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I mean a functional, noncosmetic, advantage. If I left the rust that was already there, would it weaken the parts? If it would cause more damage to some parts, which ones?

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Removing rust? Nope, no benefit whatsoever beyond cosmetic. PREVENTING rust is what matters. – Carey Gregory Jul 1 '13 at 5:46
@CareyGregory surely getting rid of rust and then sealing properly will then prevent future rust? – Mac Jul 1 '13 at 7:15
For a frame, the only place where you might need to worry would be around the welds (if it's a welded vs lugged frame), as rust could develop in micro-cracks and cause them to propagate. Plain old scratches in the paint are not a problem. – Daniel R Hicks Jul 1 '13 at 10:45
(One of the best ways to treat existing rust is with a "rust-converting primer", available from auto parts places. Though be sure to give the primer at least a light coat of some other paint as it's ugly and doesn't weather well.) – Daniel R Hicks Jul 1 '13 at 10:47
A disadvantage: removing rust may make your bike more attractive to junkies and other bike thieves. Possibly coincidental, but my 70's steel commuter was stolen after years of use, just a few weeks after I finally cleaned off all the rust. – John Doucette Jul 1 '13 at 17:19

The effects of rust are typically overstated. Where is you concern? Remove rust (or replace the parts) on moving components such as chains and cables, they will run smoother, more efficiently and quieter.

On non-moving surfaces such as frame and handle bars etc, forget about it. Under normal use high quality steel gets nothing more than cosmetic rusting, and low quality steel bikes are so over engineered the loss of strength due rust won't make any difference to the serviceability of the bike.

If you ride the bike in winter where the salt roads, or at the beach, then you may want or need a bit of protection, however the moving parts will be rusted solid a long time before the fame fails.....

Another case you may want to consider is if the risk of rust stains on clothes and such like is a concern. In this case then treatment might be needed.

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