In the Bike Shop: The Mystery Creak

I hate it when a customer brings a bike in and asks if I can stop their bike’s creak.

I’m sure it’s just a simple fix, can you do it while I wait?

What I hate is when people have no idea of the time involved in discovering and fixing an intermittent noise, and then they don’t want to pay people to do it for them. Diagnosing creaks that only happen under certain conditions is even more maddening. Sometimes a mechanic can get lucky or have a burst of intuition, but often times it takes a lot of greasy trial and error to root out the cause. The average customer-thinks-it’s-the-crank squeak takes a long time and frequently requires expensive tools that usually only a shop has on hand.

Let me tell you a story about my bike. One day I discovered that it had a creak on EVERY pedal stroke. I’m going to condense the story down from the scores of fixes I attempted, just touching on the highlights: 2 crank swaps, 3 BB swaps, 2 pedal swaps, 2 rear wheel swaps, 1 chainring swap, and re-greasing every bolt that touches the crank. Six hours spread out over 5 days later, I discovered that the water bottle cage was rubbing the front derailleur clamp. The recent sand on the road had put grit all over my bike, turning the cage into a squeaker. One .75 mm washer later it was fixed.

squeak.jpg

As frustrating as the experience was, it could have been worse. On a previous bike there was a creak that occurred occasionally under medium power. It turned out that I had cracked the frame, but the crack was very difficult to see on the back, bottom of the seat tube.

Squeaks and creaks can be caused by so many things. Sometimes you can find a cure that fixes it permanently, but sometimes you just clean and re-grease something with the full knowledge that it’s gonna start creaking again within 2 months. Some bikes/parts are just prone to being noisy, even when they are otherwise in perfect working order. Life can be full of disappointments, but an occasional creak isn’t necessarily worth launching a crusade. In terms of maintaining your bike, a shop is interested in your enjoyment of the sport as well as your personal safety, but I don’t think it reasonable to expect them to completely remove any irritant associated with your bike.

If the creak is in fact driving you crazy, and you don’t want to pay for the labor at the bike shop, may I suggest a substance that cures any and all distracting sounds from your bike? It’s called iPod.



11 Comments

How do you nicely tell a 6’3” 380 man that the creak on his much too small Huffy is probably him?

I’m not at all fond of this attitude, but I’ve seen it in every job I’ve ever had.

As a matter of professionalism, your duty in the shop is to serve the customer, the same as the student workers at my university’s helpdesk, or the physician. If users understood what was wrong with their cars, laptops, bikes, bodies, etc. they wouldn’t bring them to “the shop.”

A positive approach would be to advise the users that they need to be as specific with the symptoms as possible, i.e. “it clicks every time I pedal” or “it wobbles when I go fast.”  It’s possible that they can’t give you complete information, but I’ll bet there’s enough to take quick look at it for free (at no more cost to the shop no more than the bike geeks who chat you up for unbilled time).  Eight times out of ten, it’s probably a simple fix.  Another time, you might find a safety issue.  In the rest of those cases, you can say “hey, this is really annoying, but at this point labor is going to cost you more than fixing it when the problem gets more obvious.”

I also don’t recommend iPods any more than riding at night wearing sunglasses without lights or reflectors.  If you do any riding in the city you have no doubt seen your share of collisions and near-misses on the streets where the culpable driver was “totally not distracted” by the cell phone in their hand.  Keep your focus on *tire* tracks.

Good post! I had a similar issue a long time ago, and after cleaning and lubing everything (twice) I discovered the source – the seat rail where it meets the clamp! I was glad it was an easy fix, because like you mentioned I thought maybe there could be a crack somewhere.

I am one of those who cannot live with a squeak, I get embarrassed around other riders if my bike is making noises.

This could’ve been an OP/ED piece with me taking the customer opinion. Mark and I argued one time about the legitimacy, or even possibility, that the geniuses at Shimano would even permit their cassette bodies to creak . . . how could that happen? That’s an engineering unlikelihood—creaks are not within spec.

Don’t know, but slather the cassette with that nasty-red axle grease and the creak will go away. And remember this is the company that when the shifter don’t work no more, you just send it back to them so they can have a team of robots fix it’s million little pieces.

### Creaks of Old###

Owning, testing, and just riding lots of bikes I’ve found Titanuim parts are usually the problem.

* Ti rolls seat rails always creaked; solution was graphite.

* Ti Time pedal axle don’t creak, but click. Solution is lots of lube until it dries out. I’ve used (no lie) hair conditioner from a hotel room while on a trip to solve the Time pedal click.

*  Trek f’ing BB—never known exactly why, but the bottom brackets on the old Madones will creak. The theory was humidity and it’ll go away, once it’s gets drier.

The best creak story of all is when a legendary master mechanic told me to pour water on my stem when it creaked to “cool it down.” To this day, I don’t think he was shining me on, but serious. The stem was a Cinelli Grammo—as pretty as that bad boy was, it creaked like a bedsping in a rooms-by-the hour hotel. This was the same mechanic that would over tighten pedals to the point of requiring the leverage techniques used by the Pyramid builders to remove them. But that’s another story for another post.

Creaky spokes are also a culprit and usually ti aero, bladed spokes that are rubbing together.

 

Oh, yeah, gotta love the mystery noises…it’s even better when they expect you to diagnose it over the phone: “I have a creak in my bottom bracket - how much does it cost to fix that?”  I think my very favorite case was one many years ago at R&E.  In those days, mechanics did not talk to the customers; that was the sales staff’s job.  One salesman sent back a bike with a work order which stated: “Bike has a creek in the bottom bracket.”  What else could we do?  We built a dam and diverted the flow.

Byron, I gotta say that I remember that day you brought in the bike with the squeak, and you weren’t very patient.  You had a bike with both titanium rear spokes and a DA cassette. Two mechanics with more than 40 years experience between them had one theory and you had another, but you left with the bike before the mechanics could conclusively prove one or the other through methodic trial and error.  And I don’t believe we charged you anything either.

A month or two later you mentioned that titanium spokes could creak, though I don’t know if it was a reference to the same wheel because I didn’t bring it up at that time.

I could accept that maybe that cassette body (not a Mavic or Shimano item) was out of spec well before I would assume that a Shimano DA cassette a problem.

Creaks and squeaks are things that a mechanic has to listen more to his or her own experience than the customer.  Twice I’ve had customers come in to replace a bottom bracket because of a creak, and while they watched I pulled off the front wheel, wiped off the fork tips and axle ends…ta da! ....creak gone.  And no charge.  Yet I could have easily charged $100 or more to do the job originally requested.

The Cinelli stem is another great example.  Very sexy, but ti stems are prone to creaking.  I have a 3T Pro Ti stem on my 90s Bianchi EL/OS.  It occasionally creaks under hard sprints.  I just have to keep thinking how sexy it is. The moral is that expensive parts don’t necessarily mean they will fulfill your every expectation, nor is high performance synonymous with silent.

(On the other hand, creaks can be indicative of a structural problem, such as the fatigue failure of a weld.  Seen it, but that’s a moral to a different story)

One thing that should be mentioned is that if the source of the squeak cannot be easily identified, than it is important to try fixes one at a time, so that something can be learned.  You try every fix at once, and even it it does work, you don’t know what was the actual cure. Creaks tend to come back.

This last summer i was working and a customer cam in with an Orbea Orca that creaked when you peadlded ever, but horedosly when you sprinted. after having three mechanics work on it for four hours and vutualy take averything off the bike one of us put weught on the seat while it was sitting on the ground and it squeked and so we took off the integrated seat post collar and it was a tiny bit of dirt and some mostere that was causing all of the noise

One more reason not to wear clips, one less thing to creak.

My creak seems to have disappeared after the simple crank remove-clean-replace regiment, thank god. Every time I start to get creaks on the pedal strokes I think the BB’s about to go, but for the record it never has.

@ Mark V,

Yes, now that time has passed, I can admit that it was the creaky spokes (defective, since replaced by Hed), but let us not forget this [ill-fated brake set up](http://www.flickr.com/photos/huggerindustries/2132722026/) . . . that was the Modal in “crit course” geometry v. “touring on muddy roads.”

For the [Hotspur](/tag/hotspur) or other race bikes, creaking is unacceptable. For [the Modal](/tag/modal/), my travel bike, it’s part of it. I’ve learned that bikes aren’t meant for many assemble/disassemble cycles and stuff starts to creak. I’ve let that go and most always the creak is the pedals. I’ve also let go of “scratches” in favor of a “patina.”

While the creaking bike is often a troublesome job… luckily Seattle and well now Montana winters can be quite boring at the bike shop so they can be a GREAT time taker!

and to answer the gent to start the posts about the 6’3” 300+ lbs’r… they usually know they’re the problem they just need someone to tell them!

Check this Creak Geeks—whenever I travel with the Modal, the spokes will creak for about 3 days and then stop (the creak is like a guitar pick on piano strings, a highly-sprung, “tinking” sound). I’ve been traveling with [Hed Squoval](http://bikehugger.com/2008/06/introducing_a_squoval.htm) prototypes, ti-blade spokes and the piano sound is from the spokes rubbing together. My theory is that the spokes change shape in the belly of a plane, flying over the pacific, and it takes a few days to go back to their original shape once on land . . .

Summary: first 3 days on Kona, drive-me-insane creaking, 4th day, no creak.

Theories?

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