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When steel frames fail, and why

My last article drew the following comment that gave me food for thought:

I have seen a frame fail at the downtube shifter braze-on. The down tube was installed backwards, the short butt was at the top so this braze-on was installed in the thin center part of the tube. It weakened it enough that it buckled there.

First let me explain that the down tube in this case was not necessarily installed “Upside Down.” Double butted tubes are so-called because they are butted at either end. The butt at one end is longer. That is the end that is cut shorter when building smaller frames.

So yes, if the framebuilder was building a large frame and using the full length of the tube, he could put the long butt at the top, but this would not necessarily be normal practice.

In a production setting, which included small batch production like the Fuso, the down tubes would be pre-mitered at the top end, because that angle was the same across a range of sizes. The long butt was left at the bottom bracket end so it could be cut later to accommodate whatever size frame I was building.

Incidentally, a simple way to tell which end has the long butt, is to balance the tube on a finger in the center. The longer butted end is obviously heavier. Tubes are also usually marked with the maker’s name or trade mark on the end that is not cut, but these marks can get stamped on the wrong end, so best to double check.

The short butt is usually 3 or 4 inches of the heaviest wall thickness, then it tapers down gradually for 3 or 4 more inches to the thinnest part in the middle of the tube. So the gear lever boss would not normally be on the absolute thinnest part of the tube, and even if it was, under normal circumstances it shouldn’t fail.

The commenter mentioned that the tube buckled. This usually means the bike had a front end shunt at some point, and it does not have to be a serious crash. I remember one time in the UK, I built myself a brand new cyclo-cross frame. The first time out I dropped my front wheel in a mud hole, and did a spectacular vertical stand on my front wheel.

I did not go over the top, but simply fell over sideways. Later I noticed the down tube was buckled right behind the bottom head lug. Once a tube is rippled, it will crack and eventually fail.

Barring such accidents a good steel frame will last fifty years or more. Ridden hard enough and long enough metal fatigue will eventually cause it to fail. But how many frames are ridden that hard and that long? Although sometimes a tiny crack can happen during building.

Metal like wood has a grain. Actually nothing like wood, but the only reason I draw that parallel is to remind me that wood will crack or split along the grain, whereas metal will usually crack across the grain.

When metal cools from its molten state, it forms a crystalline structure. Steel is then often cold rolled into bars or sheets. Wire and tubes are drawn though dies. Either process crushes and elongates the crystals in the metal forming a grain that runs along the length of the bar or tube. This actually strengthens the metal. (See above picture.)  

I found from experience that damage can be done to the very thin bicycle tubes, not only by overheating, but more often than not, by heating cold metal too quickly. Overheating while brazing causes the brass to flow in between the crystals of the steel, thus weakening it greatly. However, for this to occur the metal would have to be white hot and in the verge of melting.

More common is heating too quickly and this often happens when tacking a frame together. The metal is cold, and the framebuilder comes in with a small, hot flame to put a little blob of brass to hold the tubes in a lug, or a part like a brake or chainstay bridge.

Metal expands when it is heated, but if the metal is heated in one tiny spot, the surrounding cold metal will not expand and a minute crack can form, often so tiny it cannot be seen with the naked eye. The crack can fill with brass and may not fail until many years down the road.

My advice. Preheat the area first, and always tack at a point where the grain in the tube is a 90 degrees to the component part you are tacking. Not parallel with the grain. (See picture above.) Follow this simple rule and there will be less chance of a tube cracking.

This really applies to the initial tacks when the metal is cold. After two or three tacks and the metal warms up, others can be safely added. And don’t forget when fully brazing later and the frame is cold again. Start in a safe place at right angles to the grain, although not necessarily the same place or you will melt the original tack.

Earlier I mentioned a front end shunt, or crash. When this happens either the down tube ripples, or the front fork bends, occasionally both will happen. If the down tube ripples, it will break eventually, and so needs replacing. It will not fail suddenly, a crack will appear first.

If the front fork gets bent, don’t replace it unless the fork blades are rippled. It can be safely straightened. Let’s face it, the fork blade was first rolled into a round tube. This was done while the tube was in a cold state.

Next it was rolled into a taper and during this operation the wall thickness increased at the thin end. The excess metal has to go somewhere, right. The top end was pressed from a round to an oval shape. All these operations where done while the tube was in a cold state, no heat was required. Cold working actually strengthened the steel.

Finally the framebuilder cold bends the fork blade into a curve. So if the fork is bent slightly in a front end crash, and re-straightened (Cold.) by a skilled person with the right tools and know-how. Why should that compromise the integrity of the fork?

Of course I am not advocating you bend and re-straighten a fork more than once, but that is the beauty of steel. It will rarely fail suddenly, and when it does it can be fixed quite easily.



Selling the Benefit

Go to any seminar, or read a book on selling, (Or marketing as people prefer to call It.) and you will learn that you always “Sell the Benefit” to the consumer.

In other words, “How will the consumer’s life be made better” if he buys whatever it is you are selling. In the case of a bicycle, how will it improve his performance?

One can build or manufacture just about anything then put up some wonderful sounding argument stating why it is of benefit to the user. Most of these statements cannot be proved or disproved.

Even when these theories are disproved, nobody really cares least of all the company who has made a lot of money, and everyone just moves on to whatever the next trend is.

In the late 1960s Cinelli built a frame that was absolutely devoid of all brazed-on fittings, stating that braze-ons weakened the frame. Gear levers, cable guides, etc. all had to be clamped on to the frame. (Picture top left.)

Some years later people realized that the clamps held moisture and started rust spots, and the clamps sometimes caused stress risers and tubes often broke adjacent to the clamp.

For a while every other framebuilder followed suit, because it saved a tremendous amount of time. (Which was of course the real reason.) Cinelli had stumbled on an incredibly simple way to cut labor costs, then actually sold the idea to the consumer as a benefit.

At the time Cinelli charged double what anyone else did for a frame. The psychology was, it costs more, and therefore it must be better. Also if it costs more you win the one-upmanship game. A psychology that is still being played out in today’s high end bicycle market.

Weight saving is always an easy sale to the bicycle enthusiast. Push weight saving to its limits and in the case of a frame, it becomes flexible. Then you sell the idea that a flexible frame is an actual benefit to the rider. The big question here is, “How much flex?” Aluminum for example makes a very strong and lightweight frame. However, it has little or no flexing qualities.

Back when I built frames they were made by brazing a high tensile steel tube into a lugged joint. In the case of Columbus, the tubes were heat treated and were like a very strong steel spring. When the framebuilder heated the tubes to braze the joint it actually softened the tubes, thereby losing a tiny amount of the strength, and spring qualities.

Remember Cinelli’s argument that braze-ons weakened the frame. Actually there was a grain of truth in that statement. However, brazing the lugged joint and attaching braze-ons is part of the frame building process. The tubes are actually designed to withstand losing some of the strength during the building process. Brazed correctly, the end product is still far stronger than it need be.

This is why steel tubes are butted, (Greater wall thickness at each end.) so there is still adequate strength left after the joint is made. The trick is to use just enough heat to get the job done, but not heating the tube a greater distance from the lug or braze-on than necessary, thus retaining as much of the tube’s inherent strength as possible.

Because a frame is like a very stiff steel spring, when the rider makes a sudden effort as when he jumps in a sprint, the frame gives or flexes slightly. This is desirable, but the operative word here is “Slightly." It is like the difference between an athlete jumping from a concrete track or floor, and one jumping from a Tartan track surface or a floor made from wooden boards.

There is an old Briticism, (A saying from the UK.) that “Bull shit baffles brains.” So whenever you are reading the sales pitch for the latest and greatest high tech wonder. (Not just bicycles, but any consumer product.) Keep an open mind.

They are selling the benefit. Your life will somehow be better for owning this product. Turn that idea around and ask, “What is the benefit to the manufacturer?” Is this product really better than the old one, or has the manufacturer found a cheaper way to make it.

Or has the manufacturer simply come up with something "New and Improved," that serves no real purpose other than to make the old one obsolete.



The Wave

A wave of the hand has to be one of the most simple and yet basic of human gestures.

A wave can say, “Hi,” or it can say, Thank you.” 

Most important a wave to a stranger is saying, “I acknowledge your existence, I am not ignoring you.”

The wave immediately says, “I am friendly towards you.” Even the most hostile and aggressive of drivers, will give another driver a thank you wave, if they slow and let them in. 

In fact if you don’t get a thank you wave, you feel slightly offended, somehow deprived, “Hey, I let you in and I didn’t get a thank you wave, where’s my thank you wave?”

Some cyclists will not return a wave to another cyclist, or will not do so unless they are wearing Lycra like them. Total bull-shit. I know it must be terribly hard if you are lying down comfortably on those aero bars, to struggle up to give a proper wave, but at least raise a hand, make the effort.

Unless you are a serious time-trialist, or tri-athlete, it might be a good excuse to dump the aero bars. Set yourself free to sit up and wave to the whole world.

I wave to everybody when I am riding, not just people who look like me, other people on any kind of a bike, those walking, running, or on skate-boards.

Even ladies pushing babies in strollers. They are all people like me, out getting some fresh air, and exercise. Sometimes, I get a wave back but not always, I don’t feel deprived or offended if I don’t. 

If I see a driver waiting to turn in front of me, or pull out from a side road, I give a wave. This time it is more of an attention getter, “See me, I’m over here.” Rather like the wave to a waiter in a busy restaurant.

However, it is still a friendly gesture, and the driver may interpret it as, “Thank you for waiting, and not pulling in front of me. Often they will wave back, which is very nice. It means they have seen me, but more important they acknowledge my existence, and my right to be on the road.

A wave costs me nothing, and yet it gives so much. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction and pleasure, makes my ride a better experience.

If you are not in the habit of waving, I can recommend it. It is good for the soul, yours and your fellow travelers.


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If Necessity is the Mother of Invention, who is the Father?

Have you noticed how simplest things in life have become high tech when they don’t really need to? For example the paper towel dispenser.

What was wrong with just pulling on the paper, or operating a simple lever at the side?

Every one of these devices is different, so you stand there like an idiot with your hands dripping wet, trying to figure out where the “electronic eye” is.

Is it on the front, is it underneath. Shouldn’t there be a little red light somewhere? You wave your hands all around this abominable black plastic box. How about one that delivers paper towel when you punch it? Dry your hands and relieve your frustrations at the same time.

Invariably someone will come to your rescue and show you how it operates, making you feel like a total retard. (That used to be a politically incorrect term, but no one ever uses it to refer to a mentally challenged person anymore, it is only used when referring the type of person who can’t operate a stupid paper towel dispenser.)

Why make the simple things in life high tech, when there is no good reason other than we can? Or because we have the technology. The makers of these “Black Box” towel dispensers will argue that by eliminating the handle, they eliminate a source of germs that could re-contaminate our clean hands.

Now wait a minute, every person using the towel dispenser has clean hands. They have just washed them, that’s why they need a paper towel. And, anyway after sterilizing our hands thoroughly, we grab the filthy door handle as we leave. 

Why do we need electric can openers? One of the times we really need a can opener is during an emergency when the power is out. And the bicycle, one of the simplest and most efficient machines man has ever invented, is being made more and more complicated.

To be honest, it took me many years to get over index shifting in the late 1980s. At the time, I was in step with the European cycling community who scoffed at the idea, as did Campagnolo. This was tantamount to a violinist needing marks on the neck of the fiddle to show where to place your fingers.

Of course, the engineers at Shimano knew better. They knew that in America there were people who actually did not know how to operate a friction shift lever. Maybe they had great foresight and could see this same nation of people, who in the future, would not be able to operate a paper towel dispenser.

I always felt that index shifting was developed to cater to the “Instant Gratification” element. Nothing that requires a degree of skill, gives instant gratification. Muffing gear changes on a hill is no fun, but then neither is learning to play a musical instrument. However, the rewards are far greater once you master the skill. The satisfaction of doing something other people cannot, for a start. 

In the case of indexed shifting, Shimano was proved to be right, and Campagnolo spent years playing catch up. I will agree that indexed shifting has developed into something that is useful to all cyclists, including the pros. No one wants to go back to friction shifting, even old farts purists like me.

When I started cycling in the 1950s, racing bikes were the exact same machines as those ridden by the Pros in the Tour de France. It was like that up into the 1980s. What the professionals used, dictated what was sold on the open market. If you were a newbie and wanted to ride a racing bike, you had to deal with friction shifting. There was nothing else.

The mountain bike changed all that. Here was a whole new animal, and a whole new breed of cyclist. They were not trying to emulate the pros in the TDF, and they didn’t want to learn friction shifting. So indexed or click shifting came first to the mountain bike, then the road bike. This lead to more and more gears. This was not necessarily a bad thing, although I think they should have stopped at 10 gears, no one really needed 11.

Today, it is no longer what the pros ride and want, but rather what the corporations that sponsor the pros want them to ride. And that is, new stuff they can sell to the American leisure rider.

A prime example is Disc Brakes. The pros don’t really want it but it will be forced on them. I have never used disc brakes, so I can’t speak from experience. I understand they work better than caliper rim brakes in wet conditions. But I do know enough about bikes, to know that the last thing I need in the wet is more stopping power when the real problem is the tires gripping the road.

If it is raining I can lock my wheels up without even trying, with my old tech caliper brake. I don’t need a brake that will lock my wheels up a split second faster.

There is an old saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I always wondered who the Father was. Today I know the father is the one who takes something simple that works, and fucks with it to make something that is more complicated, costs more, and doesn’t work any better.


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Finally, a mini-pump that actually works.

Bicycle tires, especially clincher tires, have greatly improved in the last twenty years or so. Back in the 1980s if you wanted a high performance tire for your high performance bike, you had to go with tubular tires, or sew-ups as they are called in the US. For the non-racing leisure rider this was a huge hassle and expense.

Today there is a wide range of performance clinchers to choose from, but a simple portable air pump to carry on the road, along with a spare inner tube and/or a patch kit. One that will put enough air in the tire to get you home in an emergency. Not so easy to find.

Most real bike enthusiasts have a floor pump (Track Pump.) to air up their tires at home.

But the full length frame fit pump, the kind one could use to beat off an attacking dog, disappeared when lugged steel frames disappeared.

Such a pump would pump up your tires, in fact in the old days it was all we had, and our pressure gauge was our thumb and forefinger.

The mini-pump has taken over from the full length pump, but if it won’t pump your tires up when needed, what use is it?

I have been struggling with such a mini-pump for at least two or three years. Like most of its kind it has a push-on air chuck that can be adapted (By reversing a rubber washer.) to fit either a Schrader or the smaller Presta road tire valve.

My first emergency road side flat, the pump was letting air out of the tire as fast as I was pumping it up.

Then I found I had bent the valve pin in the Presta valve. In trying to straighten it, it broke off and I had to start over with a second spare inner tube.

I then bent the second valve pin, but did not attempt to straighten it and got enough air in the tire to get me home.

After that I realized this pump was only good for putting a little air in the tube so it didn’t get pinched when fitting the clincher tire over the rim. I used a CO2 pump to bring the tire up to full pressure.

So when I was recently offered the “Road Air” mini-pump to try out, I was pleased to see it had a simple, ‘old tech’ screw on flexible connector.  The kind of connector pumps had from day one when the pneumatic tire was invented in 1887, and worked fine for the next 100 years. (Picture below.)

The built in push-on connector has been around since at least the 1930s and also worked fine with the full length pump. It was born out of necessity like the quick release hub because of racing. Even the professional riders had to change their own tubular tire, and pump it up, in races like the Tour de France. Picture below, Romain Maes pumping up a tire with a push on air chuck, in the 1936 TDF.

This “Deal with your own punctures,” regulation was still in place in professional racing throughout the 1950s. It was done in the interest of fairness because not all teams had a full support vehicle. In amateur races it went on into the 1980s, in all but the top races.

By the 1980s the Silca, frame fit pump was popular. It came in various lengths so you could buy one to fit your frame. Back in the day I painted many Silca pumps to match the frame. (Below.)

So a pump is no longer needed for racing, and the urgency to get a tire pumped up quickly is not the problem. The issue is, get the tire pumped up and get home. The built in push on air chuck is no longer needed on a mini-pump, and they don’t work anyway.

The reason. With a full length pump, one is pumping with long slower strokes. Because of the leverage it was easy to keep the air chuck firmly on the valve with one hand, while pumping with the other. Because a mini-pump is only 8 or 9 inches long, it is necessary to pump in fast short (Almost frantic.) strokes, and it is almost impossible to hold the air chuck steady, hence my experience with bent valve pins.

The flexible rubber connector on the “Road Air” pump is under a neat little plastic dust cap. Lift the dustcap and the connector unscrews from pump to extend it, but remains attached to the pump. It fits a Schrader type valve, and you have to use the Presta adaptor (Provided.) for a road bike.

(Above.) The handle opens up, and contains a Presta adaptor, a needle connector for blowing up soccer balls, and a plastic nozzle for blowing up anything else that needs air. The compartment in the handle is quite hard to open and my first attempt it came off suddenly and the contents went flying. Had I been at the roadside the Presta adaptor would have been lost in the long grass with all the other parts.

I found it best to lever open the handle with a small pen knife I always carry on my key ring. (Left.)

I always have a spare Presta adaptor in my patch kit anyway, so I’m covered.

I would prefer a Presta valve only version, and I don't need all the other stuff.

The maker would save money on a plain handle instead of one that opens.

There are enough road bike enthusiasts out there, I would expect there to be a good market.

When this little pump arrived, I let all the air out of one of my tires and connected it up.

Two minutes of fast pumping and my thumb and forefinger told me there was enough pressure in the tire to get me home if I was on the road.

The pump comes with a little carrying bracket that fits on a water bottle mount. I prefer to carry it in my pocket.

The two minutes it took me to pump up my tire, was the time it took to sell me on this pump. It pumped my tire up, that’s all I ask. This is a great little pump.

Buy the Road Air Pump here. Reasonably priced at $24.95 and comes with a lifetime guarantee. 


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