On Monday I was presented with a serious dilemma: A customer brought in an old Univega road bike that was his daily commuter. For reasons that remain unclear -- misadjusted rear derailleur? Out-of-true wheel? -- His derailleur over-shifted and went into the rear wheel. A pie-plate spoke guard saved the wheel, but the derailleur snapped in two and the derailleur hanger (the metal tab on the rear dropout into which the rear derailleur threads) was bent over at an almost 70-degree angle. It looked bad.
After closer inspection, I advised the customer that we could try to bend the hanger back but that there was a risk of the metal cracking from the stress of being bent over, and then back; if that failed we'd have to saw off the hanger and either run the bike as a singlespeed or install a Problem Solver emergency derailleur hanger to utilize a replacement derailleur. The customer wasn't interested in running a singlespeed and had limited funds, so he asked us to take the risk and to find a used rear derailleur that could work with his existing drive-train.
Using careful combination of the derailleur alignment beam and a large crescent wrench, I carefully bent the derailleur hanger back into place. Its alignment wasn't perfect but it was straight enough to take another derailleur. I sifted through the box of used derailleurs and found one that would work with his shifters. Ultimately, we had to replace the chain -- it was slightly twisted and would not engage the cogs cleanly anymore -- and straighten the inner chainring, which probably got bent during the mishap.
In the end, I was able to resurrect the bike without forcing the customer to buy a bunch of expensive new parts or a new frame. I did advise him that this would not be a permanent solution; the derailleur hanger was now compromised by being bent repeatedly and he'd have to keep an eye on it. (Judging from the two inches of caked-on road detritus I brushed off the underside of the downtube and bottom bracket shell, I had my doubts that he'd pay much attention before the thing finally gave way for good but at least I did my job in warning him.)
Which leads to my thesis: older steel frames can take a beating and at least 50 per cent of the time they can come back for more. But today, the number of other shops willing to do the kinds of frame straightening that we do regularly is shrinking. (For example, REI no longer straightens frames or forks at all. I learned this when I brought a fork to them several years ago and asked them to double-check my alignment. They cited liability insurance as the primary reason.) And while I understand it, I don't like it. Bike shops used to be miracle workers on a regular basis. Nowadays most of them will steer the customer towards a new part or frame before trying to ressurrect the old frame. I am glad we were able to work a minor miracle for a customer who had limited funds and needed to get back on his bike.