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Cycling Maintenance – Odd Wheel Noise? Check Your Spokes…

May 2014
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I had the strangest thing happen on my ride Tuesday night… I’m riding along and all of a sudden I hear this odd noise at the front of the bike when I’m out of the saddle, climbing a hill. It sounded like something was rubbing, or maybe like a bearing was going bad. In addition, I noticed a slight warble in the wheel (and by slight, I mean maybe a 2 or 3 mm). I checked the brake clearance by lifting the front end and spinning the wheel while I was out on the road and even though there was a warble, the wheel wasn’t rubbing on the brake pads and there was no noise with the pressure taken off of the front end – I had to look elsewhere.

I rode on and other than the noise when I was out of the saddle, the bike performed fine.  When I got home the investigation began.  First, I knew I had to true the wheel so I started there.  I turned the bike upside down and cranked down the brakes using the barrel adjuster to determine the spot to start.  Much to my surprise, one spoke had worked itself loose – and by loose, I mean loose.  There was a fair amount of play in that spoke.  Tightening the spoke fixed everything.

In the last three years or so, I’ve put more than 12,000 miles on my bikes and have never had a spoke loosen up on me like that so it was a quite a surprise to simply be able to put a 3/4’s of a turn on a spoke and eliminate two problems.  Point is, bike maintenance is pretty simple and logical – as long as you understand the logic… and that’s kind of the trick, isn’t it?

UPDATE: Kecia, a good blog friend, added in the comments section that she had a friend crash because of a loose spoke. She brings up an interesting point that I really didn’t get into in my post but definitely weighed on my decision to keep riding rather than investigate immediately: I was on my 5200 which rolls on Rolf Vector Comp wheels. They are a deep-V, thick walled aluminum rim and are known for being among the most structurally sound aluminum wheels ever put on a bicycle. I reasonably believed that I’d be okay if I kept riding. Now, had I had this problem on my Venge which rolls on Vuelta Corsa SLR rims – a full pound lighter than the Rolf’s, I’d have stopped and looked at the spokes on the side of the road.

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11 Comments

  1. Kecia says:

    I have a friend who went down hard in a bike race because of a loose spoke. She ended up having to have immediate surgery on her brain to release the pressure building up. She is fine now and still riding 🙂 Loose spokes can be VERY dangerous…thanks for the reminder to check them!!

    • bgddyjim says:

      That’s a great point that I hadn’t even considered Kecia – and I thought about this on the road too… I have Rolf Vector Comp wheels on my 5200 – these are considered to be among the most bulletproof aluminum wheels ever made – I considered this while I was riding so I didn’t bother to check my spokes while I was out (I had a feeling but figured I could wait to check because of the integrity of those wheels). Had I been on my Venge, which has much lighter wheels, I’d have checked the spokes immediately.

    • saltyvelo says:

      Kecia, if you don’t mind me asking….how does a single loose spoke cause one to crash? As a wheel builder, and I have a father in law who is quad because of a front wheel failure, I’m a genuinely curious.

      • bgddyjim says:

        I’ve seen evidence of this happening myself brother, though a Chinese knock-off carbon wheel catastrophic failure. The carbon seam was right on a spoke nipple. When that specific spoke broke, the whole damn wheel failed (the guy wrote about it on one of the message boards with photos). I’ve also seen photos, same board, same post, from a fellow who hit a rock a little bigger than a pebble and the rim blew.

      • saltyvelo says:

        I’m not doubting that it can’t happen. I’m just curious exactly what happened. Since most wheel failures happen gradually over time there were most likely warning signs that Kecia’s friend ignored.

        Of course, since most bikes sport “cheap” wheels – build quality is sacrificed for the latest marketing ploy, not suggesting that one’s wallet didn’t take a significant ding – this is a common problem. Just like your wheel Jim, a spoke nipple on a properly built wheel should NEVER come loose. And if one has come loose, my expectation would be it will become a more frequent problem, with that problem spoke and others on the wheel.

      • bgddyjim says:

        Good to know about the spoke, thanks my friend, I never would have given it another thought (till it happened again).

      • Kecia says:

        I don’t know all of the details, but her front spoke was loose causing her front wheel to wobble just a bit. As her pace increased drastically going down a big hill, the wobbling increased taking her down.

      • saltyvelo says:

        Thanks for sharing Kecia. It sounds like she got the speed wobbles http://jefaisduvelo.wordpress.com/2014/04/10/wobbles-of-speed/

        Very likely an out of true wheel can cause it – in fact I believe it to be my issue above 40 mph right now (it’s a long story).

        Many things, however, can cause speed wobbles.

  2. On one of my last rides on the road bike last year, I was going down a pretty steep hill and was doing between 65-75 km/h and the I got into a wobble. It was very scary. At the bottom of the hill, I spun both wheels but did not notice the wheels were out of true. I will be inspecting them again before heading out this year.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Speed wobbles aren’t limited to wheels either brother. Some frames, from what I’ve read, are more susceptible than others as well. A neat tip I’ve read about is to press a knee against the top tube to counter the wobble. I’ve never experienced the wobbles but I know what to do if I do. Be safe brother.

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