How To Wash A Motorcycle

Mar 20, 2020

Category: Rides

The world of motorcycling is filled with unique elements that seldom translate to the automotive world, whether that be learning to pilot a single-track vehicle, wrenching on bikes, or figuring out how to wash them. And it’s this latter point that we’ll be delving into today, as a motorcycle’s exposed componentry, instrumentation, switchgear, and other electronics can make cleaning a bike rather intimidating. So, to help ensure your scoot stays spick and span — and that you don’t inadvertently damage any parts while cleansing your two-wheeled pride and joy — we’ve put together this handy guide on how to wash a motorcycle.

Below, we’ll be exploring everything from basic washing and rinsing, to cleaning individual components such as the brakes or suspension, to buffing and polishing metals, plus we’ve thrown in some helpful tips for good measure as well as a few things that should be avoided when sudsing down your sled. We’ll also be looking at some of very the best essential motorcycle washing products currently on the market.

Photo: Muc-Off

Basic Bike Washing

A surprisingly straight-forward process, the basics of washing a bike isn’t all that different from washing a car. You want to start by readying two buckets, a hose, a sponge or washcloth, soap or whatever other chemicals you plan on using, and some clean rags for drying. Your average dish soap is usually pretty effective and will almost always be safe on your paint job, though using a motorcycle-specific wash will generally yield markedly better results.

First: Once you’ve gathered your supplies, you want to fill one bucket with soapy water, and the other with regular water — preferably using warm or hot water if possible, though cold is fine, too. Start by spraying the bike down with a hose, first hitting the top of the bike before working your work down. Once complete, start by lathering the bike up with soap using the same top-to-bottom technique. If you’re using a purpose-made motorcycle-specific wash, now is when you want to spray it on. Whether you’re using regular soapy water or a special chemical, it’s advised to leave the stuff on your bike for a few minutes to let it seep in and do its job. It’s important not to leave it on for too long or you’ll be prone to getting soap and watermarks and the like.

Second: The entire time you’re lathering up your bike, you want to be using the second bucket to periodically clean your washcloth or sponge. It’s absolutely essential that you DO NOT drop or set your sponge or cloth on the ground, as it will pick up small rocks, dirt, and pieces of debris that, when rubbed into your bike, will seriously hurt its paint job and leave the thing riddled with tiny scratches, or possibly haze its finish. Rather than lathering up the entire bike and its bodywork in one go, it’s best to suds up a particular area and then immediately rinse it off, before continuing on to the rest of the bike, all the while still utilizing the top-to-bottom approach.

Third: Once the bike is fully rinsed off, you’ll want to bust out those cleaning rags you prepared earlier to start drying the bike, as leaving wet spots to dry on their own can result in unsightly watermarks, streaking, and other blemishes. Once the bike is dry, your job is complete!

Photo: Muc-Off

Next-Level Bike Washing

While basic bike cleaning will keep your bodywork looking fresh, more involved moto deep cleaning will both make a bike perform better and make your components last longer. Some of these areas are absolutely essential and should never be neglected, primarily for safety reasons. So, while these areas are a bit more advanced, they’re all tasks that even the least mechanically-inclined individuals shouldn’t have any problem with performing.

Final Drive System: A motorcycle’s final drive system is of immense importance, and while there are plenty of belt-driven models — including most cruisers — and hassle-free shaft-driven bikes, the majority of two-wheelers are of the chain-driven variety. A motorcycle chain should be cleaned and lubed regularly — as well as adjusted or tightened as needed. To do this, you want to start by getting a toothbrush (or a motorcycle chain-specific cleaning brush), and clean the grime out from off of and between the chain’s links.

To clean the entirety of the chain — which again, is a must — you’ll need to rotate the back tire, requiring your bike be on a rear track stand or center stand. If you don’t have access to a track stand and your bike isn’t equipped with a center stand, you can always use your kickstand, and then roll the bike forward a 6” to 1’ at a time, allowing access to the whole chain as it cycles around the front and rear sprockets. Cleaning the chain is also a good time to clean the rear sprocket out, as well.

Once you’ve broken all the gunk and grime loose, you’ll want to wipe down the chain until it’s clean. Next up is lubing and or waxing the chain. This part of the process is actually pretty easy and consists of simply dousing the chain with a spray-on lube or wax. Again, you want to make sure you get the entire chain.

Brakes & Suspension: The brakes and suspension are also crucial areas to routinely freshen up. By cleaning a fork’s uppers and lowers, a bike can better glide through its range of travel and is less likely to suffer leaks. The same goes for rear suspension setups, whether they be dual-sprung or mono-shocks. This process is as easy as spraying the areas down with a suspension-specific cleaning product and then simply wiping it down. Cleaning your brakes — or more specifically, your discs/rotors — entails a pretty similar process. Simply spray down your discs and then wipe clean.

A toothbrush — or any other small brush with bristles that are soft enough as to not scratch your bike’s finish — is also super handy when it comes time to wash a bike. This will allow you to access and clean small, difficult-to-reach nooks and crannies such as around the wheel arms or spokes, in between cooling fins, around shocks, footpegs, and so on.

Seat: One commonly-overlooked area when cleaning a motorcycle is the seat. Assuming you’re using riding on a leather saddle, it’s wise to use a dedicated leather cleaner and/or conditioner. This will not only help keep it clean but will also prolong a seat’s lifespan and prevent cracking. These products can usually also be used on leather riding gear such as gloves or jackets, too.

Metal Surfaces: While this area is less important with newer bikes, vintage models and bikes used for daily commuting duties can often be weathered, rusted, or simply oxidized. Using a special compound on your bike’s chassis will help to keep it clean, free of rust, and generally in better shape (while also looking better, too). These same compounds can also be used to polish metal surfaces or buff out imperfections such as on exhaust systems, brackets, or any other areas prone to degradation from the elements.
Sealing, waxing, protecting the paint and finishes

Paint & Bodywork: Lastly, let’s circle back around to your paint and bodywork. While cleaning a bike with soap and suds is obviously helpful, to keep a bike’s finish looking its best, you’re going to need to use wax and/or protective sealants. These chemicals are applied just like how you would on a car. Wax on, buff, wax off, and viola.

Photo: Muc-Off

Moto Cleaning Pro Tips

While cleaning a motorcycle is a fairly intuitive, straight-forward process, there are a number of handy tips and hacks that can make it even easier. And while most riders pick these up over time with experience, we’re here to save you the trouble. By following these simple dos and don’ts, you’ll be well on your way to washing like a pro.

It might be tempting to wash your bike right after going for a long ride, and on the surface, this is fairly logical as the bike gets dirty when you ride it. The reality, however, is that you always want to wait for your engine — and exhaust and whatnot — to sufficiently cool off being cleaning. Cleaning a hot engine can cook off water in cleaning products or soap, and leave a bike with chemical and water spots. For the same reason, albeit to a lesser extent, it’s advised to wash your bike in the shade so the sun doesn’t dry out cleaning liquids, which can also leave spots on a bike.

Whenever possible, you should be using motorcycle-specific products. Motorcycles often use different manufacturing techniques and are generally much more exposed to the road and the elements than their four-wheeled counterparts. Using a standard pressure washer to clean a bike may also seem a good idea, but the reality is that they can do some serious damage to more sensitive areas like at the swing-arm pivot, wheel bearings, electrical connectors, fork seals, etc.

Motorcycles — and not just dirtbike and ADV models — are designed to be exposed to elements, and as such, are perfectly fine with being doused with a hose all over. You might not at first feel comfortable spraying water all over your display and controls, but the reality is that motorcycles are engineered to perform without issue in the rain and consequently have no problem standing up to water from a hose. A high-powered pressure washer on the other hand, not so much. Fortunately, there are companies that do make pressure washers that are purpose-built just for two-wheelers.

Washing a bike is a good time to address other moto cleaning areas such as your riding gear, as maintaining these elements can sometimes be forgotten about. Whenever taking the time out to wash a bike, it’s never a bad idea to take the opportunity to hit your helmet’s visor with some RainX, and to clean or condition your gloves, jacket, boots, and whatever other gear you use. Cleaning is also a good time to check for things like compromised fork seals, loose chains, or other potential hazards that may otherwise go unnoticed.

The Best Moto Cleaning Products

Now that you know how to properly wash a motorcycle, let’s dive into the best products currently on the market to help keep your bike looking its best.

FMF Wash Plug

While motorcycles are engineered to operate in rain, that still doesn’t mean you want to get a bunch of water in your exhaust system, which is where this handy little rubber plug from Flying Machine Factory comes into play. Simply pop this into the end-can of your muffler, wash your bike, and then remove it when you’re finished. Just be sure not to forget that you’ve left your exhaust plugged.

Purchase: $5

Meguiar’s X2000 Water Magnet Microfiber Drying Towel

Your average household rag is admittedly sufficient for drying off a bike, though, for optimal results, you’re going to want to use a microfiber towel. This item from the vehicle cleaning experts at Meguiar is super absorbent and will leave a streak and spot-free finish. It’s also great for cleaning helmets and visors as it won’t leave scratches.

Purchase: $8

Meguiar’s Bug & Tar Remover

If you’ve got a few miles under your belt, you’re almost certainly well-aware of the problem posed by dead bugs splattered onto the front of your bike. Dead bugs can easily build up and cake onto fairings and headlights — especially if left to cook in the sun for prolonged periods — and while it’s difficult to remove with water, this product from Meguiar works wonder, plus, as the name suggests, it can also tackle caked-on tar buildup.

Purchase: $8

Maxima Suspension Clean

As we discussed above, cleaning your suspension is a crucial element of keeping a bike in good condition, and this formula from Maxima is objectively one of the best on the market. Simply apply the stuff via its easy-to-use aerosol spray bottle, and that’s pretty much it. And, when the label says this product is “the choice of factory racing teams,” it’s not being remotely hyperbolic.

Purchase: $9

Bel-Ray Bike Wash

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of using Bel-Ray offerings, then you’re likely well aware of the general top-shelf quality of its products, and this very much includes its bike wash. Simply spray it all over your bike, give it a minute to seep in and break up grime, rinse thoroughly, and you’re good to go. Not only does this made-in-America product make washing a bike easier, but it does a much better job.

Purchase: $10

SGCB Heavy Duty Cleaning Sponge

SGCB’s heavy-duty cleaning sponge is relatively rigid compared to most other washing sponges, enabling it to boast a much longer lifespan. Having said that, this all-black offering is still soft enough as to not leave tiny scratches in your paint or finish. Obviously, a sponge is an extremely important factor in washing your bike, so this is one area you don’t want to skimp on.

Purchase: $10

Chemical Guys Metal Polish

When we previously mentioned buffing and polishing parts such as the frame, headers, exhaust, brackets, or whatever other metal bits, this was the type of solution we were talking about. Not only does it do a remarkable job of returning metal to its factory finish, but it will also help to preserve surfaces via mitigating rust and oxidization.

Purchase: $10

Guy Martin Proper Cleaner

From everyone’s favorite maverick Isle Of Man TT racer, Guy Martin’s Proper Cleaner isn’t just a wildly-effect cleaning product, but it’s also more environmentally-friendly than most others, coming in the form of condensed capsules that are then dropped into water, turning the liquid into a potent cleaning product. The packaging is also fully biodegradable, plus you’re not paying for water (or to have it shipped).

Purchase: $11

Motorex Brake Cleaner

We probably don’t need to explain why having dirty, oily, or otherwise gunked up brake discs is a really, really bad idea. This formula from Motorex busts up dirt and grime, cuts through oil, and leaves your brakes clean, and ready to be bit by your pads and calipers. It makes your bike look great, and improves your braking, what’s not to like?

Purchase: $15

Fast Orange PRO hand Cleaner

Fast Orange hand cleaner is pretty much universally adored by mechanics and casual spanner spinners, and this even more powerful version of the pumice-based hand cleaner is even more effective at helping to get grime off of your hands. This particular type comes in a massive 64oz container which should last you years, even if you’re wrenching on or cleaning your bike on a weekly basis.

Purchase: $16

Skidmore’s Biker Edition Leather Cream

Offered in 6oz and a jumbo 16oz size and made in the USA, this cleaner and conditioner formula is 100% all-natural, non-toxic, and chemical-free. It seeps into the leather to moisturize it, and keep it looking its best. As mentioned before, the stuff also works wonders on leather jackets and other leather luggage, goods, and riding gear.

Purchase: $20

Motul Chain Care Kit

Available in both on-road and off-road versions, this kit from Motul offers everything needed to properly care for a motorcycle’s chain. The package includes a double-sided chain brush with tough, inward-facing bristles, a 9.8oz can of Motul’s chain cleaner, a 9.3oz can of lubricant and a pair of nitrile gloves.

Purchase: $34

Moose Racing FOAM-IT Pump

Capable of injecting foamy suds into tight, hard-to-access area, this five-liter pump from Moose Racing makes the process of lathering up your bike easier than ever before. Pressurized via a simple hand-operated pump, this device features a safety release valve, a pressure gauge, and is sold with two packs of Moose’s Dirt Foam Cleaner, though it also accepts regular soap, and can even run water infused with a spray bike wash.

Purchase: $106

Muc-Off Bike Pressure Washer Bundle

While your average pressure washer will wreak havoc on electrical connectors and other sensitive exposed areas, Muc-Off’s bike pressure washer was engineered to be used on two-wheelers. This gadget is powerful enough to blast off even the most stubborn dirt and grime, while not being so strong that it will cause damage to your bike or jeopardize seals. The brand also offers formulas that enable the thing to also shoot foam and suds, as well as pressurized streams of water.

Purchase: $175

Air Force Master Blaster Moto Dryer

Your best weapon in the fight against streaking, chemical or water spots, this purpose-built motorcycle dryer literally makes drying your bike a breeze. Powered by twin-fan 4hp motors — that together make 8hp — this item offers multiple power modes, is constructed from steel, features five different neoprene nozzle, and is sold with a one-year warranty. It’s wheels and 12ft cord make moving it extremely easy to move around the bike as you dry.

Purchase: $473

The 22 Best Motorcycle Upgrades For Beginners

Now that you’ve got your ride all cherry, why not improve on its performance? Our guide to the best motorcycle upgrades for beginners has up-specced components and parts for just about every type of bike and rider under the sun.

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