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Keeping Clean When Touring, Both On & Off the Bikes

We typically travel overseas for 10 months with only a few outer wear garments and strive to look clean and presentable for the entire trip with the same clothes. We are able to keep stain and grime free with careful garment selection and by making a few adjustments to the bikes. The details of our summer wardrobe, including the lightest colored clothes most vulnerable to staining, are discussed in the "Keeping Cool" file. Tricks for keeping clean are below:

Wearing White On The Bike
My need to wear khaki rather than black pants during the summer to decrease the solar gain on my legs created quite a challenge for keeping my clothes clean. (The direct sun on my black pants would sometimes make my skin sizzle.) With some creative problem solving from Bill in the mechanical department, I can now wear near-white pants on the bike and keep them almost spotless each riding day.

Bike Saddles
    If you ever wear light colored clothes on the bike, experiment with your bike saddle to see if dye transfers from the saddle when you sweat heavily in hot weather. I unexpectedly had trouble with one saddle after being trouble-free with several other saddles.
    You may be able to pick-up a saddle cover to solve the problem if it develops, though some covers also transfer dye. I wasn’t able to find a cover in Britain when I needed it, so I bought a micro-fiber dishcloth at a grocery store and tied and pinned it around my saddle. Once home again, I starting sewing my own saddle covers out of light colored fabric to eliminate the problem. I now keep a cover stashed in my pannier in case I unexpectedly buy a new saddle on the road that stains my light colored, summer pants.

Rock Ring
   Many European commuter bikes have shields completely covering the greasy chain and front gears, but it’s definitely not cool on US bikes. So, as American cyclists we get to live with temporary ‘tattoos’ on our skin and clothes after the inevitable contact with the drive train. But there are some wonderful devices with fun names like “Rock Ring” and “Tooth Fairy” to cover the hardest to avoid area, the front gears. Of course, they aren’t marketed to keep your clothes clean but to protect your gears from damage when out mountain biking on rough trails. But they do a great job of keeping the gritty chain lube off our clothes when astride the bike at a stop. Now when the bike slightly tilts to the right, the disk instead of the gears rest on our leg.
   With the judicious use of a hack saw, Bill has been able to make his favorite product, "Chain Disk," fit our bikes even when the shop mechanics say “give it up” . We do eventually crack-off chunks of these vulnerable looking plastic disks, but they are much hardier than they look and usually last several years. Almost all of the damage to them occurs when we are loading them onto a train and a passerby gives the bike a boost before we have lifted it high enough for the plastic guard to clear the steps. But the guards will take a lot of hard whacks before finally snapping.  

Housing Over Cables
    The bike shop mechanics don’t really understand why we want our bare cables covered by flexible housing where it snakes along the frame, but why not brush against a clean housing instead of a greasy cable? Little details like covering up cables that are traditionally left bare makes a big difference in the grudge level on pants at the end of the day.

Wiping Down Exposed Cables
   I’ve learned the hard way which of the remaining bits of exposed cable are the culprits for griming-up my pants. On my bike, it’s the tiny bit of cable on the underside of my bar-end shifters and around the shift cable brazons that are the sources of bits of black on my clothes. A quick wipe with a bit of tissue every day or 2 is enough to be rid of these little hazards.

Wiping Down the Chain & Pedal Spindles
   I am amazed that even several weeks after lubing my chain that grimy lube flicks onto the front of my right pants leg. It presents as pin-point black dots on the fabric. The solution is simple: wipe down the chain as soon as it starts happening.      Even more erratic is lubricant oozing out of the pedal along the spindle. This grease generally shows up on the back calf area of my pants. This ooze can occur months after injecting grease into the pedal and tends to continue for days or weeks. Inspecting the pedal for the ooze and wiping it up as it occurs takes care of the problem.

Switching To “Holy Lube” On The Pedals
    The last big piece in the puzzle for keeping my khaki pants grease-free was in switching from chain lube to “holy” lube on my Frog pedals. Technically, Frog mountain bike pedals don’t need to be lubed, but for my delicate knees and oddly twisting feet, keeping the pedals well-lubed makes the difference between having puffy, painful knees at the end of the day or not. But the chain lube applied to my pedals made such a mess on my pants that I wouldn’t lube them as often as I should for my knees.
    But then, inspiration hit. We remembered that some serious cyclists dip their chains in heated paraffin instead of using quickly blackened, greasy lubes, so why not use paraffin on our pedals? The churches in some countries sell white, stubby votive candles for offerings, so in one church I made my donation and took the candle with me.
    I have to anoint my pedals daily with the “holy” lube, but it just takes a minute and I can do it astride the bike. It is so neat and clean to use and to keep handy that I don’t begrudge the routine at all—it’s much easier than scrubbing grease stains out of my khaki colored pants every night in the hot weather. One candle will last the 2 of us about a year and Bill has switched to "holy lube" even though he only wears black pants that don't show the grease.
    Inexplicably, the pedals do still get a black residue on them despite using white wax, which of course eventually finds its way onto my pants. So I've learned to occasionally give both sides of my pedals a little buff with a tissue and I wipe down the cleat surface on my shoe less often. Now, anytime I have an odd bit of tissue with some life left in it, I wipe off a grime-prone area on my bike or pedals before pitching it to keep ahead of the grimy residues that accumulate.

Spokes & Rims
    The wheel spokes and rims of bikes with conventional brakes accumulate a tenacious black grime from the brake pads wearing down the rims from the braking action. We assume it is a mixture of the aluminum dust from the wheels and the composite material from the brake pads folded in with ordinary road grime. Wiping down spokes and rims every month or so when using conventional brakes kept the black stuff off our hands (and ultimately our clothes) when we ran a lock through the wheels or sometimes when we carried the bikes. We used a washable viscose type cloth that we can buy in European grocery stores to wipe down the wheels. We’d usually hand wash the cloth with laundry soap after using it. Now we've all but eliminated this source of grime by upgrading to bikes with disc brakes.

Our usual laundry supplies with a big tube of spot remover & a solid bar of spot remover we were trying out in Britain (center, bottom).

Cleaning Up

Clothes Washing     
The laundry supplies that we always travel with include:
    -a flat, rubbery disk for covering the tops of drains
    -a 25’ long, soft, ribbon-like clothes line
    -a half dozen tiny clothes clips
    -a stiff denture brush for scrubbing gunk off shoe soles
          & sunscreen build-up on helmet straps
    -a large drain plug (usually for bath tubs)
    (-a sink strainer is shown that's not used for laundry)
    -1 or 2 kinds of solid spot removers
    -about a 5’ twisted, elastic cord with plastic hooks on
         each end (sold at travel stores)
    -viscose camp towel for wringing clothes (or bathing)

On the road, we buy small quantities of laundry powder for washing machines if we are in a country where they are cheap and readily available, like New Zealand. In Europe, access to washing machines is expensive and unreliable, so we carry a bottle of liquid dishwashing detergent that we use both for hand washing our clothes each night and for doing our dishes.

We always air dry our clothes, all of which are quick drying, and we generally manage without clothes pins. We do have a handful of alligator-clip type clothes pins for small items. The slickest trick we've learned for line-drying our clothes in a stiff breeze is to string the clothes line through the pant legs and shirt sleeves so nothing ever gets away. Our line run through clothes can be strung around an existing line or strung between trees or poles. That takes care of the largest garments and can be done with either our large or small line depending on how much clothing we've washed.

Spot remover is one of our essential supplies for keeping fresh looking. We use the solid version of “Shout,” which comes in a rigid plastic container. In the past, I transferred it into soft, refillable tube sold for camper foods like jellies as shown above. But after eliminating white shirts from my summer wardrobe, we can manage for the better part of a year with just a thick slice of the spot remover transferred into a flat plastic pill-box type container. Between the forgiving nylon fabric of our light-colored summer shirts and our spot remover, we can get any bike grease or food stains out of our clothes. With so few garments, we work hard not to have our wardrobe become a visible chronology of our “whoops” events through the traveling year.

Cleaning Grimy Hands On The Road
    Cleaning our hands on the road is always a challenge. I now keep a hotel-freebie-sized bottle of shampoo in my handlebar bag for hand washing when the public toilets offer water but no soap or we need an extra clean-up.
    Cleaning up after working on the bikes is a bigger challenge as grimy bike grease is tenacious. We always carry a Nalgene bottle filled with olive oil for cooking in one of my bottle cages on my bike frame, and it has proved to be a good first-solvent for hand cleaning. A dab of olive oil worked into greasy skin and under the finger nails loosens the black gunk up nicely. We follow-up by wiping off the oil with a tissue strategically placed before the olive oil goes on. Then a dab of shampoo from the handlebar bag is used to emulsify the olive oil, followed by another tissue stage. Then a minimum of our precious drinking water is used to rinse off the shampoo and remaining grime.
    The year we flew to Europe with a packet of Wet Ones Antibacterial Hands and Face Wipes with Aloe, we discovered that they were dandy for cleaning up bike grime. We used them after replacing chains, which is always a messy job, and cleaned both pairs of hands with 1 wiper. We can't buy them overseas, so they are a start-of-the-trip luxury only.
    And to minimize the need for cleaning grease off our mechanic's hands, we now carry a pair of kitchen rubber gloves in the tool kit. They are wonderful for changing out a back wheel when repairing a flat. It is so hard to remove the wheel from the chain and derailleur without getting tattooed by grim and the rubber gloves make it a non-issue. They also keep those ever vulnerable shirt or jacket cuffs out of the grease.
    For sanitizing hands, we do carry a small amount of gel hand cleaner, though it's not been a priority to carry enough for a 10 month journey. We each carry 1 small bottle and use it sparingly. I believe it is just becoming more available in Europe, so we may be more generous in our use of it soon.

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