Knowing your Bike’s Noises is Critical

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I flew out to SoCal a couple days ago to ride for a week and yesterday was in Redlands and I decided to ride over to Oak Glen and do the finish climb.   It was kind of cool at the start and I definitely underdressed.  It was in the 30’s up at the top of the climb and I was in a thin longsleeve jersey and shorts.  I froze the whole way back to Redlands.  Like shivering frozen.

Anyway, it got me thinking about how many times I had raced up the climb in the Redland’s Stage race.  Then I started reminiscing and it got me thinking about a specific time when Liam Killeen rode up the climb with headphones blasting music.  I looked back and had already written about this a few years ago, but figure most of you most likely haven’t read it, so this is kind of a repost of a previous blog entry.  I reread it and it applies so much still.  Especially in cyclocross, where the wrong noise can be disastrous, which I found out last Saturday.

Here it is –

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 a list of noises that a bike might make when it is not correct, courtesy of Sheldon Brown.

If you ever raced with these, then you know how important that hearing is during a race. The tactics and importance of shifting at critical times was something that decided many races.

21 thoughts on “Knowing your Bike’s Noises is Critical

  1. Jim Sully

    Hearing the bike,yep,no question in this aspect of riding abilities.
    Hearing approaching motor vehicles adds to the necessity of having at least 1 ear open at all times.
    For me it’s a matter of survival when rolling w 1+ ton supersized vehicles inhabiting todays byways.
    Gotta see-hear them in order to avoid disaster as best as possible.

  2. Jeffb

    Simply for clarification only, Ipods havent been around that long. Maybe a Walkman? And are headphones legal in any type ofrace currently?

  3. RGTR

    Hearing – it’s why I can blow stop signs non-stop on my way to work. You can’t hear shit in a car, which is why cars have to stop. On my silent bike I can hear there is nothing in the area as I approach the intersection. The only thing I have to ‘look’ for are cops. Yeah, I stop for those.

  4. Krakatoa East of Java

    Oh yeah, whoops. Sorry. I’ve got a Tesla. Dude, you really should try stopping at intersections. 😉

  5. Steve Tilford Post author

    Jeffb – “Simply for clarification” ? Are you clarifying it for you or my readers. If you’re trying to clarify it, you’re not. Is there a date listed on the post. This was 2004, I believe, and I am 100% positive that Liam was messin’ with his iPod and not a Walkman. A Walkman? That is truly funny.

    And no, you can’t be wearing headphones while racing USAC races.

  6. Tileman

    My Dad taught me a trick to help diagnose funny sounds. Take a long screwdriver, use it like a probe. Press the handle right in front of your ear kind of against the back of your jawbone and put the other end up against something solid near the noise. It gets louder and the noise gets more clear the closer you are to the problem. The clarity helps you figure out what the exact problem is.

  7. Larry T.

    I visualized some guy with a giant set of those “BEATS” headphones zooming up the climb until I realized you meant EARPHONES or earbuds. I really dislike riding with anyone using those – they seem oblivious to what’s going on around them, just as in your example.
    I thought it was just because I’m an old-fart/mechanic that noises bothered me: the jingling of tools or loose change in someone’s seatpack, the squeak of a dry chain (you know you’re really a curmudgeon when this bothers you while driving a car and a squeaky bike goes by in the other direction!) or the end of a front shift cable hitting the crankarm over and over. I really hate noisy bikes – all I want to hear is the whir of the chain and the song of the tires on the road. The modern peloton has lost most of the good sounds, now all you get is the snap, crackle, pop of slab-sided carbon frames and wheels and the bang, bang of shifts or staccato freehweel pawls as they reverberate through oversized hubshells. Maybe I need to get some earphones? 🙂

  8. Lake Emerson and Shifter

    One thing to consider and the friction day is that you had a 5 or 6 speed freewheel. 1st and 6th are at the two extremes, and that leaves 4 to contend with. If you ride enoug you learn wheyure those 4 positions are like keys on typewriter. It makes you wonder what it would be like to ride friction with a 11 speed cluster whose cogs don’t have shifting ramps to guide the chain through (sans hyperglide).

  9. carlos flanders

    Excellent post, Steve. Love quiet bikes. I realise I have been doing many of these things without ever knowing.

  10. Todd

    My longish range commuter/city road bike is a 60th anniversary Paramount with modern Campy other than the Super Record friction shifters so I can use an assortment of wheels. Don’t have to move the lever far at all with a 10 speed cassette.

  11. paul

    Great post. I’ve never understood these clowns riding (especially in a group) with earphones. I think it may have come about because Armstong was always talking about what music he was listening to when he was just slogging in base miles. Part of the beauty of cycling is the chance it gives you to focus intently on the task at hand – moment by moment – and anticipating what is required ahead. The ability to focus is without a doubt what separates the best, from the very best, once in lifetime talents. Tough to really focus with Iron Maiden blasting through the wind in your ear drums – tried it once.

    “I believe in the ability of focusing strongly in something, then you are able to extract even more out of it. It’s been like this all my life, and it’s been only a question of improving it, and learning more and more and there is almost no end. As you go through you just keep finding more and more. It’s very interesting, it’s fascinating” Ayrton Senna

  12. James

    Music distracts people from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, increases endurance, reduces perceived effort and may even promote metabolic efficiency. When listening to music, people run farther, bike longer and swim faster than usual—often without realizing it. In a 2012 review of the research, Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of exercise music, wrote that one could think of music as “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.”

  13. Nathan

    The loudest thing on cars today are the tires on pavement. Even still, I can hear the regenerative brakes on hybrids while walking.

  14. Bob Bleck

    As primarily a sprinter, the element of surprise is very important. My Zipp 404 tubulars are very light, aero and stiff. However, I have had equal or better success with my Campy Eurus wheels which are medium depth aluminum. I attribute this entirely to sound. The deep section carbon wheels announce your kick and approach. The key to an early sprint is creating a gap when you pass. If the attacked rider can hear you coming a half second sooner he is more likely to grab your wheel as you pass.

  15. Krakatoa East of Java

    When Shimano Dura Ace SIS came out in 1985, the default setting had a very loud “Clack” to it. A virtual megaphone of “Hey, I’m just about to attack, dudes!”. The early adopters of this technology suffered horribly at the hands of the others, who almost always called-out their shifts.


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