Dealing With Bike Noise on Cycle Tours

Oiling a bicycle chain
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Bike noise can drive you mad on tour. It doesn’t always signify a serious problem but is best to address: something is loose, flexing or rubbing against something else with too much friction.

Sound tends to resonate through the frame making it hard to locate the source. Answering the following questions can give some clues as to where the sound is coming from.

What is the noise like? Is it a rattle, a squeak, a click, a rubbing sound? A rattle will generally mean that something is loose. Clicking sounds are often due to loose bearings. Squeaking and rubbing sounds are generally due to unwanted friction. Creaking could indicate something that is flexing and may mean it is close to failure.

If that doesn’t help to identify the sound go through a process of elimination. First eliminate yourself as the source of the noise. Could it be a creaky shoe, a zipper, something in your pocket, or something loose hitting against the frame? Next check your panniers and other bags. You can try removing them from the bike to see if that stops the noise. If it does give the bags a shake to make sure it isn’t something inside. Check your racks have no breakages and that all the bolts are tight. Ensure the panniers are snug on the racks when you replace them and that the sound isn’t caused by a loose zip or other part.

Once you’ve eliminated yourself and luggage you can move onto the bike. Try lifting it a few inches then dropping it onto the tyres to see if the sound is replicated.

If this doesn’t help try to discern if the noise has a rhythm, i.e. is it in time with the turning of the wheel, pedals, chain, chainrings or sprockets? If so, check the relevant part(s), tightening or lubricating as necessary and in line with the part’s instructions. Unfortunately, just because a sound is in sync with the rotation of a certain part it doesn’t mean that part is the cause of the sound. The physical act of cycling places strain on many areas of the bike which may not even be close to the rotating part. The following are useful starting points to check if noise can be linked to a rotation rythm:

Wheels

First check mudguards if you use them. Mudguards have a tendency to buzz and rattle, particularly the ones that are a combination of plastic and metal. The two elements seem to come apart with extended use and if there is a way to fix this I’d love to hear it. Make sure the mudguards aren’t rubbing on your tyres and that there isn’t mud or debris trapped underneath that could be rubbing.

Check that your tyres are sound and pumped up to at least the recommended pressure.

Check for any loose spokes. They can rub against each other at the crossing points and if this is happening you really should sort out your spoke tension but a drop of oil at the crossing point should alleviate the sound.

Try moving the rims from side to side to see if there is any play in the hub. If there is the bearings are loose and the hub will need adjusted. This isn’t an easy job to attempt on tour and needs cone spanners so unless you are very sure of what you’re doing it’s best to take it to a bike shop – you may need to replace the bearings and possibly the hub or wheel. However, unless the bearings are extremely loose the wheel should still be rideable.

Another possible cause of noise is your rear freehub. A certain amount of noise is natural and some are noisier than others. It shouldn’t be hard to pinpoint this noise as you’ll notice it when freewheeling. Freehubs can wear out with use and become overly noisy and an overhaul isn’t generally practical on tour. See this link for more details.

A nasty grinding sound could signify a broken axle. This will need replaced.

Pedals/chainring

A rhythmic clicking is often caused by grit or loose bearings in the pedal or bottom bracket. Often it can only be fixed by replacing the pedals or bottom bracket. Some pedals and bottom brackets allow cleaning and replacement of bearings but this is generally fairly inconvenient on tour.

Unfortunately, as mentioned above, pedalling stresses pretty much the entire bike so a noise in time with pedalling could be just about anything! You can try pedalling backwards to eliminate the normal pedalling force but most likely the sound will only occur when this is present – even if the pedal is the cause of the sound!

Chain

Try cleaning and/or lubricating the chain. If that doesn’t work check for dodgy links – they may either be stiff or damaged. Chains tend to wear quite heavily on tour so may just need replaced due to stretching – though generally this won’t make it noticeably noisy.

Also check that your chainline is clear of interference. The chain may be rubbing on the front or rear mechs, which will need adjusting.

Rear Sprockets

Check for broken teeth and give the sprockets a clean. Check that your rear mech is adjusted properly and your chain is in good condition.

Other Sources of Noise

Creaking Handlebars

Check the handlebars for cracks. If there is a sign of any cracking replace them – you definitely don’t want handlebars to fail! Creaking could also be caused by the stem not being tight enough – greasing the bolts should help keep them tight – be careful not to over tighten them or you could crack the bars. Some stems simply won’t tighten enough without excessive force or stay tight, particularly adjustable stems. Replacing the stem may be the only option.

Brakes

Disc brakes have tight clearances between the pads and rotors. They often don’t have much room for adjustment either so if something gets stuck on the pads or if the rotor gets slightly bent the result can be irritating noise, which can range from a low scraping sound to a high-pitched squeal. Try cleaning the rotor and pads (make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions as improper cleaning may damage them) and adjust the brakes if possible. If the brakes are non-adjustable squirting some water on the rotor may alleviate the sound temporarily (i.e. a few minutes!) – you may have to replace your rotor or pads to stop it.

Rim brakes can squeal and scrape in use but you shouldn’t have any trouble recognising the source of the sound! Adjustment will generally fix the problem. Keeping your pads and rims clean should also help minimise noise, and hence wear.

Saddle

Brooks saddles can creak if the leather loses tension. Tension the saddle as per Brooks’ instructions. Some cyclists advise against ever tightnening a Brooks saddle but the rails can break with insufficient tension. There are other options besides using the Brooks spanner but they generally involve drilling holes in your saddle which is quite extreme and will likely affect the warranty.

Frame

If your frame is creaking that’s definitely not a good sign. Obviously a frame failure could be serious. Check for cracks, particularly at the welding points. Luckily frame failure is pretty rare but it can happen.

Jockey Wheels

These can squeak a bit. A small amount of light lubricating oil should stop the squeaking.

Hub Gears

Hub gears tend to be naturally more noisy than deraillers. If it seems noisier than usual the hub may need lubricated, for which you should follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

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