14 Mar 2016

Squeaky Noises

In the middle of the country there is very little noise. The wind in the trees, a babbling brook, the occasional farm-related animal sound far in the distance, and the peace only being broken by farming equipment trundling along. Cars occasionally whoosh by, but for the most part it's just the sound of heavy breathing, and rubber on tarmac.

I love this landscape of sounds. It's peaceful. It's one of the reasons I am here.

The sounds I am not expecting are from something on the bike going 'plink', 'plink'. Creaking noises. rattles. The resulting thoughts start to flow... What is it? Where is it? Then it goes away - whew. Possibly a stone?  5 minutes later; 'plink plink, tinkle'.

It could be a creaking stem that you only find out about on that hard climb, or it could be a slightly under-oiled chain. A misaligned dérailleur in the wrong gear perhaps, or a cable rattling against the frame.

Some noises are to be expected, the general sounds of a bike working aren't exactly silent - there are a lot of moving parts and other parts bolted to those parts.
But there are some noises that scream 'broken', and to an inexperienced and slightly paranoid bike mechanic such as myself these noises can bring all sorts of concerns to mind.
Is a spoke about to break? Is the frame cracked? Is this something normal and to be expected, or is something about to go hideously wrong?

Over the past couple of months I've had a few noises on the bike that have turned out to be pretty simple things - the cable for my front light banging against the stem and a slightly misaligned dérailleur were two that were simple to fix and made riding a pleasure again. But there were two things that went rather wrong and were pretty horrible to deal with.

First the bottom bracket decided to go. It started with a tinkling noise that pretty quickly evolved into a noise that sounded like a couple of metal walnuts being ground against each other in a bag of sand. Whenever I took to a hill or applied any pressure to the pedals I was met with this crunching noise. Turns out this type of thing is pretty simple to fix - you just replace the bottom bracket! I have a lot of respect for the mechanics at Capital Cycles who spent a good deal of time trying to figure out where the noise was actually coming from, then fitting my ride in to lovingly replace the BB before something terrible happened. The final theory is that it wasn't put in properly by the factory - slightly off-centre and eventually ground itself out.

I rode home from that really happy and took to a big hill to try it out, and it was silky and smooth, and best of all quiet... except for that bloody tinkling noise!

The rear wheel.

I'm led to believe that the wheel-sets that come on bikes are pretty low-end, but I've never really thought that hard about it until now. Perhaps it saves cost, perhaps they are simply provided as fillers as you are expected to bring your own... I'm not sure. This was a set of Shimano RS-11 wheels, which for all the reviews had as solid, heavy and 'bulletproof'; a common technical term for wheels it would seem, and the rear wheel was actually responsible for the tinkling noise. (This wheelset is so awesome , in fact, that I had to link to Wiggle; because Shimano don't actually list RS11s on their own website).

The problem was small. Annoying, just sitting on the edge of hearing. It was as if there was a small piece of swarf stuck in the rim that moved around occasionally, or a spoke moving around; a light tinkling sound similar to someone dropping wet grains of sand into a metal can in a quiet room, and totally unnoticeable until I was riding in a quiet place. The problems' sheer lack of volume made it all the more challenging to diagnose - bike shops tend to play music, have other general noises, and are often positioned near roads - all of which were loud enough to drown out the tiny little tinkle.

Not that I wasn't taken seriously, but without a firm diagnosis it isn't really possible to target a solution to a problem so we went through a few attempts at fixing it - a wheel service to straighten out a slight kink in the rim, a general tension check, and a disassemble of the hub and associated magic to check for problems; but no luck. I had a bright idea one evening and put some oil on the hub-ends of the straight-pull spokes and thought I had solved the problem. About a week later the noise starts again. To be honest the noise was so quiet it could have been there the whole time.

We have a rather skilled Velominatus at work who was happy to take a look at the problem and gave the wheel another truing and a good going over, which was magic in itself as the tension made the wheels feel a whole lot better, but again within a week... tinkle tinkle.

It was at this point that the noise became something else. It wasn't a tinkle, it was a threat. It was a warning of impending doom, a sign that something was wrong. It was chasing me down the road during the day and starting to haunt my dreams. I couldn't ride them any more. What if they collapse when I'm going down a hill? What if a spoke breaks? What if the weld in the rim is imperfect, snaps, and I get the sharp end through my chest right before my face hits the ground at 40km/h?

I started to fear my bike, and something had to be done.

It became academic. It was a simple problem with a simple solution. The old wheels were going in the bin, the only obstacles bring my insatiable need to ride, and my No-Budget. How much money do I have, and how much wheel can I get for that price?

What do wheels even cost?

Living in Wellington I have the luck of having Wheelworks right on my doorstep; so I had a talk to the wonderful Tristan Thomas and got a very reasonable quote for something that would be perfect. I've watched these guys build wheels before and I am very pleased that someone regularly takes the care and attention to building wheels that I would take should I attempt to build my own. They are simply amazing.

Unfortunately though, with my No-Budget the Wheelworks wheels will have to be saved up for, so an interim solution was required, and came quite by surprise at Kiwivelo.

My Favourite Mechanic works at Kiwivelo, and I was in there one lunchtime with mate looking at some options to fix up a his bike, and being in a bike shop is always an excuse to have a look at the things I don't have that I probably don't actually need.

I was having a lustful look at a set of rims on the shelf - mentally checking them out so I had something to compare details later. The wheels were a set of Fulcrum Quattros. I had the Fulcrum 5s, Quattros, and 3s on my list of sets that were kind of within my price range, and kind of not, depending on whether I would have to pay import duty on them - then there of course is the ultimate question of whether to buy local or online, especially for something that might need servicing.

I was half-way through all these thoughts when my Favourite Mechanic waltzed up to me with a price that I quite simply could not ignore. It was marginally higher than the online cost, but it came with the sublime knowledge that I'd be able to complain if they made noise, and that someone I actually trust with my kit was there to be hassled; knowledge which is well worth paying for. So I pulled the trigger on them.

Boom. New wheelset, 25c tyres, tubes, installed on the spot and I rode home that night.

First, and by far the most important: Silence! No noise. No weird tinkling noise (thankfully it wasn't something else!). The sweet sound of wheels doing exactly what you'd expect, and nothing more.

The wheels are also smoother, stronger feeling, seemed to put the power into the road more, probably due to less flex? The road noise is muted - most likely due to the 25c tyres and lower pressures I would assume. I'm sure all the other things that are said about new wheels, wider rims, and 25c tyres are all applicable, but that isn't the point.

The difference I feel it has made to my ride is similar to the difference I noted going from a 2007 alloy bike to a 2014 carbon bike, again.

Now the hill-climbs sound like rubber being slowly torn from its bed on the tyres, the strain of the chain on the cogs, and the whirring of bearings. One can even imagine the sounds of heavy breathing, and sweat dripping on the top-tube. The reassuring sounds that everything is functioning perfectly, and nothing is out of place.

Exactly the sounds you'd want to hear.

~~ ~~

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