diy: citrus cleaner/degreaser

I loooove my bike. I love it. I really do. The only problem with bicycling everywhere, though, is the fact that the chain, gears, and frame tend to get a teensy bit … well, I’ll just show you.

Notice the black gunk on the chain? How about the fabulous streak on the frame right behind the front derailer? Delicious, right? Don’t lick it. I know it’s tempting. But don’t.

Unfortunately, a lot of the products on the market for degreasing bicycle chains tend to have really, really adverse effects on the environment (and if they don’t jive with the dirt they’re dripping onto, they probably won’t jive with the environment on a human organism, either). They’re made from petrochemicals – that is, chemicals derived from petroleum/oil production and refinement – and as such, you probably don’t want that stuff to end up on your skin by accident. Not only that, but they can get pricey. Some degreasers can cost as much as $10 per bottle, and if you’re a cheapo like me, you probably see a price like that on a little bottle and go “hahaha! Wait. Really?”

A few months ago, I was trying to put together a little how-to guide for simpler living in my town. While it didn’t take off as I wanted it to, there were a few things in there that definitely have a home on this blog. Like homemade degreaser. I originally intended to promote it as a replacement for most surface/oven cleaners on the shelves (and this stuff’s been around much longer than these companies), but I tried it on my bike chain and gears in about June, and – yep, you guessed it – it worked like a charm.

So, what’s in it? How is it made? Where does it come from? Is it witchcraft?

It has two ingredients, both of which can be found easily at any supermarket: distilled white vinegar and citrus fruit peels. (Okay, so you might not be able to buy just the peels. But you won’t see me complaining about having to eat citrus fruit. Yes, this homemade degreaser will even ward off scurvy if you let it.)

In order to make it, all you do is fill up a big jar (like one of those monstrous pickle jars from a wholesale store) as much as you want with citrus peels. Oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit. Then, you pour the vinegar on top of the peels until they’re all covered, but not so much that they’re drowning in it. Just cover ’em. Last, place an old, clean washcloth (or a cheesecloth if you want to be all fancypants) over the top of the jar. That way, you still have a source of oxygen for the process that makes the cleaner, but you won’t let any huge foreign particles in the jar. Let it soak for about a month. Strain out the peels, dilute with a little water.

That’s it. I’m serious. That is the secret behind all the really good citrus cleaners out there. You pickle some fruit peelings. I know, right?

It’s not witchcraft, inasmuch as science isn’t a form of witchcraft, which is highly debatable to me at times. Speaking of, SCIENCE AHEAD: The reason it works so well is a chemical compound in the peels called limonene, which is one of the chemicals (terpenes, for you geeks) responsible for giving citrus fruit its citrus-y smell. Limonene is an extremely powerful solvent and is particularly good at binding to petroleum-based greases – y’know, what a lot of us use on our bike chains. The vinegar extracts the limonene from the orange peels, and what you have left is a concentrated, delicious-smelling cleaner that will degrease the crap out of your bike chain. And it’s mega-cheap. And it’s completely non-toxic. And you can use it to clean literally everything in your house.

Did I mention it was cheap? Oh, okay. Just checking.

how i fixed my flat tire

I recently attended a basic bicycle class led by Axel of Revolution Cycles, because though I’ve ridden a bicycle before, I’d never bothered to learn how to fix it.

The first time I owned a bicycle as an adult was in 2007. Same as this go, the bike came into my life around my birthday. I was so ecstatic to have it that I convinced myself it would be a brilliant idea to ride the 20-mile commute to work – without a patch kit, and without much biking experience at all. Yet even though “brilliant” transmuted itself into “stupid” about 5 miles in, by the time I reached work (although being much stinkier and sweatier than a professional barista should be), I was exhilarated.

Unfortunately, I was also sore, exhausted, and the proud owner of a bike with a flat tire.

I found a ride home from work, but after that bloody marathon, the bike stayed in my godmother’s garage. I think it’s still there – 3,000 miles away.

Not wanting to repeat my past mistake through negligence, I decided anything that happened to my bicycle I would learn how to repair myself – within reason. For instance, I don’t own a spot welder. Sometimes, though, I’m not sure if that fact relieves or slightly disappoints. But a flat tire? Sure! I learned. Practising it was a little time-consuming, but that’s something that improves each time you have to do it.

Not that I want anyone to get a whole bunch of flats or anything, but that is one way to get better at it. (Yep. Always look on the bright side!)

How I Fixed My Flat Tire:

1. Turn the bicycle upside down.

2. Disconnect the brake.

3. Use a crescent or socket wrench to loosen and remove the nuts on either side of the wheel. The kickstand will come off. This is okay.

4. Lift the wheel up and out of the frame, letting the chain guide the direction.

5. Use a tire wedge (or, in my case, an old bottle opener I had in my backpack) to gently pry the rubber tire off the wheel. If “gently pry” doesn’t work, and you’re replacing the whole tube, try “furiously dig.”

6. Unscrew the cap from the inner tube on the inside of the wheel. Now the tube can be removed.

7. Make sure the strip inside is covering all the spokes. With mine, the strip is so thin and loose that you can’t really make it stay anywhere, but at least I know that until I can get it fixed, I need always be prepared for excessive wear and tear on the tube.

Extra Steps (for patch kits):

– Find the hole in the tube by inflating it and listening for the escape of air. If it’s small, you can still generally feel the air if you pass your hand over it.

– Use sandpaper or some kind of buffer to prime the rubber around the hole.

– Spread a thin but generous layer of glue (the hardcore self-vulcanising variety) on the back of the patch. Put the same amount on the tire itself, and let both dry.

– Press the patch down against the tube, covering the hole.

– Remove the patch backing, like a temporary tattoo.

8. Put a little air in the new (or repaired) tube. Don’t put the cap on.

9. This part gets a little tricky. Set the wheel in the rubber tire only halfway, so that one edge is still outside the wheel rim. Now, put the inner tube valve through the hole in the rim. Start pushing the tube inside the tire all the way around. Once the tube is fully encased in the tire, start snapping the other edge of the tire in place behind the rim. It’s easier than trying to put the tire and tube on all at once.

10. Inflate the tire fully and replace the cap.

11. Use the chain to help guide the wheel back into its rightful place on the frame. Put the kickstand back in place and replace the nuts on either side, tightening them fully and making sure the wheel is on straight. (This is important. If you don’t tighten the wheel enough, it can get jostled out of place, and then you’ll have to carry your bicycle a few blocks back to where the tools live in order to get the damn thing to move again. Not that I have a particular experience with this or anything.)

12. Reconnect the brake.

13. Turn the bike right-side up, re-use or recycle the old inner tube (here’s an idea!), and be on the way!