I remember owning a power washer that I bought at Harbor Freight, home of cheap tools, a long time ago. I brought it to my parents house to help clean the siding and immediately blew a chunk right out of the side of the house. Oops!
When you go to a pro cyclocross race, you see power washers all over the place. Mechanics and semi-pro riders without a crew always have access to them to clean their precious bikes that are covered in cyclocross grime and heavy mud. Road cycling mechanics use them on the Tour and all over as well. How could something so lethal possibly work safely on a bike? I mean, after all, my mom is still kinda pissed at me about the siding.
About a month ago, I started to explore the idea of using a power washer to clean off the cross bike. This year has been a really muddy one, and I have spent way too much time scraping off heavy mud, picking grass out of cassettes, scrubbing tires, and getting things back to normal after races. So, I started to explore if it was safe for someone who doesn't have ten bikes at his disposal.
Bicycling wrote about it and said that avoiding the power washer was a silly idea. They did remind readers that you should not go blasting water into the bearings and hubs, but I avoid that even with the garden hose. Bike Radar said it was a great idea, as long as you take care and don't try to completely avoid using brushes, soap, etc.... And lastly, one of my favorite content providers, GCN showed that even directly blasting a power washer into a bottom bracket wasn't such a big deal. I decided to give it a shot and it has worked wonders for me so far.
I picked up a little Ryobi 1,600 PSI power washer from the Home Depot for a bit over $100 ($119). It was the perfect size for bikes, and it would also allow me to clean the car, windows, and probably even the siding if I use it wisely. The Ryobi comes with three distinct nozzles that will allow me to keep the pressure just right. I use the 15 degree nozzle nearly all the time on the aluminum cyclocross bikes, but I can see myself using the lowest pressure nozzle on the electronic group sets and carbon road bikes when summer rolls around.
I avoid spraying directly into the bottom bracket and headset, but otherwise I have had no issues just using the power washer sensibly. I don't spray the sensitive areas straight on, and I move quickly over the broader areas of the bike. I still scrub manually with a heavy brush.
Here is my routine:
After the race, John Dunn, a very wise local racer, recommended to ride the bikes on the road a little. Mud will start to fall off. It's a great cool down as well.
OPTIONAL. Take off the chain. This will give you the best access to the front chain rings and the pulleys in back. Make sure your quick links are reusable, or buy some extras to have on hand. Frankly, I have had no trouble using the same SRAM quick link over and over for as long as the chain lasts. (If you are washing more than one bike, slip a safety pin onto one left over from your race number. This way you know which chain came off which bike.)
Use a plastic tire lever, stick, spatula, or whatever won't scratch your bike, and get in there and scrape, knock, pull, and loosen up the mud, grass, and goop from your bike. Pay special attention around the cassettes, derailleurs, and between the tires and the frame.
Get the bike nice and wet. You can use a repair stand and remove the wheels or simply keep the wheels on and lean the bike. Now that my bikes are a mix of through axle and quick release, I tend to forgo the sawhorse stand I made and just lean them up against something like a ladder, saw horse, or basketball net.
Apply your favorite soap. Simple Green, Muc-Off or WD-40 Bike Wash are my favorites. Dish soap works well also.
Scrub the whole bike and wheels down with a heavy bristled brush. (I get mine at the dollar store).
Blast the whole thing with the power washer. One thing I like to do is blast the pedals. Get them spinning and the mud will fly right off.
Spray degreaser on the cassette and front chain rings. I tend to use WD-40 Bike Degreaser.
Scrub the degreaser with a dedicated "greasy" brush. This way you don't use it on the frame. Pay special attention to the pulleys and jockey wheels.
Rinse the degreaser off with the power washer keeping the spray away from the hubs and bottom bracket when possible.
Give the bike a good look over and hit anything still dirty with the power washer.
Immediately wipe everything dry with a towel. You can also use an air compressor and blower nozzle, but just be sure you don't blow pressurized air directly into spots like the bottom bracket or hubs. You can easily blow the grease right out. At least that's what they tell me.
Clean the chain thoroughly. I use a little ultrasonic cleaner, but you can get a lot out of a mason jar and some solvent. Shake it up!
Rinse and dry the chain.
Immediately put the chain back on and lube it up. Do not over lube the chain, but make sure to follow the manufacturer's recommendations. I prefer NFS Lube.
Wipe off all the excess lube sometime before your next ride. Sometimes I let it sit for a while, especially after a deep degreasing.
After all this, I must add that I usually still have a little dirt on the bike. I often find myself going over the bike inside the house with a few wet wipes or a little spray bottle and rag. It's perfectly fine not to expect a show car finish after you have blasted the whole bike with a power washer and spread mud everywhere. I don't know if I would ever trust anyone whose bike was "too clean."