Recently I had a handlebar fail and the experience reminded me of all of the things that can go wrong on a bicycle. One of the key factors in this failure is the age of my bicycle. As of the time of this writing, my Surly Long Haul Trucker is six years old and has 10,000 miles on it. It’s not clear that many people hang on to their bikes that long. This is something that probably can happen only to a bike that has had as much use.
My problem surfaced due to the poor design of the street crossings on the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail. Newer sections of the trail have little islands in the middle of the trail at these crossings. They are about three feet long and a foot wide, made using brick pavers surrounded by a granite curb that is about three inches high. If you happen to get your wheel up against the curb, there is little chance for recovery and you can go down.
That’s what happened to me. I was clipped into the pedals and I went down, making contact with the ground almost simultaneously with my thigh and my shoulder. I was fortunately moving slowly since I had stopped for traffic at the crossing. I was also fortunate that the force of impact was evenly distributed, limiting the injuries. I bruised my shoulder and thigh and had a scrape on my knee and pinky finger.
As I took an inventory of my condition I noticed that one end of my handlebar was dangling by the bar tape. It wouldn’t be possible to ride the bike in that condition and I began to think of options such as Uber. As I stood the bike against a rail, a man who had been maybe a hundred yards behind me crossed the street and hailed, concerned that I was injured. He heard the crash and it was loud enough that he thought I had been hit by a car. He was kind enough the give me a ride home.
After a quick shower, I loaded the bike onto the van and drove to my bicycle mechanic at Harris Cyclery in Needham, Massachusetts. The mechanic made an observation that was astounding to me. Over the years and miles, my salty sweat had corroded the handlebar. The corrosion was a major factor in the break. The side without the break had corrosion that made a visible hole in the aluminum. The handlebar was close to failure on both sides.
There are two failure scenarios that come to mind in addition to my fail. The first is cranking up a hill, both hands pulling up on the bar ends. The second is leaning on the drops while speeding downhill. In both of these cases a handlebar failure can lead to a bad crash.
To avoid the problem, I suppose the handlebar tape should be replaced more often than i was doing it. I’ve decided to re-wrap my bar each time I replace the chain. I do my chain every 1,000 miles. The handlebar should be rinsed with clean water after removing the old wrap. A layer of electrical tape under the new wrap may mitigate against salt damage. While my experience is with an aluminum handlebar, steel ones may also be a concern. The effects of moisture and salt on steel can be equally bad.
As I pile up the miles, I continue to be surprised by the things that can go wrong with bicycles. When you ride long and hard, almost everything on the bicycle can fail. If I inspect every component on a regular basis, I’m not sure that I would always know how to recognize symptoms. The best practice is probably to maintain the things that predictably fail such as tires, chain, and brake pads while letting the other things sort themselves out as they happen.