Washing Your Bike

Story by Costa Mouzouris//
May 1 2013

Some people might take it for granted, but washing a motorcycle isn’t as easy as it looks. You can give your bike a quickie wash with soap and a jet of water from a garden hose, or you can perform a more thorough cleansing using a high-pressure washer and a multitude of products, each one for a specific job. There’s no doubt the latter will take longer, but it will also return more gratifying results. Also, if done improperly, washing your bike can actually cause some damage.

Direct sunlight will cause soapy water or other cleaning products to dry prematurely, causing streaks that will be hard to remove, so you should move your bike into the shade and let it cool down before washing it. A number of products on the market claim to be the best at washing the grime off your bike, and one I have used is S100 Total Cycle Cleaner, which works as claimed. Spray it on, wash it off and you’re ready to ride. But where’s the fun in that? I like to take my time washing my motorcycle, taking a close look at it as I go – what better time to spot an oil leak, a new stone chip or a loose part that’s on the verge of falling off?

For this reason, and also because I’m cheap, I use dishwashing detergent and a wash mitt to get most of the dirt off my bike. Dishwashing liquid is gentle on paint and metal, it’s a mild degreaser, and when properly rinsed off, it leaves no residue. However, a thorough wash should also include a proper degreasing of the engine and wheels.
Fantastik, an inexpensive household cleaner, is an excellent degreasing agent that’s very good at removing grease and grime. It’s mild compared to commercially available automotive engine degreasers, which can stain aluminum and paint finishes, yet is almost as effective and it doesn’t smell nearly as toxic. Just spray it onto the wheels and the cold, dry engine, let it soak for several minutes, then wash it off with pressurized water; you’ll be surprised at the results.

Stubborn grease, like accumulated chain lube on the swingarm or rear wheel, can be removed using contact cleaner (also known as brake cleaner) and a rag. This stuff is highly volatile and toxic, so be sure to use it in a well-ventilated area.

While rinsing off the engine and wheels, also spray the rest of the bike with water to remove loose dirt and dust before washing it with the detergent. Rubbing a soapy wash mitt over caked-on dirt will scratch your bike. Use lots of water on a windshield, and make sure there isn’t any grit or pebbles trapped in your wash mitt.

Pressure washers are great for washing motorcycles – I use one all the time – but care must be taken when pointing the nozzle at your soiled cycle. There are areas that must not receive a direct blast, like the wheel-bearing seals, fork seals and any other visible oil seals. The high-pressure stream of water is great at removing grime, but it also forces water past the seal’s lip, onto the bearing behind and into the forks, which will cause corrosion. Note that while blasting the drive chain with a pressure washer will make it look almost new, it will also force dirt past the O-rings and into the rollers, which will greatly reduce the chain’s lifespan. The best advice I’ve been given about cleaning a chain came from a test rider for an Italian chain manufacturer. He said the best way to care for a chain is not to clean it – just lubricate it regularly. Good-quality chain lube not only lubricates a chain, it also has cleansing properties.

You also want to take care when pressure-washing older bikes, or dirtbikes with plastic fuel tanks. The jet of water can lift paint from a metal fuel tank, especially if there’s corrosion at the seams, and it will lift decals from plastic fuel tanks. You don’t want to start washing a muddy Honda CRF and end up with a shiny no-name dirtbike, do you?

After a thorough rinsing, you can prevent spotting by drying the bike with a synthetic or leather chamois, or you can blow it dry with a commercial blow dryer like the Air Force Blaster. You can also use a Shop-Vac by plugging the hose into the outlet port. Just make sure the vacuum canister is empty and clean, and install a filter to prevent debris from blowing out. Also make sure the hose is clean inside, or you’ll inadvertently sandblast your bike.

Minor surface scratches on paint can be removed with either wax or rubbing compound. As a rule of thumb, if you wet the scratch and it disappears, it can be buffed out. If it is visible when wet, it’ll probably need sanding or a touch-up. (“Mojo Garage – Scratch Removal,” January/February 2012)

Stainless steel and aluminum can be polished with metal polish, and there are many on the market; I use Mothers Mag & Aluminum Polish. Note that polishing, whether it’s paint or metal, removes a minute amount of material (this is how the renewed finish is achieved). Frequent polishing will wear a surface down with time, so do it sparingly. Light surface rust on chrome or other metal can be removed effectively with a product like CLR (calcium, lime and rust remover).

Once you’re satisfied with your thorough cleaning, you can apply, sparingly, aerosol silicone lubricant to the wheel-bearing seals and fork seals. This will add a measure of lubrication to the seals and reduce wear.
Finally, you can lubricate things like the helmet lock and ignition switch with WD40. Aside from lubricating and cleaning, it also displaces water. If you own an older bike with contact points and it refuses to start after a wash, spray WD40 onto the electrical connections and ignition components; chances are it will start, though you should also consider a tune-up with new gaskets and seals, which would be a more permanent fix.
Now, go out, take a ride and enjoy all that hard work.

Technical articles are written purely as reference only and your motorcycle may require different procedures. You should be mechanically inclined to carry out your own maintenance and we recommend you contact your mechanic prior to performing any type of work on your bike.


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