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Safety of old aluminum handlebars?

Old 04-15-21, 03:49 PM
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philbob57
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Safety of old aluminum handlebars?

The thread on the broken brake lever spooked me. I got my handlebars just short of 40 years ago. They came from my lbs's parts bin. I don't remember whether they were a take-off or used part. No markings are visible, but I'm pretty sure they're manufactured in Japan, which I take as a positive for late '70s-very early '80s. There are a few scratches in the areas that aren't covered by tape - cotton tape from 1981-2001, Cork-type tape since then. I rode maybe 14,000-18,000 miles 1981-1991, a few hundred miles 1992-2012, 7,000-8,000 miles 2013-2020.

Any thoughts on the level of risk I run by continuing to use these 'bars?

Thanks in advance.
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Old 04-15-21, 04:09 PM
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I use old bars all the time, unless there's some obvious accident damage. Never had a problem. YMMV, though.
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Old 04-15-21, 04:35 PM
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The integrity of old aluminum handlebars is dependent on an assortment of conditions. Deep scratches, caused by poor installation into the handlebar or due to crash damage is one concern. How hard the bars were used is a second factor. Some bars, that have come my way, were used hard by a strong rider. That rider could and did actually bend the bars during use. Corrosions can cause concern, also. The original quality of the handlebar also dictates is ability to survive the stresses of use. This handlebar, found on a late sixties entry level Torpado is of cheap design, was used hard resulting in being bent and clamped too hard into the steering stem. I cut them in half so that no body (meaning me) would be tempted to use them ever again.

As the picture depicts, the bars are bent down in the middle and in at each end, suggesting hard use from a strong rider...



The pictures above and following show an over clamped mounting area. That, in my opinion makes them very suspect, when safety and structural integrity are the concerns...


Finally, the bars were originally fitted to an entry level Torpado, suggesting the handlebar to be of lower quality to begin with...


I hated to do it but decided to install an eighties Sakae Road Champion handlebar that was in great shape and wider (older bars are often a bit too narrow for my liking)than the ones originally mounted to the Torpado...


The result turned out looking pretty good and I am looking forward to test riding this old Italian steed...
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Old 04-15-21, 04:43 PM
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There's a lot to be said for (new) Nitto stems and bars on old bikes . . .
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Old 04-15-21, 05:04 PM
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Do you change your bar tape reasonably often? When you do, is there white stuff underneath indicating corrosion?
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Old 04-15-21, 05:20 PM
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randyawa pegged it in his post above. But, also keep in mind aluminum anything that sees repeated stresses, no matter how small, WILL break eventually. Aluminum is a metal without a "fatigue limit". This means all stresses progress the metal to eventual fatigue failure. With fatigue failure, often, the metal part simply breaks as you are JRA or doing a routine maneuver.

Handlebars get stressed every time you ride them - by your weight on your hands, by road shock and vibration, by your pushing and pulling to go faster or tackle that harder hill. They are unsupported cantilevers, meaning that all that supports them is the clamp at the stem. The bending load is highest there and decreases linearly to your hands where it is zero. Typically the first inch and a half are reinforced with either a large diameter butt or a sleeve. They break (typically) right at the clamp edge or at the end of the butt/sleeve (or at a drilled cable hole outboard of the butt).

Back to my first paragraph - even the very best, high quality, conservatively designed handlebars treated always with kid gloves will break. Eventually. This isn't a maybe. It may not happen in your lifetime. But it will happen. The question to you, the rider is "am I willing to accept this happening while I am riding it?". And "do I trust it?" If you answer no to both, take off that part. Put on a replacement that qualifies for at least one "yes". (I have a beautiful TTT Superleggero bar of my favorite bend that looks perfect minus little cosmetic scratches but it had seen 20,000 miles on my Mooney, a couple of hard crashes (that to my knowledge didn't affect them but who knows). Wrapped in tennis racquet style fine leather. I was doing an overhaul for other stuff and it was "I cannot say yes to 'do I trust them' and they came off. Sad.

I consider handlebars as part of the "sacred link" between the road and the hands that support the top half of my body when I am riding. Failures anywhere on that link can have life altering consequences. (That "link": front wheel including tire, fork, steerer, stem, handlebars, brake levers, the front of the frame from several inches behind the headtube to and including the headtube.

I had an aluminum failure in that path and saw those consequences. You don't want what I've lived through. (If it were to happen to me again, I hope I do not live through it.) In reference to this thread, when I have any doubts, that part comes off. Two years ago I was riding the two miles to the local velodrome just to watch the races. Felt the right side of my handlebars (picked up used, no idea of its history but it was my favorite bend and seemed in good shape) give a little too much as I climbed the fix gear up an easy climb. In the parking lot, pushed the bars and thought I could see a tiny crack right next to the clamp. While watching the races I wrote a note on a napkin saying I didn't trust my handlebars to get me home and could anyone offer me a ride? Gave this to a racer about to cross the track to the infield and asked him to give this to the announcer. Afterwards, another racer walked up and offered me a ride home. The thought of squeezing the brakes to stop at the bottom of the hill and stop sign gave me the creeps. BTDT.
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Old 04-15-21, 05:22 PM
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Sorry I spooked you with the broken brake lever thread, that was mine. I did learn to be more diligent about checking over old aluminum parts though. As part of a refurbishing, Iíve always looked parts over carefully when I first buy a bike, after a while though, Iíd usually just take it for granted that parts would hold up. Now Iíll be periodically inspecting the stem, bars, seat post, calipers, levers, cranks, rims, flanges, anything that can cause me to lose control suddenly if a part fails. For the most part, Iím still going to run with old parts but Iíll be much more cautious about that and replace anything questionable. Sometimes even if I donít see damage.

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Old 04-15-21, 05:40 PM
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Originally Posted by randyjawa View Post
I hated to do it but decided to install an eighties Sakae Road Champion handlebar that was in great shape and wider (older bars are often a bit too narrow for my liking)than the ones originally mounted to the Torpado...


The result turned out looking pretty good and I am looking forward to test riding this old Italian steed...
My all time favorite bend! An exact copy of the TTT's bend that I call the "V". Basically a "V" on its side with the point radiused. By contrast, the Cinelli bars are "U" shaped with the tops and bottoms close to parallel.) I wish I could find a new Nitto "V" shape as opposed to the (otherwise very nice! but Cinelli styled) 115.

My '77 Fuji Pro that I raced and loved had that shape by Nitto. I knew nothing about handlebars except that bike fit! It was a dream to ride all day. My hands loved everything except the smallish hoods. (And being 24 yo, in super shape, hard as nails and not yet being educated to anything else, those hoods didn't slow me down!) Next year I was collecting parts for my to be custom while i was still a bike shop employee. Found really nice high end new TTT bars and stem. Width was right on and the shape looked like what I had been racing. Plunked down the bucks, took them home and placed the bars against the Fuji's. Exactly the same shape. No question what-so-ever what Nitto copied. I haven't done the side-by-side with the slightly later SR bars but my bet (and my hands say) that SR copied the same source. No complaints! Dozens of those bars in sitting in Portland bike shops as I write this! Many in my width. Just the issue of unknown histories. Hence Nitto - please make a healthy run of those bars again!
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Old 04-15-21, 05:43 PM
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Originally Posted by Pcampeau View Post
... Sometimes even if I donít see damage.
Yup. If you make it a practice to always replace aluminum parts before they break, you will never have an issue with them. It's really that simple.
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Old 04-15-21, 06:07 PM
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I treat bars and stems like I do any other consumable. Nitto makes beautiful stuff that looks right on old bikes.
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Old 04-15-21, 07:51 PM
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just wanted to add one consideration... my impression is that newer handlebars, i.e. heat treated or extra light, will probably fail in a more abrupt manner than older, heavier gauge bars.
There's something to be said for a handlebar that visibly droops before it fails!

Steve in Peoria
(btw, I've got some spare Cinelli 64 bars, in case anyone is looking for some)
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Old 04-15-21, 09:30 PM
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Fuhgeddaboudit!

But come on. Change your bar tape every leap year and look for corrosion.
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Old 04-15-21, 09:40 PM
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In all my years riding and working on bikes I've only had one handle bar failure, and that failed while loading it into my truck.
The right side broke 1" below the brake lever clamp, and it broke while lifting the bike over the side of the truck bed on an early 70's Gitane I had been riding all that day.
I lifted the bike into the truck by the left fork blade and seat tube, I reached over and grabbed the right side of the bars to turn the front wheel to the left and the bar broke inside the cloth bar tape and just dangled there like an ornament on a tree.

I have broken a few stems though, I've snapped two older hollow french stems and one newer SR stem. The older stems broke off in the middle, the SR cracked across the clamp and simply let the bars flip downward. None caused an accident but the first stem broke while trying to stop hard to avoid an open door, I was almost at a dead stop when it broke, and I gripping the bars pretty hard to lay on the brakes in a hurry, so all I did was sort of slide off the seat and hopped to a stop on my feet. The second one broke slowly, and I was able to nurse it back home without a complete failure. All of these were in the 70's and early 80's.
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Old 04-15-21, 10:55 PM
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Originally Posted by steelbikeguy View Post
just wanted to add one consideration... my impression is that newer handlebars, i.e. heat treated or extra light, will probably fail in a more abrupt manner than older, heavier gauge bars.
There's something to be said for a handlebar that visibly droops before it fails!

Steve in Peoria
(btw, I've got some spare Cinelli 64 bars, in case anyone is looking for some)
+1. The old bars of ordinary aluminum and thick walls often bent first. Sometimes fail suddenly with a huge bend/kink but stay in one piece. I was riding some old (maybe late '60s? GB bars on my beater/winter trainer fix gear; Boston racing days. March ride. Dropped the front wheel into a bottomless pothole with a car beside me. Wheel made it through fine so I just kept riding. 5 miles later I did a routine glance down. Something was VERY wrong! Bar had a 30 degree downward kink at the sleeve. But no crash, no loss of control and I rode about 10 miles to my training partner's house, checked the train schedule, than another mile or two to the station. A final mile or two in downtown Cambridge to my apartment. I doubt any new bar would allow that.
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Old 04-16-21, 12:03 AM
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The "will they break" thing is always a possibility but, in my mind, if there is no evidence of bending, over clamping or gouging, then I feel OK with using the handlebar.

Here's a question for all interested in this thread. Is a swagged handlebar stronger than an unswagged one? The swag, if that is what it is called, looks like this...
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Old 04-16-21, 12:22 AM
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Haven't had any break, but have seen significant corrosion on aluminum out here given the salty sea air.

If there's intense scoring at the clamp area or powdery white dust coming off with the bar tape, it's a no go.

Decent bars are too cheap to risk my safety. Ego (or wallet) takes a back seat with this one.
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Old 04-16-21, 02:58 AM
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Originally Posted by randyjawa View Post
Here's a question for all interested in this thread. Is a swagged handlebar stronger than an unswagged one? The swag, if that is what it is called, looks like this...
Um, no it doesn't. That's a sleeve - a separate bit of tube slipped over the bar and crimped in place before the bar is bent.

Swaging (the swage is spelt with a trailing E) is a process where an existing bit of metal - often tubing - is formed into a different shape. No extra material is added.

As for relative strength, there is no easy answer. The thicknesses of the bar and sleeve (if there is one), the alloy used, the heat treatment (if any), the surface finish, the age, the simple width of the bars, all will have significant effects on bar strength; not to mention the type of stem clamp, any nicks or scoring or previous damage, the weight and riding style of the user...whether is is sleeved or swaged is likely immaterial.

EDIT: here's a pic of the bar you probably meant:



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Old 04-16-21, 06:48 AM
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I'm gravitating towards new bars and stems on the regular use fleet. I don't ride in hilly areas much but in my limited experience, a 40mph down hill run is not the time to wonder about your gear.
Tootling around locally with not a lot of hills, its easy to keep speeds under 25 and remain in the saddle.
So closer to home, I'm fine with riding older component's that I don't know the history of.

Originally Posted by 79pmooney View Post

I consider handlebars as part of the "sacred link" between the road and the hands that support the top half of my body when I am riding. Failures anywhere on that link can have life altering consequences. (That "link": front wheel including tire, fork, steerer, stem, handlebars, brake levers, the front of the frame from several inches behind the headtube to and including the headtube.
While it wasn't my original plan, the 650b conversion I have long been collecting parts for, has ended up with just about every part of the front end being new or NOS component's. Bit of a plumbers nightmare ascetically, but I'm planning on putting some miles on this one.
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Old 04-16-21, 08:01 AM
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The brake levers lasted decades even though it was a terrible design. THe cutouts in the lever were a bad idea, probably conceived by a product manager without a background in engineering.

Aside from massive miles or known abusive riding, the one thing that would lead me to not trust an old set of handelbars is if they are of the generation when someone thought 'aero' cable routing should go through a hole in the bars, instead of just under the tape. THe holes were drilled into bars that were otherwise not designed to have a hole, and so, just like those brake levers, should not be considered structurally sound.
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Old 04-16-21, 08:44 AM
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I'm still using a Cinelli bar I bought in 1983. It's been on 3 bikes and has over 150,000 miles on it. All temps. and weather conditions. I don't think twice about it. I do replace the bar tape (Cinelli cork) every 10,000 miles.
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Old 04-16-21, 01:03 PM
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I'm not an engineer this is just my opinion. for Alumimium (yes the English version) its called "work hardening" at least that's what we were taught in college and tech training in the UK, this would be why an Aluminium framed bike becomes harsh after a certain amount of use. The factor of using something made form this material makes it flex and work harden ( get stiffer) eventually leading to failure. So for me personally i will asses the bike that i buy used for how much usage and mileage. when i buy i used bike i put it on the stand and give it a good look over.

it is worth considering the bars as a failure point though for sure.
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Old 04-16-21, 06:13 PM
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All good info, thanks guys! Subscribed.
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Old 04-16-21, 06:31 PM
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Aluminum bars started in serious production in the early 1930s. I have ridden bars from that era without one whit of concern.

The only thing that concerns me are visible stress risers. Other than that, I consider the risk as not worth the trouble.
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Old 04-16-21, 08:22 PM
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Ask these questions:
  • Is it obviously bent? No? Continue.
  • Are their any obvious stress marks on it that are not from production? No? Continue.
  • Is there pitting on the surface of the bar from sweat? No? Continue.
  • Is it sleeved? Yes? Likely to be a bit stronger than rolled aluminum. Continue.
Side note: It's probably not worth a hill of beans, but there are a bazillion Cinelli Giro D'Italia and sleeved SR Road Champions out there, not that many reports of failure - so if your bars pass all these checks and happen to be one of those two, you're probably pretty well off.

-Kurt
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Old 04-17-21, 12:48 PM
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Thanks for the info. As it happens, it's new tape time, so I'll inspect the bars closely when I take the old tape off. I know what I'll do if it looks suspicious, but if it doesn't? It might be time for the bars to match my Nitto Technomic stem. But then there's always the concern that the old part could be better than the new one....

Pcampeau, You didn't spook me. The new-to-me info that aluminum can break without warning did.
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