Back when there was friction shifting, hearing your bike was super important. You can somewhat feel when you are centered on a cog, but it is really listening that verifies it. I think that riders that started racing before the index shifting came about, all listen to their bikes much more than riders after.
I thought of this as I was working on my car yesterday. A main way to discovery issues with automobiles is through sounds. I can’t believe how many friends I have that pull up in their cars, or I’m getting a ride, and I hear a “bad” noise in their car. 90% of the time they say they can’t hear it.
As a cyclist, I can’t stress how important it is that you know what your bike sounds like when it is working perfectly. That is the sound that you have to know. Then, any other sound that comes from you bike is something that is wrong. It might be just a little, small thing wrong, but it could be something huge. Either way, the odd sound is never good.
I know almost all weird sounds that bikes make. All bikes, steel, ti, carbon, they all make their own sounds when they aren’t happy. I have to admit that the creaks that carbon frames make are sometimes super hard to figure out. I don’t like any weird sounds. I hate it when people race with their valve stem knocking on their carbon rims. I don’t know how people can stand it for the whole race.
Hearing is perhaps more important in MTB racing and cross. I’m constantly listening for disastrous noises, especially when I’m riding through thick mud or brush. Hearing a stick in your wheel might just save your race. I remember racing The 12 Miles of Hell a long time ago, and Megan Long, a cycling phenom, started beside me. She had her iPod on, music blaring. I couldn’t understand how she was going to race a technical MTB race with no ability to hear the noises her bike and the ground were making.
The same think happened a few years later in Redland’s Stage Race. I was riding for the British National MTB team and Liam Killeen was riding great. The stage that finishes up Oak Glen was important. I told Liam I knew the finish well and it was super important to be out of the wind the last few miles before the corner turning up the climb. I told him that I would look after him for those few miles and get him as far up the hill as I could. There were the normal bad crosswind leading up to the climb and we were doing great, in the front echelon, never in the wind. About 1/2 a mile before the left turn up the climb, right when it is critical to hold your position, Liam sits up, riding no handed and pulls his headphones out of his pocket and starts messing with his iPod. We lost a ton of slots by the time he was ready to race again. I got Liam around the corner and rode up the gutter and dropped him off right at the back of the front few guys that already had a gap. Liam went right by them and the last thing I saw was Liam pulling 4 or 5 guys up the climb.
When I got to the top, I was anxious to find out how Liam did. I saw him and he said he finished 2nd or 3rd, was jumped by surprise at the end. He said he didn’t hear them come by. I was thinking, “No shit, you were wearing headphones!” I can’t imagine sprinting at the end of a road race listening to music on headphones. Completely unimaginable. Listening in a sprint is nearly as important as seeing. Actually, hearing all the noises from behind is much like having eyes in the back of your head.
Anyway, if you don’t know your bike’s sound, then learn it. And learn it every time you put on those fancy carbon wheels too. If you know those sounds, then you’ll be able to recognize that something is amiss. You might not know exactly what it is, but you’ll know you need to get it fixed. And then do that too. One of the negatives of riding all this super light, carbon, exotic material, is that you don’t want to be riding it when it is compromised the slightest. And nearly the only way to diagnosis a lot of the potential disasters is though sound.
Here’s list of noises that a bike might make when it is not correct, courtesy of Sheldon Brown.