD40 if you have it to hand. If you don’t, you can do almost as well with some soapy water.

We’d suggest taking an old toothbrush or wire brush like this with you on any extended trips. These are great for getting down into the nooks and crannies of your chain. Simply run this along your chain after washing it down with the water or WD40, making sure to get into all the gaps and clean it as well as you can.

Some riders even use baby wipes to clean their cassette and chain if they don’t have these other options to hand. They are cheap, readily available, and often you will be carrying a packet with you anyway.

Just make sure to add some chain lube back onto the chain before cycling again after you’ve cleaned it.

The wheels and tires

The wheels and tires are another piece of the bike that is quite easy to clean while bikepacking. These can be washed down at the same time as your frame with either soapy water or a power washer.

It is easiest to clean these when the wheels have been taken off of the bike. Using the same cleaning rag that you have used for the rest of the frame is fine!

It is important to clean the whole way around both of the tires, as well as on the wheel itself and along each of the wheel spokes. It is also useful to give the area around the tire valve as clean as well.

When cleaning the tires, it is a good opportunity to review how worn away the tread is, as well as look for any possible damage such as nails, etc that may be lodged into the tire.

The brakes

The brakes are an area of a bike that is often ignored when cleaning, however, this doesn’t mean they are not important.

Cleaning the brakes is much easier while on the road if you have rim brakes. This involves removing the wheel and using your rag and water to clean away any dirt inside the brake calipers. Make sure to properly wipe this area down afterward though, as leaving soap residue can make the brakes slip.

If you have disk brakes you need to make sure you are using specific cleaning products for hydraulic disk brakes. You might consider popping into a bike shop intermittently on your trip to get some of this material, otherwise, just try to keep the main grime and muck out of them.

How often do I need to clean my bike?

So now you know what you should be doing to keep your bike clean, but how often do you actually need to do it?

You won’t need to clean your whole bike every day, but the different parts of your bike should be cleaned periodically, some more than others.

The most important part of your bike to keep clean is the chain and cassette. This is the most prone to becoming damaged if it is left too long between cleans. This should be done almost daily with a clean down and reapplying chain lubricant.

The frame, tires, and wheels are less important than the chain and cassette and will not require cleaning as often. However, you should make sure to give these a good clean-down each week or so.

However, it might be worth giving these a clean down more frequently if the type of cycling you are doing cycling that ends up with your bike caked in mud.

The brakes are another key area of your bike that you need to keep clean. Due to how hard they can be to clean, these are often the area of the bike you will clean the least. The riders we spoke to suggested that they only really cleaned their bikes at a place where they were able to have a little more time, such as at a hotel or town stop.

There are a few ways you can reduce the amount of cleaning you need to do on a long bikepacking trip. Firstly, fenders or mudguards help a lot in keeping things clean and reduce the amount of mud kicked up not only your bike frame but also your gear.

Another key step you can take to minimize cleaning requirements on the road is to do as much cleaning and maintenance as you can before you leave. If there’s anything specific that you need to do while on your trip, then try to do it in a town with a friend or bike shop where you have access to a bike stand.

Should I get my bike serviced while on a bike trip?

Something I had not considered before was the idea of needing a bike service while on a bike tour or bikepacking trip. However, on those particularly long trips (multiple months or even years), it might be worth arranging a service for your bike.

We’d suggest only doing this every 6 months or so if you are cleaning and maintaining the bike yourself. However, it may be required more frequently if you are less confident in some of the more difficult parts of bike maintenance.

If you are planning to get a service, consider looking ahead on your route to find a well-reviewed bike shop. Here they can pull any unsealed bearings, replace the chain, etc, while you get a chance to explore a local town.

Overall

As always, the mantra of bike maintenance is “little and often”, which is very true for a bikepacking or long-distance bike tour. Regularly cleaning down your bike, particularly the chain and cassette, can hopefully avoid a larger clean or repair at some point.

Mark Holmes

30-year-old doctor with an interest in cycling, bikepacking, and statistics.

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