Saturday, July 9, 2011

Adjustable Stem!

Randonneur, Adjustable Stem
When I wrote about wanting a longer stem on one of my bikes, several people suggested I get ahold of a vintage adjustable stem. I did not know that such a thing existed, but clearly there is much I don't know.

Long story short, I am now in the temporary possession of a 3ttt Record Regolabile adjustable stem, on loan courtesy of Jan Heine of the Bicycle Quarterly. I decided to use it not on my own bike, but on the Royal H. randonneur collaboration - it just looked so appropriate.

Produced in the 1970s by Tecno Tubo Torino of Italy, this elegant stem adjusts from (I think) 6 cm to 12 cm. Here is more information about it and some close-up pictures. The beauty of this system is that it combines the vertical adjustability of the quill stem with the horizontal adjustability of the threadless stem (with the latter you can swap out stems without redoing your handlebar set-up). Why are things like this not being made anymore? Those of us who constantly change our minds about handlebar positions would find it extremely useful. Right now I have it adjusted for 8 cm, but who knows what the future holds - I am looking forward to playing around with this! 

38 comments:

  1. Those are so cool! They aren't just practical, but totally gorgeous as well. Just try finding one on eBay... not cheap. I'd love to have been able to do that on my roadbike. Someone recommended one to me when I was first riding and I didn't go for one I saw on eBay because I just didn't yet understand what it did. Too bad, because it is a pretty stem in its own right.

    You should hunt one down for yourself. They are just too beautiful! It looks great on that bike, too.

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  2. I'll definitely be trying to hunt one down now. I suspect one might have better luck at local bike swap meets than on ebay for things like this.

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  3. Ok, it's neat. And it's 3 decades old. And alu. Fair warning: it might break.

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  4. I would think that the fact that it is 3 decades old that it would not break since back then people had pride in the things they made and made them to last. Just look at the pictures it looks like it has never been used.

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  5. Back in the day, we used to call them "suicide stems." TTT wasn't the only company that made them; Cinelli's version was also well-known if not widely-used.

    What Ground Round Jim said is true of a lot of "vintage" parts. Once, I wanted to use an old set of Campagnolo brakes with a pair of Ergo brifters. I wrote to Campagnolo; their tech person told me not to do it because aluminum of that age weakens. (The brakes were about the same age as your stem.) An engineer with whom I spoke confirmed that claim. That is the reason why I don't use old aluminum stems, bars, cranksets or rims, no matter how good they might have been when they were first made: They are the parts that take the greatest stresses on the smallest area of metal, and are thus most prone to break.

    If I haven't scared you off using the stem, be sure that the bolts are as tight as they can be without stripping!

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  6. Aluminum doesn't really have the problems that, say, aged carbon or steel would have. The tensile strength both lateral and medial is largely unchanged in aluminum objects, regardless of age.

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  7. Etymology alert! I love the name: an amalgam of regolare and labile. Regolare, Italian for "to regulate" or "to control"; Labile, derived from latin, for "adaptable". [But in chemistry, labile=unstable... yikes!]

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  8. Part of the reason they are not more common is that, typically you will adjust them this way & that, for a relatively short time; then once you get it in a position you like it will most likely stay that way forever or until you put it on another bike. It's probably not light, so once you have found the position you like, you would replace it with a fixed stem of similar dimensions.

    MASMOJO

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  9. It's a real shame that no-one is producing these anymore. The modern adjustable stems don't do the same thing and they look like something that H.R. Giger would make - and in my opinion that just doesn't work, aesthetically speaking, for a bicycle.

    This just screams 'classic bike'.

    I wonder if there was some weakness that these introduced, and that couldn't be overcome? Might it be that they were prone to breaking where the adjustment bolt (I assume it's some kind of bolt) is.

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  10. "the horizontal adjustability of the threadless stem (with the latter you can swap out stems without redoing your handlebar set-up)."

    I don't follow how this is true without a face plate. With a single pinch bolt on the bar clamp you would still have to undo bar tape....unless you are only changing the vertical part which would be silly.

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  11. I have been suspecting for a while that my stem on Betty Foy is too long. Riv put a 11cm stem on it (it is what they had and I had no idea what I was doing). And no matter the adjustments I make to other components, my neck and shoulders still ache on Betty. It would be nice to have an adjustable stem, even just to experiment with what length is ideal.

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  12. It's for testing & sizing. We'll be careful. Nobody is going to race it or stand on the bars and yank them. This stem may be old, but I am sure it's just fine for determining what size Nitto to get.

    I like this idea a lot: It's elegant and allows you to change stem length in the field, which threadless does not unless you carry a bunch of stems with you. But for me, I am usually much more certain of height vs stem length, so for that reason threadless still wins out because it's less work for better results, at the slight expense of final aesthetics.

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  13. I've been warned about old stems breaking since I began buying vintage bikes, and I've usually replaced them. Still, I doubt that the force I am able to exert will cause breakage.

    How common is it for vintage aluminum cranksets or stems to break? I know so many people who use them, because they prefer the design, and don't hear about breakages. Seems to me like more of an urban legend.

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    1. I personally know a guy who's been dumped off a bicycle twice due to a broken stem. Survived, but, it could just as easily have happened right in the middle of traffic. Best to inspect them visually regularly at a bare minimum, and if in any doubt, replace. Erring on the side of replace. Stuff breaks. In terms of stuff breaking, having bars come off in your hands while at speed sounds like about the sh*ttiest thing to have happen...

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  14. Since Justine mentioned the Cinelli version of the stem, I've found lots of others - mostly on track bikes. Here is an adjustable stem by Philipe, mounted (upside down?) on a Mercian.

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  15. How common is it for vintage aluminum cranksets or stems to break? I know so many people who use them, because they prefer the design, and don't hear about breakages. Seems to me like more of an urban legend.

    I don't believe that aluminum alloys weaken simply with age. They DO weaken from fatigue and use. This is why some people believe that if you don't know the history behind a vintage aluminum part, it may not be worth using it if you intend to use it hard. I know racers who have witnessed other racers' handlebars snapping from repeated stress. Usually this results in an immediate crash.

    That said, some parts can reveal how hard they've been used: it's unlikely to find a heavily raced crankset that doesn't have a ton of scrapes and scuffs. But a stem or handlebar is a different story-- they may not show signs of hard use. I have one friend (a former racer) who has a mouth-watering collection of vintage bikes (which he rides hard), but he draws the line at stems and bars-- he always swaps them out for new, or NOS because he has no way of knowing what kinds of stresses they've been subjected to.

    But on the flip side, new parts fail, too. I have a friend (another racer) whose new, modern threadless TIG-welded stem (forgot the brand) snapped right at the welds.

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  16. I doubt you're going to treat it roughly. It's not what you do to it but what's been done over the years.

    Metal fatigue on an item that's as old as you isn't an urban legend. Whether it's common or not doesn't have bearing on whether yours breaks. It probably won't. Same deal as your carbon fork fears. Someone I know just snapped a brand new Nitto post. What're you going to do?

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  17. Meaux--buying a threadless stem that holds bars captive is silly. I've seen some boutique stems made like that. You have to wonder who would throw away one of the biggest advantages of the threadless system, but apparently they still make them. Maybe they make you go faster. :)

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  18. Velouria.......
    PLEASE look past the novelty of this old stem. Take it off your bike ASAP since it is very dangerous to your health!!!!

    There is a reason for this style of stem disappearance from the market place.

    That reason is torque relaxing of the bolts allowing the stem to slip out of place under the pressure of handling. Also unless extended full out there will be a part of the stem that remains in the riders envelope that can act as a short blunt spear in a crash. Really, really bad!!

    I'm concerned for your safety as long as that stem is on a bike your riding!! VERY concerned........

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  19. I'm a little confused. Is this stem staying on the bike for the new owner, or are you just testing it in order to figure out if you might prefer a longer stem for one of your bikes? In the latter case, wouldn't it be better to fit it on your bike?

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  20. The Philippe design looks safer with the excess length forward of the handlebars instead of pointing at the rider. The ttt could catch you in a bad place if you went over the front in a collision.

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  21. Walt, it doesn't need to be blunt. We can sharpen it (unless Jan Heine disapproves--it's his stem).

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  22. MDI said...
    Walt, it doesn't need to be blunt. We can sharpen it (unless Jan Heine disapproves--it's his stem).

    WTF?????

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  23. As MDI said, this type of adjustable stem was for fit experimentation. I think shops and coachs used them TEMPORARILY to help riders find the appropriate length of stem. Then a stronger, lighter standard stem was installed.
    I hope the worry warts are wrong about aging aluminum - or steel, for that matter. I ride a collection of bikes that are between 20 and 45 years old. (All but one owned since new.) No problems with failures in those decades.

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  24. I thinks it's covering for a lack of experience and motivation at LBS level and at cyclist level in terms of over all fitting. And it isn't safe in the other real world.

    It's old technolgy and people should expect better treatment nowadays.

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  25. Sheesh. That stem is built with a greater safety factor than anything on the market. No one puts thousands of miles on them 'cause they're heavy. And because someone else wants to borrow it. And then it's forgotten in a drawer for a decade. And now it only fits traditionalist bikes.
    Safe. Worry about something else.
    Lovely stem for lovely bike.

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  26. I think all this talk of Aluminum failure is quite alarmist. Yeah, I have seen Aluminum bars fail, it is fairly common, but generally, lightweight aluminum bars are somewhat fragile to start with & typically the failure can be traced to extremely large or powerful riders who tug & pull hard on the bars And/ or damage to the aluminum that goes un-noticed until it suddely gives way. In my bike shop days the most common culprits were stems whose inside edge was not camferred properly, when the stem was tightened it would cut into the bars ever so slightly & after many sress cycles, WHACK! I encountered a couple of these,typically what we would do is take a fine half round file and round the inside edge of the stem of slightly. If either rider ever had a problem again, I never heard of it!

    Another thing to consider is how the stems were made,some are stronger then others! with a vintage stem you may not know, but generally for the average person these stems were Over-engineered so unless you are an agressive rider over 180-200lbs. you probably have nothing to fret over.

    MASMOJO

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  27. Hello - It's always interesting reading all the commentary because of the differnces in opinions on all the subjects.

    I guess I'm fortunate as I have two adjustable stems that I have kept for years. One is a Cinelli, that I keep just to look at as art. The other is the same TTT model described above. I find it quite functional and well made - I end up using it a few times a year and ride with it for weeks at a time. Now, I don't do sprints or handle thrashing hill climbs with it, but for normal riding/touring, I believe it will go forever - or at least as long as any other stem of the same vintage.
    It is well made, the stem portion fitting into the upright quill is a rectangular section, and a snug fit. Even if this particualr bolt did break for some reason, the contraption will hold together and allow you to come to a rest - it is simply a snug fit and won't freely slide apart on it own without considerable effort. One thing not mentioned is the quill itself - turn it 180 degrees and you are able to fit the stem with quite a bit of rise.

    I think they are very usefull - if they were to be manufactured with modern riding in mind, it would be great to see a removable faceplate type so you didn't have to go through all the effort of removing, taping, etc. to the bars to install and remove after fitting.

    One last comment, - the TTT stem is for a dia. compatable with TTT bar sizes - I'm sure that if you inatall a smaller diameter bar without the proper shim, or force a 26.4 dia bar, well then you certainly will end up with a problem - same as with any other stem misfit!

    Another last comment - I recenly viewed on ebay one or two of the cinelli stems going for over $500!! The TTT stems aren't a bargain, but they seem to be going between $75 to $150 when available and depending on a persons desperation to own the thing!

    My two cents!!

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  28. Nice!
    I love using an unusual or classic component as a central feature on a bike.
    Keep up the good work.

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  29. "Walt, it doesn't need to be blunt. We can sharpen it (unless Jan Heine disapproves--it's his stem). "

    Every now and again, MDI reminds me of a younger
    Edward Gorey. Now I think I know why. (chuckles)

    This bicycle is a real tour de force in design.
    I look forward to a ride report before it goes to it's "forever home".

    As for the stem- never ridden one, but remember them as "set-p" stems as others have mentioned.

    I've only ever had one scary stem- a seven year old Atax on a Peugeot in the mid 80s, (which I sawed in half if I remember correctly) replaced with an SR stem.
    The bike died in a collision with a parked Dodge- the new stem did not protect the frame from being hopelessly pranged.

    CK

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  30. My understanding was that the incidents of vintage handlebars breaking have to do not with any natural weakening of the aluminum, but with the fact that most sellers do not disclose the handlebars' histories and these histories often include crashes. This is why many recommend not to buy vintage handlebars if they have any scrapes or scratches on them (let alone small dents) that may indicate a crash. I have not heard of NOS vintage handlebars breaking spontaneously, though of course that does not mean it does not happen.

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  31. one thing no one has mentioned is corrosion. it happens to aluminum as well as steel in certain conditions (like salt air, near chlorine, or just exposed to the elements) over time. oxidation (rusting, in the case of steel) is obvious because iron oxide is reddish. aluminum oxide is silver, so less obvious. it can appear "dusty" in extreme cases. so yes, the component's history (including storage history) can be important to avoid failures.

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  32. "Is this stem staying on the bike for the new owner, or are you just testing it in order to figure out if you might prefer a longer stem for one of your bikes? In the latter case, wouldn't it be better to fit it on your bike?"

    It's a little complicated to explain. The summary is that I am deciding the stem length for the new owner - who is very similar to me in height and whose preferences in reach I understand pretty well. It is not strictly speaking necessary, because I already suspected the stem length I'd be using, but it's nice to confirm it... and play around with the stem : )

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  33. Vintage handlebars used to sag when they got old. Every make and model. It was common to see 'bars bent down and forward 3 or even 4 degrees at the bar clamp. Never understood what sort of aluminum alloy could tolerate that, but they did. They were also thick and heavy.

    Any sensible person in 2011 should recycle any bar worn enough to have a visible bend where it should be straight.

    Most of the stem failures I've seen happened with more or less new stems. Manufacturer's defects. The largest category of stem failure by far comes from ultralight stems. Avoid. Why they continue to be sold beats me. I even prefer the manufacturers who never participated in that trend.

    If you avoid panic, and are not going downhill, it's usually possible to make a safe recovery from a broken handlebar. It's also possible to stay upright when the stem breaks but you'll need much luck as well as skill. You will usually have some warning something is loose, even with aluminum. Making the quick determination the problem is bar or stem is not so easy. Just never give up and try to ride it out.

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  34. The stem looks fairly robust in its construction. Unless its been banged up I myself would probably use it.

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  35. Is that cloth tape? If so, may I ask what kind? I love the color!

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  36. To the anonymous metallurgist who suggested oxidation of aluminum weakens it:

    Aluminum oxide is actually a harder substance than that of pure aluminum. A layer of oxidation on aluminum actually seals the underlying metal from further oxidation. Aluminum is a fairly brittle metal, and is subject to fatigue and failure from repetitive stress cycles.

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  37. I have a little experience in the old days with these stems, we did indeed use them temporarily while finding the ideal set-up but a few people used them long term. I remember one on a ragged old trackbike of some obscure Italian make(what we used to refer to as one of the "etceterinis) back when riding a fixedgear on the road really was merely goofy and not hip. I don't remember them breaking but I do remember them squeaking like bad shoes. They were also 4 ounces heavier so were dismissed out of hand.

    I am freaking out about the vintage Cinelli version selling for $500. I'll try not to lay awake tonight thinking about where the ones we had at the shop might be.

    I don't think I'm the most knowledgeable on the subject of metal fatigue but the (many) aluminum parts that I have failed typically just snapped. Often with the failure beginning at a gouge or particularly bad scratch. Aluminum does have a finite number of cycles, stress it close to it's ultimate modulus of elasticity enough times and it gives up. Some metals, magnesium comes to mind, experience internal corrosion as oxidation works it's way into the pores of the surface. Be very skeptical of old magnesium parts(luckily there isn't that much Magnesium in bikes but I have a really nice flywieght Lodestar MTB frame that's probably on the verge of coming undone. It hangs on the wall of honor now and I think of the gigantic crash I avoided by retiring it). Another reason to buy steel or better yet, titanium.

    If you want to see some lovely old vintage STEEL adjustable stems, just pore over old pictures of trackbikes and pathracers from the 30s and 40s. Neat.

    Spindizzy

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