Bike Noise

I’ve never thought of myself as being neurotic or OCD in any real manner. Generally speaking, I can pretty much accept or ignore a lot of things that seem to bother others. In fact, I’m quite adept at filtering out most everything around me, especially when taking notice would require that I take some kind of action to address the source of the issue. This is probably most evident when dealing with my autos. Is the “check engine” light on? I’m okay with that. In fact, that light has been on for about five years straight. I change my oil twice a year – whether it needs it or not. Rust, rattles, squeaks, leaks and most other issues can readily be accepted and adapted to as a new level of normal. Don’t buy a used car from me; you’ve been warned.

In contrast to my normal modes of operation, all that seems to go out the window once I get on my bike. My bike is supposed to be a silent, smoothly operating tool of riding efficiency. I will pull things apart, clean and lube them just to make sure they are at their optimum. My rims are pretty much true to within fractions of a millimeter, even now that I’m running disc brakes. I could probably have saved myself thousands of dollars over the years if I treated my cars with the same care and concern. Too bad I hate cars.

A sound less bothersome than my bike.
A sound less bothersome than my bike.

This spring, I noticed that my bike had developed a very annoying creaking sound while climbing. You might not think of this as much of a problem, but I would notice it all the time – even when climbing on rough terrain. It only takes a very slight motion between two metal surfaces to create a surprisingly audible noise. Everything can feel completely tight, but the combined stresses of putting your body’s weight into the bike can bring out a ping or creaking sound. There only needs to be the most subtle amount of play to make a noise that will get on my nerves.

Unfortunately, the noise proved not to be transient. It persisted and actually grew worse over the following weeks. My focus was distracted by my constant analysis of the source. Was it my seatpost? No, it was there while climbing out of the saddle. Chainrings? It didn’t seem to be there when I backpedalled, but that’s not always conclusive. It would almost go away while spinning on the pavement… almost. My rides soon turned into diagnostic sessions.

While not on the bike, I would pull things apart to see if I could correct the source of the noise. I spent an evening pulling off my cranks and bottom bracket. I removed the bottom bracket from the frame. I scrubbed the frame threads out with a brush and cleaned the entire bottom bracket assembly. Everything was re-lubed and the threads wrapped in plumber’s tape before reassembly. I took apart my chainrings, cleaning every surface meticulously. The chainring bolts were cleansed and a thin layer of anti-seize compound applied to them. I regreased all of the crank arm surfaces according to specs. I even removed the pedals and gave their threads the same type of treatment.

Where's Waldo? I don't know, but he's easier to find than a elusive bicycle noise.
Where’s Waldo? I don’t know, but he’s easier to find than a elusive bicycle noise.

I actually enjoy this process as long as I’m not feeling pressured to complete the job with a limited amount of time. There’s something very relaxing about putting on some good music and working with my hands. Building wheels has the same kind of feeling to it. When it’s all done, there’s a real sense of satisfaction in having a well functioning bike as a result of my efforts.

I was actually looking forward to my next ride since I was pretty confident that I must have addressed the squeaking with all of that work. I hit the trails after work the next day… ARG!!! The noise was still with me. There didn’t appear to be any change at all. Now I was left with the task of trying to enjoy the ride while the bike was continually distracting me with an irrepressible sound. More analysis ensued. Could I induce some creaking by torquing on the bars? Was it related to leaning the bike? I checked the quick releases to make sure that there wasn’t any extra play that could be creating the sounds. All my tests were inconclusive. It was hard to tell exactly where the squeaking was coming from but it seemed to be coming from the front end of the bike. At least it seemed that way, but I know that sound can resonate through a bicycle frame in strange ways.

I took out the tools again. The bars were removed from the bike and the stem removed from the steerer tube. I also disassembled the headset for good measure. The steerer assembly received the same treatment as my cranks – thoroughly cleaned and well lubed as appropriate. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for so I attacked everything I could remove.

On my return to the trail, I was again disappointed. I might have been starting to obsess about this a bit. I gave more attention to the relentless creaking noise as I rode. It even seemed to be there when I was descending. That was odd. It also seemed to confirm the idea that it wasn’t caused by my drivetrain.

 These look rather squeaky.
These look rather squeaky.

With my mind now fully preoccupied with the quest to eliminate this creaking sound, I turned to the wisdom of the internet. It’s usually a pretty sad state of affairs when I have to go looking for help. It’s like stopping the car to ask for directions – an open admission of defeat. Likewise, I keep my owners manuals hidden in a drawer for such dire occasions. Generally, the internet is more full of opinion than facts, and I think most of us know how much opinions are worth. Still, there are a lot of good mechanics out there that will respond to questions on various discussion boards. So, after reading through many, many recommendations to do the same things that I’ve already done (and some that shouldn’t be done), I did stumble across a few ideas that I hadn’t explored. In particular, it seems that sometimes the headset bearing races can creak inside the cups or the cups can shift ever so slightly if there’s a tiny imperfection between the surfaces of the frame and the cups.

I thought that might be a direction to pursue. Unfortunately, the bearings on my headset aren’t replaceable without sending them back to the manufacturer. Maybe something was wrong with them. They have at least 3 more years under their warranty (thanks Chris King) but I wasn’t about to go without my bike for the few weeks it would take for them to be shipped out, get serviced, shipped and then reassembled. I wasn’t about to let that happen during the prime riding of the summer months. Not a chance.

just dumber
Not quite the most annoying sound in the world.

So I opted to install a new headset. Yes, I was that bothered by the creaking. I was a little reluctant at first, but it was the logical next step in my crusade to eliminate the world’s most irritating noise. So, lacking a proper headset press, I dragged my bike down to the shop and left it with them to do a professional install.

I picked the bike up after work later in the week. I went out for a ride that same afternoon and found true bliss. Elation. Nirvana. Whatever it was, it didn’t make creaking noises. The only sound I could hear over my breathing was the sound of root and rock impacts echoing in my tires. It was truly a wonderful thing. I climbed seated in near silence. I stood up, mashing the pedals and pulling on the bars without a peep from the bike. I lost myself in almost two hours of squeak-free riding that afternoon.

I’ve since found that the problem was in the cup/frame interface, not the bearings of the original headset. I could correct the problem with it by applying some Loc-tite 640 to the cups when installing. Maybe I’ll do that some time in the future, but, for now, my neurosis has been subdued.

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