How to Clean Your Cycling Gear
Riding kit is expensive. Here’s how to keep it looking, smelling, and performing its best.
There are all kinds of motivations that get me out the door to ride, but if I’m being honest, New Kit Day is pretty high up the list. Its sad and much more frequent corollary, however, is Shabby Kit Life. Inevitably, after tons of rides, your once-new clothing, helmet, shoes, and pack get salt crusted, sun faded, stained from water and dirt, and develop a stubborn funk that’s hard to wash out.
Take heart: there are ways you can put life back into old apparel and make it last longer. Keeping your gear clean isn’t just about hygiene, or making your clothing look and smell fresh. Proper garment care helps performance fabrics do their jobs better, too.
I’ve been riding for 30 years, and covering gear for almost as long. I have jerseys that are older than some Outside staffers. I’ve written a number of articles about garment care, done detergent testing, and talked to probably a dozen expert sources at clothing brands over the years about how to take care of performance clothing and gear like helmets and shoes. This is the sum total of what I’ve learned about how to keep your stuff at its best.
Pre-wash muddy stuff
Think of dirt as essentially zillions of tiny knives that are slicing the textile fibers in your jerseys and shorts, which wears them out faster. If your kit is really trashed from a wet ride, that dirt is circulating in the wash cycle, abrading your clothing even more as the wash drum turns. Instead, pre-rinse anything that has more than a modest rooster tail of grit on it; just one or two hand soaks and rinses is enough to get most of the gunk out. It’ll also help your washer work more effectively, as it’s not trying to process a huge amount of soil.
Do loads frequently
I’m guilty of letting the hamper fill up from time to time, but I try to do a load of workout clothes weekly so stuff doesn’t marinate in its own funk. Extended stays in a damp petri-dish pile of clothes, not the initial exposure to sweat on your ride, is what leads to persistent stink over time. Let sweaty gear dry out before you toss it in the bin, especially shorts with chamois pads. You should turn those inside out to dry fully, and leave them that way to wash. The chamois will get more detergent exposure, and will rinse cleaner.
Zippers are basically hundreds of little teeth. Like dirt, those teeth will abrade fabrics during a wash cycle. Close all zippers before washing. Similarly, fasten all Velcro closures on items like glove cuffs and waistbands of baggy shorts. The “hook” side of those fasteners is particularly aggressive at pilling fabrics.
Protect bib shorts in top-load washers
Bib suspender straps are notorious for tangling on the agitator in top-load washers, where they can get stretched or torn. Wash them in a mesh garment bag to prevent this.
Warm rinse/extra rinse
The default rinse option on most cycles is cold. But several apparel experts I’ve spoken with in the past recommend a warm rinse for synthetic fabrics, if your washing machine allows—no matter what’s on the garment care label. That’s because detergents dissolve more completely in warm water, which helps garments rinse cleaner. If your washer allows you to select rinse temperature options, pick warm. I also always do an extra rinse cycle. One of the primary ways that performance fabrics lose their properties (like moisture-wicking) is they get gummed up with detergent residue. Rinsing it clean helps those fabrics do their job better.
Hang or line dry
You can lay any cycling apparel flat or hang to dry (it’s more energy-efficient and easier on the clothes), but there’s one item that should never go in the dryer: your bib shorts. Heat from a dryer can cause the silicone and elastic on leg grippers to dry out and crack over time. It also breaks down the foam in chamois pads.
What to wash with
Several years ago I tested a number of sports-specific detergents like Nathan Power Wash ($25), Nikwax Base Wash ($9.50), and Assos Sports Wash ($42), assessing them for how well they cleaned soiled clothing samples, as well as rinsing out and removing stink. My control detergents were Tide ($12) Ecover Zero ($21). While Tide was a bit underwhelming, the Ecover did as well or better on dirt and odor tests than any fancy sports-specific stuff, on both synthetics and woolens. It also gets an A from the Environmental Working Group. Of the specialty detergents, I’ve used Assos extensively, and find that it does an excellent job on synthetics, especially for preserving color, since it has optical brighteners. But it’s pricey and has a distinct scent that borders between flowery and medicinal, which may be unpleasant to some folks. Generally, I prefer a liquid detergent with no dyes or scents, which are unnecessary additives that may be hard to rinse clean. I don’t use a special wool detergent; I don’t wear enough wool to do wool-only loads often, and I’ve had no issues using a general detergent on wool-blend fabrics. Most detergents today are highly concentrated; unless you have a really big load, just fill to the first line on the measuring cap. Using more than you need makes it harder for the wash to fully rinse it out.
What not to wash with
Avoid fabric softener, hot water, and high-spin settings. Fabric softeners work by coating the fabric fibers with a soft-feeling residue. But that residue traps oils, odors, and dirt, and can inhibit properties like moisture wicking or water repellency. Meanwhile, hot water can actually melt some of the fibers in next-to-skin fabrics like baselayers, which limits their wicking abilities. And high-spin settings are harsh on fabrics and stitching. Most synthetics don’t hold a lot of water anyway.
Wash specialty items separately
I separate specialty garments like down/synthetic insulation and waterproof shells. For those, I like Nikwax’s line of performance detergents, specifically the Down Wash Direct ($11/10 ounces) and Tech Wash ($9.75/10 ounces). Waterproof-breathable membranes are easily clogged with detergent residue, and nothing I’ve used cleans those technical fabrics better or rinses out more thoroughly than Tech Wash. If baselayers, shorts, or jerseys have persistent odor, you can try Nikwax’s Base Wash ($9.50/10 ounces), which seemed to do slightly better with odors than other sports washes I’ve tried. If the problem is particularly stubborn, Revivex’s Odor Eliminator ($9/10 ounces) or Defunkify’s Odor Shield ($15/load) are worth a shot as a single treatment. One item that can and should go in the dryer is anything with a durable-water repellent (DWR) finish. A quick spin at low heat helps revive the treatment. You can also use a product like Nikwax’s TX.Direct ($13/10 ounces). The wash-in offers more uniform coverage than the spray-on, but you’ll want to do a washer clean cycle afterward.
At least clothing gets washed; most of us ignore shoes entirely. But especially now that synthetics have completely replaced natural leather in cycling shoes as an upper material, there’s no reason to avoid a good scrub now and then. Remove the insoles and, if your shoes have them, laces. Add warm water and dish soap to a bucket and grab a stiff-bristle brush. Scrub the outside of the shoes thoroughly, taking care to get the bristles into fabric sections to clear dirt out of the mesh. Rinse just as thoroughly in cold water. I do this outside where I can spray off shoes with the hose.
To dry, set them in a warm location but not in direct sun. Stuff the insides with clean rags, paper towels, or newspaper (sigh, yes, I still subscribe to a print newspaper) to help them dry faster. Replace when they get saturated. Or, if you really want to get nerdy, put them on a boot and glove dryer like the DryGuy ForceDry ($55). If you ride a lot in winter or do snowsports, a boot dryer is a good investment anyway.
Bathroom slips and falls are a leading cause of serious injury, according to the CDC. Keep yourself safe by wearing your riding helmet in the shower. In all seriousness, the shower is the perfect place to wash a helmet. Warm water provides an effective rinse, and your regular shampoo is a fantastic product to wash out all the salt-crusted gunk from your helmet straps and pads (and you know it won’t irritate your scalp). If your helmet pads are particularly nasty, you can remove and wash them in the laundry. Use a small garment bag to prevent them from getting lost in the load. If the pads are torn or otherwise unsalvageable, get a replacement set; most helmet makers offer them at a nominal price, even for some older models. Not available direct or from a dealer? Check eBay and Amazon. I found aftermarket pad kits for a Bell V1 Pro, a helmet that has not been made in 25 years. Yes, I know I just said I get a print newspaper, but no, I do not still own this helmet.
You can spot-clean most pack fabrics with a clean cloth or brush. But you can clean a whole pack if it gets trashed. That’s also the best way to freshen back panels and straps, which get stinky from being in contact with our bodies on rides. Empty the pack and remove the bladder and hose, back panel stiffener, and other items (like, you know, your phone). Fill a large sink with enough warm water to submerge the pack, and add a generous glug of dish soap (a three- to five- second squeeze ought to do it). Once the water is nice and evenly soapy, dunk the pack. Use your bristle brush to get off stubborn dirt and to scrub zippers clean. With your hands, squeeze the back pad and shoulder straps to cycle the soapy water through the foam. Let it soak for a few minutes, then drain the sink and fill it with an equal amount of cold water to rinse. Dunk and agitate the pack, squeezing the straps and back panel foam again to get the soap out. You may need to do a double rinse to accomplish this. Drain, gently squeeze out all the excess water you can and hang it to dry in a shower or outside, where the drips won’t hurt flooring.
Don’t use saliva to clean lenses; wipe them with a corner of your shirt, with facial tissue, or with other paper products; store them on top of your head or the back of your neck. All of those methods introduce elements like dirt or oil, and can mar even scratch-resistant lenses.
Do give them a good scrub regularly. Pop out removable lenses to clean separately. Rinse everything under warm water. Apply a drop of dish soap and rub it all over lenses and frames—a Q-tip is handy for getting into crevices and corners. Pay attention to nose pads and temples, especially the grippy rubber material that gets all gummy with dirt and sweat. Dry everything with a clean microfiber cloth. Use the same kind of cloth for spot cleaning too. Buy several and rotate them, washing to keep them clean.
Handlebar Tape and Grips
Tape and grips start out all sparkly clean but get grubby pretty quick. To refresh them, spray some bike degreaser on the tape or grips and wipe everything down thoroughly with a clean sponge or rag. My favorite for this is Muc-Off’s Nano Tech cleaner ($19/liter), but most citrus degreasers will work fine. It might take some muscle to get caked-on gunk out. Rinse with clean water and dry with a rag. If dirt is really ground into the surface of the tape or grips, grab a sponge eraser (the ones you find at hardware or home improvement stores), wet it, and gently scrub the trouble spots. Sponge erasers are particularly good for touching up matte-finish tapes and getting into fine grooves in grips. But take care when using them on handlebar tape. They are made of melamine foam, which basically works like a super-fine sandpaper. Most handlebar tape has a surface finish that’s different than the foam underneath, and if you scrub too hard you can go through it.
On lighter-colored tapes, you may notice that even clean tape still looks a little dull even after cleaning (if you peel back a layer, what’s underneath is noticeably brighter). That’s not always dirt, though: lighter tapes will fade or yellow with UV exposure. You can clean grips and tape as often as you want, but bear in mind that tape especially has a finite life. Most of it is made from EVA foam like running shoes, so it loses its cushion over time and becomes more brittle and prone to tearing, including during cleaning. If your tape is more than a couple of years old, it might be better just to replace it. Grips are longer lasting, but when the rubber surface starts to break down, it’s time for a new pair.