By Jim Langley
We’ve talked before about washing bicycles after rainy rides. My advice was to remove the wheels to make the task of washing them easier. However, I didn’t provide complete instructions for cleaning wheels.
Two thoughts made me decide to go into more detail today. First is the fact that wheels have become so much more expensive. So, sort of like wanting to keep the expensive custom rims you might have on your vehicle shiny, you might feel the same way about your bike’s hoops. And, second, there’s actually a lot to cleaning bicycle wheels.
So, in this Tech Talk, let’s take a closer look and learn some tricks. Clean the wheels one part at a time as outlined here.
Have some cleaning tools on hand, such as a bucket with warm water and a grease-cutting dishwashing detergent like Dawn that makes lots of suds. A soft sponge is perfect for cleaning the non-grimy parts, and round up some rags for cleaning the cassette and drying the various parts.
I also like Park Tool’s GearClean Brush for cassette cleaning. If there are black marks on the sides of the rims from braking, a solvent like acetone will remove them quickly (protect your skin and eyes). Isopropyl alcohol works, too, but requires more scrubbing for those black marks. It can be used as a solvent to degrease parts, too.
By cleaning the cassette first, you’ll avoid transferring any grease from it onto your just-cleaned rim, tire and spokes. To dislodge any buildup of grime between the cogs, I use the toothed end of Park’s GearClean brush.
Then, to clean the cassette cogs, I hold the wheel flat with the tire against me on one side and against the wall or workbench on the other. This puts the cassette facing up and allows me to hold the wheel with my body, leaving my hands free. Lean into the wheel to maintain constant pressure or you’ll drop it.
I then hold a rag with both hands and, using a shoe-shine motion, slip the edge of the rag between each two cogs and “floss,” going back and forth with the rag until every cog is clean.
If the cogs are more dirty, use a little solvent on the rag, like the alcohol. You can also use the brush on the Park tool (or an old toothbrush) to clean the cogs before wiping. Just try not to let the brush fling grease and grime all over the rest of the wheel, or it’ll make more of a mess to clean.
It takes a little practice using a brush and rags like this to clean the cassette, but you can get pretty quick at the technique, and it does a nice job.
An alternative is to remove the cassette so that you can work on the cassette broken down into individual and grouped cogs. That requires cassette removal tools and takes longer. But it makes it easy to clean the hub that’s otherwise hiding behind the largest cassette cog.
Once the cassette’s shiny and clean again, focus on the hubs. Start by cleaning the ends of the axles, since that’s where you may find some grease and grime that will spread if you don’t clean it off. Wiping with a rag will usually take care of it quickly. Or, if it’s got some crud built up, go at it with the brush first to get in the tight spots and then wipe clean with the rag.
Then for the hubs, scrunch up the sponge to fit it in between the spokes to clean the centers of the hubs and around the spoke holes. Just move the sponge around the hub and push it so it gets next to the spoke bends and heads. Then use it to clean the outside of the hub and spoke holes there, too.
With disc brake bikes you’ll want to clean the rotor and behind it, too. And, once clean, be sure to inspect it for signs of wear. Your braking depends on rotors in good condition. If you see deep grooves or noticeable thinning, it may be time for a new rotor.
Spokes and Nipples
Quality wheels use stainless-steel spokes, which won’t rust. But they will still pick up dirt, dust and grime from the chain lube. Wipe them down with the sponge and soapy water. Note that spokes have more than one surface. Spokes usually cross other spokes, too. For these reasons, take your time to ensure you’ve cleaned all surfaces of each spoke.
Keep going up to the rim, and clean the spoke nipples, too. Dirt collects around the nipples and it doesn’t always clean off when washing the rims.
Tip: After cleaning the spokes, you can prevent future ticking sounds by placing a small drop of Tri-Flow at each spoke cross and then squeezing the spokes to allow the lube to get in-between the spokes. Wipe off any excess lube and be sure not to drip any lube on anything else.
Rims and Tires
Using the sponge and soapy water, thoroughly clean the bottom and sides of the rims and the tires, too. I clean the rims working from the side of the wheel, pushing the sponge in between the spokes and cleaning each section all around the wheel. Then I go back and hold the wheel while running the sponge around the rim on both sides. This cleans all surfaces of the rim.
Clean the tires with the sponge by pulling it around the wheel a few times making sure to get the top (tread) and sides (sidewalls).
Tip: One of the best reasons to clean the rims and tires is that it makes it easier to see if anything’s wearing out. Take time to look at every spoke nipple where it meets the rim for any evidence of rim cracking, a sign that it’s time for a new rim.
Also, if you have rim brakes, check the sides of the rims for wear. If the rim has a deep groove in the braking track, it’s probably time to replace the rim. And look at the tire tread and sidewalls for signs of baldness, casing showing through or sidewall failures like stone damage — and replace them if needed, too.
Now, enjoy looking down at those beautiful wheels on your next ride. And keep in mind that now that you know how, you can clean your wheels again in a jiffy anytime you want, even if you’re not washing the rest of your bike.