The way I look at it, the time spent washing a motorcycle is better spent actually riding it. But even I break down and break out the bucket and hose now and then, usually when my bike is so dirty I can’t see what color it was originally. Because I begrudge every minute it’s parked in the driveway instead of scaring me silly on some country road, I do the job right so I don’t have to do it as often. Here’s how you can too.
I start with a cold bike, parked in the shade. If there’s no shade I wait until the cool of evening. (I could get up early before it gets too hot, but that goes against the habits of a lifetime.) Cleaners and polishes are made to work on cool surfaces. When applied to hot painted or plastic parts they tend to dry out fast, they’re harder to rinse off, and you probably just have to do it all over to get the crusty spots out. This is why you also wait until the engine is cold before starting the wash job.
There are two ways to wash a bike. The first is what I call the bikini-bike-wash method (although I want to make it very clear that nobody involved has to wear a bikini for this… unless you really want to), which most sane people call the double bucket. Fill one bucket with water and cleaner in the appropriate concentration, and the other with clear water for rinsing the crud out of the fleece wash mitt. It goes like this: soapy bucket, wash the bike, rinse bucket, repeat. Dump and refill the rinse bucket often.
Notice I said “fleece wash mitt” and not sponge or old ripped Bultaco T-shirt. The nap of a wash mitt gives the dirt someplace to hide while you swirl the mitt around on smooth painted surfaces. Sponges and rags hold the grit right next to the paint and leave infuriating scratches and swirl marks that just get worse when you scrub even harder to make them go away. That said, I use a sponge on painted cast wheels, fork tubes, and engine covers. The paint or powdercoating on these components tends to be thick and tough enough to not get scratched.
Resist the urge to use whatever soapy stuff is lying around the house, like dishwashing liquid or dog shampoo. I use a cleaner formulated for motorcycles; in a pinch I use one made for cars, and have never had an issue with it. Dishwashing liquid is made to cut grease, but food grease, not petro stuff. Some of it is caustic enough to damage paint in the long run, drying it out and causing cracks. It probably isn’t very nice to plastic and rubber parts, either. I’m not really sure about that last bit, but it’s not worth the risk to find out.
Before I start the actual wet part of the show I use tape or rubber bands to secure plastic baggies over the brake and clutch master cylinders, and cover or remove sensitive electronic gizmos like GPS receivers or intercoms. Some of these devices are made to withstand the light soaking they get from rain, but a full-on blast from a hose wasn’t in the design specs.
Finally, I take off the seat and remove my overstuffed toolkit, two types of tire repair kits and a 12-volt air pump (look out, world, I’m ready for anything!), and the registration and insurance papers. Any water that gets down this far into the bike can pool in the underseat tray and go unnoticed so long that when you need that 12mm open-end you open the toolkit and find a rusted nail in its place. And an unreadable, water-splotched registration impresses the average cop about as much as “The dog ate my homework” persuaded your fifth-grade teacher to give you an extra day.
Now it’s showtime. First I rinse the bike to get the loose stuff off. I use a sprayer and a garden hose, never a pressure washer or the 25-cent car wash, both of which have enough oomph to push water right past oil seals and into airboxes. Then it’s bucket time. Start at the bottom of the bike and work your way up, rinsing both the mitt and the bike often.
Motorcycles are full of small, nearly inaccessible areas that nothing but dirt and chain lube can reach. For these spots I use a soft-bristled paint brush dipped in whatever cleaner I’m using that day. I use WD-40 and a soft-bristle brush to clean the drive chain, mainly the inner and outer side plates; the O-rings are tougher than you think, but it’s still a good idea to go easy around them.
The two-bucket method used to rule here at Freelance Manor, but lately I default to all-surface motorcycle-specific cleaners like S100 or Hondabrite (which I suspect is really S100) because they get me back on the road more quickly. The drill is the same as the two-bucket, but all you need to do is spray the bike down, let the stuff sit for a few minutes while it does its magic, work the stubborn spots with a mitt or paint brush, and then hose it off, first with a sprayer and then with water right out of the hose; sheets of water flush off the drops that can spot the finish when they dry.
I usually let the bike dry while I take care of other parts, like the seat. I have a nice leather Corbin that I replace with the stock vinyl seat during a wash; leather can stand getting wet but it doesn’t particularly enjoy it, and I don’t have the patience to wait for it to dry before I go riding. Leather should be cleaned with a dedicated cleaner.
Use it according to the directions, which often include the word “sparingly”—don’t go nuts and slather it on like peanut butter on bread. Vinyl seats often respond well to whatever cleaner you use for the rest of the bike. Avoid treatments like Armor All, which can make the seat slippery, which you’ll usually discover when you brake hard and find the back of the tank turns you into a soprano, and not the New Jersey kind.
Depending on how picky I feel that day, I’ll touch up the handlebar switch boxes, the interior dash panels, and the rubber brake lines with a spray-on wax. The trick is to spray the wax on a rag or paper towel, and then apply it to the surface. If you spray it right at the part, the overspray inevitably finds its way to some just-washed painted surface where it will sneer at your incompetence until you rewash the bike.
Personally, I never put anything, not even spray wax, on tire sidewalls. I’ve had many conversations with engineers and reps at tire companies, and they all say their products aren’t made to be cleaned or sprayed with anything except mild soap and water. That triggers the conspiracy-theory gene in a lot of people who swear this is corporate bullshit whose only purpose is to make tires wear out faster so you have to buy them more often. I have literally no response to that, at least not that I care to say in public to people I don’t know and who are probably, you know, really very nice, reasonable folks.
The last thing I do is wax the plastic bodywork and windscreen, using the same spray wax I used for detail work. Wax serves two purposes here: It cleans and shines the surface, and leaves behind a thin protective layer between the plastic and the outside world that makes it easier to clean next time. I’m too lazy to use paste wax, although on the occasions I have the results were outstanding.
A note on clear plastic windscreens: To remove caked-on bugs, soak a few paper towels in water and lay them flat on the screen. Go have a cup of something, or a can or bottle, whatever, while the water soaks and softens the bug guts. Remove the towels and pick off the big stubborn bits with your fingernail. Dry the shield then go over it with a dedicated plastic cleaner and a very clean, very soft cloth. I finish off the job with an application of spray wax, many of which double as plastic cleaners/polishes.
I’d like to tell you about some trick way to dry off a just-washed bike, like with a chamois made from the placenta of the rarely seen and possibly extinct Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphin, or a purpose-made air dryer––not a shop vac in reverse––or something, but by this point I’m itching to go for a ride, so I re-lube the chain, take off, and let the wind dry the bike while engine and exhaust heat evaporate the little puddles of water trapped here and there that might otherwise sit for days and accelerate rust.
Feel free to share your own bike-cleaning tips as well.
Jerry Smith has been a motojournalist for… well, a very long time. When he’s not writing about motorcycles, he makes up stories about people who don’t exist. His latest novel, Dents, is about some of those people, and the awful and funny things he makes happen to them.