Durability – Frame builders have been working with steel for over a century for many reasons, but one of the most popular reasons is because of the material’s durability. Evidenced by bikes built 50 to 100 years ago still roaming the streets today, steel has proven its worth as a “lifetime” material. Carbon? Not so much. Have you ever ridden an old, monocoque carbon frame with tens of thousands of miles on it? Wet noodle is the first descriptor which comes to mind.
I distinctly remember the joyous look on my buddy’s face when he got his brand new Team CSC Cervelo Soloist frame, it was the happiest day of his life as a budding Cat 2 racer. But that look of joy was nothing compared to the look of utter dejection he had upon returning from a crit in which he crashed and cracked the brand new frame clear through the seat tube. $2,500 down the drain purely because the tube landed on someone else’s handlebars at a bad angle. A steel frame would have scoffed at the mere thought.
And if you’re the type of person who has more muscle than common sense, absolutely steer clear of carbon. Steel frames can handle the over-tightening of bolts with no qualms, but over-tighten the front derailleur clamp on a carbon frame, and the resulting crack you hear will make you want to stick your head in a vice and over-tighten.
Also, be extra careful when loading that carbon bike in the back of your car. One misplaced blunt-shaped object will render your brand new $5,000 carbon racing machine more lame than a racehorse with tendonitis.
Value – Given the same amount of money spent, would you rather have a custom frame, designed to your exact size and weight specifications, that was built with the loving care and meticulous detail of a metal artisan, or a mass-produced frame banged out on a Taiwanese assembly line designed with the most common denominator in mind?
With proper care, a steel frame will most likely outlive you, while a carbon frame will hardly outlive the credit card debt you’ll be mired in regardless of what frame material you end up buying.
Of all these aforementioned reasons, what I think the carbon versus steel argument really boils down to is durability. You’re shelling out a significant chunk of change for a bike. This is a bike you will be riding every single day (optimistically) and racing a few weekends per month (even more optimistically). If you have a finite amount of money like most normal people in this world, you want a bike that can deliver durability and reliability to last as long as possible, so at a minimum, when you’re done with it, you can sell it to someone else with a clean conscience knowing it will provide the next owner years of enjoyment.
Owning a carbon bike makes sense in some situations, like if you get insane “bro deals” from sponsorships or you’re on the payroll of a UCI-sanctioned race team, and are fed free bikes on a monthly basis. In these situations, durability isn’t as much of an issue, because you’re either selling it after one season or you’re constantly riding a brand new frame free of charge.
But if your goal is to buy a bike which will last at least 5 to 10 years, you owe it to yourself to check out some of your local custom steel bike builders. Or head to events like the annual North American Handmade Bicycle Show or San Diego Custom Bicycle Show, which will really open your eyes to the beauty and legitimacy of steel as a bona-fide racing material.
But whatever your decision, have fun, be safe and keep the hammer down!