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Pre-Race Bike Wash and Inspection || Easy Checklist to Improve Reliability and Performance

When I first started bicycle racing, it was back in the mid 1980s.  I was obsessed with BMX racing and loved spending hours at our local track, well, somewhat local as it was about 12km each way on my BMX.  As I moved up in racing, I raced my pride and joy GT Mach One BMX bike at tracks all over the province of Ontario and in other parts of Canada and the USA. 

I knew squat about bike repairs, and I relied on my local bike shop for any repairs whatsoever, including for punctures.  Tire inflation was at the local gas station with their gauge-less air hose.

My Cycling Career before having a Pre-Race Wash and Inspection Routine

I had no pre-race bike prep routine.  It was luck of the draw if the bike held up to such a demanding sport or if I had the correct tire pressure to stay in first place after that sharp turn 2 corner.  I had the occasional race puncture or stem come loose.  I’m sure the chain was often a bit/rather dirty, insufficiently lubed, and robbing me of performance.  I remember once being furious that a simple bike issue like a loose rear wheel nut prevented me from finishing a qualification heat race and I was now out of that Provincial Cup final.  

As the years and decades of bike racing went by, I quickly realised that I was the one who benefitted most from learning about bike maintenance and preparing my bike for each race.  Who else cared as much about my bike as me?  No one.

YouTube didn’t exist.  You learned by trial and error, meticulously reading bike repair books like my trusty greasy-paged “Bicycling Magazine’s The Complete Guide to Bicycle Maintenance and Repair”, and asking human friends to show you how. 

BMX led to mountain bike racing and then road bike racing, and the speeds and demands on the machinery increased, as well.  How could you expect your rim brakes to function properly if there were chain oil droplets on the rim and brake pads, or the pads were too worn?  How could you sense the road if your headset was loose?  How could your legs transfer power to the road or dirt when the chain, rings and cogs were coated in grime and the chain wasn’t lubed properly?  And so on.

Wait, maybe a Wash and Inspection Routine will Pay Off…

Fast forward to my work in Emergency Management and one can apply the work techniques to cycling to reduce the chances of mechanical problems occurring during the race or having your bike hold you back from your full racing potential or preventing you from even finishing the race. 

Develop a pre-race bike preparation routine and equipment checklist!  I am convinced you will quickly benefit in terms of better performance, better safety, better reliability to finish (or win!) races/events, and in any case, a clean and prepped bike just feels sooooo much better.   It looks cooler, too.

Let’s be clear, this is the pre-race wash and inspection.  Make sure you undertake any major repairs in the weeks well before your races or special events, as you want time to work in any new parts and make sure the job was done properly with a few test rides. I never like to do cable changes, changes to the drive train, or even change tire and tubes at the last minute, unless I need to.

Let’s get cracking!

First and foremost, you need a clean bike.  This is the most important thing and by doing this, you might see many other things that need to be done. 

Part 1: Degrease the Drive Train: Chain, Rings, Cogs and Derailleur Pulley Wheels

As you do this, you’ll develop your routine.  Always best to do this work outdoors.  My routine is to spray a bike degreaser liquid on the chain, chain ring(s) [at the front], the cogs [the ones at the back of the bike], and the derailleur’s little pulley wheels.

Put on safety glasses as you don’t want any degreaser droplets going into your eyes!

You can use a liquid degreaser in combination with a chain cleaning device like this one ( https://amzn.to/2X0hvSC or a set https://amzn.to/2Uqcmqh ) but I just use a gentle degreaser liquid (such as https://amzn.to/2U8qfUQ ) in a hand-pump spray bottle and spray it on the chain as I back pedal with the other hand.  Spray it on and then back pedal the chain for a few minutes to allow the degreaser to really work its way in.  You can put a sheet of newspaper on the ground to catch any excess drops. 

For your bike washing kit, get some simple wire brushes and gently scrub the chain and all those toothed chain wheels above.  There are some long bristle tools like https://amzn.to/2X1LNEF to help you reach between the cogs and I’ve had my same tool for 10-15 years.

I find it useful to initially do this degreasing with the wheels on the bike but to each their own.

Welcome to my hodgepodge bike cleaning kit. Build your own. It's easy.
Build your bike cleaning kit of sponges, soft brushes and firmer brushes.

2. Wash it and get it clean, warm soapy water is my favourite

Now it’s time to wet the bike.  It’s also time to hose that whole drive train and wash off all the degreaser and gunk.  Is it really clean?  If so, great, continue with the general wash.  If still grimy, a second round of degreasing should remove the remaining grime.   

I use former dish washing sponges for my bike washing and the cleaner ones are used on the frame/fork, then they get used on the wheels, and finally end up on the drive train.

I keep it simple and use a bucket of warm water with dish soap.  You can also use bike wash soap such as: ( https://amzn.to/2X20JTs )  With your bike wet, start soaping and scrubbing the main part of the bike, then the wheels, and then any drive train areas.

If you have a bike with rim brakes, take off the wheels.  Clean the brake pads, the rims, the hub, and the spokes. 

Should you use a Pressure Washer to Clean your Bike?

There is a massive debate whether using a pressure washer is okay for cleaning bikes.  My feeling is that a low-pressure garden hose is all I need since it’s my sponges, brushes and easy elbow grease that do the cleaning.  I feel there is no need to blast high-pressure water at my bike and maybe into places it shouldn’t be.  To each their opinion.

3. Dry Off the Bike and Drive Train

If it’s a hot and sunny day, the bike will dry fairly quickly but a shamy towel will also help.  A rag or a sheet of paper towel will help the drying of the chain.  Take note of any issues you spot.

4. Do a Brake Pad Check

Your bike likely has rim brakes or disc brakes.  Check the brake pads for any debris.  Are the pads still good and do they have plenty of wear left in them?  Ideally, you’ve done any brake repairs or pad replacements in the weeks before the race to make sure everything was working properly.  If you hadn’t detected brake problems and now there is one, now’s your last chance!  Always test your repairs.

5.Check your Tires for any Issues like Debris, Cracking or Dangerous Wear

Inflate the tires to your desired race pressure using a quality floor pump with a pressure gauge (example: https://amzn.to/2D44wYE).  By doing this and checking it later and again race morning, you will detect if you have a slow leak or other issue.  Slow leaks can turn into major leaks when the wheels are stressed in race conditions.

Spin the wheel slowly and check for any debris embedded in the tire.  Any bits of glass, thorns or metal embedded in the tires?  Is there any cracking of the tire or dangerously worn parts of the tire you hadn’t seen before?  Now’s your last chance. 

If you need to replace the tire, take the opportunity to put in a new inner tube.

6. Check your Wheels for any Damage, Loose Spokes or Warp.

Since you are looking at the tires, give your wheels and quicker spin and check if the wheel is true.  “True” means it isn’t warped or wobbling. 

Are there any loose spokes?  Now’s your last chance to tighten any loose spokes and/or straighten out any small warps.  Buying a few inexpensive wheel truing tools like these ones ( https://amzn.to/2IuyZ5T ) will probably do the trick.  There are different types and thicknesses of spoke nipples so make sure you have the correct tool.  My Mavic wheelset has a unique nipple. The nipple is the part the spoke screws into at the rim. 

Do you need a bike stand to work on your bike(s)?

Absolutely not.  I did 20 years of stand-free repairs.

Will you enjoy years and years of easier work on your bike(s) by buying a quality bike stand?  Oh my goodness, yes!  I bought my Park bike stand (something like this one: https://amzn.to/2I94sLl ) about 15 years ago and have loved it.  I have a family of cyclists and that stand makes my repairs and cleaning swifter and easier. 

A good bike stand will give you years and years of easier bike cleaning and repairs. My Park bike stand is about 15 years old.

7. Time to Apply Lube to your Clean Chain and Any Other Lubed Parts

All that degreasing has stripped away any kind of lube on the chain or other parts.  You absolutely need to re-apply some. 

If you have only one reliable go-to chain lube, apply it.  If you have multiple types of lube, choose the one suited to the anticipated conditions.

Top tip: Put the chain into the biggest ring at the front and the smallest cog at the back.  This will put your chain as far from the rim as possible.  This is very important if you have rim brakes.  Well, you don’t want lube contacting disc brakes either.  If you do get lube on those braking surfaces by mistake, use a bit of soapy water to clean it off.

Link by link, apply a drop of lube on each link until you have made a complete loop of the chain.  If there is a master link, start and finish with it, or just take note of when you have returned to lubed links.

Back pedal slowly for a minute or two to help the lube soak in everywhere, and then let it dry for 10mins if it’s a dry lube or wax.  Wipe off any excess lube with a rag, really old race t-shirts work well.  Awesome!

8. Use your Multi-tool or Wrench Set to Check for any Loose Bolts

If there were some loose bolts on the bike, it would be a bummer to discover them during the race and cause catastrophic failure or prevent you from finishing. 

Give your bolts a quick tightness check.  Water bottle holder bolts?  Stem bolts?  Pedals?  Seat and seat post bolts?  Brake and shifter lever bolts?  Etc…  [A torque wrench like this https://amzn.to/2D7wF14 might be needed for some bolts.]  You are taking the opportunity to nearly remove a loose-bolt hazard.

9. Do a Quick Inspection of your Repair Emergency Kit

Do you have all the items for that bike, the weather, and for that type of race?  Saddle bag?

10. Put the Bike Back Together and Go for a Test Spin

All that work above is great, but you need to ensure it all worked out properly.  During your test spin, check the braking, shifting, steering, pressure, and so on.  If anything doesn’t feel right, correct it.

11. Do a Final Race Morning Inspection

If something on your bike got bonked in transit to the race or on race morning, now’s your final chance to correct it. 

Check your tire pressure.  Hopefully your tire pressure is the same as yesterday.  If not, top it up.  If it’s way low, do the necessary repairs.  I like to keep a few of the correct spare tubes in my dedicated race bag.  You’ll make friends when it’s you who helps out others.

After your warm-up ride, give both wheels a slow spin and check for any new debris picked up in your test ride or in the parking lot.  Why?  It paid off two races ago.  In the start wave coral, I checked my tires one last time and found a new tiny piece of glass deeply embedded in the tire, but I dug it out with my finger nail.  Oof!  Given the high-speed downhills of that 110km road race, I’m glad I averted that incident!

Everything feel right?  Yes?  Great!

Summary: Develop your Pre-Race Wash and Inspection Routine

The above is not overly complicated once you have developed a routine.  It goes quickly.  Start with a good wash and check over your kit.  It’ll pay off.

If there are other cyclists in your household, teach them how to do a pre-race (or pre-ride) wash and inspection.  They’ll become far more knowledgeable about their equipment and hopefully more able to resolve issues during races, events and outings.

Think of it.  You’ll start your race or event with far more confidence in your equipment and you’ll probably find your bike faster, safer, smoother, and more crisp!  Have an awesome race or event!

In the Comments Below: What’s your routine?

I’d love to hear your pre-race routine elements.  What’s worked for you?  Share in the comments section below.

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