Have you ever heard the steel repair myth? I first heard
it in the mid 1970s. It's an old story but the steel repair myth is
stronger than ever today. There are many versions and endless ways to tell
it but it goes something like this:
Bike Tourist Paul is traveling in a third world or otherwise
poor country on a touring bike with an aluminum frame. Bike Tourist Paul either crashes, a frame weld fails, or his frame just mysteriously breaks.
He is stranded. Bike Tourist Paul looks around for someone who can repair
his frame but aluminum welders are impossible to find in poor countries.
Bike Tourist Paul has to fly home, broken bike in hand, defeated, his dream
trip ruined forever.
Touring Cyclist Ringo is on a bike tour in an undeveloped
or third world country with a steel frame under him. Cyclist Ringo either
crashes, a frame weld fails, or his frame just breaks. Cyclist Ringo was
smart and chose a touring bike frame made of steel that can be welded in any
country of the world. Cyclist Ringo simply found the nearest guy with a
welder (usually in the smallest of villages) and got his frame welded
back together and was happily on his way. Usually the story also contains
a side analogy about how welders in the third world are extremely skilled.
The emphasis is that they have to fix things rather than replace them because of
their limited means.
The moral of the myth is that a smart international bike
traveler always rides a steel touring bicycle because steel frames can be
repaired anywhere and an inexperienced bicycle tourist foolishly chooses an aluminum frameset
and will eventually become stranded in some dark scary corner of the earth.
As with most myths and urban legends, there is an element of truth
to the story. In the 1970s, bicycle frames were
almost all steel and known to break, especially under the heavy loads and hard
use of bicycle touring. I believe that many touring cyclists in the 70s had to get
their bikes repaired on the road. As aluminum bikes became popular in the
1980s and 90s, people naturally thought about the problems with welding
aluminum in the undeveloped world and this is where the steel repair myth came
from. I am not a welder but I do believe that a steel welder can be
easily found and an aluminum welder can not.
I personally would not attempt to have either type of frame welded. I will
explain why further below.
I know first-hand about broken steel bicycle frames in the
70s, 80s, and 90s. I have broke several different steel bike frames
through the years but never an aluminum one. I'm a big guy and I'm
hard on my bikes. In the beginning, I had my bikes re-welded by everyone
from professional frame builders to my high school shop teacher. None of
my broken frames were ever repaired to feel like new again. A bicycle
frameset needs to be aligned perfectly or it will feel awkward or just "funny"
to ride. In fact the only frame I was able to ride in a race after being
repaired was my 1974 Motobecane Grand Jubilee that my high school shop
teacher put back together after school. Looking back I think even this
bike was unsafe because I was never able to hold my line in a road pack. I
was told by a professional frame builder that if your frame breaks then it
usually means there is some structural problem with your frame (like rust) or
you are pushing the design and materials past what they can handle. Simply
welding it back together will not solve these problems.
This experience tells me that the steel frame repair story is
actually a myth. I have been to many developing countries and seen first
hand how they weld and build things in general. They
sand down the area, lay it on the sidewalk, "eye ball" it back into alignment,
crank up the welder, and fuse it back together. I personally would never
let a backwater welder in my own country touch my bike much less a guy who
usually makes furniture out of scrap rebar. I hate to ruin the romantic
picture of the skilled craftsman creating art from metal in the third world.
But reality is everything tends to be loosely thrown together in developing countries.
If it is that easy then why do top US frame builders fetch well over US$1,500
for building bikes? Would you really pay someone a dollar to fix
your expensive touring machine?
This village welder in China is well practiced in repairing water
buffalo carts but not expensive touring bicycle framesets.
Once I started working in bike shops in the 90s, I learned a
better way to repair a broken frame. Most bicycle manufactures have a
generous warrantee on their frames. This warrantee is usually valid 10 years
or more from the date of purchase. Usually a broken frame can be taken to any dealer of the bicycle brand and
exchanged for a new one. It sounds too good to be true, but I have done
this exact thing several times with many different brands. However, there is usually a stipulation that frames
can only be warranteed by the original owner and that welding a frame usually
voids the warrantee. Often in the fine print the warrantee stipulates that
you can not have attempted to repair the frame and sometimes you are not allowed
to paint it. Please read the full warrantee on your touring bike,
including the fine print. It is far better and cheaper to
warrantee your frame than have a backwater welder botch it and void your
The world has changed a lot from the years the steel repair
myth was true. Global priority shipping is far reaching and extremely
fast. DHL, Fed Ex, and sometimes UPS offices can be found in the major
cities of even the poorest of countries. It is a necessity in the new
global economy. I had tax paperwork and MSR stove parts sent to
a Fed Ex office in Cambodia without any problems.
Both aluminum and steel frames have evolved to the point that
they rarely break. Small production steel frames are better than ever but
also are now very expensive. Aluminum bikes had trouble when they first
appeared on the market but now they have been refined to the point where
problems are rare. I have not broke either type of frame in the past
several years and this
must be why manufacturers are not losing money with generous warrantees.
If either type of frame did break it would be a shame to have
your repair attempts result in a poor ride and voiding the warrantee at the same time. It is much better just to
take a bus to the nearest major city and overnight the frame to the manufacturer
and wait a couple of days for the new one to arrive. In most countries,
except the USA, it would be rare to be on a road that did not have a bus
pass by frequently. In the USA, bicycles have to be boxed to put on the bus but in
developing countries it is customary to flag down a passing bus, throw your bike
and gear under or on top, and be on your way. The ultimate sag wagon costs
very little to ride!