Bike Noises

I’ve never thought of myself as being neurotic or OCD in any real manner.  Generally speaking, I can pretty much accept or ignore a lot of things that seem to bother others.  In fact, I’m quite adept at filtering out most everything around me, especially when taking notice would require that I take some kind of action to address the source of the issue.  This is probably most evident when dealing with my autos.  Is the “check engine” light on?  I’m okay with that.  In fact, that light has been on for about five years straight.  I change my oil twice a year – whether it needs it or not.  Rust, rattles, squeaks, leaks and most other issues can readily be accepted and adapted to as a new level of normal.  Don’t buy a used car from me;  you’ve been warned.

In contrast to my normal modes of operation, all that seems to go out the window once I get on my bike.  My bike is supposed to be a silent, smoothly operating tool of riding efficiency.  I will pull things apart, clean and lube them just to make sure they are at their optimum.  My rims are pretty much true to within fractions of a millimeter, even now that I’m running disc brakes.  I could probably have saved myself thousands of dollars over the years if I treated my cars with the same care and concern.  Too bad I hate cars.

I used to do this when solving problems at the board.
A sound less bothersome than my bike.

This spring, I noticed that my bike had developed a very annoying creaking sound while climbing.  You might not think of this as much of a problem, but I would notice it all the time – even when climbing on rough terrain.  It only takes a very slight motion between two metal surfaces to create a surprisingly audible noise.  Everything can feel completely tight, but the combined stresses of putting your body’s weight into the bike can bring out a ping or creaking sound.   There only needs to be the most subtle amount of play to make a noise that will get on my nerves.

Unfortunately, the noise proved not to be transient.  It persisted and actually grew worse over the following weeks.  My focus was distracted by my constant analysis of the source.  Was it my seatpost?  No, it was there while climbing out of the saddle.  Chainrings?  It didn’t seem to be there when I backpedalled, but that’s not always conclusive.  It would almost go away while spinning on the pavement… almost.  My rides soon turned into diagnostic sessions.

While not on the bike, I would pull things apart to see if I could correct the source of the noise.  I spent an evening pulling off my cranks and bottom bracket.  I removed the bottom bracket  from the frame.  I scrubbed the frame threads out with a brush and cleaned the entire bottom bracket assembly.  Everything was re-lubed and the threads wrapped in plumber’s tape before reassembly.  I took apart my chainrings, cleaning every surface meticulously.  The chainring bolts were cleansed and a thin layer of anti-seize compound applied to them.  I regreased all of the crank arm surfaces according to specs.  I even removed the pedals and gave their threads the same type of treatment.

Where's Waldo? I don't know, but he's easier to find than a elusive bicycle noise.
Where’s Waldo? I don’t know, but he’s easier to find than an elusive bicycle noise.

I actually enjoy this process as long as I’m not feeling pressured to complete the job with a limited amount of time.  There’s something very relaxing about putting on some good music and working with my hands.  Building wheels has the same kind of feeling to it.  When it’s all done, there’s a real sense of satisfaction in having a well functioning bike as a result of my efforts.

I was actually looking forward to my next ride since I was pretty confident that I must have addressed the squeaking with all of that work.  I hit the trails after work the next day… ARG!!!  The noise was still with me.  There didn’t appear to be any change at all.  Now I was left with the task of trying to enjoy the ride while the bike was continually distracting me with an irrepressible sound.  More analysis ensued.  Could I induce some creaking by torquing on the bars?  Was it related to leaning the bike?  I checked the quick releases to make sure that there wasn’t any extra play that could be creating the sounds.  All my tests were inconclusive.  It was hard to tell exactly where the squeaking was coming from but it seemed to be coming from the front end of the bike.  At least it seemed that way, but I know that sound can resonate through a bicycle frame in strange ways.

I took out the tools again.  The bars were removed from the bike and the stem removed from the steerer tube.  I also disassembled the headset for good measure.  The steerer assembly received the same treatment as my cranks – thoroughly cleaned and well lubed as appropriate.  I wasn’t sure what I was looking for so I attacked everything I could remove.

On my return to the trail, I was again disappointed.  I might have been starting to obsess about this a bit.  I gave more attention to the relentless creaking noise as I rode.  It even seemed to be there when I was descending.  That was odd.  It also seemed to confirm the idea that it wasn’t caused by my drivetrain.

Looks rather squeaky.
These look rather squeaky.

With my mind now fully preoccupied with the quest to eliminate this creaking sound, I turned to the wisdom of the internet.  It’s usually a pretty sad state of affairs when I have to go looking for help.  It’s like stopping the car to ask for directions – an open admission of defeat.  Likewise, I keep my owners manuals hidden in a drawer for such dire occasions.  Generally, the internet is more full of opinion than facts, and I think most of us know how much opinions are worth.  Still, there are a lot of good mechanics out there that will respond to questions on various discussion boards.  So, after reading through many, many recommendations to do the same things that I’ve already done (and some that shouldn’t be done), I did stumble across a few ideas that I hadn’t explored.  In particular, it seems that sometimes the headset bearing races can creak inside the cups or the cups can shift ever so slightly if there’s a tiny imperfection between the surfaces of the frame and the cups.

I thought that might be a direction to pursue.  Unfortunately, the bearings on my headset aren’t replaceable without sending them back to the manufacturer.  Maybe something was wrong with them.  They have at least 3 more years under their warranty (thanks Chris King) but I wasn’t about to go without my bike for the few weeks it would take for them to be shipped out, get serviced, shipped and then reassembled.  I wasn’t about to let that happen during the prime riding of the summer months.  Not a chance.

just dumber
Not quite the most annoying sound in the world.

So I opted to install a new headset.  Yes, I was that bothered by the creaking.  I was a little reluctant at first, but it was the logical next step in my crusade to eliminate the world’s most irritating noise. So, lacking a proper headset press, I dragged my bike down to the shop and left it with them to do a professional install.

I picked the bike up after work later in the week.  I went out for a ride that same afternoon and found true bliss.  Elation.   Nirvana.  Whatever it was, it didn’t make creaking noises.  The only sound I could hear over my breathing was the sound of root and rock impacts echoing in my tires. It was truly a wonderful thing.  I climbed seated in near silence.  I stood up, mashing the pedals and pulling on the bars without a peep from the bike.  I lost myself in almost two hours of squeak-free riding that afternoon.

I’ve since found that the problem was in the cup/frame interface, not the bearings of the original headset.  I could correct the problem with it by applying some Loc-tite 640 to the cups when installing.  Maybe I’ll do that some time in the future, but, for now, my neurosis has been subdued.


NOTE: After taking several months off, I think I’m back at this.



Things I Don’t Miss

Racing at Catamount around 1992. (Photo by Brett Batchelder)
Racing in the grass at Catamount around 1992. (Photo by Brett Batchelder)

The bike industry seems to be in a flurry of change lately.  Some people, myself included, are getting a little fatigued with the pace of change along with the potential nightmare of incompatiblity.  There are a lot of things that seem to be in flux with the growing number of “standards” available to choose from.  Axle lengths now vary from the old 100mm front and 135 rear to “Boost”  110mm/148mm,  to the DH 150mm- and that’s without getting into fat bikes.  Three major wheel sizes with their plus permutations add to the confusion.  Bar diameters, bottom bracket widths, headsets and more all seem to be subject to redesign with compatibility off the list of considerations.

I’ve been mountain biking since 1990 and there has always been quite a bit of that change in the industry – many of which have been genuine improvements.  With that thought, here are a few, once common, things that were victims of progress.

StemQuill stems – These did the job fairly well and had the clear advantage of giving you a little bit of height adjustment.  Of course this was of no value if the stem was used as a cable stop for the front cantilever; not an uncommon setup back then.  The down side of these stems was that you’d end up having to straighten out your front end after every significant crash.  We were all well-versed in the technique of holding the front wheel between our knees while pulling on the bars to realign the stem.

Threaded headsets – Paired with a quill stem was the threaded headset.  This was the method for keeping the fork and bearings together for decades.  The situation with the lower headset race was about the same as it is now, but the upper race threaded down and was held in place with a large nut.  Generally a couple of large, thin wrenches were required to tighten the nut against the upper race.  Get things too tight and you’d end up with tight steering and eventually pitted bearing cups and races.  Ultimately, it would lead to pits that would give the feeling that you had indexed steering.  Not fun.  Get it too loose and you’ll find your fork rattling around in the head tube about halfway into a ride.  I have finished numerous rides by hand tightening the headset every half mile or so just to get home.  It also required that manufacturers create forks in specific lengths so the threads would align with the bike’s head tube length.   The modern threadless system is amazing in its simplicity and reliability in comparison.

One inch headsets – Mountain bikes initially borrowed the one inch standard from road bikes.  This was adequate at the time, but looks utterly ridiculous by today’s standards.  There was a lot of force being directed though a pretty small area at a critical location on the bicycle.  I prefer the added strength and security of 1.5″ tapered headsets.

Adjustable cup bottom brackets – The advent of cartridge bearings, whether used in a traditional square-taper bottom bracket or the newer external bearing type, is a massive improvement in reliability.  The old system required pin spanner, a notched wrench-like tool and a large thin wrench.  It was a game of getting the tension on the bearings just right.  If you rode in wet conditions very often they required quite a bit of maintenance.  It was ugly.

IMG_4065Rim brakes – I was going to just mention cantilever brakes here, but all forms of rim brakes are better left in the past, at least for mountain biking.  Cantilever brakes were especially difficult to adjust because the clamping system allowed for free, unlimited adjustment in every plane.  You really needed four hands to do the adjustment correctly.  Even then, it was a challenge to get both brake pads aligned exactly the same.  Once the pads were aligned there was also the challenge of getting the bridge cable adjusted or the positioning of the pull cable hook.  I actually became quite good at adjusting cantilevers so that I could get stopping power at least as good as a set of V-brakes.  V-brakes were a giant leap forward in braking over cantis, but they still had some lesser challenges with pad alignment.  Both systems demanded that the wheel be absolutely true.  A warp or hop of over a millimeter could affect braking.  With disc brakes, I don’t think anyone gives a thought to the adjustment of their rims the way we used to back then.  The worst part was when a spoke broke out on the trail, leaving you with a wheel that would rub the brake pad on at least one side every single rotation.  Do enough damage and the wheel wouldn’t be able to spin at all without releasing the brakes entirely.  Even when everything was working properly, you were still dragging your braking surfaces through every mud hole and stream crossing.  There is no comparison at all in the stopping power we have with modern disc brakes.  This may be the single biggest improvement made since I started riding.

Semi-slick Tires – I don’t know who the genius was that decided that it would be a good idea to make mountain bike tires more like road bikes, but this was stupid if you rode your bike anywhere other than a well-packed race course.  It’s such an unusual coincidence that this useless trend seemed to emerge shortly after NORBA was swallowed up by USA Cycling.  You can connect those dots yourself.  I’m glad to see the trend it toward bigger rubber in general and especially the advent of plus-size wheels.

Narrow bars – This was something of a fad, but it had a pretty long life in the 90s.  It wasn’t enough that bars would come in 23″ lengths; we would pull out the pipe cutters and drop an inch or more off each end.  Sometimes this would leave just enough room for the grips, brakes and shifters on the bar and nothing else.  Not long after this trend took hold, people started clamping bar ends to the ends of their already-too-narrow bars, further crowding the cockpit.  I’m not convinced that 800mm bars are advantageous, but they make a whole lot more sense than going super narrow when you’re riding rugged terrain.

Freewheels – Before cassettes were introduced, your cogs were secured to the hub in a cluster that threaded on.  Every pedal stroke worked to tighten these threads and make the cogs more securely fastened to the hub.  The down side was when things wore out and the cogs had to be removed.  This required astronomical forces to be applied to the freewheel using a little, wimpy pin spanner tool.  It was often very frustrating.

Going fast on 1991 technology.
Going fast on 1991 technology. (Check out those bars!)

Fully rigid frames – This is one I have mixed feelings about.  There’s nothing quite as precise as the steering of a nice steel fork.  I’m also partial to the direct power transfer of a hard-tail.  Even so, there’s little question that both front and rear suspension have provided a huge improvement in the ride quality of modern bikes.  You can always opt to stay rigid, but I wouldn’t want to see the squishy option go away.

Honorable mention – Elastomer suspension, toe clips, four-finger brake levers, and bar ends.

There were many other technologies that have come and gone over the years for one reason or another.  Modern bikes have come a long way from when the sport started.  Many ideas, good and bad, were laid to rest so that better ones could take their place.  These were just the most obvious ones that I could recall.  I’m sure long time shop mechanics and riders could add some more things to this list and might even debate the ones I have here.  What did I miss?


Since I had to get out of the single-speed business, the next logical step was to get some gears.  I got this work of art from Carver Bikes in Maine.  The Gnarvester!  It’s their 29+ bike (29×3″ tires, similar to the Krampus).  It’s taken a while for me to gather up all the parts it needed, but it did come together eventually.  I’ll have a full review done some time in the near future.  After taking it out for it’s maiden voyage this weekend I can say that it was worth the wait.  Photos added to make Wil happy.

It started out like this.
It started out like this….
When done, it looked like this.
When done, it looked like this.  It’ll never be this clean again, ever.
(comment goes here)
(comment goes here)
the cockpit view
the cockpit view
So many gears!!
First ride.
First ride.
More dirt!




[Also posted on]

For the record, I don’t readily embrace new wheel sizes.  It took me several years before I was willing to even consider getting a 29er.  I do feel that the 29″ wheel has some real, although subtle, advantages on a hard tail.  I’m not at all interested in the 650b wheel.  Keep that in mind as you read on.

At NEMBAfest, Carver had their prototype for the Gnarvester available to demo.  This is a bike built around the 29×3″ tire, similar to the Surly Krampus.   The idea here is that the bike has all “normal” parts aside from the frame that has the clearance to accomodate the wider rim and tire.  True fatbikes either have a wider bottom bracket and hubs, or use a bizarre offset in the wheel build to accommodate the much wider tires.   Since I was somewhat intrigued by the design, I figured I’d take it out for a test ride.
Not too fat, not skinny... just right!
Not too fat, not at all skinny… just right!

After swapping my pedals and handing over my driver’s license, credit card, blood sample and giving my mother’s maiden name, they let me take it out.    What were the results after riding around on it for half an hour?  The short answer: I couldn’t stop the stupid grinning when I brought it back.

The long answer: The ride was awesome!  The tread pattern on the Knard tires may not be the greatest design, but it doesn’t seem to matter as long as you can put down a 3″ wide contact patch.  With the tire pressure somewhere around 12psi, I rode over mud greased rocks and roots without flinching.  The traction was truly incredible.

Slimy roots and rocks.  No complaints here.
Slimy roots and rocks. No complaints here.

I then took it up The Shire, a soggy grass field climb, and was amazed at how well the tires handled the soft slime.  The bigger contact patch let the bike float on top of the soft surface as well as keeping traction.  I’m not sure it would make the fields at the Catamount Wednesday night races feel good, but certainly better than any two inch tire would feel while slicing down into the soupy mud.

The Shire.  Not fun with skinny, high pressure tires.  Not at all.
The Shire. Not fun with skinny, high pressure tires. Not at all.

I expected it to be slower like my fatbike, but somehow it manages not to feel that way at all.  I was able to rip up the pavement on the Burke toll road passing people like I normally would. Yes, I’m “that guy.”  I know it’s obnoxious, but that’s how I ride.

I finished my all too brief time on the bike by taking it down a rooty single track descent followed by one of the machine trails in the Burke bike park.  In pretty much every situation, the bike corners way better than my Jabber.  It took a little while to build up some confidence with it but I found myself leaning it over in the corners  considerably more than I would have dared with my own bike.  I can only imagine how far I could push it with more time to get used to that extra cornering power.  It’s like trail glue on the corners.

Honestly , I was riding the descent faster than I do on my race bike.  I found myself jumping the rollers on Rolly Grail and generally pushing the edge more than I would typically feel comfortable with.  All of this on a fully rigid bike!  I returned the bike covered in mud and spattered with sweat.  I really didn’t want to give it back at all.

Since the bike was just a prototype, I can’t say much about it specifically, other than to say that if I had this much fun on it now, I can hardly wait to get my hands on one once it is a finished product – especially if it were built up as a single-speed.  If I owned one I could see my other mountain bike getting a lot of neglect.

My only complaint is that I’d love to see more than one tire made available in the 29×3.0″ size because, right now, Surly is the only manufacturer and they only make one tire in this size.  I haven’t been that blow away by a bike in a long, long time.

I want one.

Not Good

At least it wasn't on the down tube or something worse.
At least it wasn’t on the down tube or something worse.

I was out riding yesterday at Kingdom Trails when I noticed that something was creaking on my bike.  I’m generally pretty fussy about that since “bike noises” tend to drive me crazy.  As I went along, the noise became progressively more annoying.  About 3/4 of the way through my ride, I noticed a crack that went about 2/3 of the way around the upper seat tube.  Not exactly what I was hoping to see at that point.  Finding a frame crack 3 days before my first race of the season was not on my agenda.

Ultimately, this was a good thing to find it on Wednesday.  I was planning on Tuesday being my last long, hard ride on this bike, but that ride ended up being cut short.  Since I didn’t really get a good ride in on Tuesday, I squeezed one in on Wednesday instead.  I’m glad to have found the problem now rather than to discover it when I’m 200 miles from home at a race.

I was able to quickly swap all the critical parts of my race bike over to my Black Jabber last night so I should be in good shape for this weekend.  Now I have the issue of chasing down the warranty on this thing.  I’m trying to be optimistic even though the shop at which I purchased it is out of business and Vassago has since changed ownership.  It’ll be interesting.

It’s a good looking bike in black, too!

Review: Litespeed Titanium Water Bottle Bolts

images One of the things I failed to mention in the review of my Vassago Jabberwocky was that I had replaced the stock water bottle bolts with a pair of Litespeed titanium bolts.  When I became aware of this glaring omission, I immediate intended to update the article.  After calming myself down and much careful deliberation, I decided that the upgrade warranted its own article.  Even with the followup review on my Jabber, I felt that mentioning them would be a distraction from the rest of the post.  Sometimes you have to stay focused and not attempt to force too much information into one article.  My wife accuses me of overthinking things at times, but I’ll stick with the cautious analysis that makes this blog what it has grown to be.

These bolts were manufactured in the U.S. using the 3.5Al/2v titanium found in most other bicycle applications.  While they could have gone with the stiffer 6/4 grade titanium, the risk of cross-threading the eyelets on bikes made of less durable metals would have increased with no real benefit.  The standard 0.8mm thread pitch ensures compatibility with nearly every quality frame made in my lifetime.  This shows the wisdom that comes from years of working in the bicycle industry.  Rather than recklessly creating a new “standard,” Litespeed chose to stick with the tried and true while innovating within the scope of recognized industry norms.

The process of installing a water bottle cage with these bolts doesn’t differ significantly from any of the lesser bolts I’ve used in the past.  The same ease of use can be expected every time.  I will confess that there was a bit more excitement and anticipation built up, which can lead to some recklessness, but that’s to be expected.  Some cyclists or shop mechanics might be tempted to push the use of Loc-Tite over anti-seize compound here.  I’ve found that participants in this debate are well intentioned but, ultimately, advocating either ideology tends to be more divisive than constructive.  Personally, I’ve had experience with both and have had good results.  Not taking sides may make me a bit of a heretic in the eyes of some, but I hope we can move past such issues.

more bolts
Note the copious application of blue Loc-Tite.

With a product like this, it is easy to expound on all the technical benefits, but what really matters is the real world impact it makes on the biking experience.  My first ride after installing these bolts was truly noteworthy.  I had barely turned the cranks over a few times, and I was able to immediately notice a subtle but unmistakable liveliness in the bike that I hadn’t felt in years.  This wasn’t just about weight savings – although that was clearly evident.  They provide all the weight savings benefits of clipping your toenails really, really close, and then some.  Although the clipping of your toenails would reduce rotational mass, this weight savings will be with you on every ride, rain or shine.  You will climb faster with these.  I’ve also found that floating the front end of the bike over trail obstacles requires considerably less effort resulting in a general improvement in my bike handling.  A less experienced rider might not immediately notice the difference but if you’re the kind of cyclist who has spent more time in the saddle than on human relationships, the difference will stand out.   You can’t trivialize this kind of performance enhancement.

The effects on the overall ride, while significant, pale in comparison with the improvements in bottle retention functions.  When removing a water bottle from the cage, the resilient flex qualities allow the action to be completed with a more animated sensation but without ever feeling whippy – even with a full 28oz bottle.  Replacing a bottle is likewise an almost pleasurable experience all on its own.  Any sudden impacts or inadvertent twisting loads are absorbed seamlessly.  What you will notice is how little you notice the behavior of the water bottle or cage absorbing energy and returning it back to the bike, regardless of what water bottle cage you pair with these bolts.  It’s not often you get this much lateral rigidity paired with vertical resilience, and that translates into performance that you can count on.  In 21 years of riding I can say unequivocally that I’ve never had a negative experience with them.  You will not be that guy who loses his water bottle on the road or trail.

These are not your grandfather’s water bottle bolts.

These bolts reflect a timeless perfection in engineering.  An optimal balance of cold, calculating, engineering precision and an understated artistic aesthetic that reflects the humanity of their purpose.  It’s the kind of quality upgrade that upgrades the entire bike.  Honestly, nothing communicates refined elegance the way a set of titanium water bottle bolts do.  Many riders would be tempted to shy away from this upgrade due to the cost, but there are few areas where you will actually get such a good return on investment.  My only regret is that I don’t have more water bottle braze-ons to upgrade on my frame.

Adding a Rack to the Green Monster

DSC00617I’ve found a few racks sold that are specific to fat tired bikes, but they all share one thing in common: they’re expensive.   Really expensive.  Regular rear racks most often do not have the space that would allow a 4+ inch tire to fit and actually be able to spin.  I managed to find the closest thing possible to a perfect fit in a “normal” rack, the Transit TD-1 from Performance, for right around $30.  Not only does this rack fit well, it’s beefy enough that it looks at home on a fat bike.


Putting a rear rack on a current Mukluk is further complicated by two issues.  First, is the fact that the Salsa Mukluk has rear spacing that is 170mm, instead of the typical 135mm spacing of nearly every other bike sold in the western world.  There are advantages to this wider spacing but fitting a rack is not one of them.  The second is that there are no lower braze-on mounts for a rack (or fenders, or anything else) with Salsa’s Alternator dropout system.  This rack gets around both of those issues pretty well.

The rack is marketed as being compatible with bikes that have disc brakes.  They manage this compatibility by providing long mounting bolts and thick aluminum spacers that are about an inch long to push the mount points for the rack far to the outside on a 135mm spaced frame.  This makes the rack just about as wide as the outside of the Mukluk’s dropouts (without the spacers).  Since there are no braze-ons for a rack you need to replace the top pivot bolt on the Alternator dropout with a longer bolt; a disc brake mounting bolt works perfectly.  Fortunately, I had several of those kicking around in my collection of bike parts.    The only hacking that had to be done was reducing the length of the aluminum spacer.  I took about 1/3 inch off using my dremel tool and a hack saw. The dremel is probably one of the most useful power tools ever made.  Seriously, it’s infinitely awesome.  Get one.

Note the fitting of the spacer in the recessed bolt space.

Once both spacers were trimmed and filed smooth, it was simply a matter of replacing the pivot bolts.

Adjusting the adjustability of the adjustable height feature.

The only other modification I made was purely optional.  Since I planned on using this rack with loaded panniers, I wanted to lower the rack as much as possible over the wheel.  I need a lower center of gravity for any unusually heavy loads I might be carrying, like bringing my lunch to work with me.  I did this by drilling out an additional hole in the leg of the rack about one inch above the uppermost hole.  I started this using the Wonder Tool (dremel) and finished the hole off with an appropriately sized regular drill bit.  This allows the rack to set down a bit lower but still have plenty of clearance for snow and ice.  See below:

The final result. The rack actually sets just about level but the photo angle and the lean of the bike make it look sloped here.