Editor’s Note: This is one of the most engaging articles we’ve ever published and it’s as relevant today as it was when first published in 2012.
So you’re about to mosey on over to your local bike shop and drop more coin for your first genuine racing bike than most people pay for an entire motorcycle. You’re either new to the sport of cycling or you’ve been riding for a few years, learning the ropes on an old aluminum frame that’s one season away from the dumpster.
You’ve been watching all the Spring classics, the Giro, the Vuelta, and the Tour taking notes on who’s riding what. You’ve drooled over your own teammates’ high-dollar race rig that has more carbon fiber on it than the International Space Station.
You’ve done all your research, have test-ridden all of the latest, high dollar, carbon fiber machines, and you’ve picked your winner. The checkbook is in hand cocked and ready to besmirch every last dollar in your savings account, and all that’s left to do is negotiate with the shop so you at least have a little bit of cash left to buy some inner tubes.
But before your visions of grandeur run rampant and your checkbook becomes more hollow than Landis’ Maillot Jaune, are you sure carbon is the right frame material for your needs?
Don’t take it wrong, carbon indeed has its merits, but the recent carbon craze seems to be heavily tied to bandwagon mentality; whatever the pros are doing is what the masses want to do too. It was true in the ‘70s with drilled-out components, in the ‘80s with copious amounts of hair gel and Briko shades, in the ‘90s with those horrific lycra shorts designed to look like blue jeans, and today with carbon racing bikes.
And why shouldn’t carbon be popular? A frame and fork weighs less than a six-pack of brew, they’ve got terrific road damping capabilities, are stiffer than an I-beam – at least initially – and most importantly, carbon fiber has an indisputable cool factor. As a testament to the popularity of carbon, custom bike builders who made their name in steel are now crossing over to carbon. Names like Steelman, Serotta and Independent Fabrications all offer bank account-busting custom carbon frames.
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).
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!