Sunday, April 19, 2009

Your steel may no longer be real..

That's right.....your steel, maybe aluminum, ti, whatever might not be what you think it is. An alarming trend that started about ten years ago with framebuiding supplied has gained momentum and could really wind up causing a lot of frustration for small builders. That trend is of course, outsourcing and it is not limited to U.S. companies. Over the last ten-odd years I have purchased hundereds of tubes from several suppliers and directly from a couple of manufacturers. Most of the time I get what I ordered but here and there , what I call " Mystery metal" has found its way into my shop. The first time was in 1999 when I thought I would try Columbus 'Brain" tubing to build a run of seven tig welded cyclocross frames-five of them going to a top local team. On the second ride , one of these frames buckled and ripped at the downtube. The rider was startled but unhurt and phoned me to report the failure. I inspected the frame and realized that the tubes were quite a bit thinner and softer than the last shipment of tubes I had purchased from the same supplier.I immediately recalled all the frames and replaced the front triangles with Tange Presige. Even though I have been building for over thirty years I have little ability to analyze materials I hope is that the engineers at the tubing compaines do this for me and all the other builders-I have no metallurgy degree and no hardness tester, only calipers and a dial-guage device for checking butt-length and location. By the time the tubing is on the market we as builders assume that the engineering and testing have already been done. This has been the case in the past but now with this frame failure I was no longer sure of anything, even if the tubes were made by Columbus at all. Was my supplier trying to sell me garbage, hoping I wouldn't know ? I don't think so....I had been buying from them for fourteen years and I'm sure they want me to continue as a faithful customer. So who is at fault for selling this garbage and what the heck was it ? After doing a little asking around I have this assesment : These tubes were the first wave of S.F.C. , which stands for 'shit from China'. Seeing as how the frame failure was nowhere near a weld or braze , I was convinced that the tube itself that was at fault . After sending the tube to an engineer friend of mine my suspicions were confirmed.....not only was this tubing not to spec but its origin of manufacture was a mystery. Since then I have been a lot more dillegent about checking all the tubes that I use , after all-it's someones safety and my reputation at stake. Even if the big manufacturers might not care about that I have to. A similar problem happened when I needed some chaintays to complete a run of aluminum team cyclocross frames. normally, these frames will last a good many seasons. Two frames that got some supposed Columbus aluminum chainstays had failures within three months. These were the first failures of any kind with aluminum in my career. Again, I found the tubes to be thinner and softer than the tubes I normally bought. I checked with my suppier and he said that he was pretty sure that this particular chainstay was manufactured somehwere in the far east and that he had some others of genuine Italian orgin that I could purchase and he sent me samples to try. There was no comparison, the Italian chainstays were far superior and were up to the rigors of racing , one of the bikes wound up winning a nationa championship a couple months later. O.K., so what are we buying ? Who is making the good stuff and who is selling us unusable garbage ? It changes so much week to week that I can't tell you but I will say that if you are going to put someone on one of your custom bikes it had better be made of the good stuff. Finding N.O.S. tubes is a good thing and working closely with your supplier to ensure that you aren't getting any SFC is essential. If we are to be able to continue what we do successfully we have to have a reliable supply of tubing that is up to the task. Most modern high-end steel is made so light that it is too delicate for a big percentage of our customers. Most of the heavier tubing is just crap, soft and poorly made. I don't know what to tell you, just stay informed and go for some good solid mid-weight steel that has no evidence of coming from China. Taiwan is o.k. for the most part , some of the Fujilite tubes I used many years ago were really good. You'll have to be diligent.

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