Snap, crackle, pop. That is a symphony of sounds we prefer to hear at the breakfast table rather than emanating from our carbon components in the bike stand. As bike technology progresses, and we continue to move towards lighter and lighter componentry, it has become increasingly more important to monitor our torque values as we install our handlebars, stems, and seatposts. The days of the ham-fisted bike mechanic are long gone and jokes about “tighten it ’til it smokes, then back off a hair” are no longer that funny once you hear that ominous crunch.
That first crunch means one thing – there is irreparable damage already done to that handlebar. Anytime a carbon component makes a sound that makes you wince and you feel a tingle near your back pocket that you fear may develop into full fledged pain, chances are very good that you may have already compromised the carbon lay-up in said component. Carbon fiber is simply an amalgam of layers of carbon strands and epoxy resin. Both are structurally worthless without the other, but combined together they are perfect for the construction of many bike parts. Each component is designed to do one job — withstand the stresses associated with its particular application. Of course, a handlebar should be made to withstand the clamping force applied by a stem face-plate, but only what’s necessary to hold it from rotating in the stem and causing an accident out on the trail. Over-tightening can lead to deformation and delamination. Both of these “D-words” are bad, okay? Either way, one can lead to another and both can lead to product failure. A composite structure is only viable when intact and quickly loses its integrity when damage has been initiated.
This is the reason we use torque wrenches in our shop here at Competitive Cyclist. Each of our work benches has a Syntace torque wrench hanging on the wall. Obviously we work on a lot of nice bikes, so we use them often. This is done to ensure that we apply the correct amount of torque to hold the parts together, but not damage anything in the process. The Syntace wrench is very nice and very accurate. It is adjustable and is graduated with readings available in Newton/meters and inch/pounds. It is pretty expensive, but for our purposes it’s worth having. For most folks, it might just be high-dollar toolbox dressing.
Finally, there’s a more practical solution. The Ritchey Torque Key fills the void between the big investment and do-all nature of the Syntace tool and guessing with a wrench in hand, which we all know isn’t a good idea. The Ritchey tool is designed for use with Ritchey handlebars and stems. Their fasteners on their WCS line of parts are conveniently all 4mm hex bolts, and they all use a factory specified 5 N/m torque values. It is a great idea to have something so handy. For $16, you can have insurance against accidentally crushing your new $260 SuperLogic handlebar. Of course, it works on any 4mm fastener on any manufacturer’s parts, so long as it needs a 5 N/m torque. The tool is preset and is not adjustable. It would appear that the 4mm bit is removable, but despite the use of a vise and all of our Monday morning might, we couldn’t pull it out. Our official determination is that it is not removable. Someone handy might be able to fashion an adapter bit from 4-5mm with some old tool bits and a tig welder, but for now we’ll just enjoy it as-is.
The Ritchey Torque Key is very simple to use. It looks just like a funny door key, hence the name. As stated before, a 4mm hex bit is firmly held in the tool shaft, which is about 30mm long. All of this emanates from the black plastic key handle. The mystery of it all makes us want to cut it apart to see what’s inside, but it’s too handy. We might just have to wonder how it works and be satisfied that we’ve got it when we need it. To start a bolt, the top of the handle has a splined portion that allows easy rotation through the thumb and forefinger to get the majority of the threading done quickly before the bolt gets snug. As the bolt begins to get tight, we transition to the larger t-shaped part of the handle. Ritchey’s preset torque setting is 5 N/m so it takes only the thumb and first finger or two to twist the Torque Key until the factory torque preset is reached. At the preset limit, the Ritchey Torque Key pops and gives way. The action is defined and clear. Once at the 5 N/m value, put the tools away and you’re done. It’s time to ride!
We did a Google search for torque keys and found a number of other tool manufacturers that offer such products. Even though we found some preset keys, none were as remotely affordable as the Ritchey Torque Key. Though it is preset at 5 N/m, it is useful for nearly any fastener application on a bike, as long as it has a 4mm hex bolt. Most stem and handlebar clamps would likely be safe at 5 N/m torque, although it would be prudent to check with the manufacturers specs for each part. Seatposts would generally be safe too. We recommend an assembly paste for all of these parts as well. Ritchey markets it, as does Tacx. Assembly paste ensures even torque along the clamping surface and actually adds holding power to tricky interfaces, like glossy carbon componentry.
This little product could be one of those remarkable anomalies in the bike world. It’s a very, very good deal. It’s a pocket-sized, $16 jewel, and worth every penny.