To many bike racers, the mere suggestion of racing on a steel frame, let alone training on one, would be considered a joke. For some unwarranted reason, steel has gained a reputation in certain circles as being slow, heavy and technologically retarded – similar to the now unfounded reputation diesel-powered cars earned in the United States.
But the reality is that steel has never been stronger, lighter and more durable than it is today. And more than that, no other material can offer the versatility to custom build a bike which fits its rider perfectly.
Mass-produced Taiwanese carbon frames, which often cost more than a custom-built steel frame, cannot even come close to providing the right fit, feel and ride quality that steel can provide, let alone its durability, which will last its owner a lifetime if cared for properly.
So before you write that check, consider these reasons why steel is indeed real:
Custom Fit – Today’s production carbon bikes, in addition to being astronomically expensive, are not custom fit for you, the rider. And although one of the big advantages of carbon is its exceptional shock absorption and ride, every frame is designed for the heaviest common denominator, in other words, about 220 pounds. So what you have is a 150 pound rider on a bike designed for a 220 pound pilot. How do you think the ride is? Stiff. Rigor mortis stiff. So stiff that it can lead to unpredictable handling characteristics, which inevitably results in an intermediate rider crashing his brains out.
Alternatively, a custom-made steel bike is designed and built exactly to the rider’s height, weight, inseam and torso specifications, which will not only deliver a far better fit, but significantly better handling, compliance and ride quality.
Timeless Style – Yes, carbon fiber looks cool, but its look has not stood the test of time like a custom-built steel frame. Hand-carved stainless steel lugs, fillet brazed tubing, and subtle accents provide far more personalization than a mass-produced carbon frame can ever wish to offer. It’s like comparing a nice suit you buy at Brooks Brothers to a suit that was made with raw fabric, by hand, in painstaking detail and care, by a master tailor.
A custom built steel frame from names like Baylis, Eisentraut and White also reflect the owner’s appreciation for keeping alive the tradition of handcrafted bicycle artisanship, which goes back over a century. A typical carbon frame can be manufactured in a matter of a couple hours or less, anonymously cranked out on an assembly line with a thousand other frames just like it. Brian Baylis claims that every single one of his frames has a minimum of 100 hours of his own masterful labor invested, and no two frames in his nearly 40 years of building are alike. With steel, you’re not just buying a bike, you’re buying a timelessly stylish piece of art.
Minimal Weight Difference – Perhaps the biggest complaint about steel is how much heavier it is than carbon. But like this author’s penchant for hyperbole, the difference is greatly exaggerated. The advancement of technology has been a driving force behind carbon’s arrival into the mainstream of the bike industry. Carbon frames are pushing the limits of shedding weight, with some frames dipping below the two-pound mark. But technology has also benefited steel, primarily in the form of thinner-wall tubing that provides not only more tensile strength, but also lighter weight.
The lightest steel frame you’ll probably find comes in at three pounds, but spec the bike the same, and you’re only talking a one pound difference over a carbon frame. Is that one pound weight penalty really a deal breaker? Are you that much of a weight weenie? Is weight really that much more important than ride quality? Ask a 180 pound rider who’s piloted a 15 pound bike down a windy mountain pass at 50 miles an hour if he’d be willing to sacrifice a little weight for a more predictable ride.
In other disciplines such as cyclocross, having the absolute lightest bike is arguably more important than even with a road bike, because you have to constantly lift it and lug it on your shoulder. So carbon naturally has an initial advantage over steel. However, carbon frames have very tight clearances, and when the course resembles a mud wrestling pit, that featherweight carbon bike will turn into a mud-clogged anchor, making a steel bike with greater clearances pounds lighter. That is, unless of course, you’re fast enough to warrant having a backup bike with someone at the ready to exchange with you (I’m assuming this isn’t the case).