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I ride a 1972 steel frame bike year round through Canadian winters.

When I got the bike it was in good shape, but after putting a few thousand km worth of commuting on it, it has a lot of scratches in the paint - mostly from things like road salt getting kicked up at speed.

In the course of the last winter, despite my best efforts, many of these spots started to rust. I can remove most of the rust spots with careful application of steel wool, but I'm now a little worried about the structural integrity of the bike. I notice some creaking when I shift more of my weight to the bars for instance.

How can I tell whether a bike with some rust damage is still safe to ride on?

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The bike is fine. A classical steel bike frame has to get REALLY rusty before there's any danger of frame failure. Even then, catastrophic failure is rare -- you'll almost always notice some rather severe flex in a joint or such before it goes. The creaking you hear is probably the bars in the clamp or some such. – Daniel R Hicks Apr 10 '13 at 0:14
I guessed as much on the catastrophic failure point, but it's good to get some confirmation. – John Doucette Apr 10 '13 at 0:37
up vote 1 down vote accepted

Sounds like you have only surface rust. The frame would have to rust through to cause any integrity problems and that would take many years of damp conditions. The creaking you hear when shifting your weight to the bars may be the headset.

It may be worth getting it serviced. As its likely the grease has escaped/become clogged with dirt causing the creaking. It would be wise to check all the joints and welds for signs of fatigue or cracks. Ensure they are all solid.

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It sounds like it's only superficial damage if it's only happened since the frame's paint got damaged. If you can get it all off with steel wool then you should be fine, though you may want to look into getting the frame repainted with a good waterproof/anti-rust paint.

As for the creeking, verify that the bolts holding the front fork and handlebar assembly are nice and tight. It's probably just something working loose with use.

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Rust on the frame is the least of your worries. It's the moving parts you should be looking at: derailleurs, chain, bearings, brakes...

Since it's an old bike, it probably has non-sealed bearings, so you should clean and repack them (if you ride regularly, you should do this once a year). Replace the chain if it looks rusty or if it's stiff.

As for the creaking: who the hell knows? It could be coming from a hundred different places, and it's usually the last place you look. The best you can do is keep everything maintained.

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I've found that, for some reason, creaking ALWAYS comes from the last place you look for it. – Daniel R Hicks Apr 12 '13 at 15:06
@DanielRHicks Not me, I keep looking for the creaking after I found it. – GordonM Apr 12 '13 at 15:46

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