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Caring for Your Bike Clothes

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Taking care of your bike clothes isn't a particularly complicated proposition, but you should pay a bit of attention to protect the investment that you have in them and to avoid potential problems with retained odors or damaging synthetic materials.  The following tips tell you how to clean them effectively so that they will smell better and wear longer over the long run. 

1. Don't Let Your Stuff Sit Around Wet

water head sweat
Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images Sport

Let's say you come in from a ride, dripping with sweat.  What do you do?  Peel off your clothes and throw them in the hamper, where they'll stay wadded up until you can wash them over the weekend?

If you can't wash them right away, at the very least, hang your clothes out where they can air dry.  This does two things.  First, your jersey and shorts aren't just sitting around brewing in their own stink, allowing the odor-causing bacteria to really party it up, embedding themselves deeply in the material.  Second, not only does this faster drying avoid worse odor, but the air circulating around the clothes helps dry and dissipate the odor that you've put into them during your ride, which will help the laundering process be more effective.

2. Don't Re-Wear Your Bike Clothes

Twin Six Cycling Jersey

This may be obvious, but don't wear your bike clothes multiple times between washes. The temptation will be there to put your shorts and jerseys back and use them again another day, particularly if you only rode for an hour or two and didn't sweat them up too bad.

This is not a good idea as odor is caused by bacteria, which is still going to be present, even if the perspiration you put out was mostly evaporated as you rode. Not washing allows the stink to settle and get layered into the material, and when you bust out the clothes and wear them again it truly gives old stink new life. Also, when wearing the same pair of shorts a couple of days in a row, the dirty chamois can lead to rashes and chafing thanks to the bacteria built up there.

3. Try Special Detergents and/or Additives When Washing Tech Fabrics

Penguin Sport Wash

Most of the time you can get by with normal detergent, something like powdered Ivory Snow washed in cold water. But if you have problems with lingering stink, there are other options out there.

Many cyclists report success with a product called Penguin Sport Wash in removing odors that hadn't come out with standard detergents. You can find it online or in many bike shops.

Another option involves the wash setting itself. Some of the newer front-load washer that employs a combination of soak and tumble cycles for more effective cleaning.

4. Isopropyl Alcohol or White Vinegar - Kills the Funky Smells

Water bottle on bike.
Image - Morguefile.

One prewash treatment that helps knock down funky smells is to spray the stinky parts of the synthetics with some 70% isopropyl alcohol to saturation, then let it evaporate.  It kills off the bacteria that are fermenting and causing the funk.

If you do this, be sure to test it on a hidden part of the garment to check for colorfastness.  It shouldn't cause you any problems, but better to check first that find out the hard way.

Another effective approach to clearing out stubborn odors is to occasionally wash your bike clothes in white vinegar, though the first ride after might have some residual vinegar smell.

5. Getting Bike Shorts Ready for the Wash

Ozon bib shorts by GORE Bike Wear

Even before you put your bike shorts in the washer, there are things you can do to make the cleaning more effective.

1.  Turn the shorts inside out, and put a pre-wash agent directly on the chamois and let it soak in to remove stains and odors.  This can be either detergent or a special stain-fighting product. 

2.  If you have a pair of bib shorts, after you do the previous step, tuck them into a small mesh bag.  This will keep the suspender straps from getting wrapped around the agitator of your top-load washer, which can stretch and damage the seams and shred the material.  I had an expensive pair of bib shorts nearly ruined in this way.

6. Don't Run Your Bike Clothes Through the Dryer

Clothes Dryer
Getty Images

Once you're done with the wash, takie your clothes out and hang them out to air dry.  Many types of cycling-specific fabrics, from wool to synthetics, do not do well when they get run through the dryer.  It can cause wool to shrink and damage elastic found in the legs and waist of your bike shorts.  Plus, many types of synthetics are quick drying and benefit from being kept from the heat of a dryer.

If you wash your synthetics in a mesh bag as described in the previous step, it'll help you (and others, if you're fortunate enough to have another person do your wash) identify what needs to be pulled out from the load before it goes into the dryer.

7. Wool -- Alternative to Synthetics

Ibex Fausto Wool Cycling Jersey
(c) Ibex

If you want to try an option to synthetics, wool works astoundingly well, when most people think of it usually only in terms of frumpy sweaters.  I know several riders who swear on wool, claiming it beats synthetic materials hands down in virtually every temperature range.  Even in hot weather, including temperatures up in the 90-100 you'll find something like a Smartwool microweight t-shirt to be as comfortable, if not more so, than the lightest weight jersey.

The downside is that wool garments can be somewhat more expensive.  However, you can wear it multiple days without stinking, so you need fewer articles of bike clothing to make it between wash cycles and the garments themselves last longer. 

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