The Curious Case Of The Grinding Noise In My Road Bike’s Bottom Bracket

As promised, I present to you the tale of my road bike’s bottom bracket.  I know what you are thinking:

1. What’s a bottom bracket?

2. He promised us this?  Oh boy.

3.  How does he always know what we are thinking?

A Bottom Bracket

The bottom bracket is that piece of your bike that connects the pedals and the crank and allows them to spin.  It’s kind of like an axle.  The name “bottom bracket” suggests there is something called a “top bracket,” but if there is such a thing I haven’t discovered it.  Anyway, it was during a weekend ride two weeks ago that I heard a rattling sound coming from beneath me.  Bike noises are notoriously hard to diagnose (at least for me, they are).  Within a few miles, the noise became extremely loud and I began to wonder if my bike would fall apart underneath me.  Fortunately, it did not and I labored home with my bike more or less intact.  I then inspected it more closely and concluded the sound was coming from my bottom bracket.

This was not good.  I could only imagine how much it would cost to fix this.  I was also mildly annoyed that one of the selling points of the Trek 2.1 was that the bottom bracket was of high quality and I wondered how something so wonderful could break so soon.

It was with some trepidation that I took my bike into the shop, where the manager quickly determined that the noise was NOT coming from my bottom bracket, but was, in fact, coming from my rear wheel’s hub.  It was a little embarrassing to be completely wrong in the source of the noise.  I guess I never considered the hub because I had the bearings repacked just two months ago.

The good news is that Bontrager agreed to pay for the overhaul of my hub and the shop degreased/lubed the drive chain and adjusted my brakes in the bargain.  The bad news is that my hub is supposedly on its last legs, with lots of pitting and wear.  It is so bad that the mechanic advises me to bring it in for a service whenever it rains.  I am not to put high pressure water on the bike when cleaning it (just a gentle rinse, thank you).  Apparently, water is a bad thing for hubs.

The store manager advised that I should consider getting some new wheels.  I mentioned that I thought a wheel should last longer than 15 months and 3,500 miles, to which he had little to say.  When I mentioned that I had read and noticed from personal experience that big riders tend to wear out wheels, the mechanic and manager both agreed.  Perhaps they were being polite.  Perhaps they were willing to grab any excuse to sell me some wheels.  The mechanic suggested that Mavic wheels would be a nice upgrade.  “They’re bomb proof,” said the mechanic. “Not only that, but you’ll be surprised how much faster you can go.”

Bomb proof sounds good.  Faster is nice as well.  They also have sealed bearings, meaning it is much more difficult for water, grit, etc… to get in there and gum things up.  I’ve never heard of Mavic, but amazingly two different people in two different countries both mentioned to me on this very day that they had recently bought Mavic wheels.  One is the illustrious Tootlepedal, and the other was a coworker you do not know and will therefore remain nameless.

I have decided to delay any wheel purchasing decisions until the spring.  There’s no point in spending $220 or more on components and ruining them with winter riding.  In the meanwhile, I took the Trek out on some test rides this weekend and thoroughly enjoyed the feel of a quiet wheel and a tuned drive train.  I stopped off at the Sacred Heart Chapel and took the below pic for your enjoyment.  It is right off the busy Hoadly Road, a stone’s throw from a Walgreen’s, and is a testament to a by-gone day in this region.  The church’s website states that this structure was erected in 1937 and is a replica of the original church built in 1916 about a mile away on Spriggs Road (that building is no longer standing).  The congregation built yet another new church in 1987 in Manassas but keeps this building as a chapel.

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22 thoughts on “The Curious Case Of The Grinding Noise In My Road Bike’s Bottom Bracket

  1. Sorry about your hubs. Mavic are wonderful wheels. 2 or 3 of my bikes have Mavic wheels. The Bianchi has Mavic, as does Itzhak. Both sets of wheels have over 6,000 miles on them with no problems.

  2. Hmmm…that’s an interesting juxtaposition. Bomb-proof and faster. I’ve got Mavic rims laced to Shimano hubs on both my tandem and commuter. The A719’s on the tandem are definitely bomb-proof and that’s why we went with them. The Open Sport’s on the Surly are a pretty basic entry level rim that’s supposed to be pretty durable as well.

    But…fast, they ain’t.

    • Too good to be true, eh? I thought as much, although I understand my Bontrager SSR wheels that came stock with the Trek are low end and heavy. If I throw enough money at the problem, perhaps it is possible to get something more durable and faster than the stock wheels I have now.

  3. I must get some of these fast wheels. I am pleased with mine which i feel have lasted pretty well considering the battering they get from our roads. I hope yours do you well too.
    You are not alone in finding bike noises difficult to pinpoint. What is even more annoying is when the bike shop mechanics give your bike a test ride and can’t hear them at all.
    I know a boy who wrecked a motor bike by cleaning it with a high pressure hose. He was very sad.

  4. I’d suggest getting some quality handbuilt wheels.

    Mavic wheels are great, but you seem to be a no-nonsense kind of guy. Handbuilt wheels can be built with any specification and are often cheaper, although less flashy than most factory wheels.

    The standard in wheels used to be 32 spokes, but I bet yours have less than that(24?). Here is an example of a nice handbuilt wheel that will last a long time and would be very easy to find replacement parts for: http://www.excelsports.com/main.asp?page=8&description=Nimbus+Rear+Wheel&vendorCode=EXCEL&major=1&minor=24

    • Interesting idea. My wheel is a standard 36-spoke that comes standard with the Trek 2.1. In other words, a nice entry level wheel. I’m also well to the wrong side of 200 pounds and worry that fewer spokes won’t hold up well with the load I’ll put on them.

  5. Mysterious bike noises can be maddeningly hard to track down. My Iron Horse has a squeak that shows up when I am mashing up a hill. I had convinced myself that it was in the headset but now I think it is coming from somewhere at the opposite end of the bike. Good grief!

    I used a Mavic rim (Mavic A319) when I did my first wheel build this summer. It has been very nice. I’ve never used one of their hubs, but I’m sure they are good, too.

    Regarding wheel maintenance, the real killer is the road grit that comes with the water. A pressure washer can push that stuff into places it wouldn’t be able to reach under normal riding conditions.

    • It’s difficult to tinker with your bike when the problem only manifests itself on steep grades, isn’t it? 🙂 FYI, I never used a pressure washer – just a garden hose with the nozzle set to “full.” The LBS said this wasn’t advisable either.

  6. Interesting timing! I saw you post this piece just as I had come back from a ride (temps still great here in Maryland!). On this ride–on the way home, thankfully–I managed to break the 3rd spoke of the year, which is about the 5th of the last two years. I want new wheels! My current wheels on this hybrid frame are from1999; it’s time.

    The spokes only break on the rear wheel (where my 220lb+ weight really does the damage, I suppose). I was looking at Mavics too, at Harris. A project to look forward to in February, maybe. I think I’ll do it myself…

    Do you know–what’s the benefit of 24 versus 36 spoke wheels? Stronger? Lighter? More aerodynamic?

    • Fewer spokes are lighter and more aerodynamic. More spokes are stronger and less likely to break. Rear wheels suffer from greater rider weight and torsional forces coming from the rear cassette, which is why they tend to fail before the front wheel. I think the wheel with fewer spokes won’t be nearly as aerodynamic should one of those spokes break, so I am drawn toward higher spoke wheels.

  7. Steve, I’m on the other side of 200 lbs, so my comment might not be useful, but I’ve found that, as over the years I’ve progressively spent more and more money on bikes (who hasn’t?), my wheels stay truer longer. I think your comment above has some merit, i.e. throw some money at it. It will probably save you hassles in the long run. On the other hand, what will you blog about?! Good luck with the search. I’m on one myself, as soon as can find some more disposable cash.

    • As a general rule, I believe “you get what you pay for.” The question therefore is how much are you willing to pay and where are you prepared to cut corners? Until my maintenance and bike building skills improve, I’m afraid my bottom line will be higher than many.

      And don’t worry about the blog topics. There’s ALWAYS something to blog about! 🙂

  8. FWIIW here’s My 2 cents – Before you throw money at the problem, I think it’s a good idea to identify the problem. In your case, to be accurate, it sounds like you had a hub problem, not a “wheel” problem. I assume the rims and spokes remained true and unbroken?
    If it is a hub problem, is it a Mavic hub ( is there such a thing)? If so, then you should consider getting a better hub.
    As for faster wheels, wheels get “faster”, assuming good working hubs, by getting lighter (and having the proper tires – but that’s another story). They also get more fragile as they get lighter, especially for 200+ pound riders. A broken wheel is not at all fast, so the trick is to get enough wheel for durability and then consider weight. But if I have to choose between durability and lightness, I choose durability, because the more you ride, the faster you will be even on a “slow” wheel. To that end, I prefer 36 spoke wheels, perhaps 32, but the weight savings of losing even a few more spokes is not worth the loss in durability to me. Strong rims stay true. Good hubs last. Sufficient spokes don’t break easily. Combine the three and The resulting wheel allows you to ride a lot and that will make you faster. One more thing, NEVER PRESSURE WASH A BIKE, there are multiple areas pressure washing can destroy.
    Just my 2 cents.

    • Well said. While I do take an interest in my speed, I do not race and understand that improving my speed through technology does not improve me as a rider, nor does it improve my fitness. So my priority is similar to yours – to find a bike that is durable. Comfort comes second and speed next.

      My apologies for the poorly chosen use of the phrase “high pressure water.” I did not mean a pressure washer as most have taken it to be, but rather a simple garden hose with a nozzle.

  9. Hey there. Long time no type. Boy, do I know how frustrating noises are. Hearing a “bottom bracket” noise in my new Trek, I spent way too much $$ on two SEPARATE fixes. Both California bike shops claimed they knew what was causing the sound and both fixed it… and both times it returned.

    At the end of my rope I rolled it into a St. Louis shop where I was friendly with the manager. I told him about the noise – how it almost always happens only on climbs, how it went away and came back, etc. – and without hesitation he said “I bet your cassette isn’t tight enough.” He proceeded to tell me how often this is misdiagnosed by mechanics – it sounds EXACTLY like a hub/BB issue. He also said it is only a Trek problem because Treks come from the factory with certain pressure specifications for tightening cassettes that other bikes do not. He tightened my cassette and I have never heard the noise again.

    I am not saying this is what you have, just sharing my own bike noise story.

    As far as wheels… I believe today’s wheels are much stronger than people assume. I ordered my Trek with mid-priced 18-spoke Bontrager wheels. My riding weight has been between 200 and 210 pounds and I’ve had zero issues. My Trek manager (the one above) told me that as long as you keep the tires inflated to 120psi, a person as heavy as 240+ can ride 18-spoke wheels without issue. He said most wheel/hub failure (as well as tire punctures) are a result of improperly inflated tires. Psi should be in direct connection with a rider’s weight, and not about bike or wheel weight.

    Best of luck with your decision. I know it’s never easy. I have no experience with Mavic, but my cycling coach brother is a big fan of them. But when I emailed him about your situation he responded with “He should check out Shimano Ultegra wheels/hubs. They are the best deal out there as far as price vs performance and durability.”

    Take care.

    • There you have it – proof that at least one thing is better in MO than in the cycling Mecca! LOL Thanks for the great info. There’s plenty to chew on here.

  10. Steve,

    I’d very highly recommend looking into wider rims, like the HED Ardennes. I’m looking to get a set of these myself, and people say they feel more like tubulars, even though they run clincher tires. (So: better handling, better speed, etc., without the drawbacks of expensive tubular tires.) I’d also recommend getting a “stallion build,” at least for the rear wheel – those have more spokes and are thus stiffer.

    Mavics are cool, but there’s always the proponents of locally handbuilt wheels using stock components. Mavics use proprietary parts which may be harder to repair when something goes wrong. (i.e. if you need to change your hub again.)

    -bsurg

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