Friday, November 6, 2015

Resurgence of Steel Frame Bikes?

Ever check out Gear Patrol? I usually don't, as it is a website/online magazine that's mostly aimed at an economic demographic that pretty much eats people like me for lunch.

But the other day, it was called to my attention that I should check out the site. And there, amid articles about hyper-expensive exotic cars and motorcycles, expedition watches, and brandy -- all priced for the top 1% -- I saw this article about steel bicycles:

The bicycle pictured at the top of the article was built by Chris Bishop, who is one of a new generation of very talented framebuilders working today. Though the bike shown has some very non-retrogrouchy features (electronic shifting, disc brakes, and a straight fork), it's an awfully nice bike -- and it's lovingly built in steel.

The GP article quotes Bradley Woehl, the owner of American Cyclery in San Francisco, as well as former racer Andy Hampsten, who now heads Hampsten Cycles, which offers most of their models in steel (though generally designed and built for non-retrogrouches). The article talks about how steel was displaced, briefly, by aluminum in the '90s, then carbon fiber started taking over by the end of that decade. OK - nothing most of us don't already know. What's cool is to see an article about latest and greatest trends saying something like this:

"But where these newer materials excel at traits necessary for speed in racing like lightness and stiffness, they have major shortcomings in characteristics important for everyday riders, like comfort, toughness, and cost-effectiveness."

American Cyclery's Woehl adds, "When aluminum came along, it was lighter and stiffer than steel, which, if you're a good hill climber, you need that out of your bike. If you're just riding to work, the coffee shop, or even a bike tour down the coast, not so much."

The article describes a perceived shift in priorities that may be leading to renewed interest in steel as a building material. "Utilitarian bikes for everyday riding and bike touring; high-end custom frames from big-name bike builders; and even classic bike races that mix romanticism with reality. This shift of the gears has been a good one for cycling. Bike commuting has increased by 46 percent in America since 2005, and as that boom continues today, steel's influence on cycling's identity is rising."

Some other excerpts that might resonate with Retrogrouch readers:

"The steel bike rides better, it lasts longer, it ages more gracefully, and it's a more practical thing," Woehl says. . . "They're heavier than aluminum and carbon fiber" but "the extra weight of steel versus aluminum or carbon fiber isn't a deal breaker for most amateur riders who, unlike pro racers, don't need to shed every possible ounce of weight in order to keep up with the peloton. And unlike carbon fiber bikes, steel frames are being custom made around the country without reaching astronomical price tags."

That last part can be true, though it's also just as true that one can easily spend just as much on a custom-built steel frame as they would on a carbon fiber one. Though some of us would argue that they'd be getting much more bike for their money.

There are some elements in the article that I believe are a bit over-simplified. For one, there was this quote: "An aluminum bike has a really harsh ride quality -- it's stiff and unforgiving. Every little pebble you run over in an aluminum bike, you feel that bump."  Such a statement can often be supported by looking at most of the aluminum bikes that have been on the market over the years - built with over-sized tubing to compensate (usually over-compensate) for that material's lack of stiffness as compared to steel. But the harsh ride quality is more a product of design and construction than it is of the material itself. I've ridden some old Vitus aluminum frames with their 1-in. to 1 1/8-in. diameter tubes and found them to be quite comfy. Granted, I still greatly prefer steel as a frame material, but it's important to understand the differences.

The sidebar titled "What to Look For," is similarly simplified. I guess the gear-heads who worship the latest equipment are only expected to be able to afford it, not fully understand it.

"Steel is versatile, strong and relatively affordable -- but its popularity has also spawned shoddy versions not worth their cost. . . Start by checking the grade of the steel . . . Chromoly is a safe bet, as is higher-grade steel like Reynolds 853. . . Classic steel frames and higher-end models often use lugged construction or fillet brazing, both of which are beautiful but expensive. The more modern construction uses stronger TIG weld, which works just fine."

Reynolds 853 is a "safe bet"? That's pretty high-end stuff -- and not likely found on junk frames. And regular readers of this blog know how much I love lugged construction, but there are some relatively inexpensive lugged frames built in automated factories these days. It's true, I don't know of many (or any) inexpensive fillet-brazed frames. What about TIG welding? Is it really stronger? All three construction methods, if done right, will result in frame joints that are stronger than the steel tubing itself, so a statement like that could really use some clarification. TIG welding is a lot more common these days, too -- but it isn't necessarily any less expensive. Most low-cost mass-produced steel frames are TIG welded today, but a lot of super expensive high-end and custom-built frames are welded, too.

With so much hype about the latest carbon fiber w┼▒nderbikes, and pushing the envelope in search of the lightest and fastest bike possible, it's almost a shock to see an article like this one extolling the virtues of a steel bike as though it might be the latest thing. But no doubt, if a person is looking for a bike to be a long-time riding companion, and want a bike that is more versatile - capable of more than just go-fast racer-wannabe riding - then chances are, that person is going to get the most bike for the money in steel. It's just surprising to see others coming around to that.


  1. I feel like my Mercians--three built from Reynolds 631, the other from 531--ride better and better every year.

    Even if you outfit a nice steel bike with high-tech components, it will still ride longer and more comfortably, and simply be more classy, than a bike made from any other material.

  2. Your review of the article is spot-on, but the sad fact is that nobody buying that magazine is going to buy a steel bike and actually ride it anyway.

  3. I've always preferred steel, lugged frames and still do. However, I have two Vitus 979 bikes and was pleasantly surprised how much I liked the ride. I'm at 183 lbs. and still don't feel the flex that I've read so much about. On the other hand I'm 76 years old and don't have the power of a 25 year old. BTW, I have four vintage Mercians. For the money they are hard to beat.

    1. People always talked about the flex of those Vitus frames, but nobody's ever been able to prove that a little flex slows a person down or saps their power - likewise, there's no substantial proof that a super stiff frame is really any faster or more efficient. Jan Heine of Bicycle Quarterly has even made a pretty good case that a little flex can actually be better for speed, at least in some situations. I had a Vitus cyclocross frame, which turned out to be a fairly rare item, and I really regret selling it. But yes, like you, I really love those Mercians.

    2. I had one of those aluminium Vitus which were glued. It rode well, but the flex was terrible. I don't say that it make me slower, but i sure didn't like it. But i am 90kg heavy and have the physic of a flatlander : Big tights, big calves, good power, can't climb a molehill. :)
      Was still a good catch since i bought it at a yard sale for 20€ and resold it for far more. But i prefer my old trusted steel Vitus SV 6000 which is my everyday bike even tough its not that great but resist everything i threw at him.

      Mercian, never owned one. Never even saw one at yard sales even tough i go to one every week when its the season. Hell, i never even saw one in person. I would like one but not a the prices they are sold on the net...

      As for the resurgence of steel, its very true, at least were i live. I converted several riders of my group to steel, which was not that difficult since they were tired of sending their frame for warranty and squeeky botom brackets and even more since we witnessed a guy riding Arenberg's trench (a very difficult section of cobbles for those who do not know) having his fork break in two suddenly. Very nasty crash, broken jaw, several teeth missing and good gash on his leg. That sort of things make you think twice about the reliability of your bike.

      And even friends who are not avid cyclist ask me to find them a nice vintage bike more and more. its not just the retro appeal, its also a question of aesthetics, ridding position, comfort and bang for your bucks. When people see that i get very beautiful bikes for the prices of a new derailleur...that make them pause.

      I see also a lot more steel frames under younger riders than before out there. A lot of them also comment on my favorite bike (78 gazelle champion mondial the "love of my life" like my ex-girlfriend called it...angrily :) ) , even tough its not that well known. When i sold a bike, more often than not its a young rider that come to purchase it which was not the case a few years ago where it was more likely an older person wanting the bike of his young days or the bike that he could not buy when he was younger. Its anecdotal since i don't sell that much (5-6 a year), but the trend is here.

      On a tangent its weird how i found different bikes depending on which country i go. Living on the border, i go to yard sales in Belgium and France and the bikes i found are generally very different. Far more Italians bikes in Belgium, and obviously far more french bikes in France (peugeot, motobecane, mercier) even tough its only a few Km from one to another place.

      Ps: sorry for my bad gramar/spelling, i am a little bit rusty. And i also wanted to say that i appreciate your blog greatly, even tough you have bad taste in saddles: San Marco FTW. :D

  4. Saying that a TIG joint is “stronger” is misleading. I expect it’s the kind of thing a salesman may resort to saying.
    TIG welding can be performed by robots quickly, and is used for most mass produced steel bikes these days.
    Properly constructed joints used for steel bike frames do not fail; the steel tube will collapse near the joint instead. It doesn’t matter if its a lug, fillet, or TIG.
    I like fillet brazed frames, and it may be the easiest method of construction for the hobbyist. No need to find the correctly angled lug; any tube angle can be possible. A mistake or repair is easy to fix. Just melt the brass while brushing it away with a wire brush, and fit a new tube. Lugged and TIG joints are much harder to repair.