So you’re riding along a quiet country road with your mates around you, enjoying that glorious Saturday morning experience…what in the world could wreck this?
That annoying, embarrassing creaking noise has been happening as you pedal for the last two months. You’ve been hoping against hope that it will go away on its own, but it isn’t looking like it will.
Fixing noises that come from your bike can be frustrating and take some time. It’s best to employ a process of elimination; working through the simplest and most likely areas of concern first, and moving through to more time consuming and difficult jobs if required, then testing after each step to see if you have succeeded in fixing your problem. I’ll work through diagnosis of the common symptoms below and suggest a process towards remedy.
Arm yourself with some tools, clean rags and a grease gun. Read on…
1 Handlebar and Stem
If you’re climbing a hill, sprinting out of the saddle and there is a cracking noise coming from the front of your bike as your body weight transfers from side to side, then start looking at the bar and stem area.
Careful attention needs to be given to the bolts clamping the stem to the top of the steerer, and also the bolts holding the bar into the stem. The best idea is remove the bars from the stem and the stem from the bike. Clean the surfaces of the stem clamping area and the bars as small amounts of road grime get in here and can be the cause of your noise. While you have the stem off, remove the fork and the headset bearings from the frame, keeping all the parts in order so you can reassemble correctly, and give it all a good wipe down with a clean rag. Reapply a small amount of grease to the bearings after checking they rotate smoothly and refit them to the frame. Once the stem and bars are back on the bike and adjusted correctly, it’s time for a test ride… The great thing about this afternoon’s work is that you have eliminated this area of potential noise and serviced your headset at the same time!
2 Front Wheel
This one sounds similar to point one, but seems to be coming from closer to the ground in front of you. It can also present itself when you are on rough road, or hitting a small pothole.
It can be a pinging noise that occurs with every rotation of the front wheel and this is where the investigation starts. The first check might sound simple, but bicycle mechanics see it every week. Undo your front quick release lever and remove it, then clean the surface where it seats in the fork dropouts, re-tighten and test ride. If this didn’t work, it’s time to borrow your riding buddy’s front wheel and try it in your bike. If the noise has gone you have confirmed the issue is with your wheel. So start by looking at your wheel. The spoke nipples can creak where they sit in the rim or where the head of the spokes contacts the hub. A very small drop of thin lube at each end will help this one.
Your problem noise may be a faint high-pitched squeal from your wheel. A drop of lube on the rubber cap at the end of the axle will stop this from happening. Wipe away any excess lube before test riding.
While you’re there, rotate the axle and make sure it feels smooth; you may find a bearing refurb is in order after the noise chasing is done.
3 Cranks and Bottom Bracket
This is the most complex, noisy, dirty and confusing area when trying to resolve issues.
A noise or tick can sometimes be felt through the bottom of your shoes, and is usually heard on the downward pedal stroke. It’s possible that it indicates a mechanical problem, beyond just being a source of annoyance.
Always check the simple things first. Are the cleats on your shoes tight? Are your pedals tight? If these points haven’t fixed it, it’s time to get serious…
The best way to attack this one is a strip down and refit, removing each part, cleaning and lubing where necessary. Remove the pedals and place them aside. Remove the cranks and strip off the chainrings. Remove the bottom bracket bearings from the frame as these can cause all manner of noises. For more information on bottom bracket servicing please refer to the Bicycling Australia website http://tinyurl.com/os92fp9
Spin the bearings and check they don’t feel notchy. Feel perfect? Clean and grease the contact area of the frame and reinstall the bottom bracket following the manufacturer’s instructions. If the bearings don’t feel smooth, it’s off to the bike shop for a replacement. Clean the chainrings and the cranks, paying attention to the seat area where they contact each other. Ensure you grease the chainring bolts as you reinstall them. These guys are responsible for hours of test riding trying to isolate a noise.
Refit the cranks following the manufacturer’s instructions, cleaning and re-greasing all contact areas and tightening to the correct torque settings.
Clean the pedal threads, apply new grease and re-attach to the cranks, remembering that they are left- and right-hand threaded.
You can now consider your bike’s bottom bracket serviced, cleaned and hopefully, free of all the noise. Test ride time!
4 Rear Wheel
To resolve noises in the rear wheel area, follow a similar path as the front wheel to a point. Rear spokes can make the same pinging sounds and be corrected with the same drop of lube at either end of the spoke. Quick releases may not be tight enough and the sounds you are hearing may be coming from the axle ends against the frame.
Another common issue is the cassette moving against the freehub body. Under the cassette is a common area for old chain lube and road grit and grime to build up and create an array of sounds from creaking to clunks. Removing the cassette is usually the only way to solve this one. (Refer to the article on our website for instructions on how to remove your cassette (http://tinyurl.com/nscyn54) Strip it off, degrease the cassette, wipe the freehub down and reassemble everything – tightening the cassette to manufacturer’s specs. Some people will suggest a light smear of grease on the freehub after cleaning. I have never used this method as it just starts to collect grit straight away. Clean and dry is the recommended method here.
The other issue the bicycle mechanics often find is the noise created when rear wheel flex or frame flex causes the rear wheel to touch the brake pads as your power is transferred from side to side on the cranks. The easy way to address this one is to first check that the rear brake is centred correctly and if required, check the spoke tension on the rear wheel.
5 Saddle and Seatpost
Do you hear clicking sounds when you’re climbing seated? A noise stemming from your seatpost or saddle will usually occur only while sitting, though to confuse the issue noises can sometimes be heard when you’re out of the saddle as well. This is often caused by the frame flexing and moving fractionally against the seatpost under power.
If you haven’t taken your seatpost out for a while then you should start your investigation here; fixing this one is usually not a big issue. The first step is to mark the seatpost height with a wrap of electrical tape and the seat rails with a permanent marker where the clamp sits. Slip the seatpost from the bike and remove the saddle. Wrap a clean rag around a piece of dowel and clean the inside of the seat tube. This will probably remove some old grease and road grime. Also wipe down the seatpost and seat rails.
Apply either grease in a steel/alloy frame or carbon compound (available from your local bike store) into the seat tube and slide the post back home to your tape marker, and tighten the clamp to the recommended torque level. Refit the saddle and adjust it to level.
Sometime the saddle itself may be the offending item, with rails loose enough to move in the sockets where they attach to the seat, as the saddle flexes while pedalling. A drop of lube here, or puff of graphite powder into the socket should do the trick.
All quiet now? Enjoy.
There are some other things to look out for when hunting down unwanted noises from your bike.
Internal cables can cause all types of grief. If you get rattles over small bumps or creaking noises near the headset, look into this area. Internal cables can simply be routed through an outer cable sheath running through the hollow section of your frame, and they may have enough slack in there to allow the cable to flop around when you ride over bumps, knocking against the internal walls of your frame. Other frames may use internal cables with end stops or rigid tubing secured inside the frame, to run the internal cables. These systems shouldn’t produce the noises internally though you may find cables squeaking or creaking at the end stops or frame entry points as you turn the bars even slightly. A drop of lube here should alleviate the problem.
Noises emanating from saddle bags, lights, computers and bottle cages moving, rattling or flexing catch people out all the time. Remove any of these items from your bike before spending all weekend chasing a noise.
If you are still having issues after all this reading and work, head off to your local bike store armed with as much information as possible so they can get to the bottom of the problem soon and get you back on your bike and enjoying the outdoors.
Your bike is probably a reasonably expensive item, costing you anywhere from around $1,000 to $10,000 or more. It’s also a piece of equipment that you entrust with your life, something that can carry you safely at great speed. It makes sense to treat it with respect and maintain it according to recommended standards.
Using the right tool for the job is important; to avoid damage during the maintenance process, to cover yourself in case of a warranty claim and to prevent potentially catastrophic failure on the road—especially when it comes to tightening bolts on carbon frames, bars stems etc. An accurate torque wrench simply must be part of your tool set. You may also need a bearing press, chain whip and cassette socket for these jobs. Also get yourself a jar of decent grease and some anti-slip paste if your bike has carbon components. These tools will last for a lifetime, and help make it a long one.