Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Reproach


Some years ago, when I was making rent with a wrench, a woman came into the shop with a Holdsworth made from Reynolds 531. She had decided it was time for a tune-up. The bike needed a tune-up the way the starving need a cup of water. While the frame seemed to be in solid shape, the wheels were toast and the front derailleur, well, the bike had been ridden cross-geared for so long the chain had worn through all but a small span of the Nuovo Record front derailleur cage which was by this time cellophane-thin.

I was amazed and felt badly for her. Didn’t she ever hear that nasty sound of the chain grinding material off the cage?

“What sound?” she responded.

I am bewildered when I meet someone who really doesn’t seem to notice the sound an untrimmed derailleur makes. While I don’t think everyone needs to be able to maitain a bicycle, it makes sense to me that a basic awareness of the bicycle’s operation can make someone a better rider and more proactive bike shop customer, therefore helping ensure the bike lasts longer.

She didn’t seem to mind the wear to the derailleur and considered it all just the cost of having a bike. She was so relaxed about the worn-out parts and the cost of the overhaul I found myself admiring her attitude.

Years of working on bikes have made me aware of every sound my bikes make. From the tk-tk-tk of an untrimmed derailleur to the ting-ting-ting of a derailleur cage on spokes, I usually know the cause of a sound the moment I hear it.

Usually. The dreaded creak can elude even veteran wrenches from time to time. And for those of us who do our own maintenance, a creak is an embarrassment. It is the bicycle talking back, the baby crying for food, the public spat you wish could have unfolded at home.

I love the sounds a bicycle makes. The seamless sound of a chain running over a chainring and cog along a perfect chainline brings me peace. Conversely, the sound of a too-tight chain on a fixed-gear bicycle is the rising screech of a catfight. And the sound of a disc wheel on asphalt is the sound of speed itself, of inevitability. The click of a quick downshift and flawless chain movement is order itself, the way the world should always work.

But that creak. When I hear a creak I pray for the noise of the pack, for the whitewash sound of 70 other bicycles to drown out my problem child. That sound tells me I’ve been inattentive, lazy. And now my bicycle is punishing me for my neglect.

If only it were always that simple. I’ve disassembled by bicycle’s entire drivetrain and reassembled it with fresh grease and Teflon tape only to have the creak return upon exiting the driveway.

Today’s bike require greater care to assemble and maintain than those we rode 20 years ago. That’s no newsflash, but the upshot is. Maintain a bike is like training now. It requires regular attention, care, the vigilance we show our bodies.

20 comments:

Oli Brooke-White said...

I just had that creak! 30 years of experience and numerous attempts to track it down (it was one of those only sporadic ones...) had failed.

The answer? It was my shoe straps moving slightly on the uppers. Talcum powder was the answer.

I just wish the hair I pulled out could be solved as easily...

eddy said...

Nothing in the world is worse than the look you get from other riders when you pass them/they pass you and you're creaking with every pedal stroke.

Tacissimo said...

Standing on the side of a small crit course recently was an introduction to the symphony of sounds from the small groups of riders passing. I remember when the peloton made the sound of a thousand bees as it passed. Now there are creaks, and buzzes that I have trouble listening to, much less racing next to. The fear from the odd sounds is how well that person maitains their bike? If they're willing to listen to that, what else are they not doing in their pre-race check-over? In Flanders earlier this year, I watched a number of mechanics working on bike assemblies, and then procede to drop, push and pull on a number of part of the bicycle. The last thing many mechanics do is take the bars at the stem , and drop it into the ground from about 15cm. bouncing the bike on the front wheel, and they listen. This isn't done once or twice, but numerous times. And a bike built right, with the properly tightened equipment sounds quiet. No thuds or clicks where there shouldn't be.
If you're riding in a larger group, and you hear your own bike, then you might want to check it over when you're done, or, as you wash it. That's the time and place where you can discover many of the problems and noises on a bike.

Gary said...

My general label for creaks and other sounds is "noises that don't belong". As a very mechanically inclined person, these sounds can absolutely drive me nuts and nearly ruin a ride out of irritation.

I've had several creaks on 2 bikes recently, both resolved by lubing the cam portion of the skewers. Oh, and I had the squeaky toe straps on my shoes as well! What's next?

Jimmy said...

I am shocked that a woman would not understand cross-chaining.

RMM said...

While I always blame my bottom bracket when there is a creak, the creak seldom goes away after the BB is overhauled and relubed. This time after reinstalling the BB, it appeared to be my chainring bolts. I pulled those out, lubed them and stripped 2 on the re installation. Still creaking after proper installation. I pulled off my cassettes, greased the freehub bodies, still creaking. Then I pulled the saddle and seatpost assembly apart, greased, re installed, still creaking. Next, I found a frayed derailleur housing, I fixed that, lubed the ferrule, no dice. Headset/handlebar, no dice either. Pedals, still moaning. Finally, I pulled the skewers off and really greased them. The creak disappeared. And now I have a completely overhauled bike...

db said...

Oh man, what a timely post.

I'm in the process right now of figuring out where that creak is coming from on my commuter.

Just like in RMM's case, the bike's going to end up getting a complete overhaul.

bikesgonewild said...

...ahhh, when you have a moment, would you mind taking a look at my cyclo-cross bike ???...thanks, i'll just wait patiently 'til you're done w/ what yer doing...
...hah !!!...

...i've been rocking a bianchi w/ scandium main triangle & crabon rear-end & fork for several years now & it's been an awesome machine...seated, under power, no problem but stand up & put some muscle into it & it sounds like a newlyweds honeymoon bed...

...best i can figure, the creaking actually comes from the aluminum capped, crabon seatstay which is bolted & lock-tite-ed to the rear drop-out...

...the dichotomy as regards creaking & bike frames is that those hollow tubes, no matter the material, amplify & carry the noise, often making it sound as if it's coming from another part of the bike...

...either way, it's distracting & don't cha just hate being the noisy one...

Dan O said...

Man - great post.

Creaking or any other "wrong" noise drives me insane.

I retired a 9 year old full suspension mountain bike last year, due to a slight creak that I couldn't get rid off. Yeah, 9 years on a mountain frame is probably enough anyway.

I've had some really weird creaking from road bike bottom brackets at times. A little grease on the outboard bearing threads - gone.

Lately, some creaking on the road bike saddle area while seating climbing - hard climbing. Sounds nuts, but I think its sweat soaked shorts rubbing on Flite saddle.

Wacky.

Travis said...

I, too have had the skewer creak.

For half a summer.

Oh, it was agonizing.

Jason said...

Got me a creek now. But on my mountain bike (of course). Headphones seem to be the answer.

I can be one of those folks who usually never notices. When I first started mountain biking, if I broke a spoke, I just ripped it out until I found the time/money to get a shop. Wheel strength, safety, and brake rub be damned!!

15 years later, I still can't do 98% of my own wrenching. BUT I've learned how to listen and look for things before they become a problem. I've also found a couple great wrenches and get tips.

Elizabeth and Matt said...

Bikesgonewild --

Timely comment. I think I had the exact same problem. Frame was a Salsa campeon, but same construction: scandium with carbon seatstays, capped and bolted to scandium chainstays at the dropouts.

Creaked on every downstroke when standing. Despite my serious misgivings about doing so, I finally pulled the small bolt at the dropout out, greased it, and reinstalled.

Something about unbolting my frame didn't sit right with me, but the noise was so annoying that I was on the verge of replacing the frame.

So far so good. No noise, and the rear end is a still as stiff as ever. Time will tell, but at least it is quiet and I can rejoin the group ride with a little less shame.

chr15 said...

I have 'the creak' two strip downs later I still have the creak...

I know it isn't bearings, but a dry thread. But can I find it???

It's there when I stand, or pull away, putting greater pressure on the cranks, the left creaks worse that the right, does that mean something??? Who knows?

bars, seatpost, BB, cranks, chainring bolts, pedals bla bla bla I've tried them all...

I was beginning to think it was my knees.

Creaky shoe strap, unlikely...
Skewers, I totally didn't think of that I'll try it tonight.

Padraig said...

It seems a shame to have such an annoying experience unite us all, but there it is: We're brothers even in our frustrations.

BTW: I've seen more creaks solved with attention to skewers than I care to admit. A race car driver buddy showed me that one.

Thanks for sharing, everyone.

bikesgonewild said...

...elizabeth & matt...i may have to try that next...

...being a cross-bike, it's always either dusty or wet n' muddy which i'm sure doesn't help...

...props all 'round...

frilly said...

Jimmy, this is a little embarrassing but I have no idea what cross-chaining is. And since you mentioned women & not knowing, I feel okay in admitting it. Now, would anybody mind explaining?

Seriously, I've only been riding my road bike for a few months now. Get the sneaking suspicion I might be guilty.

Frenchy aka Bike Boy said...

Frilly- (great name-a reference to undies I am assuming)an example of cross chaining is big chain ring- big cog in the back or small chain ring-small ring in the back.

Great post-timeless work.
Gracias.

frilly said...

Interesting. Thanks. I'm riding tonight so I'll be paying attention. Sometimes I hear this noise like somebody is dropping metal thumbtacks, think that might be it?

btw, your assumption is correct.

scottg said...

Creakers,

left side pedal bearings.
Dribbled Phils Tenacious
into the pedal, fine ever since.

Bottom bracket spindle failing,
creaked for about week before
snapping, dropping the drive side
crank off.

Scott G.

Matt Boulanger said...

I have had the creak on my cross bike commuter pretty much since I built it up and started riding it this spring. Loudest when climbing, worse on the drive side than not. I had the chain off for cleaning last week and spinning the cranks without a chain on unleashed an awful dimes-in-the-tumble-dryer sound. It seriously sounds like there aren't even any bearings in there. My guess is that under load, that's been the creak all along. We'll see.