Subject: Left-Hand Threads
From: Jobst Brandt
Date: April 28, 2004
On bicycles, left-hand threads are used mainly in three places, on left pedals, right bottom bracket (BB) bearing cups, and freewheel cones, to prevent unscrewing under operating loads. Unscrewing occurs from precession, in which a round object rolling inside a circular ring in one direction will itself turn in the opposite direction.
For a pedal, a rotating load arises from downward pedaling force on a spindle rotating with its crank, making the predominantly downward force effectively rotate about the pedal spindle. What may be less evident is that even tightly fitting parts have relative clearance due to their elasticity, metals not being rigid materials, as is evident from steel springs. Under load, micro deformations, enough to cause motion, occur in such joints. This can be seen from wear marks where pedal spindles seat on crank faces.
Precession of right-side BB cups is less obvious because the rotating load is only partial. The largest load being chain tension, that together with the moderately large downward force on the right crank and the smaller upward force from pushing down on the left crank, make 3/4 of a fully rotating load. For this reason, some right BB cups have used right hand threads and some with left hand threads have loosened. The left BB cup, with no significant rotating load has little tendency to turn.
Freewheel cones are more obvious candidates for precession, their load being mainly radial, and rotating continuously in the direction that would unscrew a right hand thread. There are other such but less common threads on bicycles.
Precession forces are large enough that no manner of thread-locking glues, short of welding, will arrest them. Mechanical fretting, the micro-motion of tightly fitting parts moving against one another, is the mechanism of this motion. Motion in these joints causes visible fretting rouge, red iron oxide, on the shoulder of the BB cup and on the face of the pedal spindle.
Left-hand threads would not be required on left pedals if a design common on cars were used. Before the advent of conical lug nuts, many cars used left-hand threads on left-side wheels. Today, stories of wheels rolling away from cars no longer make news, the conical seat having solved this problem on car wheels as it could on bicycle pedals.
However, unscrewing is not the main problem for pedals, but rather crank failure caused by fretting erosion of the pedal eye. Fretting initiates cracks that can cause sudden and unsuspected pedal separation when the eye of a crank breaks. Because this occurs equally with right and left cranks, it is the more important reason for a conical spindle face and crank eye. This has been tested.
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