This post is about when bike parts fight. If you like bikes and bike gear, and enjoy accumulating bike lore to carry around in your head like kids’ school pictures in your wallet, read on. If, on the other hand, you can’t be bothered with worldly stuff like consumer products and bike repairs, and prefer to think about the human spirit and how to calm it down and give it respite from the more-more-more, faster-faster-faster wheel of life, well then, read on. This post is about both—or, rather, the unlikely nexus of the two. Sort of, anyway.
Bikes often make weird noises that are hard to track down. When the noises become chronic, you’re in a bind. If you’re a teenager who loves wrenching, you tear everything apart and rebuild it all—lather, rinse, repeat—until the bike quiets down. (My brothers and I used to spend hours trimming cable housing and grinding the ends flush until the action of our brakes was glass-smooth. But it’s been decades since that decadence was possible, and now even my best bike has crunchy cable action.)
If you are an adult, have money, and are heartless, you take your noisy bike to a shop and make it the mechanics’ problem. In my bike shop days the “weird noise” was a curse—the scourge of our industry. It can take forever to tease out the cause of a noise, and you can’t exactly charge $100 just to make a bike quieter. The unlucky mechanic would often give up and ask the others for advice. A common response? “I say we take off and nuke the entire bike from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”
So what do I do with a noisy bike now, being too cheap and proud to outsource my repair, but too busy to worry about every little sound? Well, I differentiate between harmless and harmful.
The really familiar noises are often harmless: a tinny thwick once per pedal revolution can be as simple as your shoe hitting the front derailleur cable end, or a shoelace hitting the bike. A clicky noise you hear when you ride out of the saddle could be spokes rubbing together like a cricket’s legs. A creak that presents itself under hard pedaling can be a bottom bracket problem. A loud creaky click when you’re in the saddle is probably your seatpost where it clamps the saddle, or where it goes into the frame. A clickier creak than this, that you hear in the saddle and out, can be a loose chainring bolt. Squeaking during pedaling can be your cleats (one friend fixes this with Chapstick). A loud once-per-pedal-revolution click, like a metronome, can be invisible grit between the shoulder of the pedal axle and the crankarm. These are generally annoying but non-dangerous problems.
Any noise involving a tire is potentially dangerous. And any sound that’s unfamiliar to you and your riding pals should be investigated. I’m particularly suspicious of the duller, deeper sounds, that to me suggest the underworld. And if you ever hear a strange deep crunchy clunk, like one beat of a rumble, which you can feel in the drivetrain as you pedal, and you’re on an old bike that has a freewheel instead of a cassette, be afraid. Be very afraid.
To me, the freewheel is the part of the bike that was never perfected. Rather, the technology was scuttled entirely during the early ‘80s when Shimano invented the cassette freehub. For the newbies out there who have only ever known freehubs, the freewheel was its own self-contained deal, with its own bearings, that screwed on to the hub body. The design was terrible because the rear wheel hub’s bearings, on the right side, weren’t at the end of the axle. They were closer to the middle, to make room for the freewheel. Thus, dudes broke rear axles all the time. And the freewheels were just never made very well.
Freewheels used to explode here and there, seemingly for no reason. When I was bike touring with my mom and my brother Bryan in Canada in 1983, we came upon a fellow tourist stranded by this affliction. Bryan recovered all the ball bearings he could—there are gobs of them, and they’re tiny—and screwed the thing back together with some grease he happened to have in his pannier. Grease makes freewheels nice and quiet—so much so that this guy called it “good as new.” Bryan said, “No, don’t be fooled. Get to a bike shop as soon as you can—that thing is a time bomb.” (A friend of ours from the shop once repacked a roadside cyclist’s freewheel with a banana. Presumably that guy didn’t need the time bomb lecture.)
A freewheel has pawls in it, typically only two of them, that allow it to move independently of the wheel in one direction (i.e., coasting) while engaging with the wheel in the other. The full load of your pedaling is thus concentrated on these very small bits of metal. Modern freehub designs still use pawls, but I think they’re made better. Maybe it’s an economics thing: when you’re making a $1,000 wheelset you can afford to do everything right, whereas the margins on a $30 freewheel were probably never very good.
It was about 23 years ago that I learned the hard way about pawls. My mountain bike had been making this low, grumbling, subtle clonking sound, and I could feel it when I pedaled. I put up with it for a long time, and then discovered very abruptly what it was. One pawl had broken, hence the noise. It was when the other pawl broke, and the freewheel no longer engaged the wheel, that the problem became obvious. Naturally, it was under full out-of-the-saddle pedaling pressure that the second pawl broke, so my pedaling thrust—suddenly unopposed—threw my weight violently to one side and I went down. This was in traffic. I looked up to see the impressive grille of a Mercedes Benz come to a stop just a couple feet from me. Good brakes on those cars … I got lucky.
When I heard the noises and felt the crunching in Full Slab’s freewheel, I didn’t mess around. This freewheel was a piece of junk to begin with, and had been running strong for at least 20 years. I don’t even know how I came into possession of that crappy a component. It was an all-black, bottom-of-the-line model and surely its manufacturer expected it to spend its life sitting, cobweb-covered, in a garage, instead of seeing heavy action.
Ditching that freewheel didn’t, however, mean buying a new one. (Maybe I considered such a purchase, but only in a reckless, impulsive way, like when you get the sudden notion to steer your car into oncoming traffic or off a cliff.) Nobody makes an even halfway-decent freewheel anymore, because all halfway-decent bikes have freehubs now. Plus, I’m cheap. And I knew I’d find something in The Box that I could use. What box, you ask? You mean you don’t have a Magic Box chock-full of awesome (if obsolete) bike parts just waiting for an afterlife on your commuter bike? What, did your wife finally make you get rid of it?
I settled on a great-looking old Suntour Winner Pro that’s almost a corn cob. I used to race on gearing like this, full-time. No hill seemed too steep for a 19- or 21-tooth cog. Then I moved to the Berkeley area with its monster climbs, and more importantly I started getting older, so I had to gradually go to larger and larger cogs, which is to say gradually increase my own disgrace, to the point where I actually browsed online the other day to see what a decent compact crank goes for. (Rest assured, it was a moment of weakness, and the breathtakingly high price of such a thing quickly snapped me back to reality.) Anyway, it’s great to finally have a properly small cluster on one of my bikes. Check it out:
But my problem was only half solved. You can’t replace just the freewheel if it’s over twenty years old—you need a new chain, too. Chains and freewheels are enablers, the classic co-dependents: a chain as old as mine would skip on any freewheel except the one I just replaced, and vice-versa. The two had ruined each other; their relationship was as dysfunctional as George and Martha’s in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” They had each other because nobody else would have them.
In a perfect world, I’d have a Sedisport chain, still in its paper wrapper, just waiting to be installed to match the new-ish Suntour freewheel.
Ah, the Sedisport. That was the working-man’s chain. All black. Didn’t shift particularly well, but didn’t stretch much either. It was a badge of honor, my brothers and friends and I felt, to use that chain even on our pride-and-joy race bikes. A Sedis chain cost $8 retail. Even though a bike’s chain has over 400 moving parts, that $8 model was plenty good enough. It was, in fact, the cheapest bike part I ever put on my bike, unless you count mere accessories like the $2 Benotto bar tape and $2 Velox bar plugs.
Alas, my Magic Box didn’t have a Sedis chain. Just an all-black Shimano 9-speed HG chain. I had a strong feeling the HG wouldn’t work very well, but still managed to be hopeful. In fact, this could be great, I told myself.
When chain slippage is kind of cool
I figured if this chain slipped just a bit, that might be pleasantly nostalgic. During my teen years, I raced a lot against Dale Stetina’s 7-Eleven junior team, easily the best in Colorado, and in ’86 they were using these wacky freewheels—I think they were Regina or Maillard—that had spacing issues. There was always one shift that none of the 7-Eleven guys could get right. The chain would find this Never Never Land between cogs and slip a few times, making a light hissing/ringing sound, before engaging the next cog. I always enjoyed that. It was the only thing about that team that wasn’t superior to me.
One time, I even got to experience this slippage for myself. Warming up for the time trial at a stage race in Aspen, I punctured. I had just minutes before my start and no spare wheel. I went over to the 7-Eleven van and my friend John loaned me a wheel. “Sorry, it’s only got a 20!” he grinned. I think most guys were using at least a 23-tooth large cog for Suicide Hill. It was going to be a bitch humping that wheel up the hill, but what could I do?
As I shifted gears during the flat part of the race, my chain slipped between two cogs, and made the same ringing sound that the Slurpees’ bikes made. I really felt like I’d arrived, like this was some natural progression toward becoming one of them. On the climb itself, of course, I was doing no shifting at all—I was well overgeared in the 20-tooth cog. Seeing my struggle, a guy yelled, “Come over on the sidewalk!” I guess he figured it would offer less rolling resistance, or there was gravel in the road or something. So I went up on the sidewalk, and the (albeit modest) crowd there parted before me, furthering the king-for-a-day impression the chain slippage had given me. That ended up being one of my best-ever individual time trials.
The Zen drivetrain
So, it really seemed like a chain that slipped now and then, especially on my commuting bike, wouldn’t be the end of the world. Sure, it might slow me down a bit, but how bad could it be? Well, I took Full Slab out for a test ride after installing the HG chain, and discovered to my horror that the chain skipped in just about every damn gear. Only the largest cog was spared, for reasons I can’t quite fathom without applying some serious brain power to the job. (Perhaps my readers can explain this, or better yet, bicker about it amongst yourselves.)
So, naturally, I went right out and bought a proper chain, didn’t I? Well, no. It was night. The shops were closed. And the rigors of my working-stiff/parenting lifestyle made it impossible—well, okay, difficult—to get around to this errand. I wanted to call around and find a shop that had an actual Sedisport chain rusting away in its original, albeit moldering, wrapper, that they’d sell me cheap. Of course, such lofty projects invite procrastination. The ensuing civil war that raged within my drivetrain was basically inevitable.
But actually, I discovered something about the new setup. If I just refrained from shoving on the pedals, and accelerated exceedingly gradually, I could keep the chain from skipping. I developed the capability of coaxing speed out of the bike, rather than just stomping on the pedals as I’ve been doing for 30+ years. Since most of my commuting these days consists of escorting my older daughter to school in the early morning, and she’s on a 3-speed bike called a Lazy Susan with remarkably slack frame angles, a big rack with a heavy pannier and a violin lashed to it, and giant balloon tires, the pace has been mellow. The whole thing has been really pleasant and peaceful. The narrow chain is whisper-quiet on those wide-spaced cogs, especially compared to my old setup with that grumbling freewheel and old, chattering chain.
There’s actually some precedent to a cyclist hobbling himself intentionally. I give you the guys who ride fixed gears in the winter, to improve their pedal stroke or some such thing. This isn’t so common in the Berkeley area, where we have serious hills, but I remember seeing real road riders on fixed gears when I lived in San Francisco. (Note that roadies on fixed gears shouldn’t be confused with hipsters on their fixies, many of which bikes are actually just one-speeds—i.e., they can coast. Hipsters, who also do totally brainless things like smoking and riding at high speeds with no helmet in urban areas, certainly don’t deserve to be copied by anyone.)
Could this skipping problem teach me to slow down and just enjoy the bike? To embrace the Lazy Susan ethos? Could this be some kind of Karate Kid learning opportunity, to teach me patience, and tranquility, and smoothness? To generally just Let It Be? In short, was this a Zen drivetrain I’d stumbled upon?
For weeks, half out of laziness (i.e., avoidance of a bike shop errand) and half as experiment, I’ve tried out the Zen drivetrain. It has been illuminating. After having recently watched twenty competitors ride away from me during the Everest Challenge, I’ve gotten to watch my daughter ride away from me on her Lazy Susan, maxing out her 3rd gear, while I gradually brought Full Slab up to cruising speed. I’ve literally coasted toward green lights, knowing they’d be yellow before I got there and I’d just have to wait at the light, frozen in time. I’ve consoled my impatient side by pausing to appreciate how quiet my bike is, how smooth the pedal stroke.
But no way could I tolerate that forever. Accelerating as slowly as a train is one thing when I’m riding with my daughter, but when I’m riding home, or to Bart, I demand the right to step it up. I’ve paid enough dues as it is, having commuted for years on the Arseless, my Triumph 3-speed. Its flaky Sturmey Archer 3-speed hub has a nasty tendency to slip out of 2nd gear, usually with painful and dangerous results. No way am I going to accept such drivetrain shenanigans on two bikes. So, when I was buying a Ksyrium spoke for my race bike the other day (and errand that absolutely cannot be put off), and the mechanic asked if I need anything else, I said, “Yeah, I’ve got an old Winner Pro freewheel that’s fighting with a 9-speed chain. Got an old Sedisport or anything?” Without moving from his stool he reached under the counter and produced a SRAM 6-7-8 speed chain, the modern incarnation of the Sedis. It’s like he was just waiting for me to ask for it. So, 17 painful dollars later, it’s mine.
Of course, owning the chain is a far cry from it actually making it onto Full Slab. The garage is torn apart, and it’s been raining, and my life itself has a lot of moving parts. Who knows, maybe by the time I get around to installing that chain, I’ll have already achieved enlightenment!