Apr 12 2014

The Horror! The Horror! A Harrowing Tale of Bar-End Shifter Corrosion

My Surly Long Haul Trucker has almost six years and over 18000 miles on the clock. She’s—I named her Petra, and it suits her; she’s really been a rock—she’s my maid of all work for most everything from shopping to “amphibious” trekking. And she’s held up well, despite the fact that a lot of the roads in my corner of the North Country are paved in gravel. But she is showing her age in some ways. Her bar-end shifters, for example:

Barcon Corrosion

Barcon Corrosion

Barcon Corrosion

Barcon Corrosion

Barcon Corrosion

Pretty dramatic stuff, eh? Yet the extent of the corrosion didn’t register right away. While I oil my shifters regularly, I don’t look at them closely—I don’t often wear my reading glasses when I work on my bikes—and since both shifters had a slightly rough finish right out of the box, my fingertips weren’t much help, either. These are rather feeble excuses, of course. I should have been more attentive. After all, I sometimes rest my hands on the bar-end shifters for short periods when I’m on the road, and my hands sweat inordinately. Farwell ends a 30-mile ride with bone-dry hands, whereas I finish the distance with gloves that are so sweat-soaked that I can (literally) wring salt water from them. And salt isn’t kind to aluminum. I suppose it’s also possible that the leather of my cycling gloves contribute, if the tanning process left residues behind. I’ll never know.

Once I grasped the extent of the problem, however, I lost no time in getting a closer look, using my camera’s macro capabilities to bring me in real tight. The photos above were the result, and they made it clear that I needed to remedy the damage right now.

So I turned to my store of gun-cleaning supplies, a relic of a time when I owned a lovely 20-gauge sidelock whose barrels had an unfortunate tendency to sprout surface rust after every heavy dew. The mainstay of my cleaning arsenal back then was a paste-like metal polish known as Flitz:

Flitz it Out

The maker suggests that Flitz works as well on aluminum as it does on blued steel, so I figured I’d give it a try. (I ran a test on a bit of aluminum scrap first, though, just to be sure that the cure wouldn’t be worse than the disease. Primum non nocere has relevance in fields far removed from medicine.) Cotton patches and a Scotch-Brite scrubber rounded out my anti-corrosion battle gear, with a few Q-Tips thrown in for mopping up operations in tight corners. I left the 0000 steel wool in the box, though. Using steel wool on aluminum is asking for trouble. Small fragments of steel work their way into the softer aluminum, where they remain. The result? Rusty aluminum, of course!

The rest was easy. I removed the plastic covers from the levers (they slide off with encouragement), then daubed a little Flitz on the worst spots and started scrubbing. And when I say “a little,” I really do mean a little. A very small amount of Flitz goes a long way:

Flitz it On With a Swab

And when a Q-Tip proved too bulky, I turned to a cotton patch wrapped around a toothpick. That delivered just enough of the sovereign remedy to even the tightest corners. Then it was time to start scrubbing:

Scotch-Brite Scrubby

After that, I wiped off the resulting gunge:

Polish With a Cotton Patch

All that remained was to lay down a gossamer coat of light oil on the shifter pods, levers, and through-bolts by way of benison, before squeezing a drop or two of oil into all pivot-points:

Lightly Coat With Oil

Now I was ready to put the shifters through their paces, first on the workstand and then on the road. The result? A clean pass. Later in the year, I broke down the shifters into their component parts and was relieved to find that corrosion hadn’t spread to the internal workings.

The upshot? While my shifters will never regain their showroom shine—the pitting is too deep for that—I’ve succeeded in stopping the rot in its tracks. And you can be sure I do a better job cleaning Petra than I had been doing. Everything that my sweaty hands touches now gets a good wash, followed by a light dressing of oil. And what about you? Have you taken a close look at your shifters lately? If not, there’s no time like the present. I can’t be the only rider in the world with sweaty palms, can I?

Do you have a strong stomach? Can you face the horrors of salt corrosion without flinching? Then you might want to check out these photos:

Left Barcon, Outside Edge
Left Barcon, Underside
Right Barcon, Underside
Right Barcon, Underside Close-Up
Right Barcon, Oblique Underside
Right Barcon, Lower Left Edge
Right Barcon After Cleaning—Pitted but Clean

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