Diagnosing small ticks and noises that a bicycle makes (but shouldn’t) can be easy… Sounds like it comes from the bottom bracket, it’s random in that it doesn’t happen at exactly the same place in the pedal stroke every time around… Dirt in the crank. Take it apart, clean it up, lube the parts, put it back together, Bob’s your uncle.
Then there are the tougher ones… Fairly random, loud click, usually under pressure when pedaling hard. Gets worse over time… You’ve taken the time to check all usual suspect bolts are properly tightened. Check the seat post. Loosen the collar bolt, raise and lower the saddle a few times (be sure to mark the post with a piece of electrical tape or a marker so you can replace the post where it was), take it out and clean it. Replace it, maybe using some carbon paste if necessary… creak’s gone. I had that one happen to me – took two days to nail it down on the Venge and it drove me NUTS.
Then you’ve got the chain ring bolts, headset, rear derailleur hanger bolt, seat collar bolt(s), front derailleur bolt and stem bolts… even a bad quick release or the cassette lock nut. Every once in a while I’ll run into something that takes a “shotgun approach”. Do a bunch of stuff and hope one of them does the trick.
The key is to listen carefully and to regularly tighten suspect bolts (seat collar, stem, etc.) and to revisit when necessary – and definitely don’t forget the chain ring bolts… and isolate whatever part is causing the trouble. Oh, and one last thing – even after you’ve impeccably looked after your bike, know things will happen, it’s what bikes do. With my seat post story earlier, I have a regular maintenance schedule for the Venge where I check the tight on the main culprit bolts once a week. It takes about 35 seconds. I’d just gone through the ritual before we left for a road trip to Kentucky for the Horsey Hundred. About halfway through the century my bike started creaking. First under pressure, only when pedaling hard up a hill. We were in Kentucky, mind you, there are a few hills on the route. I went so far as to put little pieces of paper between each of the spokes where they crossed because I thought maybe the sound was coming from the wheel… I did this in the middle of the hundred. I was literally thinking about throwing my $5,000 race bike into the ditch and walking away (thankfully the thought passed).
When that didn’t fix the creak, upon getting back to the hotel room with my wife, I checked all of the culprit bolts again. All of them, including the derailleur hanger bolt. Everything was properly snug. Out of exasperation, I loosened the seat post collar and moved the seat post up and down several times before clamping it back down. The bike was silent thereafter.
Now that brings me to an interesting one… What if it’s the wheel?
Over time, the spokes can “find a home” where they cross. If you pinch them, they’ll click and you’ll feel where the spokes ground a little groove in each other when they load and unload under your weight while riding. It’ll happen over five or six years (maybe sooner if you’re heavier – I’m 175 pounds and this took five years of hard miles on the Trek’s wheels – but keep in mind, I ride two bikes throughout the season – the Trek gets the ugly, wet miles).
Let’s start with what it sounds like. It’ll almost sound like you’re half-shifted in the rear cassette only there won’t be much of a rhythm to it… If you’re half-shifted (either you’ve limp-shifted or your derailleur needs a quarter-twist on the barrel adjuster, in whichever direction you’re shifting is slow, up or down the cassette) it’s a constant “tick-tick-tick-tick” as you pedal. On the other hand, if it’s your spokes, it’ll be more random but you’ll definitely get a sense of a rhythm – “tick, tick… tick, tick, tick… tick, tick…” The “ticks” will sound like they’re coming from the cassette almost and they’ll sound similar but the spoke problem won’t be quite as loud.
There are a couple of ways to treat this.
First, check the rear derailleur indexing. With the bike upside down and whilst advancing the pedals, turn the barrel adjuster one way until you get a clicking sound, then turn it the other way until you get a clicking sound. Then turn it halfway in between and check the shifting to make sure it’s spot on. Make minor adjustments as necessary. Truthfully, this shouldn’t be necessary. If it’s your derailleur that’s out, when you advance the pedals with the bike upside down (or on a stand), you’ll hear the clicking. If it’s the spokes, you won’t – you need the wheel to load and unload to get the clicks. Still best to be sure.
Simplest, and least painful, is to rub some heavy lube in between the spokes where they cross. This should help and may even fix the problem so you won’t have to do anything else.
Next, if that doesn’t work, is to take a thin file and pinch the spokes together so you can access the groove. Simply file the groove out with a couple of light passes with the file. Then lube the spokes and you should be good. Now, notice I didn’t write, “file the hell out of the spokes”? You want to be gentle here so you don’t compromise the integrity of the spoke.
Finally, if that doesn’t work, have the wheel relaced.
The easiest way I know to isolate the problem, so you know what you’ve got, is to use a spare wheel. I have a separate rear wheel for the Trek so I don’t use a good wheel on my trainer over the winter. If the problem is indeed the wheel, you can use a different wheel to check it. The click will obviously go away with a different wheel on the bike. Another way is to put pieces of paper between the spokes to isolate them, as I described earlier: