Saturday, October 7, 2017

Suicide Components: Death By Bicycle

Spend enough time talking with vintage bike nuts, and you'll start to think that cyclists are a morbid lot. It's not that bicycling is an especially dangerous activity (car-centric folks would disagree, but it's really no more dangerous than many other physical activities - skiing anyone?). Listening to us talk about bikes and components, you'll find a lot of parts that have been dubbed "death" this and "suicide" that.

It's kind of a fun topic, and probably worth a look at the parts and how they got their reputations.

Suicide Shifters: Sometimes parts take on these morbid nicknames because they are risky to use, maybe because they have developed a reputation for breaking at inopportune moments. That is NOT true of these, however. There's really nothing suicidal about "suicide shifters," and as I understand it, it's really only in the U.S. that they have the name. Suicide shifters are derailleurs (usually front units, though not always) that are operated by a relatively large/long lever that is often located between the rider's legs, or anywhere vaguely in that general vicinity.

Simplex "suicide shifter" on an old Falcon (found on the CABE).
Retired framebuilder Dave Moulton had an interesting article about them on his blog some years ago that is worth a read.

There are a few brands and varieties of these front derailleurs - many of them French, and many of them made or used through the '50s and '60s. Some worked by twisting the handle on the lever, or by pushing it forward/back, or in/out. There's not really anything particularly dangerous about them (certainly no more dangerous than the big saw-toothed chainring within inches of one's calves and ankles), but perhaps American men are/were more paranoid about reaching between their legs to shift than their European counterparts?

"Suicide Shifter" on an old Indian.
Actually, I'd say it's likely that the origin of the name comes from vintage motorcycles. It was not uncommon for old Harley-Davidson, Indian, and other similar American bikes to have a big shift lever next to the gas tank, with the shift knob located somewhere between the rider's knees -- though again, there was nothing inherently dangerous about that, either. I assume there were probably a few jokes about potentially being impaled, or maybe castrated by the shifter in the event of a crash, and riders dubbed them "suicide shifters" as a result (though I suppose they could just as easily have called them "castration levers"?) and bicyclists probably saw the similarity and took the name.

People of my generation probably have fond memories of this old beauty:

1968 Schwinn Orange Krate
As a kid in the early '70s, I and all my friends lusted after the Schwinn "Krate" bikes with their big Stik Shift on the top tube. That was where I first heard the expression "suicide shifter" because everyone talked or joked about the possibility of losing our future manhood on the stick. The industry safety forces must have taken it seriously, because they eventually got rid of the big shifters. When Schwinn re-issued the Krate bikes in the 1990s, one detail they conspicuously omitted was the Stik Shift. No doubt the CPSC would never approve of that component today.

Cinelli "death pedals" (photo from Velobase)
Death Pedals: Usually refers to Cinelli M-71 clipless pedals. Again, the nickname of this item is pretty misleading, as I highly doubt anybody ever died using these. Introduced in either 1970 or '71 (the model name "M-71" would seem to indicate the latter), these were one of the first clipless pedals on the market. Unlike the LOOK pedals of the mid '80s (and later Time, Shimano SPD, and many others) with their hands-free engagement and release, the Cinelli pedals had a sliding lever that had to be activated to get out of the pedals.

To get into them, the rider would line up the cleat and slide it between the channels on the sides of the pedal, then move the lever which would pop up a pin that would lock the cleat securely in place. I'm sure the perception was that once locked in, there wasn't any easy getting out of the pedals in an emergency. I guess one could say they "hung on like death"? Understand, however, that at this same time, many riders were strapping in with leather straps cinched tight over slotted cleats, and it wasn't so easy to get out of those in a hurry, either. Both systems still required that the rider reach down and either loosen the strap or slide the lever to get out.

It's also worth noting that (as far as I know) the Cinelli pedals were really intended for track use, not road, which is a very different kind of riding environment. I mean, it's not as if one should need to disengage from these pedals in a hurry to avoid being nailed by a taxi.

Lambert Death Fork: Here's an item that did actually get its nickname because of a bad reputation for breaking (though again, I'm not sure anyone ever actually died as a direct result). The Lambert bicycles from England in the early '70s were an interesting attempt to offer high-performance bikes at a reasonable price. Besides having a lot of unique brand-specific components, the bikes were notable for having a high-tech weight-saving aluminum fork.

The Lambert "death fork" (photo from ClassicRendezvous)
The problem was that the fork was poorly engineered. It had a one-piece aluminum crown and legs attached to a steel steerer, held together by a couple of hollow pins and some well-meaning prayers. After some reports of breaking, the company slightly redesigned the attachment point (with one pin instead of two?), which wasn't enough to solve the issue. Financial problems at the corporate level didn't help any, and with new backers the company became Viscount, which also ran into financial difficulties and was purchased by Yamaha (maker of musical instruments and motorcycles), which conducted a full recall of the forks. I understand they were replaced by a better-engineered aluminum fork that featured a threaded and bonded joint between the crown and the steerer.

I've read that the number of broken forks was only about 1% of about 30,000 bikes equipped with them, which doesn't sound so bad -- though if I had one, I'd still be extra cautious. I mean, Lambert/Viscount is long gone, and I assume Yamaha long ago washed their hands of the whole thing, so if you get hurt, who are you going to sue?

Death Stems: There are a few old stems that fit this description, but the most well-known are the AVA stems like the one shown here.

The AVA "death stem" (photo from VeloBase)
These stems, often found on bikes in the '60s and early '70s, had the look of being "lugged and brazed" construction, but were made from cast aluminum. A place where they often broke was on the lower part of the quill, just above the cone-type expansion wedge. If you look at the top of the expansion slot, you'll see that it is just a sharp-edged cut, with no stress relief there to prevent cracking. Not only that, but there were two such slots, one on each side of the stem - so a crack could just work its way right around the whole thing, and the stem could suddenly snap right off. I've also heard of these cracking at the bar clamp area. On the whole, these were made very light, but didn't have enough metal in key stress areas to be durable. As mentioned, I believe that these were cast aluminum, as opposed to forged - but forging would have proven to be stronger as well.

It's important to note that not all models of AVA stems were prone to failure, and that they weren't the only ones. There were some similar-looking stems made by Atax and Pivo that could also break in much the same way. By the way, I don't want to get bunches of emails asking "is my stem safe to use?" There's no way I can tell everything about every brand and model to say which ones are OK and which ones aren't. Remember, we're talking about components that are 50 years old.

I will say that some of these lugged-style aluminum stems are a little more robust than others, and if they have a regular wedge as opposed to the cone-type, they might be a little more reliable. Also, if there is only one expansion slot instead of two, that is a good sign. If I had one of the type with a single expansion slot and really wanted to use it, I'd probably drill a little hole right at the top of the slot and file it so there was a nice, smooth, stress-relieving transition. But again, there can still be risks. These old stems are really cool looking, but on my vintage bikes (which I actually ride), I don't hesitate to install a more modern, reliable, cold-forged stem.

Style only takes a person so far, and I'd really like to keep all my teeth.

23 comments:

  1. You missed suicide brake levers, those extension levers found on most low end "racer" bikes in the 1970s. They would bottom out on the handlebar before applying full braking force. And as for "suicide shifters", the double lever Cambio-Corsa shifter and the similar Paris Roubaix shifter would also qualify.

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    1. Ah yes - I knew I was missing something. What was funny about those was they were marketed as "safety" levers, because you could reach the brakes from more positions on the bar. Didn't exactly work as advertised, did they? Well, maybe if set up "just right" - but with any wear in the brake pads, and even a little mis-adjustment, and they would bottom out, just as you say.

      Yes - one could probably include the Cambio-Corsa, and other early derailleur systems in that grouping as well.

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    2. Viscount put these levers on their bikes too. Thankfully my Viscount had cheaper horrid steel forks so I hand painted it all black to make it look worthless and used it as work / winter transport. Just striped it down for first time and with it's first replacement bottom bracket it should make an ideal bike for rough trails through the woods.

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    3. Yeah; i have suicide brakes on my randonneur Leuleu. They do have the tendency to bottom out; but when your are accustomed; i found them practical even in that case because you don't have to move your hand to the brake if you just need to slow down gently. Practical when you are mostly with your hand on the middle of the bars; a position i am often when riding with my girlfriend.

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    4. The "suicide" moniker on these levers always bothered me. I had them on a few bikes and I set them (or rather, chose them) so you would bottom out the regular levers before the extension lever and never had to touch them again. I think many people used levers that were too long toward the cross piece of the handlebar. Mine were shorter (just by 1 inch), so you actually couldn't bottom them out. I feel like they get a bad rap. Oh well!

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  2. I probably used one of these stems on my Motebecane bike in the mid seventies. It sheared off just about the head set when I was riding down a hill just in front of a bus. I crashed, the bus bracked and came to a stop just meters in front of me. Lucky.

    https://fotos.rennrad-news.de/p/241118?in=set

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  3. Ah, yes, the infamous Lambert aluminium fork scandal. I had one of those bikes, actually an early Reg Harris lugged model on tubular wheels/tires, before they went to filleted joints. Their price was right down around that of a fairly entry level "10-speed" of the era. However, their specification and lightweight made them seem comparable to the top-end models. Of course, they were far from the equal of the "all Campagnolo" equipped quality European bikes. When I was riding the Lambert, my riding buddy had a Raleigh International - a much better bicycle but at nearly four times the price. The Lambert's in-house built derailleurs, trying to span a wide triple crank did not shift very well. But there were a lot of poor shifting derailleurs on the market at the time. That's what made the Campag stuff immediately superior.
    I was considering conversion to a steel fork when I discovered another bargain, on a much better bicycle. It was an odd model Raleigh, a "Super Tourer". While not Campag, it was all top notch equipment, Huret Jubilee rear mech, on a Reynolds 531 frame. The reason they had warehouses full of unsold bikes was that they came with an upright bar. My dealer converted it to a drop bar for me and I had myself a great deal on a very good bicycle, ridden throughout the mid 1970s.

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    1. Vancouver Island--The Raleigh Super Tourer was definitely a better bike. It's funny that your dealer converted the bike to upright bars. You might recall my post about that: https://midlifecycling.blogspot.com/2016/07/raleigh-super-tourer-it-didnt-sell-in.html#comment-form

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    2. No, Justine, the dealer didn't convert TO upright bars. He converted FROM uprights to DROPS. As you wrote in your article about this bike, no self-respecting club rider could turn out with uprights and fenders(!). I wrote in Jan. 2017 about my bike on your blog in response to your July 2016 post about the joys of Super Tourers.

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    3. Vancouver--Mea culpa. (That's Latin for "my bad".) I meant to write "from" upright bars.

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  4. People used to call stem mounted shifters (popular on bike boom era bikes) "suicide shifters" but I cannot think of anyone I know who has ever slammed their crotch on the handlebar stem. On the other hand I have scars on both knees from bar-end shifters...

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    1. Tjan--If you really want to see "suicide" shifters, check this out:

      http://hooniverse.com/2014/08/05/bicycles-you-should-know-the-schwinn-sting-ray-krates/

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    2. Thanks for the link. I had a Raleigh Chopper, about the same silly shifter setup. I still never flew forward and disemboweled myself, maybe I was just lucky!

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    3. Ahh - the Raleigh Chopper. It's how you say "Sting-Ray" with a British accent.

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  5. About the only of those "suicide parts" I used were extension levers. They came with my Schwinn Continental way back when. I quickly realized how bad they were and got rid of them. Once I did that, I also wanted to change my "suicide" stem shifters.

    I haven't been the same since! ;-)

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    1. Hi Justine - After I started working on this post, I discovered that you had written about basically the same topic some time back - maybe before I started reading your blog regularly. So I know you are well acquainted with this stuff!

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  6. Brooks--I enjoyed this post nonetheless. In my post (5 years ago!), I didn't write about the "death fork" or the stems you mention, either of which is potentially more dangerous than the other "suicide" parts.

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  7. I remember some of these things from the 70's...stem shifters and those dreadful auxiliary levers. Also remember the Lambert ads from the 70's. My 1st dept store 10-speed bought in 1971 from a local hardware store had no aux levers or stem shifters but my first experience riding home in the rain in the dark with stamped sidepulls cheapie hard rubber brake shoes and steel rims was truly terrifying. Fortunately nothing bad happened.

    After that bike (I owned it for a year) came the first PX-10 that had the Ava stem you describe ...which was on my next 2 PX-10's . I heard about these stems but I never had a problem , so I was lucky My 3rd peugeot has had the Ava stem/bar combo s swapped out for a Nitto Tech Deluxe and moustache bar which is a vast improvement

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  8. We also have "murdered out" for those people who ride dressed in all-black, at night, without lists or reflectors. There's probably some validity to this one, though pedantically speaking, I'd prefer "suicided out" for anyone insane enough to ride a bike as described.

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    1. People who wear all black should have a chalk outline around their body, so we can see where they died.

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  9. Not exactly a component, but putting a track sprocket on a hub made for a screw on cassette is often referred to as a 'suicide hub', as it will unscrew if you back pedal.

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    1. That reminds me of my first go at converting a derailleur-equipped bike to fixed gear. I screwed a track cog onto the Normandy hub of a Peugeot UO-8 and tightened down the lockring as hard as I could, not realizing that track (or fixed-gear) hubs had lockrings that screwed on in the opposite direction from the cogs.

      I discovered the limitations of that setup one day when a NYC taxi switched lanes in front of me: http://midlifecycling.blogspot.com/2013/02/my-first-fixie-peugeot-u0-8-conversion.html.

      Fortunately for me, my "fixie" didn't turn into a "suicide" setup. But it could have!

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  10. Maybe Suicide refers to the fact that you take one hand off the handlebars and look away from the road to operate/ change - on a motorbike at highish speed - one handed and changing gear might be problematic? Then it caught on with bicycle components.
    Suicide brake levers, I actually quite like them. Means your hand stay in one position if need be.

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