State of the Singlespeed

Any cyclist can attest to that nagging noise that develops over the course of a season of hard use. I’m no stranger to this oft times head scratcher. Sometimes the problem is quite clear. Diagnosis is quick. The repair a minor bump in ones time spent. However, there will be the occasional creak, crick or groan that develops over the course of a ride that requires a bit a more judicious approach. These are the kinds of noises that can drive you mad. For me, I’ve had quite a few noises over the course of my riding career. The past 4 rides proved to be one of these cases!

It goes back a week or two. A client had picked up his bike and we scheduled a day for him to come back with bike in hand, make a few last adjustments now that he had everything “just so” and then head out for a nice spin. As he was singing the merits of an oval chainring (we both were riding singlespeed’s), it got me to thinking I’d like to give one a go. More power and a smoother pedal stroke? Let’s give it a go and see what all the fuss is about. Back home, client on his way, I logged on and ordered a Wolftooth Race Face Cinch compatible oval ring. Bide my time and the efforts of the US Postal Service came through in flying colors: Oval ring deposited in my mailbox! On the bike, it went and at the same time a spindle swap to the slightly shorter 149 Race Face Cinch 30mm spindle (down from the 83mm bb width version). Why all this talk of an oval ring when we’re talking about creaks? Well, this is when things got noisy.

Wolftooth "Ovaltine" 32t Ring

Out on my first ride, the bike developed a creak. You know the one: Pedal and lean to the right? creak. Pedal and lean to the left? …CREAK. So noise was being produced with both pedal strokes but slightly louder when leaning to one side. Out on the ride, I’m thinking “Maybe I wasn’t quite so generous in my excitement to go for a ride and I didn’t quite grease up that spindle enough.” The sound developed about halfway through the ride. I could control the noise depending on how hard I pushed on the pedals and how hard I leaned the bike reproducing the sound or making it go silent. Hmmm. This won’t stand!

So back home, still in my riding duds, the bike gets the lovin’. Typically, if there is a noise, I try and isolate it. This one seemed to be coming from the bottom bracket area. But sound can travel and it can be a bit tricky to figure out just where it’s coming from. But a good place to start is the cranks. Now with any noise, I like to do things incrementally but be thorough wherever I start. So if I pull the cranks, I pull the cranks and completely tear them down. Off come the pedals, the spindle, the chainring, and everything gets cleaned up of old grease, dirt, and dust. Once clean, every contact point gets a light coating of grease and is reassembled. All torque settings are followed to the dot period. Then I hop back on the bike and pedal it up and down my lane, road and there’s a little hill behind the shop with a trail we made so I’ll go up and down that just to make sure the noise isn’t still there. Success! Or so I think…

Next day, feeling my mechanical triumph, I head back out for another ride on the trusty singlespeed. And, like clockwork, the darn noise I thought I took care of comes back halfway through the ride. Hmmm again. This time I’m thinking “You know I probably should have pulled those bottom bracket cups like I usually do when I pull the cranks and greased them up too!” Ride finished, I’m again down the basement Bike Dojo, still wearing my cycling duds and off come the cranks and the bottom bracket. Everything is cleaned up again. Cranks stay assembled but I clean and regrease the spindle in addition to the bottom bracket cups. Again torque settings are met. I did notice I had managed to pull the sliders a bit out of alignment so I recentered them and re-tensioned the chain. Could I have been loosening up the sliders? The left side seemed a bit looser than the right! Well, I am feeling better with my Lyme recovery and I feel like I’m producing more power on top of yes, producing more power with the oval ring (more about this oval ring in a separate post!). So once again, back out on the lane and up and down the road. And again: No noise. Success!

Nope. Next ride the following evening about halfway through the ride, that damned noise comes back. What the heck? So by now you know my routine of immediately tackling the problem when I get back from the ride. This time though, I know it’s not the bottom bracket, cranks, spindle or chainring. Pedals? No. Sliders? Well, for the sake of routine, lets pull them off, clean them, lightly grease them (Yes, I grease my slider interfaces. I know PMW recommends you don’t but I do.) That means the rear wheel comes off too. When I was out on the ride, I was able to methodically start to try and repeat the noise depending on how hard I leaned to the left and how hard I cranked on the pedals and I was able to make an educated guess that the noise was definitely coming from the rear non-drive side of the bike. But when I pulled the rear wheel, I was gripping one of the spokes on the non-drive side and noticed the tension was a bit off. Hmmm. Pull the sliders. Clean, reapply grease and reassemble. Just as I’m about to put the rear wheel on I spot something: Where two spokes cross one is bent right at the crossover. I pinch them with my thumb and index finger. Sure enough: That damned noise comes out of those little buggers. Son-of-a-“Insert Derogatory Name Aimed at Spoke Here”. Well, that means taking off the rear tire, getting sealant potentially everywhere and because it’s a WTB rim, you typically pull the rim tape off towards the center because the tire/rim bead seats are super tight. Un-tension wheel. Replace spoke. Retrue wheel. Reapply rim tape (I have JUST enough…). Re-mount tire that has sealant all over it because, well, it has to have sealant all over it. Add more sealant. Air up and then clean the mess up. Back out onto the lane and up and down the road. Up and down the hill behind the shop and up and down the hill in the yard behind the house JUST to make damn sure that damned noise isn’t coming back. Success!

20 is the Magic Number

And out on the next ride? MORE SUCCESS! Call me “Sir Creaks no More”. People ask me mechanical questions all the time. My best advice is to go about things methodically. First, try and isolate the problem. Don’t be afraid to really get up close and put your ear to the potential trouble spot. Try and repeat the noise and exaggerate it out on the trail or static in your home shop. Once you think you have the noise isolated, be thorough in your approach to that part of the bike. Don’t skimp for time’s sake. Disassemble everything that your skills allow. Thoroughly clean everything in the assembly. If that means in warm soap and water, do it! Dry everything off and check things for cracks or damage. Lightly regrease every single interface. (The one interface I don’t grease are handlebars to stems or stems to forks. But the bolts involved? It depends…). Then reassemble paying particular close attention to manufacturer torque settings. And if you don’t, go get yourself a good torque wrench (I own an Effetto). Once everything is reassembled, go take it for a spin up and down the street repeating the motion you did out on the trail to try and repeat that same noise. Most times, problem solved!


But… there is the occasion when it doesn’t go away or comes back on the next ride. This is an indication that the noise is one of those tricky ones that travels. Headsets are notorious for doing this! They often impersonate a crank or bottom bracket “click” or “creak”. Bottom bracket/crank noises aren’t subtle. They can start out that way, but boy once they get going, there is just no mistaking them! That’s why I attacked that first because in dusty, dry conditions (especially a singlespeed), this is the best place to start. But my noise was traveling, so it took me a few tries to figure it out. But the best approach is being methodical and attempting to repeat the noise and exaggerate it out on the ride but also try and repeat it in isolation once back home. Sometimes this means leaning the bike on its side and putting that pedal facing down and lightly pushing on that pedal with your foot while bracing the tires on the ground. Flip the bike to the other side and try again too. Many a noise can be found by this simple method ironically because you’re loading a lot of parts on the bike from side to side. This is often how I rule out a headset making a noise. It will often “pop” when you do this or the crank will creak if it’s the crank. Saddles and their interfaces can make all manner of noise too. Pedals, wheels, brakes? You name it, it has a noise. So the next time your bike’s giving you some back talk, don’t hesitate! Be methodical and try and narrow down your scope of “where” that noise is coming from but be thorough when you address that area of the bike. That way you can rule that part out if the noise returns. And the more you diagnose, the closer you’ll get to being a noise connoisseur like me. Enjoy and keep those pedals spinning creak free.