Putting Our Lives on the Line

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Testing bicycles may sound like a dream job – you get to ride all kinds of bicycles without having to pay for them – but it comes with risks. We ride the bikes hard, although we don’t abuse them. We are relatively smooth riders, so we don’t stress components unduly. Even when riding the bikes as intended, problems often manifest themselves during our two-week test. We’ve tested more than 60 bikes, and there have been a number of close calls and actual injuries.

On one test bike, the headlight fell off and hung from its wire, dangling in the spokes. On another, a poorly mounted front fender broke loose and wrapped itself around the front wheel during a high-speed descent on a busy road. I was lucky not to crash, but a friend of a friend suffered a similar failure on a bike from the same maker and is still dealing with a the consequences of a brain injury.

I’ve broken my thumb when the tires of a test bike offered next to no grip in the wet, and I crashed as I braked for the first corner. Two handlebar bags have flown off the front rack from decaleurs that were too loose or broke off entirely. I rode over one, the other one went sideways. A year ago, I approached a stoplight at the bottom of a steep hill when the straddle cable pulled out of the front cantilever brake, leaving me with only the rear brake and almost no brake power. That certainly was exciting!

I’ve had other close calls. A just-introduced hydraulic disc brake was recalled two weeks after our test. The seals could blow out in cold temperatures, “resulting in abrupt loss of brake power, and an inability to stop the bike,” according to the manufacturer. And I just had taken the bike with those brakes on steep mountain descents and braked so hard that I could feel the left fork blade flex and affect the bike’s steering. Good thing it wasn’t very cold during my night-time descents on the bike.

A carbon fork I had been testing was recalled the next month, because several of them had broken after just a few months of riding. On another bike, a tire was mounted incorrectly with a large wobble. On yet another, a front brake pad came loose. Fortunately, I noticed it before it fell off completely.

Why write about these incidents? There is no glory in road rash or broken bones. I write about them because all these problems were avoidable, and we don’t want the same things to happen to you. The problems were due to poor design, careless manufacture or faulty installation. On our own bikes, these incidents simply don’t happen. We choose parts that have proven themselves over many years of riding. We are careful to assemble our bikes well. If something breaks, it’s usually after many years of hard use.

If you are fastidious, you’ll completely strip down any bike you buy and re-assemble it correctly before you ride it. Car racers do that when they buy a race car… For most people, this isn’t practical, but here are five safety checks that can eliminate some of the biggest risk factors:

  • Brakes: Pull on the lever for the front brake as hard as you can. The brake pads should squish, the brake may flex, but the cable should not pull out of its anchor on the brake. I’ve done this test on three new bikes recently, and on two, the cable pulled out of the brake. On these bikes, the brakes work fine until you really need them in an emergency situation!
  • Check that both tires are seated correctly. Most tires have a line molded into the sidewall that should sit just above the edge of the rim. That line must be concentric with the rim. If it dives under the rim edge, the tire isn’t seated correctly and could blow off while you ride.
  • Push down sharply on the brake levers (with drop bars) or the ends of the handlebars (with swept-back bars). The bars should not rotate in the stem.
  • If your bike has a decaleur, insert the bag and remove it. Is it tight enough to stay put when you go over big bumps? If it isn’t, use additional straps to secure the bag on the rack platform.
  • Problems with wheel quick releases have been publicized so much that they hopefully are rare. Even so, check that they are closed tightly.

Assembly problems are usually easy to correct or mitigate. More difficult is dealing with issues of poor design. Often, the only solution there is to walk away. There are also some things that I prefer not to test, because they are simply too dangerous:

  • Inexpensive carbon forks. There are just too many cases of them breaking.
  • Bikes that have anything clamped to a tapering fork blade. It’s bound to come loose.
  • Fenders that are poorly mounted or have inadequate clearances.
  • Sorry to say, but anything sold by Civia. Too many recalls, and too poorly designed are their bikes. (Both the fender incidents described in the post were on Civias – with two different fender designs – as well as the fork recall.)

Cycling is not a particularly dangerous sport, but like any activity, taking sensible precautions greatly reduces your risk. I wish companies would take more care when they design their bikes and components – they are playing with our lives!

At Bicycle Quarterly, we will keep pushing bike builders and manufacturers to make their bikes safer. As avid riders, our own health and safety depends on it.

Do you have any additional tests you use to reduce the risk on a newly-assembled bike?

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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80 Responses to Putting Our Lives on the Line

  1. Bruce says:

    Right. Off to check recall lists for my Civia drop handlebars.

  2. Holger A. Kastler says:

    Dear Jan,
    it seems to me that carbon forks are often not recommended by you or in BQ.
    I am planning to build a steel randonneur in order to use it with a decaleur (from VO) and my handelbar bag, but I would like to have a more ‘modern’ behaviour, i.e. more stiffness. That is why I was thinking about the Enve Cross Fork, which is obviously no low budget product. However, do you think that carbon forks like this can also be problematic or even break when using with a decaleur and handlebar bag?
    Thanks in advance for your answer.

    • If you desire a stiffer fork, that is easy to achieve with steel. Carbon forks only come with relatively small offset (usually up to 50 mm), so you cannot get a geometry that works well with a handlebar bag.

      Another question is whether stiffness in a fork is useful for road riding. The fork undergoes only negligible sideloads as long as you are in the saddle – otherwise, you’d fall over and crash. Thus, a stiffer fork does not improve the bike’s handling, no matter what many magazines say.

      • Holger A. Kastler says:

        Thank you very much for your very helpful answer.
        One question remains: what kind of steel fork do I have to get/build then? Can you name some good examples or describe the characteristics?
        My initial question and search for a stiffer fork started when I nearly lost control on my randonneur bike: I was riding approx. 35 km/h (~ 22 mph) with my loaded handebar bag and two light rear panniers on my (approx.) 30 years old steel bike with steel fork (1 inch, threaded) and VO randonneur front carrier with integrated decaleur, mounted with clamps because the fork did not have canti bosses. The bike started more than flexing, it felt like it was shaking. I had to slow down to keep control over the bike. Do not want to imagine going down really fast. Since I never experienced any flex or problem with my carbon forks on an (alloy) road bike and an (alloy) CX bike, I thought it might help to get a good carbon fork (with a bigger diameter). But maybe it happened also because of a rather large frame (large headtube) and the old-fashioned threaded stem with a 1″ fork?

      • Shimmy can have many reasons, but fork stiffness does not seem to affect it. We’ve had good luck reducing it by installing a needle-bearing headset, which adds a little resistance to the headset. We’ve written more about shimmy in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 9, No. 2.

      • Holger A. Kastler says:

        Thank you very much for your answer and further reading advice. I will order that back issue soon.

      • Jonathan Gehman says:

        I’m buying a new Seven Mudhoney and don’t want a carbon fork that I will have an increasingly difficult time having any confidence in in the future. For about 60% of the cost of the carbon fork Seven specced for my bike, I was able to find a reputable, established custom builder who was happy to make a steel fork to Sevens design, allow me to choose the crown and other parts I thought went best with the aesthetics of my new bike and ship it in time to arrive about the same time as the frame. My new frame is coming unpainted but if I was getting it painted Seven would have included the other guys fork at no extra charge.

        Carbon should not always be the default fork for custom bikes…

    • Conrad says:

      My opinion… carbon forks on steel bikes bug me. The fork is the most mechanically stressed part of the system, and if the fork fails, you are going to have a serious crash. If the frame fails, you can probably ride it down without any injuries. Wouldn’t it make more sense to go with a carbon frame/steel fork combo first?
      I have ridden both carbon and steel forks and I think that a properly designed steel fork rides just as good if not better than a carbon fork. And with a front loaded bicycle, you can’t find a carbon fork with the right geometry anyway, so the steel fork will ride much better.
      The Enve fork is probably really well made but still… its a full carbon fork. Are you going to replace it every couple of years? I have a Serotta Colorado II that has been raced, and ridden hard for nearly 25 years. I have had the steel fork straightened twice after hard crashes. I watch for cracks, but I don’t worry descending on that bike. I have had a lot of people tell me I should modernize it and install a carbon fork… and I ask them now what good would that do? Ride this bike and tell me it needs a carbon fork!

    • Scott Hicks says:

      Herr Kastler,
      There are many variables that could contribute to the sort of frame flex you’ve described. Steel bikes, particularly those more than a few years old, often have top tubes that are relatively light and flexible. Bikes with thin-walled, smaller diameter top tubes are more prone to “shimmy” than most modern bikes. A bicycle that is too large (or too small) can be a contributing factor. Cargo weight, and how it’s distributed, can be part of the equation. Wheels and tires that are not well balanced may increase the likelihood of hitting a bump, or hard braking, to set in motion a vibration that then becomes amplified. It’s doubtful that replacing the fork will change any of these characteristics. One simple change involves technique. Consider that you are part of the dynamic combination of human and machine that is a person on a bicycle, and that you are in fact, the most important part: the part that weighs the most, and the part with a brain. You can affect your bicycle’s handling a great deal simply by using your body and mind. The kind of shaking that you’ve described can often be halted by momentarily coasting and bracing one or both knees against the top tube of your bike. Slowing down, as you did instinctively, is also a good option.
      Respectfully, S. W. Hicks.

      • Bikes with thin-walled, smaller diameter top tubes are more prone to “shimmy” than most modern bikes.

        It’s true that modern carbon or titanium bikes rarely shimmy, but it doesn’t appear to be the smaller-diameter top tube of steel bikes that is responsible for the shimmy. Steel bikes with “oversize” top tube tend to shimmy more often than those that have a “standard-diameter” top tube. We hypothesize that this is due to the similar frequency at which the top and down tubes oscillate.

  3. David M says:

    It’s good to temper enthusiasm and cycling fun with the sobering reminder that when we don’t purchase, assemble and maintain with care, we risk life and limb. I’m glad to have Jan’s reminder and encouragement to be rigorous in pursuing safety, the ultimate and most fundamental quality parameter. When elegance, efficiency and high performance are added, we have the luxury of true excellence. Keep up the pursuit of excellence, and thanks to all at BQ for risks taken from which we learn and benefit.

  4. robertkerner says:

    Your post begs the question: Why didn’t you check these items before you test rode?

    I don’t mean to be snarky, but if your business involves testing equipment, it strikes me that you should proceed with extra caution before throwing a leg over.

    I’m afraid most riders don’t give their bikes the once-over on a regular basis, much less when they roll out of the store after buying. Case in point: I was riding with a group several months ago and noticed that one rider’s carbon wonder bike was making a bit of noise. When I got closer, I realized each pedal stroke caused the rear wheel to move laterally in the rear triangle. Not a little, but a lot. I asked the rider about it and he said “It’s okay I’m sure. I just bought the bike last week.” There was nothing right about the rear wheel but there was no convincing the rider of that.

    Sadly, some people know very little about how their bike works and how to inspect it. I can’t put all the blame on the dealers/manufacturers either since they are humans. Whenever humans are involved, there will be mistakes. The only way to mitigate the problem is to learn how the machine you are operating works, and check it on a regular basis.

    • We usually go over the bikes – I corrected the wobbly tire as soon as I noticed it – but many problems are due to poor design that cannot be corrected. If a fender mount breaks free from the fork crown, or a rack decaleur breaks off the rack, there isn’t anything I can do about it. And some issues catch me truly by surprise, like the tire that didn’t grip in the wet.

      Furthermore, I don’t want to approach each bike with the mentality that it’s an inferior machine that needs a lot of fixing and checking before it’s safe to ride. I approach a test bike like an owner with a new bike: I am excited about riding it, and eager to try it on the road.

      Imagine if automakers sold cars that needed a careful going-over after you buy them, and then careful checking every few hundred miles to make sure they are safe. Instead, you buy a car, drive off, and apart from routine maintenance every year or two (brake pads, oil change), you don’t worry much about it. There is no reason why bikes, which are simpler machines than cars, cannot be as safe and as reliable.

      • I’ve never really trusted a new machine–whether bike, car, or computer–until I’ve given it a going-over. With respect to the former, since I tend to buy frames and build them up (I haven’t purchased a complete new bike since the mid-’70s) I generally don’t run into the problems you describe, and I know where the weak points in my ow build are. With cars, it’s a bit of a different matter, but I tend to drive cautiously until I feel out the mechanism.

        Bikes, because they are lightly built, can benefit from a quick inspection every week or so; and in fact, who doesn’t at least check their tires before riding? Cars, heavy, and loaded with redundant systems, can get away with being inspected less often, but even so I make it a point to do a walk-around almost every time I get in, to check the tires windows, mirrors, lights, etc. Of course, this may reflect the fact that my current internal combustion vehicle is 15 years old, cost less than my bike when purchased used, and doesn’t get out all that often. :-)

        Rather than risk riding a poorly-assembled bike, I would make “fit and finish” part of the review–that is, when it arrives, what kind of shape is it in? And if that shape isn’t perfect, what is required to get it there?

        I occurred to me as I banked through a turn at 30 MPH this morning just how little margin for error there is on a bicycle; ignoring odd noises or movements or other evidence of trouble can lead you to a much closer acquaintance with the pavement than is normally desirable.

  5. Jon Blum says:

    I’d add to the checklist: Hold the front wheel and try to turn the handlebars sideways. If the stem is not fully tightened, it could turn independently of the wheel. Handlebar rotating in the stem is bad; stem rotating in the steerer tube – really bad. Might also be worthwhile to check the derailleur limit adjustments before riding. Nobody likes a chain (or worse, rear derailleur) in the spokes.

    • kylecycler says:

      Last time I fell off, that was how it happened – I’d lowered the bars but neglected to fully tighten the stem bolt on a 1” threaded steerer, hit a pothole at night, knocked the front wheel out of line with the bars and down I went. Only upside was, the steering went so wonky that I landed on the grass verge! Got a black eye, but only from the dirt. Entirely my fault; it was an old bicycle given to me by a neighbour and I should have checked and overhauled it properly before I rode it. I’ve since greased the stem wedge and tightened the bolt – properly this time – but I’ve also stripped and rebuilt the rest of the bike. Old or new, it’s the only way to be safe.

    • Frank says:

      When I bought my first mountain bike in the late 80′s, this is exactly what happend.
      Test riding it I went uphill without any signs of the clamp being loose.
      When going downhill suddenly I could turn the bar freely (at one point it was inline with the plane of the wheel) without the front wheel following my actions. Fortunately I wasn’t going very fast and I could somehow manage to bring the bike to a stop. Similar to riding free-handed. And then not because I had to have my hands on the brakes.

      To this day on I don’t trust the bike shops/mechanics around here and hence this creepy experience all the bikes I owned since I built up myself.
      I shouldn’t have visited the shop in the first place, it was named ‘Dr. Cycle & Mr. Bike’.

  6. Nate says:

    I worked in a low/midrange shop for over 10 years and eventually oversaw the bike assembly operation. We had a 42 point assembly checklist and a 22 point check over checklist (to be executed by a second person. That is far and beyond any other shop I’ve worked at or ever heard about. Sadly, many shops employ sub-living wage, low experience workers to assemble bikes as quickly as possible. Very important safety checks are completely forsaken and many more details are missed that would ensure your bike running smoothly for a long time. I shudder to think about the rise of online bike sales where the new owner is responsible for assembly. I watched a YouTube instructional video by one of these online retailers on assembly instructions and it was laughable. Less than 5 minutes long and no mention of grease anywhere.

  7. Nate says:

    Additionally, multi-thousand dollar custom bikes are often built up by the same type of low-experience workers that assemble Surlys, Specializeds and Jamises. One assembler under my watch that I had to remove from my team was also doing assemblies for a fairly reputable and expensive customer builder. Even if your bike is assembled by a well seasoned assembler, it should be rechecked after you’ve put the initial 100 miles on it. Lots of issues can develop during that shakedown period.

  8. Mike J says:

    +1 on handlebar/steerer connection
    Rock front wheel back and forth to check headset play.
    Bounce test for loose fasteners
    Validate torque on crank bolts before first ride.

  9. On my daily commuter I have learned to pay attention to new or strange sounds, too. They often portend potential serious problems. As a side but related note, I often look at current cycling clothing, and wonder if there aren’t better ways to add protective features without adding much weight, discomfort, or cost. Road rash resistant shirts and shorts? Impact management accessories? These will evolve, eventually, probably first tested by brave magazine editors.

  10. KT says:

    I’ve yet to talk to a shop mechanic who uses, either by direction of the store owner, or their own concern, a torque wrench, when working on mid-to-high end bikes. I purchased one at the NAHBS several years ago and it is my ‘right-hand man’ during assembly. One would be amazed at how little 5nM feels by hand tightening. The mechanics consistently report building ‘by feel’. With carbon taking off, I wonder if there is an epidemic of over-tightening fasteners, causing component failure?

    • zundel says:

      Some of us do use torque wrenches: two on my bench. And teach our assistants to use them. Always feel free to ask to see a mechanic’s bench: the tools in easy reach will tell much. And measure and teach spoke tension. The profession changes slowly. It needs to get away from old untested traditions. Research, like BQ publishes, helps.

    • Joel says:

      Of course, with torque wrenches comes the issue of greasing bolts. I’m sure most shops do, but if one doesn’t, then the friction will cause undertightened bolts even using a torque wrench…

  11. singlespeedscott says:

    What disturbs me is the number of cyclists that will not work on their bike, preferring to take it to the shop. Even guy’s I now who can fully strip and rebuild a race car and motorbike motor will not work on their own steed.

    A bicycle doesn’t require an aeronautical degree to maintain, they are relatively simple machines. Even modern ones with hydraulic discs and electronic shifting. Cyclist need not be scared.

    • sb says:

      Funny, I have an aeronautical degree, and I take my bike to the shop for anything more complicated than new brake pads.

      I’m not scared, I’m just terrible at hand-work. I know lots about bikes, and can generally tell what’s wrong, so I can catch errors, but I’m not strong enough or coordinated enough to fix them properly. I spent eight hours trying to install fenders and then couldn’t type without shooting pains for days, and couldn’t ride a bike for almost a week because I couldn’t grip the brakes.

      I don’t trust my hand strength for repairs that could kill me on a fast descent.

  12. ed b says:

    My wife always wants me to have a “professional” build my bikes or do repairs but after 40+ years of riding, I prefer to do it myself and then the newly assembled bike or new part has to earn my trust. Aside from inspection and testing bolt tightness, I spend the first few rides on really rough dirt and gravel roads riding rather slowly to help identify any gross manufacturing defects and installation errors with a vibration. Worth the peace of mind to me because I am not blasting down a mountain at 40+ mph on a bike that someone else built or one that has not slowly earned my trust. Call me chicken but too many bike parts have outright broken on me and sometimes it hurt. Buying top of the line stuff and making sure it is properly installed and maintained is about all I can do to prevent failure although I do ziptie any accessory that could get loose and lodge into the spokes….say like a front headlamp.

    • Dave says:

      I will second the bumpy dirt road test. And zip ties. I would add LockTite to the list. Small bolts holding panniers rattling away on a long tour loosen up over the miles. For some uses, nylock nuts work well.

      • Zip ties and Loctite are no substitute for good design. I have found that poorly designed connections come loose even with Loctite, and well-designed connections stay put without it. My own bike has no Loctite at all, yet not a single bolt has come loose in 3 years and about 20,000 km (12,500 miles) of riding.

  13. Bryan Willman says:

    My only refinement is that I’ve ridden a lot of miles (for me, order 9,000) over the last 6 years on a high end ti bike with a carbon fork. I’m very heavy and “smooth” would not describe my riding style. So they *can* be very good.

    There are also some market realities – you want an off the shelf cross bike? It’s either aluminum or carbon. Various really high end folks will make you a steel or ti one, but it takes weeks and costs real dollars.

    Which means, I suppose, that we should get used to judging carbon forks, and eventually disk brakes, because they’ll be all around us if not on our own bikes.

    Oh, and I raced cars in high end events for years (I was never a high end driver (:-)) and the story about race crews taking cars apart is literally true. And the car you trust the least is a brand new one.

  14. Paul Glassen says:

    Mike Kone supplied my Soma Randonneur with a full build kit – completely unassembled as we had agreed. It was my first new bike in 22 years. But ‘back in the day’ I was used to buying a frame and parts and assembling. The first several hundred miles of trouble-free riding are a testament to the success of my build. Unfortunately, my warily tuned ear keeps picking up unfamiliar sounds made by cassette and nine speed chain that were not part of the much quieter six speed freewheel bikes of the rest of my collection.

  15. Michael says:

    When I set up my bike, I mark the seatpost and stem, with a thin permanent marker, at the point they enter their respective tubes. That way I can tell in the future if they have moved at all, indicating a loosening/ insufficiently tight bolt.

    I check my brakes and tires a lot for safety.

    I need to go over all the bolts on the bike more often I think.

  16. John Hawrylak says:

    You hit on the major items to check. I would only add top periodically tighten the cap screws used for a number of items. They tend to work lose over time.

    • Good point! Cap screws are not a good idea in general, because they use such small bolts. A standard M5 screw uses a 4 mm Allen wrench (or an 8 mm socket for an old-fashioned hex bolt), whereas an M5 cap screw uses a 3 mm Allen wrench. It’s hard to tighten it properly with that small a wrench. In some cases, where you don’t need much torque, you can get away with it, but when I see manufacturers attach fenders with cap screws, I know that they are likely come loose before the test is over. Where possible, I replace them with standard bolts.

      Here is a post on why bolts come loose, and how good design can prevent this from happening.

  17. +1 on handlebar/steerer connection
    Rock front wheel back and forth to check headset play.
    Bounce test for loose fasteners
    Validate torque on crank bolts before first ride.

  18. niggle says:

    Good page here on the subject of mudguard (fender) safety: http://www.ctc.org.uk/article/technical-guide/mudguard-safety

    • The link does provide a useful introduction to fender safety, but there is a lot more to it than that. The Autumn issue of Bicycle Quarterly will have an article on why fenders collapse and how this can be prevented.

      • Michael says:

        What’s the rule for how much wider a fender should be for a certain tire’s width?
        Or should one fit the widest possible fenders the bike will take, regardless?

      • It’s not so much the width, but the distance to the tire. I like to see at least 15 mm of clearance above the tire, and 8-10 mm on the sides. At the fork crown and the chainstays, the clearance can be reduced, since the fender is fixed at those points and unlikely to move closer to the tire.

        Generally, this is easiest to achieve with a fender that is about 40% wider than the tire.

      • niggle says:

        SKS fenders come with Secu-clip safety release mounts http://www.sjscycles.co.uk/sks-secu-clips-for-front-mudguard-stays-per-pair-prod666/ for the front guard which are designed to release the stay to avoid the problem of objects becoimng trapped under flexible fenders and causing them to concertina under the fork and jam the wheel.

        However in the article you state ‘a poorly mounted front fender broke loose and wrapped itself around the front wheel’. This implies that the fender did not become wrapped around the wheel due to an object trapped under it (in the way that Chris Juden of the CTC describes and also this article in German magazine ‘Tour’: https://translate.google.com/translate?sl=de&tl=en&js=y&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.zedler.de%2Fpublikationen%2Ftour%2Fvor-2000%2Feinzelansicht%2Fansicht%2Fgefahr-durch-schutzbleche%2F%3Ftx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D%3D722&edit-text= ) but wrapped round the wheel due to some other cause that I do not understand- what might that be? If a fender ‘broke loose’, e.g. due to a mounting screw working loose at the dropout eyelet, I would have thought it was the same situation as a Secu-clip releasing, and not a significant danger, mostly just a lot of noise.

        No offence intended but I would very much like to understand what other fender jam causes there are that I should try and mitigate against, which have not been identified through the extensive research by Chris Juden, technical officer of the Cyclists Touring Club, over the last 30 years or so?

      • The fender broke loose at the fork crown, dropped down onto the tire, and then was dragged along by the tire as the wheel rotated. The wheel ran over the fender, and then it came back up on the back side. In my case, the carbon fork (later recalled for different reasons) had relatively little clearance, so the fender did not enter the fork crown, but the stay ripped out of the dropout clamp, and the fender moved to the side, where it then dangled as I came to a panic stop.

        In the second case, the same thing happened, but the rider was on a steel fork that had been offered as a replacement for the carbon forks that broke. The fender jammed in the fork crown, and the rider went over the bars.

  19. James P. says:

    A simple “pre-flight” check before riding and cleaning a bike post ride (providing the opportunity to spot cracks/dings and items needing repair etc.) are good habits to cultivate.
    I had a recent sharp reminder against complacency when I took a low speed tumble due to a front quick release not being fastened tightly enough in a newly polished/restored ’80s ALAN fork, losing the front wheel. Recognizing my good fortune, I’ve made a few “adjustments” including adding a few more grams for secure cam-locking quick releases (Campy/Shimano/Mavic) and revising my poor “attitude” towards lawyer-lips. Most importantly though, I now run through a check before heading out on a bike. I hope that others can benefit from my experience and avoid their own “wake-up” call.

    • Jon Blum says:

      James mentioned a “pre-flight” check, and I think this is a great metaphor. Most of us just want to jump on the bike and ride. The same applies to pilots and surgeons, which is why the aviation industry, and increasingly operating rooms, have adopted mandatory use of written checklists to prevent anything from being overlooked. You wouldn’t want to ride off with a loose QR skewer any more than you’d want a surgeon to operate on the wrong body part, would you?
      The other lesson I have learned the hard way is never leave your bike sitting with anything half-tightened, a QR loose, a brake released, etc. If you don’t want to tighten the QR, take the wheel off so you won’t forget later. If you make a habit of leaving the bike in safe, rideable condition at the end of a ride (or dismantled so it’s obviously not rideable), you’re less likely to take off with it in an unsafe condition.

      • I find that if the bike is designed, built and assembled correctly, I don’t need to do “pre-flight” checks any longer. I don’t “pre-flight” check my car either before every ride. Periodically, I may check that the wheel bolts are tight, and of course, I check the tire pressure and fluid levels every month or two… On a bike, I also periodically check tire pressure and whether the wheels are tight (every other week), and the adjustment of the bearings (twice a year), but that is about it. I replace chains on a schedule (every 1000 miles), so I don’t have to check their wear.

  20. John Duval says:

    I have always wondered how many bikes a builder needs to make before they can afford to do things like finite element analysis or strain gage tests. On custom bikes this is obviously impossible at a reasonable price. I suspect these methods are unusual, even with major brands, relying instead on tradition and customer feedback. I am currently talking to various constructuers to build a BQ style steel rando frameset. It gave me confidence when they refused to do some types of seemingly minor tweaks to their design (even some from BQ) because it was outside of what they had experience and confidence doing. Racks and fenders have less of this recent experience based testing and are subject to “modernizing”. Also interesting is how many frame builders rely on Waterford to build their forks, or don’t even offer them.

    On the subject of bolts: why do I need a hex head when it seems that the recommended torque values are so low that the seemingly small wrench is far-far away from stripping? I do toss button heads where I can, but otherwise I haven’t ruined a bolt or driver since buying a torque wrench.

    • If a bolt comes loose, there are two potential causes: 1) the connection was poorly designed or 2) the bolt wasn’t torqued enough. Generally speaking, bolt heads and wrenches are dimensioned so that you end up torquing them correctly without needing a torque wrench. That is why an 8 mm wrench is shorter than a 10 mm wrench…

  21. Jonathan Gehman says:

    It’s a shame to have to call out a bike maker/seller/marketer by name, but if that organization is going to wake up to the reality of the situation, it’s probably going to require that someone stand up on their hind legs and say it out loud. Thanks for doing that. Bikes like Civia’s and others, don’t have to be perennial offenders if the makers decide they don’t want them to be…

    • I was hesitant before calling out Civia, but both the fender incidents described in the post were on Civias (with two different fender designs), as well as the fork recall. When the forks failed, they found out that their supplier had “re-used” a test certificate for a rim brake fork, rather than test the disc brake version. I would hope that a reputable maker would do their own testing, rather than rely on the honesty of a supplier who is selected because they offer the lowest price. Compass Bicycles is a much smaller company, yet we commission all the fatigue testing ourselves. That way, we know that we can trust the results.

      The Civia fenders still haven’t been recalled, despite these serious accidents caused by poor design.

  22. Paul Ahart says:

    Having been in the bike business 28 years, and having worked with many “experienced” as well as trainee mechanics, I’m always amazed at the inability of so many to correctly tighten quick-releases and bolts on racks and fenders. Either they grossly over-tighten, or more frequently under-tighten things. I’ve found quick-release levers that could be released with the nudge of a finger, and some others so tight you needed to lever them with a wrench to release. I personally check the adjustments and tightness of nearly every bolt on nearly every new bike that leaves our shop. Another issue is bearing adjustment: every new bike out of a box contains hubs adjusted grindy-tight(excepting sealed bearings) with little grease. During assembly, it takes only minutes to squirt in a bit more grease and adjust them correctly for smooth operation and good longevity.
    And yet few shops do this. Maybe it’s a time thing; a fellow who worked for, and was trained by me during high school, attended college in Pennsylvania, getting a winter job in a bike shop there. He said mechanics were working practically under a stopwatch, given no time to finesse anything. No wonder so many bikes come out poorly adjusted with components that wear out fast.

  23. Owen says:

    Jan, excellent article–in particular I appreciate the easy tips in regards to checking brakes. Two questions though after reading the above article on loose bolts:

    1. You mention washers can sometimes cause bolts to loosen. Could you please explain why washers are used on crank bolts and occasionally on pedals? Wouldn’t they only cause these critical bolts to come loose?

    2. Years ago, I remember Grant Peterson in a Rivendell Reader recommending beeswax as a substitute for thread locking compound. I’ve used it in photographic applications (heavy tripod head screwed to a tripod) for this purpose with great results but I was always hesitant to use it on my bike. Should this (or any thread locking compound) be used on small bolts for an added layer of safety and how does its function differ from that of grease?

    Also, do you personally grease your crank bolts?

    Cheers,

    Owen

  24. Trazymach84 says:

    Hello Jan. I’ve made a small discovery yesterday. I’ve swapped my heavy steel handlebars for lightweight aluminium ones and after riding 60 miles with the aluminium handlebars I can say there is noticeably less road buzz in the grips.

  25. Dave says:

    Try not to be too enamoured of stainless bolts. They gall far easier than black steel or chromed steel. Fastener quality makes a difference. Bearings too.

  26. Ford Kanzler says:

    Great advise Jan. Things you often see experienced riders doing before they mount up, even after a short rest stop, are testing brakes, spinning the wheels checking tires. Its an excellent safety habit.
    While once working at a bike shop we provided a well-promoted, free, safety check day for any who wanted to bring their bike in. Wow! About one in ten bikes had something clearly and dangerously wrong or that could have caused problems. Worn brake pads and cables where very typical. Badly age-checked (sun-rotted) or worn tires were also pretty common. If a rider doesn’t wrench on their own, they should have their bike shop-checked regularly and also learn the problems to look for.
    Additionally, The shop’s safety check event made lots of new friends. Parts sales and service business resulting from the event more than covered the extra staff time.

  27. niggle says:

    Re the Civia fenders breaking loose at the fork crown: sounds quite poor- was it a fastener coming adrift or the bracket breaking? I always use nyloc nuts or thread lock for fork crown fender mounts.

  28. Wolf says:

    One day, passing the row of Bike-Shaped-Objects at a big-box store, I noticed something about the “road” bikes was striking me as odd-looking. Took me a second, but then I realized that every bike down the row had its forks installed backwards. Every single one, almost a dozen I’d guess. They weren’t just turned around, the handlebars/stems were facing forwards and those that had brakes had them on the back of the fork that was now facing forwards (nothing with cantilever brakes, or else this may have made the error more glaring).
    I went and got a manager and pointed this out, for fear that somebody may get hurt riding those. He told me that they had a new young employee putting them together in the evenings, but nobody else really knew anything about bikes, so there was no way to double-check his work.

    I was back in there a couple of weeks later and went to look at the bikes, and they were all still messed up. I wonder if the adult bikes being in the childrens’ “toy department” has anything to do with the lack of attention given?

    What is most scary about that is that an experienced rider (i.e. somebody that would notice such an egregious error) is not likely to buy a bike there. It would be somebody with little to no experience looking for their first bike.

    • zundel says:

      Sad but true. Some bikes now come out of the box with a sticker indicating correct fork orientation. We joke about it, in a bike shop, but most bikes get sold at Walmart. The majority of bicycle sales go a long way to discourage bicycle ridership. We should do something about that.

  29. when I am on a newly assembled bicycle I ride it slowly around the quite neighborhood looking for problems. I start out in a reasonable gear. not shifting for at least 10 minutes. first I check that the brakes function correctly. Than I try to find any other problems by listening and looking (when stopped) that why I don’t shift for a while. than if every thing checks out I next starting shifting up thru all the gears.
    than I go back to my starting point. I get off and visually check the bicycle over. I grab and try to pull it off the bike to see every thing I installed to see if it not loose. If all checks out back on the road riding faster than after a bit of time I shift again Making sure all is working has I increase speed
    than is out for a 20 mile ride to check the bicycle again Before any serious rides.
    Also before any ride I bounce the bicycle off the pavement, not hard, just a bounce looking for any issues like items that have become loose
    Charles Nighbor

  30. Bill Gobie says:

    Sorry about that slippery tire, Jan. For the curious, it was a Primo Comet. Comets are economical, long lasting, fast tires. But the hard compound is not good for aggressive riding on wet pavement.

    Something not mentioned yet is checking quick releases on disk brake wheels. The unbalanced brake load and vibrations loosens the nut. This has happened to me on a road bike: I spun the front wheel as part of the “pre-flight” check and was appalled to hear a weird grinding and buzzing noise. I thought my SON hub had failed. Peter White tersely advised me to tighten the skewer. That fixed the problem. If the bike had not had a dyno hub that vibrated audibly when loose I might have ridden the bike until the front wheel became dangerously loose.

    • Bill, it’s not your fault the Primo Comets have such poor wet-weather grip. I agree on the quick release – in fact, I prefer to have a through axle on bikes with disc brakes. Even with rim brakes, braking very hard can undo the quick release nut, as we found out during Bicycle Quarterly‘s brake tests.

  31. David Pearce says:

    Wow, this was a great post, generating many interesting comments, and your informative replies, and which I will have to read and reread carefully to make sure I get the full import. Thanks, commentators, and replier!

    I’m sorry to sound like a snob, but I just love metal, especially steel and titanium for bike frames, and I’m not sold on carbon as a frame material. I know they make the fuselage of Boeing’s 787 out of it, although now that I think about it, that skin is riveted to metal ribs (aluminum?). Obviously, Boeing must have done exhaustive testing on the Dreamliner, or they wouldn’t put it in the air, so it CAN be made strong enough (at least for “body”, if not for “frame”).

    I don’t like the way carbon bike frames fail catastrophically, without warning. Makes me nervous. You had that earlier blog report how you helped your friend repair his carbon handlebars with metal, wood and tape. That’s just ridiculous that a handlebar might break. I don’t need that headache. Then one sees failed bike frames from the TdF, but one might slough that off because they were pushed past their limits by athletic giants like Mario Cippolini, etc., when actually the fault is in the material and design and manufacture, and not the strength of the rider.

    But there is this final anecdote. The Campagnolo Chorus Triple-9-Speed Groupset, c. 1998, metal of course, that I bought on eBay for my randonneur project, was described by the seller as coming from a high-end Trek bike, whose carbon frame had to be thrown away, because it was “delaminating”.

    • FWIW, I have seen alloy handlebars fail as well, fortunately (if surprisingly) when folks were “JRA.” It’s possible that they were previously scratched or otherwise damaged, but no matter what bikes and parts are made of, there are nasty failure modes. The more you push a material, the better the engineering and testing you need.

  32. kylecycler says:

    In light of KT’s and Zundel’s comments above, I’ve ordered a Ritchey Multi Torque Key. I should have died a while ago as a result of ridiculously over-tightening the allen bolt on an adjustable stem with a socket wrench (to try to prevent it creaking, even though I’d greased the mating surfaces), to the point where I unknowingly sheared the bolt. I then rode into town, downhill most of the way, with nothing holding the bars on except two halves of a broken bolt. It was only when I was pulling hard up a hill in the town that the bars came off. I skelped my cheek on the tarmac and cut my shin on the front mech, but I was lucky to be alive. My faux pas coincided, to the very hour, with the great racing driver Sir Stirling Moss stepping backwards into an empty lift shaft in his London apartment (mercifully, he only broke his ankles). He described it as “a bloody stupid thing to do,” but I trumped him. Just wondering, though, would 5 Nm, which the Ritchey Torqkey is set to, be enough to prevent a brake cable pulling out of its anchor bolt?

    • I am glad your accident was not even more serious! Stems with removable face plates used to be notorious for having a very fine line between not enough torque, so the bars turn downward when you go over bumps, and so much torque that the threads strip. Make sure you grease the bolts, otherwise, they tend to gall and break before you get enough torque.

      Cable anchor bolt: You need way more than 5 Nm to make sure it doesn’t come loose. It’s perhaps the one bolt where a standard-sized wrench is not quite long enough – you need to tighten them with “significant” force. Some modern brakes use tiny bolts that tighten with spindly 3 mm Allen keys – not a good design at all!

      • kylecycler says:

        I didn’t think 5 Nm would be enough, Jan; I guess the Ritchey Torqkey is more appropriate for tightening stem bolts on a carbon steerer, for example. I’ve learned a lot since that daft trick; it was years ago, I always grease threads now, and I’ve since developed a far better ‘feel’ for torque (even if I learned it the hard way!), although this article gives further food for thought, especially concerning carbon (check out the quote from the FSA technical support manager at the end)…

        http://www.bikeradar.com/gear/article/workshop-why-torque-wrenches-are-invaluable-24917/

        And what you said about tiny anchor bolts – the curse of the weight weenies or just bad engineering. Safety should always be the first principle, right enough.

      • tiny anchor bolts – the curse of the weight weenies or just bad engineering

        Bolts are heavy, but you don’t need many on a bike. Many bike parts from the 1950s are lighter than modern equivalents, despite using appropriately-sized bolts.

    • zundel says:

      The Ritchey makes a nice tool for the builders bench or the travel kit. But 5Nm
      has limited application, and “click” type torque wrenches can go out of
      calibration without notice.

      Adjustable stems have a center pivot and binding bolt. Varies by manufacturer,
      but most of those bolts need 12-15Nm; torque spec usually printed on the part.

      Brake cable anchor bolts without the cable through the bolt take 6-8Nm.

  33. Danny says:

    Before I ride an unfamiliar bike, I straddle the front wheel between my knees and try to twist the stem. I do that ever since I sent someone out on a test ride and they came back bloodied because the stem was loose. I had assembled the bike so I was sure it was safe. I did not know that during my days off, it was given to a film crew for a commercial shoot. They had tampered with it and when I got back it was exactly where it was when I left. If something has been out of your sight, don’t assume it’s the same as when you left it unless you live alone.

  34. Dave says:

    I’ve been on a number of club rides where rear derailleurs have hit the spokes. In the two recent cases where I had a chance to talk to the riders (of the $5000+ carbon chariots), they had no idea what a “limit screw” was.

    People have become accustomed to black-box devices that cannot be maintained by the layman, if at all. Most bikes are still an exception, but they are often ridden by consumers hindered by the helpless mindset engendered by complex, non-servicable devices.

    • If you can’t fix something, you don’t own it. Rather, it owns you.

    • Jon Blum says:

      It’s great if cyclists know how to fix their own bikes, and it’s certainly not a good idea to go on a long ride in a remote area if you can’t fix a flat. On the other hand, I know plenty of cyclists who are unwilling or unable to learn any repair skills more complex than changing a tube, and I don’t want to give them the message that they shouldn’t ride just because they are mechanically inept or uninformed. Clubs and groups are a great place for us to support each other and learn (or teach) some basic skills. Since I like to ogle bikes, and am slow enough to often be in the back of the pack, I get many opportunities to fix things. I have yet to be sorry that I stopped to help someone with a mechanical problem. In the best case, I get them out of a jam, they learn something, and I get to feel good about it.

      • I think both sentiments are valid. On the one hand, as long as you know how to fix a flat, you should ride your bike and not worry about it. On the other hand, understanding the workings of your machine can make your involvement with it more meaningful, and knowing how to fix eventual problems allows you to embark on adventures without undue worry.

        In any case, it’s a matter of degrees. I don’t know anybody who can fix a broken BB spindle or a cracked frame on the road… I prefer to ride bikes that have proven reliable and don’t need fixing. That allows me to carry a minimum of tools and spares.

  35. TobinH says:

    Well, first of all I look it over and see if there are the words “Velo-Orange” anywhere on it. If there is, I replace these parts with those that say “Nitto”.

    More seriously, cantilever brakes have several points of possible failure, so if the bike has them I make sure the touch the rim properly, don’t pull out, etc. That one has caught me out before – pads diving under the rim, straddle wires pulling out – so it created an impression.

  36. Mitch Hull says:

    Yet another excellent from the best bike blogger. Great community, too. Many thanks all around.

    Does anyone have a list of suggested torques?
    Could especially use one for the more obscure items like Honjo fender attachment points (just rebuilt my Boxer randonneuse after chroming and the brake bridge bolt came loose). I have done a poor job of collecting all the Campy assembly manual torques I’ve purchased over the years–the workbench is not office-friendly (usually a good thing).

    Thanks everyone and especially Jan.
    Mitch (#2)

    • I don’t use a torque wrench. Well-designed bolts have heads to fit wrenches that are dimensioned to provide the appropriate torque. That is why an 8 mm wrench is shorter than a 10 mm wrench… There are some exceptions, which is why there are special wrenches. For example, the traditional crank bolt wrenches are relatively thin, so you don’t overtorque the crank bolts.

      On a Ritchey stem, I recently saw a smart design. Since the clamp bolts for the faceplate thread straight into the aluminum, rather than into a steel helicoil, they were M6 instead of the usual M5. However, to prevent overtorquing the bolts, the heads were 4 mm rather than the 5 mm that you usually find on M6 bolts. Smart – with a relatively small 4 mm wrench, you are less likely to overtorque the bolts.

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