April 16, 2021

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How to Diagnose Bike Noises

You’re pedaling along your favorite route when a new sound catches your ear, and you realize—it’s coming from your bike. Great, you think, what does that mean?

Bikes get worn out. When they do, they communicate their distress through squeaks, creaks, and a variety of other weird noises. If your bike’s been extra chatty lately, it might be time for a little TLC. We know better than anyone that it can sometimes be a challenge to figure out exactly where the sound is coming from—especially if it’s hard to reproduce when not riding—so first you’ll need to know how to diagnose it.

We spoke to Joël Nankman, Bicycling’s resident mechanic and Mike Yozell, a former pro-team mechanic, about how you can learn to speak your bike’s language and get it back into working order. Here are the components that are the most common culprits of pesky bike noises, to help you narrow it down to its source.

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Component: Chain
Noise: Squeaking, Rattling

Amy Wolff

That creaky squeaking you hear as you pedal “could mean that [your bike] has a dry chain or bearings,” Yozell says. Cleaning and lubing your chain is usually a good place to start with any weird noise, but if it doesn’t solve the squeak, you may need to maintain or replace some bearings (see below).

Your chain should also be the first thing you check if you hear a rattling noise, which could mean the chain is loose or not shifting properly, Yozell says. This causes it to rattle against your frame. Chains stretch over time, and you can adjust the tension with your derailleur—but if it’s really stretched, you might need to replace it altogether.


Component: Bearings (Bottom Bracket, Headset, Hubs & More)
Noise: Creaking

Creaks can be frustrating and mysterious, but the most common causes are bearings. There are several places on your bike that use bearings to rotate smoothly, including your headset, bottom bracket, and some suspension linkages on mountain bikes.

To isolate your bottom bracket, stand next to your bike, grab both of your brakes, and put your foot on the pedal closest to you. If the bike creaks when you put your weight on the pedal, the problem is likely coming from your bottom bracket. If you don’t hear anything, the problem is likely the bearings in your headset, hubs, or linkages. Bearings can wear out after a season or so, especially if you live somewhere wet or sandy. Your local bike shop can help you order and install new ones.


Component: Seatpost
Noise: Creaking

wipe clean

Wipe down the grit off the seatpost. 

Amy Wolff

grease

Apply grease or fiber grip and reinsert the seatpost. 

Amy Wolff

Another common source of creaking is your seatpost, especially if the noise happens only while seated. To fix it, remove your seatpost by undoing the quick release (if there is one) or loosening the hex bolt at its base where it enters the frame, wipe any grit off the post and in the seat tube with a clean cloth, and apply a fresh thin layer of grease or fiber grip compound if you have a carbon frame. Reinstall it, and see if that does the trick.


Component: Chainring
Noise: Creaking

crank bolts

Amy Wolff

Chainrings can also be frequent noise makers, but it’s an easy fix—just tighten down the bolts on the chainring, ideally to the proper torque spec if you have a torque wrench (here’s how to use one). To help prevent the chainring bolts from coming loose again, you can apply some threadlocker compound to them.



Component: Headset
Noise: Rattling

tighten headset

Amy Wolff

Yozell cautions that a rattling sound could come from a loose headset, which can make your bike handle poorly or even dangerously. To tighten your headset, first loosen the side bolts on your stem, then tighten the top bolt. It should be tight enough to pull the fork, headset, stem, and any spacers snugly together, but not so tight that the bars can’t turn freely. Once you get the center bolt to a tightness that feels good, you can tighten the side bolts again. To tighten everything down just right, use a torque wrench and the manufacturer’s recommended Newton-meter spec (sometimes it’s even printed near the headset). If the rattling still doesn’t go away, take your bike to the shop to be safe—you don’t want to be losing any loose parts midride.


Component: Shifter Cables
Noise: Constant Clicking

If you hear a constant clicking (especially in certain gears), it could mean that your shifter cables have stretched enough to pull your derailleur out of alignment, causing your chain to ride between gears or rub on the derailleur cage. First, make sure your derailleur is aligned and that the hanger isn’t bent. Then, if tuning the tension on your derailleur doesn’t solve the click, you’ll need to run a new shifter cable—check out how to do it here.


Component: Bottom Bracket
Noise: Clicking

If the clicking sound doesn’t seem to be coming from your drivetrain or pedals (see below), check that your bottom bracket cups are tight. “And if you have a press-fit-type bottom bracket, take your bike to the shop,” Yozell recommends as you likely won’t have the right tools to work on it.


Component: Thru Axle or Quick Release
Noise: Varies

A noisy thru axle or quick release might just need to be tightened. But if that doesn’t fix it, it’s likely one of two problems. A creak or squeak, Nankman says, is a sign of a dry or dirty thru axle or quick release. Remove the component, clean it, and re-grease it. Meanwhile, a clicking sound could signify it’s cracked or broken and needs to be replaced.

greasing axle

Amy Wolff


Component: Derailleur Hanger
Noise: Clicking, Creaking

A bent derailleur hanger, or one that is out of alignment, can cause a constant clicking sound while pedaling. The derailleur hanger might be visibly bent or off if it’s bad enough. Otherwise, you’ll need a hanger alignment gauge to be able to tell for certain. “Oftentimes, with 12-speed systems, even a hanger that is not visually bent might be bent enough to throw off shifting,” Nankman says.

Sometimes a creaking noise can occur from the derailleur hanger rubbing against the frame where it’s mounted. “Remove the derailleur hanger, clean the frame and hanger vigorously, and apply some anti-seize such as Finishline anti-seize to the surfaces that will be touching each other,” Nankman says. “It’s also good to check the hanger for stress fractures while it is off.” Replace it if needed.


Component: Pedals and Shoes
Noise: Squeaking During Pedal Stroke

grease

Amy Wolff

Even pedals can start to make noise after a while. You might notice the noise happens with every pedal stroke. Yozell suggests removing your pedals, greasing them, and making sure the washers between the pedal and crank arm are intact.

Likewise, squeaking with every rotation could very well come from your shoe cleats. “If they get noisy during a ride, a sugary drink such as Gatorade can sometimes quiet them up,” Nankman says, noting that the sticky, sugary goo left behind can act as a makeshift lubricant. “But cleaning and lubricating it with a wax-based lube is the way to go.” Sometimes the noise means it’s time to get new ones, but Nankman says he’s even had brand new cleats sound squeaky.


Component: Frame
Noise: Creaking

Lastly, while it’s far more uncommon than the issues listed above, a cracked or defective frame can also be the reason for a persistent, mysterious noise, from what Nankman has experienced. “For the longest time, I had a ticking/clicking sound only when standing uphill on my mountain bike. It ended up being the seatpost binder (of the wedge variety),” he said. “I actually had to get a new frame. Long story short, the part of the frame that the wedge slid into was slightly out of spec.”

A frame defect can be hard to diagnose, too. And it’s happened to Nankman more than once: “I had a bike years ago where the chainstays were not welded to the bottom bracket shell quite right. Whenever it was cold out, the bike would sound like it was going to explode at any minute. I guess they were two slightly different alloys, and they expanded or contracted at different rates. Once it all warmed up, the fit was tight, and the noise went away.”

Frame damage can also be the culprit, such as a crack. Hairline cracks in carbon frames can be especially hard to find. “I had a customer who kept complaining about a headset creak on a carbon bike,” Nankman recalled. “We ended up literally taking the entire bike apart, cleaning and greasing everything, and went over the frame with a magnifying glass looking for hairline cracks. Could not find anything wrong. The noise was less, but still there. The guy rode the bike one time after we gave it back to him, and the head tube separated from the top tube after he rode over a speedbump.” (He was okay, luckily.)

Cracks can be hard to find with the naked eye. Nankman said that after that incident, for every creak the bike shop couldn’t pinpoint, they’d take the frame to a local veterinarian to be x-rayed, just to be safe. Of course, not every shop has that ability, but some companies that repair carbon frames also offer frame inspections, like Ruckus Composites in Portland, Oregon.


Still Not Sure?

“Diagnosing where the sound’s coming from can be tricky,” Yozell says. And Nankman agrees, “Hunting down annoying noises can be quite infuriating.” Sometimes a thorough wash and lube is all it takes to set everything right again. But if you can’t figure out the problem, or aren’t sure how to fix it when you do, it’s always a good bet to take your bike to your local bike shop—they’ll be fluent in speaking bike.

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