La Vie Velominatus, Part II: In Pursuit of Silence

La Vie Velominatus, Part II: In Pursuit of Silence

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We all have our obsessions, and principle among mine is the pursuit of silence when it comes to my machines. Not every sound is a bad sound, mind you; the hum from the tires, the growl of a carbon wheel under acceleration, the crisp click of a shift – these are sounds that set my heart alight. But sounds such as a lazy creak or metallic click – particularly one emitting in time with the pedal stroke – these sounds creep into a dark corner of my psyche to stir an anxiety usually reserved for lonely thoughts in the dead of night.

The sounds characterized as those that require silencing have a variety of causes, some minor and some critical. The minor causes generally spring from an ungreased, loosened, or dirty part; a bolt hiding somewhere on the frame perhaps, a quick-release skewer, maybe a spoke. A more serious cause might be a tear somewhere in the frame or rim, or perhaps a worn bearing. What these sounds have in common is that they can be incredibly difficult to pinpoint; the most elusive sounds are rarely reproducible in the workshop and thus can only be identified while riding. The worst are those that only emit from the machine during an intense effort, with oxygen debt providing an unwelcome distraction to trying to debug a sound.

The causes of these noises are difficult to isolate because bicycles are made of long tubes and most modern bikes also often have large-diameter tubes of irregular circumference. The problem with long, irregularly shaped tubes is that sound loves to travel down them like it does a megaphone, allowing it to amp up and amplify along the way, emitting from a point far from it’s origin.

Because of this, one is forced to take a methodical approach to isolating the cause, starting with the most likely and working up to the most remote, testing only one remedy at a time until the offending source is found. This means the process is often too detailed and lengthy for the mechanic at your favorite local bike shop to pinpoint. Not for lack of skill, mind you, but for the simple fact that it would be too costly in terms of labor, and the shop mechanic likely has better things to do than listen to you prattle on about a tiny creak that emits from somewhere between your front and back wheel only while going up the steepest grade in town. It also has the associated problem that, assuming you’re insistent enough, they will wind up moving, changing their phone numbers, and travelling through water so you can’t track them. Believe me.

You’re left to your own devices in this matter, which means you’ll need to learn to maintain your bicycle. Which is just as well, since as a Velominatus, it is your duty to love and respect your machine and there is no better way to do this than to maintain it yourself. As with everything thing, the best way to learn is to find a Cycling Sensei who is willing to guide you. They will likely start by putting your bike on the stand, strip everything down to the bare frame, and build it back up. And then do it again, this time with you leading, not them. And again. And maybe one more time. In fact, lets make it an even V times.

At this point, you should have a basic understanding of the art of bicycle maintenance, and the rest will come from experience. By “experience” in this case, I mean mostly the bad ones, punctuated by glorious success. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll strip the delicate threads from your gorgeous aluminum derailleur. (That’s just an example, I did not strip the threads out of my dad’s brand new Campy* Euclid front mech when I was 13.) But experience, assuming you learn from all those mistakes, will feed your knowledge and serve as an excellent way of understanding empirically the right way to do things. And when you get it right, and the sound disappears, it will be all the more rewarding.

In the end, you’ll also build a lexicon of sounds and their causes, allowing you to apply a remedy quickly to a sound that previously may have taken several weeks to identify. One of the most challenging (and infuriating) creaks I’ve wrestled with was one that only ever produced itself when I was climbing out of the saddle. I immediately identified the sound as likely being that of my front skewer creaking. I cleaned it, applied some lube, and tightened it up, fully expecting the sound to disappear. But it didn’t. On and on I wrestled, becoming increasingly frustrated with the sound until finally I discovered that the bolts in my downtube cables stops had loosened slightly. In the end, a quarter-turn from an allen wrench was all it took to vanquish the sound, and with it several weeks of frustration.

On the rare occasion that your knowledge and experience fail to isolate the sound, take your machine your most trusted shop mechanic. At this stage, you should have a working understanding of the various conditions that cause the sound to reveal itself, and armed with this knowledge, your much more experienced and skilled mechanic should be able to identify the sound for you in no time. Watch how they work, and learn from them. After switching to Campa a few years back, my drivetrain started making a sound I’d never heard before, only when I was riding in particular gears. I spent ages trying to find the cause to no avail, finally bringing it in to Speedy Reedy. Within minutes, Gerick found that the lockring on my cassette had loosened; a quick twist of a wrench, and I was on my way, pedaling happily in silence. (And always leave a tip for them in the shop tip jar. If the shop doesn’t have one, bring a jar and put a tip in it and leave it there. Or bring a growler of your favorite beer, empty it together with the mechanic, and use the empty vessel as a tip jar.)

One of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of La Vie Velominatus is wrenching on your machine; learn to do this skillfully, and you’ll open the door to a world of silently-running and impeccably shifting machines. A greater joy can scarce be found.

*Since I’m talking about a MTB group, I thought it best to refer to Campagnolo by the more Americanized “Campy” rather than the Euro “Campa”.

// La Vie Velominatus

  1. My Sidi Ergo 2’s squeak and hurt the hell out of my feet. They look awesome, but they don’t feel so sweet. My Geniuses are totally awesome.

    Shimano shifters can always be found! Good luck, RR!

    scaler – I was just trying to not go too far one way & be nice. It is the equinox. Fixsters rub me the wrong way, just as stuffy roadies do. They think bikes are a fashion accessory. Damnit, bikes are really expensive toys. I could go on, but let us get back to the deep discussion of Velmonati concerns and awesomeness…

  2. @frank

    @Ron
    I really like those Sidi shoes but I had a bad experience with em. My first set of shoes were a low end pair of Sidi that I got right after I was given my bike(it came with clipless pedals) those things just killed my feet to the point of wanting to cry. I go to my LBS and the guy recommends a pair of NorthWaves. The Red Damsels are an awesome shoe, a pro level shoe that my feet like. The upers are nice and compliant and don’t make any noise at all. For now I will admire your Sidi’s while I wear the other Italian cycling shoe.

  3. I kept getting some rhythmic squeaky noise in the fork/head tube area every time I stood to climb. The noise was of course never there in the shop. So that was my excuse for getting a new bike. And I no longer have a squeaky frame.

  4. @G’phant

    @mcsqueak
    Just be careful out there. Riding with other Velominati can be hazardous to your health. Some of them promise you a nice, relaxed Tuesday night ride then deliver you into the jaws of Hell by not warning you that you are too old and too far from peaking to hang with those fast boys up the front who you haven’t ridden with before. Don’t they Brett?

    I don’t know what you’re talking about…

    Those boys can get a bit excited.

  5. @RedRanger

    You win a new set of shifter yet?

  6. @mcsqueak

    @RedRanger
    You win a new set of shifter yet?

    I have a few more days. I am looking forward to proper sti shifters.

  7. @RedRanger

    @frank
    @Ron
    I really like those Sidi shoes but I had a bad experience with em. My first set of shoes were a low end pair of Sidi that I got right after I was given my bike(it came with clipless pedals) those things just killed my feet to the point of wanting to cry. I go to my LBS and the guy recommends a pair of NorthWaves. The Red Damsels are an awesome shoe, a pro level shoe that my feet like. The upers are nice and compliant and don’t make any noise at all. For now I will admire your Sidi’s while I wear the other Italian cycling shoe.

    Yup, they’re not for everyone. Make sure your shoes fit properly. Excellent point.You can get a wide model of Sidis, but they generally are geared towards those with narrow feet. Northwaves and DMTs are wider; Mavic/Adidas seem to be more of a narrow fit as well, though not as narrow as the Sidis; Time was pretty wide back in the day when I rode them. That’s about all I’ve ridden.

    I’ve learned over time that I’ve got a pretty narrow foot, apparently.

  8. @RedRanger
    I’ve got 9 speed sti on my gravel/cross rig. I love those shifters. They’ve got the look, the feel, and they work sooooo well.

  9. @G’phant

    But life is so much better when there’s someone else to blame for your own misfortune. (Isn’t that why the Tea Party is going down so well with all of you guys Stateside? {Duck})

    “Hey gub’ment, get outta my life. But before you go, don’t forget to keep sending me my Social Security checks.”

    Enough about the folks in the Paul Revere costumes.

    Back to the principle of silence. I ride with a couple of masters racers occasionally. They keep their machines squeaky. The chains cry like tortured souls begging for mercy. I think they do it on purpose to dishearten any young’uns who try to sit on their wheels.

  10. Creaking Sidis, brakes cables clicking inside my Soloist frame, some stuff in the front hub from time to time, creaking saddle the day after a rainy ride until I lube the rails.
    I try not to get obsessed. I fail.

  11. @Cyclops

    Go figure. The 586 was making all kinds of creaking noises when climbing last night. Time to yank out the BB and see what’s going on in there.

    Keep an ear on your headset, also. I had some creaking and thought it was the BB, but it was the headset. Only heard it on hard pulls. I pulled it all, cleaned, lubed, put it all back together, and properly adjusted it. Now, no more noise.

  12. My dualie MTB developed lots of squeaks and groans. Those were fun to chase, for a particular definition of ‘fun’.
    But my best noise story comes from my last road bike, the 2002 (I think) Avanti Corsa Carbonio. Nice, dependable ride. Little bit of chain suck very occasionally when shifting to small ring under pressure, but good bike.
    Short story: Chased a pedal squeak for ages. Tried lubing the Ultegra pedals, wax on cleats, new cleats, all that. Then just got new pedals. Sorted. A week later, at the start of the week, a new groan/creak started, seemingly from the bottom bracket. On the weekend I decided to strip it down and relube, etc. Cranks come off and that’s when I notice the hole torn in the aluminium chainstay, normally hidden by the chainrings. Chainsuck can be bad when it’s driven by my mighty guns. The hole/gash was getting larger, on the edge of total failure. Gave me chills when I thought that one of the weekly groups had a speedo check at the bottom of a hill (PB 99kph on my flightdeck).
    Oh well, bit of running around to the dealer got me a new frame at cost, and it was a bit nicer than the older one.

  13. spot on Frank!

    Oh the art of the Velomantus, and the priniciple of Silence

    I have seemed to graduate from the Bachelors level of self-care to that of a Masters level.

    Figuring out the simple drivetrain noises to the paradoxical.

    Here are a few of my favorite finds, which by the way always eminate from the front QR…always.

    -chainring bolts loose
    -seatpost needs adjustment
    -either dirty spokes or a little loose and need tightening
    -stem bolts loose
    -and…pedals:-)

    all rather obtuse and a little oil or tightening after taking out and cleaning the threads works wonders for your sleep at night

  14. @Cyclops

    Go figure. The 586 was making all kinds of creaking noises when climbing last night. Time to yank out the BB and see what’s going on in there.

    Pulled the cranks out and greased ‘em up. Test ride = silent bliss!

    That reminds me. My neoprene booties squeak with each pedal stroke. I suppose a little blubber oil harvested from the rare Hawaiian Monk Seal that Frank sacrificed before ascending Haleakala would take care of that though.

  15. I guess I should have clarified that I only wear the booties in the winter.

  16. @J

    Creaking Sidis, brakes cables clicking inside my Soloist frame, some stuff in the front hub from time to time, creaking saddle the day after a rainy ride until I lube the rails.
    I try not to get obsessed. I fail.

    LIke I mentioned before, my bottle cages were squeaking on my commute to work Wednesday. It’s a long commute. 45k each way. I thought I fixed it in my office, but I didn’t. The bolts needed lube. I didn’t have any. They creaked like the bike was dying for the duration of the ride. I tried not to obsess because obsessing really ruins the ride. I failed. It really ruined the ride.

    @Cyclops

    That reminds me. My neoprene booties squeak with each pedal stroke. I suppose a little blubber oil harvested from the rare Hawaiian Monk Seal that Frank sacrificed before ascending Haleakala would take care of that though.

    Brilliant. Nicely played.

  17. Holy Merckx,
    What the frack is going on in Spain??!!??:
    http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/spanish-court-overturns-heras-suspension

  18. @Cyclops

    I guess I should have clarified that I only wear the booties in the winter.

    To be fair, isn’t it still basically winter in Idaho?

  19. @mcsqueak
    Pretty much.

  20. @frank
    I thought you were takin’ the piss at first; white lightening for your white ladies, anyhow I’ll try anything once

  21. @Ron et al,
    Speaking of fixies………I hear a squeaky chain coming up behind me. A couple goes by, both on fixies, one set of pink rims, one set of neon green rims, unwrapped metal bars, both in tight denim, neither wearing a helmet, with matching messenger bags. Oh boy.

    laughing, I believe they call these folk ‘fakengers’ I saw one today. Lovely old frame ruined by hacking off the derailleur boss; Rapha cap and jersey, big Paul Smith messenger bag. Except we don’t have any bike messengers in town. Therefore a fakenger. My first outside London.

  22. I find it hard to write a response to this article. I’ve just been away for four days in the Alps: Croix de Fer, Telegraphe, Galibier, Alpe D’Huez, Saurenne, Ornon… others. I’ve spent a bottle of burgundy, several hundred brownie points hard earned off my wife unboxing my steed, cleaning, oiling, and polishing her before hanging her back on the wall of my study and checking this website before retiring to bed. I find it hard to write a response, because this cuts deep to the core of what I am as a cyclist. Stephen King was once asked why he wrote horror… he answered: “I don’t know… I like to write about important things, and to me, horror is important… you and I both know that there is nothing under the bed… but when the lights are out, I’m not putting my foot down there in case It is hungry. The important things are the hardest to write because words diminish them”… As a cyclist, I want to be the best I can be. I want whatever machine I use to be the best it can be. I strive for hours to make it so (me, and my machine). Any noise. ANY noise. I hunt it down. Just last week, I had a clicking with every pedal stroke. I stripped the pedals. I stripped the hub. I took the chain off and scrubbed it. I even cleaned the fucking jockey wheels (I know, the revolutions of a jockey wheel have little to do with the turn of the crank, unless you take into account gearing, chain length, yada yada…)…. I even took the wheels apart and greased the bearings. It turns out, it was actually my knee. Irritated the shit out of me.

    I love this article. It’s why I love the principle of silence. It’s why no ride is complete until that bike is back in scrubbed, degreased, relubed perfection back on the wall above my desk. (yes, I did tuck into a second bottle before I wrote this. sorry)

  23. Great post – the machine must be silent. Or at least make only the correct sounds – the click of the shifters, the buzzing of the cassette.

    I’ve had some weird noises to diagnose over the years – usually traced to loose chainring bolts, dry BB threads, loose disk brake rotor bolts – or some other items you normally don’t think of.

    The worst is tracking down creaking noises from an old or tired full suspension mountain bike. Now we’re talking fun. I retired an older Ellsworth Truth frame for that very reason. A slight creak every time the rear suspension topped out. You could barely hear it, but it was enough to drive me insane.

    Riders tolerance to this sort of thing varies greatly. I’ve been on group mountain bike rides with other people’s frames creaking away – oblivious to the owner. We’ve all seen the rider on the ancient 3 speed cruising along, each crank revolution hitting the chain guard or kickstand. Clack, clack, clack.

    I’ve spent way too much time back in the day, dialing cantilever brakes to not squeal. Now with disk brakes, I just ignore the occasional squeal. Maybe I’m going deaf, or my tolerance is just getting better…

  24. Hey Oli, my Campa Record BB cups come a little bit loose (loose enough to cause a click) about every few weeks…It’s the right one. Any suggestions? Should I just drop some threadlock in there? It’s not a big deal, I take all that stuff apart to clean it every few weeks anyway, but I’d love for it to stay put.

    It’s probably my incredible power that bends space-time and thereby makes the cup come loose, but maybe you have a cure for that.

  25. Is the b/b shell faced?

    Are they Italian threaded cups (36 x 24t)?

    How tight are you installing it?

    If the b/b isn’t faced it will keep happening.

    If they are Italian cups they need a bit of threadlock.

    Either way, they need to be torqued down TIGHT. None of your namby-pamby gentle “snugging down” but TIGHT.

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