Magic Liquids

For a while now, I've wanted to raise Brown Bike's handlebars. I bought him brand-new in (I think) 1992, but the frame is dated 1987. He isn't a standard Raleigh model, but has a "Special Products" transfer. I don't know when he was built up, or by whom. When I bought him, I couldn't shift the bars but I didn't need to. Now I'm not as young as I was, nor as flexible.

The threaded forks take a stem that fixes inside the steerer. My stem is split at the bottom (from what I can see, peering from underneath), with a conical expander pulled up by a long bolt, pressing the stem base outwards against the steerer. A "quill" stem is shaped at the bottom like a quill pen so mine isn't technically a quill but works in much the same way.

The bolt has always been free to unscrew. Every few years, I have unscrewed it enough to stand proud of the stem and taken a hammer to it, through a piece of scrap wood, in the hope of freeing the expander. It has never worked.

After my rainy trip to Cambridge I had lower-back problems that took a couple of days to go away. This might have been from sunglasses that have a foam surround which is great at keeping wind and insects from my eyes, but force me to lift my head higher up to see where I'm going. Or from the jacket hood that has a peak that flops down and covers my eyes, leading to gymnastics.

I don't need back problems on tour.

The front mudguard was already off because a few months ago I bought a bottle of "Household Ammonia" from Boots. According to some posts on the CTC forum, ammonia is a magical liquid for freeing stems that have been stuck for a couple of decades. I reckoned this was my last hope before taking it to someone with implements of mass destruction, and I'm leaving it rather late for this.

So I removed BB's front wheel, turned him upside-down in my back garden, and poured ammonia down the headtube. It flowed out again through the bolt hole, so I stuffed that with blu-tack. Then it flowed out of the front of the stem, so I put the bars up on a cardboard box, tipping the bike up. Then it dripped out between the stem and locknut, but reasonably slowly. I went inside to watch a Bond film ("Never Say Never Again", not one of the best).

At each break for adverts, I went out and topped up the ammonia.

When Sean Connery finished saving the world, I tried to turn BB upright again. Something bad happened in my lower back. Ouch, to put it mildly. When I could move again, I went inside to wash the ammonia from my hands. I hobbled around the house, sat down, did some stretching, wondered if I would ever make it out of the house again let alone get to Yorkshire, took ibuprofen, had a cup of coffee and felt sorry for myself.

Then I went out with a tack hammer and scrap wood, got BB upright, unscrewed the bolt so it was slightly proud and tapped it a few times. The bolt seemed to move down into the stem, but I supposed it was rotating from the hammer blows. Unscrew it, more tapping, check again. It again seemed to have screwed in, so unscrew it and tap again. This time, the stem dropped an inch. Wow. Cor. It has actually worked.


I could raise the stem to a position two inches higher than it was, but the minimum insertion mark was at one inch. I tightened the bolt, straightened my back, replaced the wheel and went for a turn around the village.

It is good. The pressure on my hands and arms is noticably less. The position is less aerodynamic, but hopefully more comfortable for long distances.

I'll try another liquid now, one that hails from Scotland, and see if it works magic with my back.

14 comments on “Magic Liquids”

  1. Chris wrote:

    The sunglasses I use for cycling cost me £4.99 from a little shop in Flamingo Land. The lenses are too small and if I don't raise my head enough I end up peering over the tops of the rims. I go to a chiropractor every few months, and it's said that when you're a member of the bad back club you're a member for life. On the bike I ride now the bars are lower in comparison to the height of the seat than those on either of my 80s bikes, partly because the frames are too big for me and I can't get the bars any lower. I suppose I am quite flexible, even now (I can put the palms of my hands face down either side of my feet without bending my knees). I just get pains in the neck and shoulders sometimes when I ride my bike. Old age, eh?

  2. Keith Edwards wrote:

    Alan it would be a good idea to remove the stem completely and give all the parts a very good wash in soapy water then rinse very well. You should remove all the ammonia traces as it will not do the stem any good.
    When reassembling do not forget to grease all the parts very well.
    Apologies if you have already done the above.

  3. Alan wrote:

    Thanks, Keith. Yes, I did that this morning. BB is currently in bits, drying off in a heatwave (27.5 degrees C, and it's only lunchtime!). All will be greased.

    I was surprised to find the expander doesn't have a key to fit into a stem slot, so unless it's already tight in the stem, it spins with the bolt and can't be tightened.

    Chris: yeah, old age is a bummer. Howevers, my hands, arms and shoulders were built up by the weeks on crutches, and give me no problems.

  4. Mary wrote:

    27.5 degrees! 27.5 degrees................. (fainting emotion)

    So someone is getting summer this year at least! 27.5 degrees...... I wanna move! Not got to 18 yet, rain, fog, wind... more rain. Bit more wind (easterly so cold and damp of course).

    You had best not forget your jumpers and jacket Alan when you come up North.

    Really sorry to read about your back though. Not nice is that. But glad you got your stem sorted. I like my bars nice and high up as well. Level with my saddle in fact, and I tip the drops up a bit to give me even a few mm more. Much more comfortable isnt it?

    Ammonia is a blissful material. Great stripper of grease. I used to use it too to treat red mite on my chooks, as a preventative measure. I used to scrubb out their hen houses and dip everything in diluted ammonia. It dehydrates mites and insects exo skeleton a treat.

    (Chooks locked out until the houses were dried properly of course, this treated their homes not the birds themselves).

  5. Alan wrote:

    BB looked forlorn, sans wheel, sans handlebars, as I wheeled Ruby Bike out into the 30.6 (!) degrees heat. It was like cycling in a sauna.

  6. Patrick wrote:

    I wheeled Ruby Bike out...

    It's official! Summer has arrived 😀

  7. Alan wrote:

    It's true, Ruby hasn't seen much action this year. The outing may prevent her becoming jealous of Brown Bike. I need to sort out a barbag and under-seat bag for her, so we can enjoy the summer together. If summer lasts for another day, of course. (It reached 32.2 degrees today. Bliss.)

  8. Alan wrote:

    I moved BB out of the way to get Ruby inside, and found BB now has a flat rear tyre. How did that happen?? It was fine this morning, and I haven't ridden him today. Bloomin' jealous bikes.

    Perhaps he was reminding me it's a good time to put on new tyres in plenty of time for the tour.

  9. Patrick wrote:

    Alan wrote: ... the minimum insertion mark was at one inch.

    If it works, it works, but the exposed length of stem looks excessive to me, and the conical expander will be high up the steerer tube so you have a long moment (?) between the top of the stem and the fork crown. Engineering-wise you'd want the expander low down (speaking as a non-engineer again).

    Planning ahead (so to speak) it might be worth considering a quill to threadless converter so you can fit an Ahead type stem instead. This would be stronger, I think. Sandra's Ahead stem is adjustable so the bars can be raised up rather than fastening the stem high up the steerer tube. I've been pondering whether to convert our tourers from drops to flat bars as we never use the drop bit. It also means you don't need to reach forward to brake or change gear.

  10. Alan wrote:

    The photo shows the stem as high as it would go without disconnecting the front brake. This is two inches higher than it was. The minimum insertion mark is at one inch, so that's the final position, an inch lower than in the photo and an inch higher than it was.

    For the cleaning and greasing, I disconnected the front brake and removed the stem. I discovered the wire hanger is very stiff and there is very little chance of it ever touching the tyre, even if it weren't for the mudguard (which is now back on, ready for riding after the thunderstorm is over).

    I'm going to give this change some time and see how it goes. Long-term (next year?), a conversion to Ahead is possible. It depends somewhat on progress of hip, spine and osteoporosis. Eventually a recumbent might be better, which would probably need to be a trike and some major household changes so I have somewhere to put it.

    BB's gears (and Ruby's) are on the downtube. That's where I like them. But taking a hand from the bars to change gear does use various back muscles, which might not do me much good. My normal position is on the hoods, and being able to change gear from there would be neat. Both bikes are also 126mm OLN so the wheels are fully interchangeable. If I changed BB's gears I might want to upgrade to a new-fangled freehub system, which means spreading the stays, figuring out whether the Deore DX mechs would cope, ...

    The puncture was weird. I couldn't find the leak, even in a basin of water. I tried again a few hours later and found it was a small leak from a patch. BB now sports two new tubes and tyres.

  11. Patrick wrote:

    When I got my Giant Escape Disc last year I didn't take to the flat bars (I'd thought of switching to drops even though my old MTB has flats). After riding it through the winter I now prefer them (sort of). Changing gear requires no hand movement.

    The drop bars on the tourers look very nice but there is a lot of excess metal: two brake levers that are never used (although they are used as shifters) and the sections of bar that are never touched. Expensive to switch though.

    CTC forum member John W has some inner tubes with signed patches that date back 20 years or more (as I remember it).

  12. Mick F wrote:

    Well done for shifting the stem!

    I've never had one seize in many a year, probably going back to the 1960's! I'm always tinkering and fettling, so everything gets moved in and out quite a bit, also I always use grease when I put anything back. Latterly, I use copper grease.

    My stem is a Cinelli 1R and is just about at its maximum mark. I've never had it in any other position than it's always been since it was fitted in late 1986.

    Regards to all,

  13. Kern wrote:

    "Copper grease". I've never heard of that, Mick – what is it?

  14. Mick F wrote:

    Hi Kern,
    I'm no chemist, but copper grease has copper particles in suspension in the grease and it acts as an anti-seize compound. Aluminium components should have Alu grease, but Copper grease is ok.

    I have a large tub of copper grease in the workshop, originally bought for cars – I used to have a Mini or two – great for nuts and bolts.

    Quoted from Wiki:
    Copper is added to some greases for high pressure applications, or where corrosion could prevent dis-assembly of components later in their service life. Copaslip is the registered trademark of one such grease produced by Molyslip Atlantic Ltd, and has become a generic term (often spelled as "copperslip" or "coppaslip") for anti-seize lubricants which contain copper.

    Pop into your local motor factors or Halfords, and you should be able to buy a tub. Sometimes you see it in small tubes rather than a big tub.

    Good luck,

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