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Over the last couple of months I've noticed a clicking (well, kinda a clicking, kinda a clicking metallic twang) coming from my handlebars when I pull from side to side - usually when I take off from an intersection or am accelerated.

They're a flat style handle bar with stem somewhat like this (same brand, but the SSR type , so probably slightly cheaper): http://bontrager.com/model/00744 - with two bolts on the clamping surface between the stem and the handlebar.

I've undone the clamp between the handlebars and the stem then cleaned the mating surfaces and reassembled it all - making sure the adjustment on the top and bottom bolts is about equal. I didn't clean the threads as there is some blue threadlocker on the threads which seemed useful. This routine makes the sound go away for a day or two, but it inevitably returns.

Any advice on finding and remedying the source of the noise? Or is a new (4 bolt) stem the way to go?

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Maybe you are not tightening the bolts sufficiently? –  Vorac Dec 13 '12 at 10:15
    
Sorry, I should have added that I tighten them with a torque wrench. I can't recall the figure off the top of my head, but I think it was about 12nm. Fairly easy to get that level of tightening by hand with an allen key. –  inflammable Dec 13 '12 at 10:26
    
Did you lube up the mating surfaces? This can help with small creeks such as this. –  Jack M. Dec 13 '12 at 18:37
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The idea of applying a lubricant to the mating surfaces terrifies me a little; I can see how the would reduce the noise, but wouldn't they reduce the efficacy of the clamping force? –  inflammable Dec 14 '12 at 1:56
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3 Answers 3

The noise is coming from your handlebars, but in my experience noises can be deceptive. It may be your stem-handlebar interface, but it may not be isolated to that one spot.

The first thing to check is that the tabs on the face plate are not meeting the body of the stem when everything is torqued down. If you can see a gap there, you should be ok. If they are touching, however, the final torque will do nothing to hold the bar in place. This is sometimes a problem when new handlebars/stems are installed with parts that are spec'd a few millimeters off (i.e. in the example stem you provided, the bar clamp is 25.4 mm. If one were to replace it with a road stem with a 26.0 mm clamp, it may fit well enough to hold the bar without translating all of the tightening torque to the clamp area.)

Another component to investigate is the headset. Lots of headsets are press-fit items and if the fit is poor, the races will make noise. This would be noticeable if you were to hold the front wheel with your knees and pull the bars side to side. It may not be apparent from examining with everything in tact, so some amount of disassembly may be required. A sign of a poor headset fit is fretting marks on the head tube. You can find Loctite or similar products designed for press-fit applications.

Another headset issue that may be causing your clicking is indexing, or brinneling. This occurs when the ball bearings, usually in the lower race, wear evenly spaced dents into the bearing surface of the lower frame cup. This is more noticed in steering, but if the headset is over tightened enough, it may 'click' into place.

If the issue persists, check your front hub to make sure the cones haven't become loose. This would allow the wheel to move slightly side-to-side making a noticeable tick. If you have a suspension fork, check to see that the stanchions haven't become loose in any way.

To further muddy the water, you may want to check the frame very thoroughly for cracks or dents, especially around the headtube welds. This may not cause a noticeable click all the time, but a visual inspection will save you lots of headache if you find it early. If the frame is anything but steel, consider trashing it. Some frame materials have a tendency to fail catastrophically and unexpectedly.

If all else fails and your certain the clicking is coming from your handlebars/stem, replace them. They're expendable items with a definite lifespan. A failed handlebar or stem will almost always cause a serious crash.

Good luck!

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You may also benefit from reading the threads about mysterious creaks, squeaks, clicks, rattles, thuds, pops, and so on... there are way to many to list here. –  WTHarper Dec 13 '12 at 21:13
    
Thanks for the the very comprehensive response - I hadn't considered the headset, but it is feasible given the bikes 4 year old age, though it feels very smooth to use. The bike is this one: trekbikes.com/us/en/bikes/2009/archive/73fx and the headset is a semi-sealed type. –  inflammable Dec 14 '12 at 1:54
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I didn't really get a chance to try to resole this until earlier this week, however the thing that seems to have resolved this clicking and creaking was: removing the steam, cleaning all of the bolts and threads with a WD40/CRC type spray and a old tooth brush, cleaning all of the mating surfacing with same, thoroughly cleaning the recessed areas that the bolts sit in to remove and road grit and crud, then drying and removing the residue with paper towels and reassembling. At a guess, the crud under the bolt heads was moving around after they were done up, lessening the clamping force. –  inflammable Jan 10 '13 at 23:41
    
Brilliant! That is one thing I forgot to recommend! –  WTHarper Jan 11 '13 at 0:06
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I would look for cracks in both the bars and the stem. Have you verfied that the stem to steerertube bolts are are tight? Make sure the front quick release is fully seated and tight. While standing over the top tube apply the front brake firmly. While rocking the bike back and forth do you feel or see any movement in the front forks? Any movement indicates the headset is loose or worn.

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Will give it a go - thanks! –  inflammable Dec 14 '12 at 1:52
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I don't know about the newer components, but in the past, especially on road bikes with drop bars, "creaking" has been due to motion between the actual bar and the stiffener that is glued/swaged to the center of the bar.

Usually the noise begins occurring a when a bike is a few months old, and it persists for maybe a year. It is of no real consequence, other than its annoyance factor.

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Interesting - I'm not sure this is what's happening in my case as the bike is about 4 years old now, and has only recently started making the noise. But good to know, thanks! –  inflammable Dec 14 '12 at 1:52
    
Well, the timing will obviously depend on the usage of the bike and particulars of its construction. And this creaking is largely limited to bars with a reenforcing sleeve at the center (which is usually but not always obvious). –  Daniel R Hicks Dec 14 '12 at 13:00
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