If you spend time watching professional MTB videos, you may notice that they all have crystal clear audio that makes it seem as though riding is done in near silence in an almost ethereal state. Well, if you’ve ever ridden a bike, you know that’s just not true. What about the heavy breathing? Or the wind howling in your face? Or what about those sounds coming from your bike? Today we are doing to dive into common bike noises and what they mean, along with what we can do to prevent these unsettling noises in the first place. Today we ask the question – What is your bike trying to tell you?
1) Learn Anatomy
In order to diagnose and potentially fix a bike noise, you must first learn the anatomy of your bike. This involves going through and learning all the different parts of your bike and, ideally, taking it one step further by getting familiar with what each part does.
Pro tip: there are no screws!
2) The Once-Over Wiggle
This is part of my pre-ride routine, and I recommend you also do the Once-Over Wiggle on a regular basis! Here’s how I wiggle….
☑️ Start up front, wiggle the controls and bars, making sure nothing is loose.
☑️ Check the headset by turning the front wheel sideways 90 degrees, placing your fingers where the headset meets the head tube of your frame, and rocking the bike forward and back to feel for play.
☑️ Wiggle the front wheel, then the brake caliper.
☑️ Give the saddle a wiggle, then check the cranks for play, and grab the pedals to see if they move from side to side or act wonky at all.
☑️ Squeeze your chainring and make sure it feels tight, then rock the back wheel checking for any unwanted movement at the axle or in the suspension pivots.
☑️ Finally, give that cassette and derailleur a wiggle!
Aren’t you glad you studied up on your bike vocabulary?
3) A Deeper Dive
On a regular basis, it’s important to find time for a more thorough bike check to make sure no bolts are loose. It’s not uncommon for bolts to loosen over time and it’s important to catch it before anything wiggles free. You can do this by going through with the appropriate wrenches, but don’t just start tightening everything down as hard as you can. First, learn how to use a torque wrench and then check your bike manufacturer’s website for torque specifications (the range of force that each bolt or fastener is designed for).
Pro tip: While you’re at it, check your axles and make sure everything is properly secured!
4) Timing is Key
Despite taking preventative measures to keep your bike in tip-top shape, you are still hearing a funny noise coming from your bike. First things first, you need to figure out the timing of the noise. Is it when you are pedaling, coasting, or braking? And is it only when you sit on the saddle, or when you stand, or both?
5) The Usual Suspects
Experience is a great teacher! Here are a few of the most common causes of unwanted bike noise, and some easy fixes:
Crunchy crunch when pedaling
Clean and lube your chain, then check your derailleur hanger to make sure its bolts are tightened appropriately! Check those pedals for any play or crunchiness.
Squeaky creak that only happens when seated
Clean your seat rails and apply a little grease or chain lube to them. Check those torque specs (usually 7-10 Nm) when you reinstall!
Snappy creak when you pedal hard, but only on one side
Your pedal may be worn out! Most pedals can be rebuilt pretty easily, but many require special tools and a rebuild kit that includes new bearings and seals. This happens to me a couple times every season, so I keep two sets of pedals with me so I don’t miss any rides while waiting for parts or a rebuild.
Wobble click when you move the bars around
Check if your headset is loose! If you ride a lot of steep trails or slabs, that headset takes a beating. Same as above, tighten to manufacturer torque specs.
High pitched squeal when braking
Your brakes are either wet or contaminated. Hopefully it’s just water, but if you think something may have made its way onto the pads or rotor, it’s time to decontaminate. Start by wiping the surface of the rotor and pads down with alcohol. Some people even put their pads in a toaster oven to burn off any contaminants, or even take a small torch to the rotor. As with all things involving torches, make good choices! If you know for sure that brake fluid got all over everything, you may have to just replace the pads and rotor.
Clunk when you compress the suspension
Something’s not right! Look for rocks trapped in your suspension linkage and check your shock pressure. If that’s not it, remove your shock and move the suspension through its travel to see if it’s binding up.
Hollow thunking sound with a slight grind when you move the bike
Boy howdy – this one could be a doozy. Sometimes carbon frames break and this is their cry for help. Check for cracks in the downtube, bottom bracket area, and top tube. My sincerest hope is that it’s not a frame issue!
An orchestra of squeaks and noises all over the bike
You’re due for a good cleaning and lubing. Check out the Bike Wash article and give that machine some love! If you ride a lot of water crossings or find yourself in the mud and muck, expect some noises! If your bottom bracket or hubs were submerged, they may need to be taken apart and serviced (See Step 6).
6) Call in the Pros
That guy or gal behind the service counter at the bike shop is an encyclopedia of weird bike noises. Get your machine into their hands, describe when it occurs, and let them work their magic. They’ve seen it all before, and have a tried and true system for tracking down and eliminating those pesky noises!