Wednesday, June 27, 2007

It's All in the Details: Bicycle Acoustics

As cyclists many of us pay close attention to the performance, comfort, and aesthetic aspects of our bikes. However, I see way too many riders who neglect an equally-important consideration: the way their bicycles sound.

A bike noise is the equivalent of an STD. You can neglect it and the symptoms might go away for awhile, but they'll always reappear--and eventually it will drive you insane. Bike noises and STDs also share the same stigma: when I sit next to someone at a bar with a cold sore, I move over a stool; when I ride up to someone with a cacophonous bike, I give a wide birth.

For the aurally disinclined, here are just a few of the most obvious and egregious noises. If you don't love yourself or your bike enough to take care of them, then at least do it for the rest of us:
Bottom Bracket Creaking
(Look how simple and harmless! Take it out, pet it, and put it back.)
This is the cold sore of the bike world. Almost everybody gets it at one time or another. But unlike a cold sore, you can get rid of bottom bracket creaking by (this may come as a revelation) reinstalling or replacing your bottom bracket!
Every rider should aquire the tools and know-how to do this. Go to Sheldon Brown or the Park Tools site and figure it out. Why are people so afraid of their bottom brackets, like they're rabid ferrets living in their bottom bracket shells that will bite off their fingers if they try to coax them out? There are few things more sickening to me than a shiny, new, high-end road bike creaking like the floorboards of an old Victorian, or a fixed gear straining up the incline of the Brooklyn Bridge with a drivetrain that crunches like footfalls on newly-fallen snow.
Drivetrain Noise
(Chirp, chirp, chirp.)

Some drivetrain noise is inevitable and therefore acceptable. The following noises are unacceptable:
Squeaky Chain You should never allow your drivetrain to sound like a nest of baby rats pining for their mothers' teat. Clean chain if necessary and re-lube. (You don't need anything fancy. Motor oil will do just fine.)
Chattering Between Gears If your chain spends 30 seconds chattering like a roomful of yentas before engaging a new sprocket after you shift, take the time to adjust your derailleur. You may need to replace worn drivetrain components or cables.
Grinding This is sometimes a matter of technique. Your bicycle is an instrument and you should know how to play it. I see far too many riders on all manner of bicycles riding around in gear combinations that make their drivetrains sound like a medieval drawbridge descending over a moat. Learn how to shift! Unless you're in a race and either don't have the time or can't risk a chain-drop by shifting into the small ring, don't ride crossed-over. There are other sites that go into this in more detail. I'll just say aquire some grace and leave it at that. (Maybe this explains the fixie craze--too many people can't wrap their heads around proper shifting.)

Rattly Goddamn Zipps
More and more people are spending ungodly sums on obnoxious, overpriced deep-dish carbon fiber wheelsets to give them that essential edge in those hotly-contested Cat 4 races. As a consequence, more and more people's bikes are emitting a hideous racket as their ten-centimeter long valve stems wriggle around in the rim. It's starting to sound like a field of rattlesnakes out there, and it's pissing me off. Coupled with that "whoosh-woosh-woosh" they emit when the rider struggles up a moderate incline, it's enough to make you want to stick a pump through their bladed spokes.

Now I don't use these things, but if you do figure out something! Cyclingnews recently revealed a clever pro mechanic trick I thought was very resourceful. Get creative or get normal wheels. If you can't figure it out, you shouldn't be allowed to ride it.

Acceptable Noise
Perhaps the most amazing thing to me about bike noise is that people will tolerate all of the above, but then will complain about perfectly acceptable and desireable noises. One of these noises is loud freehubs. I have seen many, many posts in forums asking how to quiet a rear hub while coasting, or decrying a high-end hub for its loud buzzing sound, or asking what the quietest rear hub is.

Um, a loud hub or freewheel is good! That buzzing is the ratchet on which your crotch depends doing its job! If those pawls quiet down, you're dangerously close to making hard and fast love to your top tube. (If you simply must have a bike that coasts quietly, get some Shimano hubs which are engineered to do so.)

I Implore and Entreat You
If your bike starts making noise, get to the bottom of it immediately. This might be obvious, but your bike is telling you it needs help. This is also a great opportunity to learn the workings of your bike if you don't know them already. Remove, inspect, and replace one thing at a time. Resist the urge to just drop it off at the shop and have them cure it. Your bike needs intensive care at this time, and no shop has the man-hours or time to do that. I've had bikes that took weeks to diagnose, during which I practically maintained candle-light vigils, banishing all other distractions from my life until the problem was solved. If you're not prepared for this level of dedication, perhaps bike ownership is not for you. Golf clubs never make noise.


alliwannadoisbicycle said...

there's nothing like an obnoxiously loud campy freehub whizzing in the morning, ah, nice.

so euro.

Anonymous said...

check this winner out:

BikeSnobNYC said...

Anonymous 9:00am,

That bike is so ugly it makes noise standing still.

T. Lyle said...

I have come to a point where I want to ride with a spray can of lube and sneak up on the people with drive trains that sound like a tank driving through rebar, and just lean down, spray it and keep going. It would kind of be like being a superhero of sorts....

matt said...

nice writeup, maybe we could print flyers and hand them out on the streets?

seattle seems to have the same-sounding cycles as nyc.. funny.

Jim said...

I'm commuting into work last week by a local shop and a woman is outside the shop on her nice high end Trek MTB. The shop is shut. She looks in trouble. I ask what she needs - she says air. I don't have a pump but have my flat wallet and some CO2. So I hook her up, split one cannister between two tires and get the tires up to decent air pressure. Then I notice the chain and cogs are rusted up like an old nail you find on the sidewalk after the snow melts, literally bright orange/red. She asks how she can possibly repay me, so I made her promise to stop at that very shop on the way home and get some lube for the chain, and actually use it. Eventually she promised, and then she rode off with the chain making noise like a pack of caged birds. It was painful to listen to.

T. Lyle said...

ok, I was looking at that gaudy-ass bike from the anonymous link, and I have one question that has been buggin the shit out of me....what the hell is with the shit in the wheel?! I'm referring to the card. I see that shit all over downtown Denver too. What the hell is the point??

Robosauce said...

I prefer being able to hear spandex warriors on their cycles as they try to buzz past me without giving any clearance. It gives me time to move, on the off chance that their wildly-flailing knees decide to spontaneously realign my handlebars. (Perhaps that's a reason for chopping straight bars down?)

Anonymous said...

thanks, now i'm going to clean my bottom bracket and get some valtrex.

schaughvn said...

forgot the forth most annoying drive train noise, the squeaky derailleur pulley. suffered four days of shame working this one out. required total tear down and repacking of the pulley's. Now the only noise is the sweet buzz of the chris king hub.

BikeSnobNYC said...


Nice work, that's what I'm talking about. Taking the time to figure things out. Sometimes it takes awhile to find the culprit.

Sharing the cause of your bike noise once you've managed to mute it is a great service. Gives others clues when it comes time to solve their own noise issue. I read religiously for this reason.


Anonymous said...

A lot of strange noise comes from people who do not bother to replace or check their derailleur housing often. Once the housing begins to "fray" it can make awful noises that are similar to headset creaking issues. Cheap bastards can even trim the housing and it will be better. I've seen people/mechanics waste a lot of time on other parts of bikes when the problem was crappy old housing.

Anonymous said...

mah bike sings little feat songs. caint git it t'stop.

Brett said...

Nobody riding 404s in a cat 4 race would stoop to the level of putting duct tape on their rims, regardless of how effective it is. Here's another cyclingnews solution they might be more inclined to try:

Anonymous said...

most anoying good sound... when you pass somone you don't know on a high end bike with a loud free wheel and then only to realize he is now hanging on your rear wheel and coasitng in your draft.....

Tim Jackson- Masi Guy said...

I think I plotzed... no... wait... I know I did.

Excuse me for a minute.

mathias_d said...

On the note of worn out, squeaky derailleur pulleys, I live in the sf bay area and maybe one shop in the whole east bay carries them. I sometimes feel like the only commuter who knows how to change them out...shops wanted to order them from qbp (waste of fucking time!)

Art said...

1) Campy freehubs don't whizz, they sing. And what are you doing coasting anyway.

2) Bikes with cantis should absolutely not be sold to people who don't understand toe-in. It's for their own good.

Anonymous said...

i guess that is a 'clever pro mechanic trick,' when i was with a certaing pro team in 2000 we did this on all the rev-x wheels. whether using the supplied screw on extender or extra long valve core inserts, the riders got this horrid 'tick, tick' everytime the wheel came around. packing teflon tape around the stem also worked, but tape over the top like your picture shows was the best fix. reckoned everyone was hip to this by now.

on the subject of pre-built wheels such as spinergy, etc., 'phooey' i say. they all have some inherent problems that ultimately make them inferior to a shimano 32hole hubset built on a mavic rim with dt spokes 3 cross. yeah, i built different spoke counts and different cross patterns, but the standard wheel works well for any and all conditions. maybe on a certain day, a certain course, yeah, but how many god damned wheels are you gonna carry around?

for 2000, to make the rev-x compliant with the uci, we had to put thin edge protectors over the leading edge of the blades to effectively dull them and make them less like a food processor. oh, it was so much fun. they arrived just before we flew to criterium international, so we were still trying to put them on the night before the race. they diddn't stick well because of excess wax-y coating the wheels are shipped with. no amount of alcohol or acetone seemed to get all of this product off, so in the first rain-soaked stage, they were already lifting off the wheels. by midseason, it seemed like the officials weren't checking anymore, so i just said screw it and stopped replacing them.

as for the bearing quality of the rev-x, well maybe that's for another time.

Anonymous said...

oh, yeah. be on the listen for a mystery squeak/rattle coming from the rear hub. the sound of bone dry ball bearings. you will recognize it.

CdP said...

What about cleat noise - I know both Looks and SPDs tend to chirp like little birds if not well cared for...

j said...

I thought you might like this ad:

BikeSnobNYC said...


That DC ad is excellent.

I am re-posting your link in shorter form since it got cut off (at least in my browser). But was so curious I managed to hunt it down anyway:


j said...

Oops, sorry about that...

I just wonder how much money the guy will get for that bike. $1,500 seems a wee bit steep, no?

Anonymous said...

"...motor oil will do just fine"?
I hope that was a joke. No fuckin' Tri-Flow either.

BikeSnobNYC said...

Anonymous 6/29,

Not saying I use it, but love him or hate him, JB himself endorses motor oil:

I've heard it said that Prolink is just motor oil and kerosene, the kerosene being simply a conduit to help the oil penetrate the chain.

We all cling to our own chain lubes for various intangible reasons. (Whether it clings to our chains is another matter...)

flifton said...

Great blog, lots of mean fun. One comment on QR skewer position. If you ride off-road in brushy areas I think your skewers' levers should point backwards, as close to 9 o'clock as possible. This reduces the possibilty that protruding foliage can flip your lever and ruin your day.

Which brings me to a personal peeve as a former wrench, people who are smart enough to become Dr's and Lawyers, but can't seem to understand that a QR lever is not there to spin the the nut tight against the drop out. You have to actually flip the lever so that it says "closed", (text that is probably there because of a lawyer.)

Seanywonton said...

"I see far too many riders on all manner of bicycles riding around in gear combinations that make their drivetrains sound like a medieval drawbridge descending over a moat."

-I peed myself a little when I read that.

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word snob said...

Unless are a multitasking bicyclist I think you meant:

"...wide berth."

Bike noises and STDs also share the same stigma: when I sit next to someone at a bar with a cold sore, I move over a stool; when I ride up to someone with a cacophonous bike, I give a wide birth.

Late to the party, but similarly easily peeved.

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