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The appeal of steel bikes

The traditional material for frames has staying power.

Steel bikes just don’t go away. Sure, carbon-fibre frames are the default from the pro peloton to your weekend group ride, but that older material is still around. Retro-inspired riders restore old machines to experience cycling history. Some companies continue to carry steel bikes with modern parts. The discerning cyclist will order a bespoke bike, made from steel, to meet his exact ride requirements. The material’s presence is as enduring as the lugs on an old Cinelli. For more insight into steel and its continued appeal, four experts offer their thoughts.

Why are you still involved in building, selling or distributing steel bikes?

Chris Speyer, executive vice president of product development and marketing of Raleigh America. One of Raleigh’s tag lines within its 125 years has been “the original all-steel bike company.” People associate beautiful steel frames with the brand, so we make sure that these are part of our offering, that we always have steel in our line. One of our core values is around utility products.
Krys Hines, owner of Domestique- Café Cyclo Sportif and distributor of Domestique steel-frame bikes. I’m not trying to do our bike, which is built at Cycles Marinoni, based on fashion per se. I’m not doing steel because it’s fashionable. I’m doing it because it’s accessible, inexpensive and good value. There seems to be a gap in the market: gone are the days of getting an inexpensive, basic road bike. Steel bikes are either super expensive handmade bikes or they’re just not good road bikes like the ones you could pull of any rack in any bike store in the ’80s.

Hugh Black, owner and bike builder at True North Cycles. I’m selling bikes that people are going to have for a long time and enjoy.

Describe the cyclist who rides a steel bike.

Paolo Marinoni, president of Cycles Marinoni. Many carbon-fibre bikes are for racing, but we have a lot of customers who don’t race. They want more a comfortable bike and a repairable bike. They try a lot of frames and they prefer the ride of a steel frame.
KH These riders already have the titanium and the carbonfibre bike. They have an aluminum ‘cross bike, too. Then there comes a “re-appeal” for steel for people who’ve come to the sport only in the time of aluminum and carbon fibre. I’m never surprised when people go from carbon fibre to a steel frame, which becomes their go-to bike. There’s a common path from being a newbie to being obsessed about weight to being obsessed about fitness. At a certain point, it’s nice to have the new stuff, but if you are riding for long enough, regardless of the level, it doesn’t make much of a difference. Why not have a bike that is a little more practical that may be stylish but not fashionable?

CS We think that steel frames, with their simplicity, really appeal to people who just want a bike that feels good underneath them. The material is incredibly durable. But a steel bike is not something that you’ll use to ride off the front of the peloton. It’s something for longer rides and urban riding or commuting. The rider is somebody who loves the culture and the history of the sport, or just appreciates the feel of riding a steel frame. I think it’s the enthusiast who’s doing a lot of riding. He or she has gone through the different materials but has had a difficult time finding something that has a supple road feel like steel. I don’t think it’s a person doing a lot of racing. I think it’s more of the person who’s more of an endurance rider or gran fondo rider that’s picking our steel bike, such as the International or the Record Ace. It’s a niche category within cycling. That doesn’t mean there won’t be new innovations down the road, but I think what people always prize is steel’s simplicity. I think if you look at who’s riding those bikes, they honour the history of the sport or they take a bit of an alternative view of what they want to have underneath them.

Can you touch on the longevity of steel frames?
HB You can always put a new tube in steel frame.
KH On a steel bike, chain suck will scrape the paint off of the chainstay. But chain suck can ruin a carbon-fibre bike. When steel fails, it bends. It stays together. I’ve never seen steel rip in half, but carbon…

How significant is the weight of steel?
HB Between carbon fibre and steel, you’re not talking huge differences in weight. Your super-light high-end carbon-fibre frame weighs less than 900 g, less than 2 lb. You can get steel frames to 2.5 to 3 lb. quite easily, but then you end up with the same kind of longevity issue that you’d expect with a carbonfibre frame. If I’m going to make a bike that is going to last 20 years, it’s going have a 3.5 to 4 lb. frame. I wouldn’t say the weight is necessarily a drawback because more weight equals more longevity.

PM With a steel frame, you’ll have roughly 400 g more weight than a carbon-fibre frame. It’s not like before. Steel frames from 25 years ago were 2 kg or 4.5 lb. Now they’re more like 1,500 g, sometimes a little less than that. Also remember, if you save 500 g on a carbon-fibre frame, and then put two bottles of water on, you’ve added 1,300 g. I don’t think you’ll go faster with less water on your bike.

What are some other features of a steel frame?
HB Half the bikes I sell all have the S and S couplers on them. That’s something that’s not available with carbon fibre. The couplers let you take apart a frame so the bike fits in a suitcase that can be checked on an airplane without an extra baggage cost.

KH There are other considerations, such as fender mounts, that don’t actually slow a bike down. It’s a fashion thing that bikes don’t have fenders now. Racing Cinellis in the ‘60s came with fenders. You’d take them off to race. The rest of the time: who wants to get wet?

How would you compare steel with carbon fibre?
HB If you are a good racer and want something as light as can be, a carbon-fibre bike is perfect. It’s responsive and great for someone switching bikes every few years. Otherwise, the ride of a carbon-fibre bike is not as good as a steel bike or a titanium bike. The people who buy bikes from me, in general, are buying bikes that are going to last 20 years. You do not get that longevity with carbon fibre. People are going to ride my bikes for more than 100,000 km without issues.

KH I think as far as performance goes – the road-racing scene or track-racing scene – I don’t think steel is coming back.

Could you comment on the ride quality of steel?
CS I think it’s one of the best-feeling frame materials still on the market.
HB Steel and titanium have wonderful ride characteristics. You can tailor them to be compliant or stiff. It’s easy for me to build a custom bike for someone because I can fine-tune it for what the rider needs.

KH I think too much is made of the ride-quality issue. I think it’s hard to compare. Most people feel their contact points: the flex of the seat post or the flex of the tires. But I don’t think people can feel the effects of the frame. I can’t tell the difference between my steel bike and my titanium bike. I can tell the difference when I’m riding a carbon-fibre bike mostly because it’s way stiffer than the others. That’s the defining factor. But if I’m just cruising down the road, I can sense the difference in the tires I’m riding better than the frame.
What do you ride?
PM I have one carbon-fibre bike and two steel bikes. One of my bikes is 20 years old. I converted it to put a rack on the back and a baby seat. I use that bike for dropping my girls off at daycare and going to work.

KH At the moment, I share a Domestique Proper with [bike mechanic and CCM contributor] Chad Grochowina.

CS I have one Raleigh International sitting in my garage. It’s my go-to bike for longer rides.

HB I have a fixed-gear monster-cross bike with 35c tires. I can ride it anywhere I want: on group rides, light trails and gravel.