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.