Is your bike making a funny noise? When you’re pedaling for hours every day with few distractions, a simple “click… click… click… “ can drive you absolutely out of your mind.
Unfamiliar bike noises can be stressful under any circumstances, but especially while bikepacking or touring. We depend on our loyal steeds to get us to water, shelter, pizza, and the next hot shower, wherever that may be.
It’s natural to wonder if a new squeak, click, rattle, or clank is going to leave us stranded in the middle of nowhere, covered in grease and surrounded by bicycle parts, shaking our fists in frustration at the indifferent sky.
Ok, wait, don’t panic.
I have a lot of miles under my wheels, from places like the Sahara desert of Sudan to remote trails of the western US. I’ve spent many hours of my life – more than I’m comfortable trying to count – pondering creaks, squeaks, and clicks, and trying to fix them.
I’m only an amateur bike mechanic, but I’ve learned quite a bit from experience. In this post I’ll give you troubleshooting tips to help you stay sane and keep rolling the next time your bike starts talking to you.
Are you sure it’s your bike?
While riding across Missouri in Bike Nonstop US, I once spent several hours trying to diagnose a maddening rhythmic clicking. It happened in time with my pedal strokes as I climbed the steep rollercoaster hills, and seemed to be coming from – oh the dread and horror – my bottom bracket.
It turned out to be… wait for it… my jacket’s zipper pull. As my upper body swayed in time with my pedal strokes, it tapped against the zipper beneath it. I hadn’t slept much more than 5 hours per night for a few weeks, so perhaps you could figure this out faster than I did.
My point is: could your mysterious bike noise be anything besides your bike?
Once you’ve established that it’s not your zipper pull, shoe laces, backpack, Achilles tendon, or any other item attached to your body, it’s time to think about what part of your bike the sound might be related to.
If you stop pedaling and coast, does the sound stop? Your mystery noise is probably related to either your drive train or your pedals themselves. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; some of easiest sounds to fix fall into this category.
If you pedal with only one foot (this works best with clipless shoes), does the sound go away? How about the other foot? If you can isolate the sound to one particular pedal, try spinning that pedal by hand. Squeaky? Use some chain lube at the point where the pedal rotates.
If the noise only happens when you pedal with your foot instead of by hand, it could be related to your:
- crank arm grazing your frame bag
- shoe rubbing on the crank or pedal surface
Is the sound somewhat constant whenever you’re pedaling? It could just be that your chain needs a good cleaning and lubing. Once you learn to recognize that sad dry chain sound, this is an easy fix.
Does the sound only happen in certain gear combinations? Perhaps a derailleur is out of alignment and the chain is rubbing on a neighboring cog (in the rear) or the front derailleur itself (front).
If the sound happens not with every pedal stroke, but with every time the chain passes the same point (so the frequency will change depending on what gear you’re in), you likely have a stuck or damaged chain link. Lube it if needed, or remove/repair the offending link(s), or replace your entire chain.
Much less likely and less fun: it’s possible that something is wrong with your bottom bracket (the spinny part between the pedals).
Only Under Heavy Load
Some creaks and squeaks happen in time with pedal stroke but only under heavy load, usually uphill. These can be harder to diagnose, and often sound as if they’re coming from your bottom bracket when they’re not. Possible causes:
- Chainring bolt is loose, or chainring is cracked. (Rare but I’ve seen it happen! The creaking finally stopped when the chainring broke into three pieces…)
- Crank bolts are loose or need grease
- Saddle clamp is loose
- Other load-bearing interface, like QR skewer or derailleur attachment point, needs to be cleaned and/or greased.
If you stop pedaling and coast and the sound continues, you probably have an issue related to your wheels or tires.
Before you panic, check for any loose straps or bags that could be rubbing your tire or catching in your spokes. Once you learn to recognize these sounds, you’ll spot them right away. A continuous humming signals tire rub, while fast metallic sounds are spoke-related (and potentially dangerous if something gets caught).
Tires and Spokes
Another likely cause, especially if you’re riding dirt or gravel, is that something (pebble, nail, mud, tree branch, small mammal…) is stuck to / in your tire, spokes, or frame. Simply find and remove, and fix the puncture if needed. Often these sounds go away on their own when the pebble or whatever works its way free.
Brake rub is another likely cause, especially if you’re running disc brakes. A good way to tell: if you apply the brakes a little, or a lot, does the noise change (either better or worse)? If you lift the wheel off the ground and spin it, does it spin freely or or does it quickly lose momentum?
If brake-related noise is fairly constant during the wheel revolution, there are a few possibilities:
- Wheel isn’t seated squarely in the dropouts: loosen the axle or skewer, settle the frame evenly on the wheel, and retighten. If the noise is new and you haven’t touched the brakes, but you did recently remove and reinstall your wheel, this one is likely the culprit.
- Calipers may be misaligned: loosen the mounting bolts, hold the brakes, and retighten bolts before releasing.
- Pads are worn through. This can cause a bad metal-on-metal squeal, or a “sproinging” sound if metal spring clips contact the rotor.
- Pads may be too close to the rotor: adjust as appropriate for your brake setup. This doesn’t tend to happen on its own (more likely that pads wear down and end up too far from the rotor), but if you’ve recently adjusted your brakes it could be a factor.
If brake-related noise only happens once per wheel revolution, your brake rotor may be warped or bent. Did you take a fall recently, or just start your ride after shipping your bike somewhere? A bike shop is usually necessary to straighten a bent rotor, but you can still ride with it as long as the brakes work and the noise doesn’t drive you nuts. If the bend is minor you can try widening your brake pads to minimize the noise.
Wheels and Hubs
If it’s not one of the above common issues, you may have something more exotic on your hands. Perhaps:
- Your wheel is out of true. Looking head-on, do you notice a wobble when you spin it?
- A spoke is damaged.
- One of your hubs needs maintenance. Can you feel a grinding sensation through the pedals? Does the wheel not spin freely when lifted off the ground? Can you feel side-to-side play if you try to wiggle the wheel sideways?
Does the sound only happen when you hit a big bump in the road or trail? Check your bags first. Is your seat bag or handlebar bag bouncing into contact with the tire beneath it? Maybe a loose pannier attachment or bottle cage?
Bump-related sounds can also be related to your bike’s suspension, if it has one, or other weight-bearing parts like the saddle, or in the worst case perhaps a damaged frame.
I hope this post has dispelled some of the mystery behind annoying bike sounds. You often don’t need to be a skilled bike mechanic to figure out what’s causing that click, clank, or squeak. You just need to have some time, patience, and curiosity – luckily things that most bikepackers have in spades! If nothing else, it’ll keep you entertained as you pass the next few miles.
More Bikepacking Resources
If you’re into bikepacking, read these next:
- Favorite Apps, Maps, and Tools for Route Planning
- 8 Ways to Carry Water on a Bike
- Affordable Gear Ideas for Bikepacking on a Budget
Or, find even more resources in the bikepacking section of Exploring Wild.
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