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Old 09-20-12, 06:50 AM   #1
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Steel frame failing catastrophically? Does it happen?

Every time somebody asks on this forum whether a bent steel frame can be recovered, the responses are about 80-20 that the bike is scrap/you'll face plant/only a pro frame builder can repair that/you're practically dead already if you use that bike. Few people seem to think steel can be bent back. Wondering if this response is based on actual experience or most people here are just extremely risk averse. In my time in the bike community I have never heard first hand of a steel frame failing catastrophically and causing a dangerous wreck. In fact, I've encountered plenty of people riding compromised frames with their faces intact.

Care to share any first hand stories? Or is it all hearsay?
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Old 09-20-12, 07:23 AM   #2
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I had a steel frame separate where the top tube went into the head tube. I didn't wreck, but that was just luck.
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Old 09-20-12, 07:40 AM   #3
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Frame failures do not usually cause a serious accident. Fork failures are a completely different story.
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Old 09-20-12, 07:44 AM   #4
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Low end steel bikes fail at poorly brazed joints, relatively often (compared to the small number of total frame failures). On these, it's common for both brazed head tube joints to fail together, which going back almost 50 years was a leading contributor to the CPSC getting involved with bikes.

Failures of repaired steel frames are rarer and rarely, if ever, sudden or catastrophic. Key factors which determine the likelihood of a break are the material, with high strength tubing like Reynolds or Columbus tubing more likely to crack, and whether the tube has been buckled or just bent.

Over the years many of my friends have crashed their high end road bikes getting the characteristic buckle under the downtube. We used to pull these straight and the bikes could be ridden for a long time (usually years) before a crack would form.

I had a friend Marty who was riding such a crashed and repaired bike which he wouldn't part with because it was custom built and expensive. For years, we used to remind him to get it retubed before the DT cracked. One day a few of were out on a ride, and someone next to Marty though he saw a crack forming, told Marty who having been pestered so long about it, responded "Yeah, yeah, enough already". This went on for a few minutes with all of us riding next to him trying to get him to stop, but he wouldn't bite. Suddenly "PING" and the tube parted, as we watched the wheelbase lengthen and the frame lowered to the ground, but no injury because the toptube held things together.

Over the years I've seen more of these broken D/T & bent top tube steel frames, but I've never heard of a single instance where a buckled downtube failure caused an injury.
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Old 09-20-12, 07:51 AM   #5
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Many people on this forum are clueless when it comes to mechanics and technical discussion. Someone recently had a little scratch in the rim, and was being told that it was too risky to ride and needed a new rim. So, take the replies you see here with a grain or 2 of salt and skepticism. The mechanics forum has a much higher percentage of knowledgeable members, and after a bit, it's pretty obvious who makes sense, and who does not.
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Old 09-20-12, 08:06 AM   #6
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I've had a dropout separate from the chain stay while on a tour. Fortunately it happened while going slow and no bad wreck ensued. Hitchhiked into Monterey, had a metal shop tig weld the joint for thirty bucks, and finished the tour.
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Old 09-20-12, 08:07 AM   #7
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Someone recently had a little scratch in the rim, and was being told that it was too risky to ride and needed a new rim.

Wait, what?

I must have died several times already if that's correct....
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Old 09-20-12, 09:10 AM   #8
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Wait, what?

I must have died several times already if that's correct....
Me too
There's a train of thought that if a part of your bike is not at the exact spec as designated at the factory, then it's unsafe to ride.
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Old 09-20-12, 09:40 AM   #9
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I keep seeing "....or you'll die" and similar warnings of impending injury here in the forum. The reality is that serious injury due to mechanical failure of any kind is very rare. The vat majority of injuries or deaths are from 2 main causes; rider error - excess speed, loss of control, misjudged turns, and similar nonsense, and from auto accidents (some of which are caused by rider error).

Anyone who's worked in an urban shop can confirm how forgiving bikes are safety wise. Large numbers are ridden with bent forks, buckled frames, bent or twisted wheels, one or no brakes to speak of, and every imaginable kind of mechanical or safety issue, and still there are few injuries.

I'm not saying we should all be fatalistic and ignore hazards, but most so-called hazardous mechanical conditions can be kept reasonably safe simply by keeping an eye on them for changes.
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Old 09-20-12, 10:14 AM   #10
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Steel is a more forgiving material compared to aluminum or carbon fiber when it comes to yielding. As the previous posters have indicated from their experiences, steel would generally deform before ultimately fracturing at the crack.
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Old 09-20-12, 10:20 AM   #11
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I have had a steel handle bar pull apart at the stem while I was pulling a great wheely.
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Old 09-20-12, 10:35 AM   #12
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I've had a catastrophic failure of the steel steerer tube on the fork of our tandem. It separated right at the lower headset race with the result that the front wheel and fork separated from the rest of the bike and the bottom of the headtube impacted the pavement. Fortunately we weren't going very fast - just coming to the top of a hill. But I still hit the ground pretty hard and have some minor, but lasting, scars on the palm of my left hand (wasn't wearing gloves), knuckles of my right hand, and on my chin. My wife (stoker) was uninjured. Examination of the break showed that there had been some wear just over the bearing race and I suspect one of the balls cracked and a fragment was being ground against the steerer tube at that location.

The other failure I've had on a steel bike was at the weld of the seat stay. That just resulted in a slight shift of the wheel and the tire started rubbing against the chain stay. No crash but I started walking home when a pickup truck driver offered me a lift.

Both bikes were repaired and are still in service 36 and 14 years later respectively. The steerer tube on the tandem was replaced by a local framebuilder (Colin Laing) and he also reshaped and repaired the bottom of the head tube. The single bike was shipped back to the manufacturer and repaired under warranty.
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Old 09-20-12, 10:56 AM   #13
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Because of its high tensile strength and yield point, a steel frame will have to be so badly made (like brazing material missing at the joints) or have really bad previous damage (torn, collapsed or cracked tubes) to fail catastrophically/suddenly. Otherwise, a rider will usually get enough warning soon enough to stop the ride and prevent an accident.

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Old 09-20-12, 12:52 PM   #14
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I remember an incident back when I was about 12 and we were jumping our bikes on a makeshift BMX track. A friend was gunning towards one rather high dirt ramp that had been dug when at the last minute he bailed off the bike, sending it airborne without a rider. I'll never forget as we watched the bike sail through the air and saw the head tube separate from the frame upon hitting the ground. Good thing he bailed on the jump because he would have bit it hard on that landing.

The frame separating probably was mostly due to two factors: 1. It was a Huffy. 2. A few minutes before the jump he had decided to see how fast he could ride square into a brick wall.
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Old 09-20-12, 12:57 PM   #15
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I remember an incident back when I was about 12 and we were jumping our bikes on a makeshift BMX track. ..... I'll never forget as we watched the bike sail through the air and saw the head tube separate from the frame upon hitting the ground. ....

The frame separating probably was mostly due to two factors: 1. It was a Huffy. 2. A few minutes before the jump he had decided to see how fast he could ride square into a brick wall.
Odds are that it failed at the butt brazed head tube joints, These were standard practice on low end bikes, and not at all tolerant of abuse. Also it was common for low end companies to sell BMX lookalikes that weren't built for actual BMX use. This still happens today, and they get away with it via a small disclaimer decal on the frame.
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Old 09-20-12, 01:17 PM   #16
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and after a bit, it's pretty obvious who makes sense, and who does not.

What a hurtful thing to say....................................
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Old 09-20-12, 01:27 PM   #17
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What a hurtful thing to say....................................
Not at all. The beauty of his statement is that those who maybe should feel hurt won't ever know it..
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Old 09-20-12, 01:41 PM   #18
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I managed to add a brazed on patch on a front end damaged down tube ripple,

in an old bike I had .. added more steel.

brazing is a good skill to get.
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Old 09-20-12, 01:50 PM   #19
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Low end steel bikes fail at poorly brazed joints, relatively often (compared to the small number of total frame failures). On these, it's common for both brazed head tube joints to fail together,

I saw that on several bikes in the 70s, but never with a bike carrying a well known brand name. Never saw it result in a crash though.
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Old 09-20-12, 01:54 PM   #20
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Not at all. The beauty of his statement is that those who maybe should feel hurt won't ever know it..
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning...3Kruger_effect
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Old 09-20-12, 08:41 PM   #21
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Not at all. The beauty of his statement is that those who maybe should feel hurt won't ever know it..
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But................that would mean........................

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Old 09-20-12, 08:53 PM   #22
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I think a high-end steel frame with a buckle is a real risk to ride. They do form cracks, and those cracks will grow. Cheap steel buckled frames have a lot more material and aren't as likely to crack Nobody is going to inspect for cracks on a regular basis.
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Old 09-21-12, 01:36 AM   #23
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Care to share any first hand stories? Or is it all hearsay?
Haven't seen may failures where there's an obvious link from a previous impact damage. What I've got is mostly usage related.
There's one regularly ridden bike by my train station which has had the top tube bent down with a good 4-6" that is still holding together. Don't know the mileage though, it might just go a block or two.

Lessee....
- I've had one seat tube fail mid-shaft while JRA. Turned out there was a foam plug down there, probably to prevent water from getting into the BB. As a result, the tube rusted out at that point. The bike had signalled that there was something wrong by the extra flex in the frame causing the rear wheel to rub at every pedal stroke for a few minutes before complete separation occurred.
- My brother had a threaded steerer tube come apart between top race and locknut, but by leaning on the bars he maintained sufficient control to bring the bike to a safe stop.
- a co-worker had a dropout separate from the chainstay on a high-mileage bike. He also managed a safe stop. Stick welded it back together and has logged plenty of miles since.
- a friend had an aluminium steerer tube fail inside the head tube. Would have turned nasty if he had pulled a wheelie. Can't think of what, apart from some material flaw or bad scratches from assembly to initiate such a failure.
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Old 09-21-12, 07:58 AM   #24
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I've seen 2 or 3 not high end steel frames suddenly become "suspension" (breaking the downtube), but none had consequences to the rider.
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Old 09-21-12, 08:39 AM   #25
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Every time somebody asks on this forum whether a bent steel frame can be recovered, the responses are about 80-20 that the bike is scrap/you'll face plant/only a pro frame builder can repair that/you're practically dead already if you use that bike. Few people seem to think steel can be bent back. Wondering if this response is based on actual experience or most people here are just extremely risk averse. In my time in the bike community I have never heard first hand of a steel frame failing catastrophically and causing a dangerous wreck. In fact, I've encountered plenty of people riding compromised frames with their faces intact.

Care to share any first hand stories? Or is it all hearsay?
The problem with bending a steel frame back isn't that steel won't bend but that the round tubes are no longer round. The strength of a round tube comes from its roundness. If you are riding a bike that has bent top and/or down tubes, you are just asking for failure at some point when you least expect it. Just because the bike is steel doesn't mean that it is impervious to failure.

As for failure modes of different materials, nearly everyone has them wrong. I've broken aluminum and steel frames. I've also broken axles, pedal axles, cranks, and rims. Nearly everyone will state that the aluminum will just shatter like glass and the steel will bend for a good country mile before it breaks. Nothing could be further from the truth. The steel frames, steel axles and steel pedal gave no warning of failure and the breaks were sudden and complete breaks...kinda like glass shattering. Luckily the frame breaks were at places where frame failure wouldn't result in crashes (dropouts and chainstays) but the failure was catastrophic, i.e. sudden and complete. The pedals just sheared off.

This makes sense if you realize that steel is a rather brittle material. Steel is hard and has a high elastic modulus, i.e. it resists bending. It will bend but if you push it too far it will fracture rather than tear.

The aluminum frames, aluminum cranks and aluminum rims I've broken have all given warning of impending failure. They creak and groan. The creaking and groaning are due to cracks forming but the edges of the cracks propagate by tearing the material. Again this makes sense when you realize that aluminum is a soft material. Because it is soft, it tears rather than fractures.

Finally, people just aren't sensible sometimes. There are, literally, millions of bikes out there that aren't bent, aren't compromised and can be had for a song. It's penny wise and pound foolish to ride a bike that has a compromised frame and compromised handling because you want to save a little money today but are willing to spend a whole lot more tomorrow for a doctor.
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