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Creaks, Clicks & Clunks...
...and things that go "bump" on your bike.
Sheldon Brown photo
by Sheldon "Shhhhhh..." Brown
revised by John "Shake, Rattle and Roll" Allen
Spoke Divider

Does your bike make strange noises when you ride it?

This article will try to help you make it shut up!

Aside from the whoosh of the tires on the road, and the clicking of the freewheel, a bicycle should be silent.

If your bike makes other noises, it is a sign of a problem. Many of these problems can be cured easily at an early stage, just by tightening up a nut or bolt...but if you ignore the noise, it may result in serious damage to parts of your bike, and you may find yourself stranded or even injured when the problem gets more serious! Most bicycle noises have some sort of regular repeating pattern. Identifying this pattern is the first step toward locating the source of the problem. If the noise occurs:

Wheel-related noises, occurring once per wheel revolution:

While Braking:

See the section of this article on brake-related noises.

While Coasting:

If you have a regular rubbing sound when coasting, do not ride the bike until you have checked it out and at least determined the cause of the problem; some of these problems may only rob efficiency, but if your tire is rubbing, you can destroy the tire surprisingly quickly!

Lift up each end of the bike in turn, and spin each wheel forward, looking, listening and feeling to find where it is rubbing.

Tire rub

If the tire is rubbing on the frame, it indicates that:

Never ride a bike while the tire is rubbing!

Brake rub

If the rim is rubbing on a brake shoe, it indicates that:

It is common for this problem to develop after removal/re-installation of a wheel, if the wheel is not properly aligned in the frame/fork. Sometimes people install the wheel crookedly, then try to compensate by misadjusting the brake to match the off-center rim. Don't do this!

The best way to check that the front wheel is installed correctly is to place a finger of each hand between the tire and the fork blade. If you use the same finger of each hand, (and don't have mis-matched hands) you can tell by the feel if the tire is closer to one fork blade than to the other. If it is off center, loosen the quick-release or axle nuts, re-center the wheel, and re-secure it.

An off-center rim may be the result of poor installation, or may result from a bent axle, a bent fork, or an improperly dished wheel. Once you're sure that the wheel is properly centered, then you can adjust the centering of the brakes, if it is needed.

If the wheel is slightly out of true, it may be possible to do a temporary fix by changing the wheel alignment slightly, but the real solution is to true or replace the wheel.

Spoke rub

If there is a rubbing/clicking sound when you are riding, but you can't get it to happen when you lift the bike and spin the wheels off the ground, your problem is most likely related to loose spokes. In some cases, the spokes of an under-tensioned wheel will audibly rub against one another where they cross. This will only happen when the bike is carrying the weight of a rider. You also may feel the bicycle lurch slightly to the side as the loose spokes get to the bottom of the wheel and lose control of the rim. Try squeezing pairs of spokes together to see if they make the same sound you hear when riding. Loose spokes are prone to break, and also often result from rim damage.

Also see the articles about wheel truing and emergency on-road wheel repairs.

Low-gear rub

If the wheel-related rubbing sound only occurs when the bike is in low gear while coasting, it is most likely caused by the chain rubbing on the spoke protector. This usually indicates that the spoke protector is broken or bent.

Wheel Noises Only When Pedaling

Noises once-per-wheel-revolution that only occur when you are pedaling are most often related to the freewheel or Freehub. The freewheel or Freehub bearings may be loose, or the cassette may be loose on the Freehub body.

See if you can wiggle the sprockets back and forth. There should be little or no lateral play.

If the freewheel/Freehub bearings are loose, it is sometimes possible to tighten them, see my Freewheels Article.

If the sprocket cassette is loose on the Freehub body, you may be missing a spacer, or you may be trying to use a cassette that includes an 11 tooth sprocket on a Freehub body that was not intended to accommodate an 11 tooth sprocket. See my Shimano Cassettes article for details on this.

Derailer Rub/"Wrong-way" Spokes.

Most wheelbuilders lace the trailing spokes on the inside of the hub flange. In some very rare cases, wheels laced the opposite direction may lead to mysterious derailer/spoke rub only in the lowest gear and only when pedaling hard. This is due to the trailing spokes being tightened by the drive torque, and pulling the laced crossing point outward.

This is quite rare, and mostly only occurs with wheels that have insufficient tension to start with, and misaligned derailers/derailer hangers.

See: Which Side of the Flange.   

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Pedal/bottom-bracket-related noises, occurring once per pedal revolution:

Clicks, creaks and clunks that happen once or twice per pedal revolution may result from quite a number of different sources, so there are a lot of things to check:

Pedals Loose?
Check this first, the pedals should be snuggly screwed into the cranks. The left pedal has a left ("reverse") thread. The threads of the pedals should be lubricated with grease.
Crank Fixing Bolts Loose?
For typical cotterless 3-piece cranks, it is very important that the fixing bolts (hold the crank to the bottom bracket spindle) be properly tightened. The hole where the crank attaches to the axle will quickly become misshapen. A slightly-loose crank will creak loudly. By the time it moves noticeably, it will probably require replacement.

The threads of the bolt (or nut), and the underside of the bolt (or nut) head (where it presses against the crank) should be lubricated with grease.

Stack Bolts Loose?
The stack bolts are the 4 or 5 bolts that hold the chainrings to the crank spider. They should be good and tight. The threads and the Allen bolt head should be lubricated with grease or oil, but try to avoid getting lubricant on the outside of the nuts. The nuts for typical stack bolts have only two small notches to permit a tool to keep them from turning as the bolt is tightened, but if you leave the outsides of the nuts dry, there is usually enough friction between the nut and the inner/middle chainring to keep it from rotating.
Bottom Bracket Cups/Retaining Rings Loose?
Because of the threading of normal bottom brackets, the cups are self-tightening to a point. This sometimes leads to careless installation, particularly on the right (fixed cup) side. If the right cup is slightly loose, it won't necessarily unscrew itself, but it won't really tighten itself up fully either. The symptom of this is an occasional creak or clunk usually as the left crank goes "over the top" when pedaling hard.

This is a surprisingly common, and frequently missed, cause of unwanted noises. Generally you should check the items above first, because they're easier to deal with. You can't reliably check the tightness of the bottom bracket mounting without removing the cranks, but sometimes you can diagnose it this way:

Turn the cranks so that the left crank is alongside the seat tube, wrap both hands around the crank and seat tube and squeeze the crank hard toward the seat tube.

Then turn the cranks so that the right crank is alongside the seat tube and repeat this. Listen for a creak/click.

Pedal Problem?
Check for looseness or bad bearings in the pedals.
Bent Chainwheel?
If the chainwheel is bent, it may cause rubbing on the front derailer, especially when pedaling hard.

See my Article on Straightening Chainwheels.

Front Derailer Hitting Crank?
If your front derailer's high-gear limit stop is too loose, or the derailer is not mounted straight on the seat tube, the cage may rub against the inside of the right crank as it passes. This might also be a symptom of a bent crank, perhaps as a result of a fall.

See my Derailer Adjustment Article.

Saddle Creaky?
Sometimes a noise that appears to be coming from the bottom bracket is actually coming from the saddle, perhaps where the undercarriage attaches to the seatpost, or where the saddle top attaches to the undercarriage. This noise will go away if you stand up to pedal.
Handlebars/Stem Creaky?
If you have a pedal-synchronized noise that only happens when you pedal hard, see also handlebar-related noises.
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Chain-related noises, occurring once per chain revolution
(every 3-4 pedal revolutions, depending on gearing):

This indicates that there is something wrong with your chain. You may be able to fix it, or you may need a new chain.

Stiff Link?

If you have a regular, repeating skip or hitch every 3 or 4 turns of the pedals, you may have a stiff chain link. This is commonly the link where the chain was joined when it was installed. When the chain tool presses the pin through the chain, the head of the pin tends to pull the uppermost chain plate along with it, so that the two outer plates are squeezing together against the inner plates.

The easiest way to fix this is to bend the problem area of the chain into a "Z" shape, with the bad joint on the diagonal part, then flex the chain back and forth. This will slightly spread the tight plates, and free up the link.

Bent Link?

If your chain has a link that has been bent in a chain-jamming incident, it can cause similar symptoms. Generally, the bent link (or the whole chain) will need to be replaced.

The easiest way to spot stiff/damaged links is to shift the bike into the small/small gear (the gear you should never actually ride in.) This gear has the chain at its slackest, and flexes it farther than any other gear, as it goes around the small rear sprocket and the derailer pulleys. Slowly backpedal while watching the chain as it feeds through the rear derailer, and you will usually be able to see the bad link jump.

Mixing New and Old Chain?

If new links are added to a worn chain, there will be a light clunk when the transitions between the shorter (new) and longer (old) links pass over a sprocket. This can occur even when only installing a new link pin or master link. When a longer chain is needed, use a new chain.
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Brake Related Noises

Got a noise or clunk only when you apply one of the brakes?

Brake squeal or chatter.

It is common for rim brakes to squeal when the brake shoes are new. A poorly installed or cheap brake also may chatter. Grease, oil or deposits of brake-shoe rubber on the rim may also cause this problem.

A coaster brake that squeals or chatters needs to be rebuilt and relubricated.

Brake shoe scrape

Could be that the brake shoe is worn right down to the metal backing plate. Replace it before it damages the rim, brake drum or disk. A light scraping sound is normal with some shoes for rim brakes. but scraping can also result from sand embedded in the brake shoes. Usually, releasing and applying the brake lightly a couple of times will clean the sand off and prevent excess rim wear.

Rim Blip-Brake grabs once per wheel rotation

If your bike makes a regular noise or vibration when you apply the brakes, it is most likely due to an imperfection in the braking surfaces on the sides of the rim.

If the rim has a width irregularity, it will cause the brake to grab a bit harder (or a bit less) as the irregular part of the rim passes between the brake shoes while you are trying to slow down.

 

In the case of new bicycles, (or new wheels) a very slight amount of irregularity is sometimes the result of unevenness of the braking surface at the seam where the rim is connected after it is rolled into a hoop. In minor cases, this problem should go away after a couple of hundred miles/km of riding, as part of the normal breaking-in process. More severe cases indicate a defective rim, and warranty replacement of the wheel may be indicated.

In the case where this sort of pulsation develops in an existing bike that had been OK, it often indicates a rim that has been damaged by impact with a pothole, stone or other road hazard. Sometimes this sort of "blip" can be repaired by the judicious use of a hammer, adjustable wrench or special pair of pliers made for the purpose. In most cases, unfortunately, a new rim/wheel is the only real solution, but also see the article about emergency on-road wheel repairs.

The tire is supposed to protect the rim from this sort of damage. Rim damage is usually caused by neglecting to keep your tires properly inflated, or by riding too narrow a tire for the conditions. With more experience, a cyclist becomes more alert to road-surface hazards and can safely ride narrower tires.
 

Note, blips like this typically only affect a very short section of rim. If you have a longer "wide" part of the rim, it may be an indication that an old rim's braking surface is wearing thin from many miles of brake usage. Don't ride rims like this, they sometimes cause rapid, dangerous blowouts!

Brake Clunks When First Applied--Loose Caliper:

If the caliper is loose in the frame, or the caliper arms are loose on the center bolt, the initial application of the brake will wiggle the arms forward, causing a mild clunk. This may also cause vertical misalignment of the brake pads as the arms shift forward.

Brake noises and cures for them are described in more detail in the article about rim brakes.

Front Brake Clunks When First Applied--Loose Headset:

If the headset is loose, it will normally sit in the frame with the fork forward. When you apply the front brake, the braking force will pull the fork backward with a noticeable clunk. With light braking, the headset will rattle back and forth. You can probably feel this through the handlebars.

The headset should be adjusted so as to prevent this sort of play. It is easiest to check this with the bike stationary: Lock the front brake and push the bike forward and backward, observing to see if the headset is wiggling. Sometimes it helps to rest your fingers lightly against the upper and lower headset races in turn to see if you can feel one part moving against another.

See my Article on Servicing Headsets.

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Handlebar Related Clicks & Creaks

Handlebar-related noises are most likely to occur when pedaling hard, because that's when you usually pull on alternate sides of the handlebar to counterbalance the downward force on the pedals. This sort of noise should not be ignored, because, in some cases, it may be related to growing cracks in the handlebar or stem. Such cracks can lead to breakage, with resulting loss of control. Avoid stems which have the clamp bolt behind the handlebar -- see John Allen's Web page for examples.

The first thing to check is that the handlebar binder bolt is tight enough. The threads, and the underside of the head of this bolt should be lubricated with grease or oil; if they aren't, friction in the threads may prevent developing sufficient clamping force.

Some handlebars have a reinforcing sleeve on the central section, which also acts as a built-in shim to fit the bars to the stem clamp diameter. The main part of the handlebar may occasionally move within this sleeve. I've had some success using Loctite ® for this: drip some on the bar where it disappears into the sleeve, then use a compressed-air blast to force it into the gap. Let it cure overnight before riding.

It is also a good idea to remove the stem from the steerer from time to time, and apply a liberal coat of grease to the inside of the steerer. The expander/wedge and its bolt should also be greased. Avoid overtightening the expander/wedge bolt, as this can deform the steerer. If you have a threadless headset, this is not usually necessary.

Especially on a small-wheel bicycle with a tall handlebar stem, the creaking might also be due to a loose headset part. Test for this by applying the front brake while not resting your weight on the handlebar. Stand next to the bicycle, lean over the saddle so you are pressing your weight on it with your belly, and rock the bicycle forcibly backwards and forwards with your body weight and momentum while holding the front brake lever. Just grip the brake lever -- don't push or pull the handlebar. Try turning the front wheel slightly to one side or another, but not too far or you could bend it. If you hear the creak, it's isn't in the handlebar or stem, so it's probably in the headset. If not sure, get a heavier person to run the test for you!

See my Article on Servicing Headsets.

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Random Clicks and Creaks

Shift cables crepitating when the bars are turned?

Dry derailer pulley bearing? (squeals even after you have lubricated the chain and will probably be warm to the touch after riding. Disassemble and grease.)

Something in your pocket?

I once did a lot of searching to find the source of a riding companion's mystery squeak, only to find it wasn't his bike at all, it was the knee brace he was wearing on one leg!

Rick Mason offered:

I have another (strange) "Once every time the pedals go around" sound for you - Shoe laces! Once upon a time I rode with shoes with laces that had good stout wraps on the tips. The shoe lace tips would slap the down tube every time around, (left side only) making a small tinging noise. It drove me nuts trying to find it. I kept looking at the chain side until I found it, almost by accident. Fixing it was easy - just tuck the laces into my shoes.
  
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Fastener Lubrication

It is counterintuitive to think of using lubricants to keep nuts and bolts from loosening up, but actually it really works!

When you tighten a threaded fastener, you are working against two sorts of resistance:

Only the first of these actually helps hold the parts together. If the threads and head are dry, this frictional force will be the limiting factor in how tight you can get the fastener for a given amount of torque on the wrench.

If you lubricate the threads, and the pushing face of the nut or bolt head, more of your applied wrench torque goes toward actually tightening the fastener.

Lubricating the threads also reduces the risk of stripping the threads.

Spoke Divider

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