When I ran my framebuilding business in California during the 1980s; occasionally a member of the general public would stumble into my frameshop. They would invariably ask two questions and at the same time try to answer themselves.
The conversation would go something like this. “Oh, you make bicycles. Who do you make them for? Schwinn?” The second double edge question was, “What are they made of? Aluminum?”
In the eyes of Joe Public at that time, there was only one bicycle company in the whole world, so anyone building bicycles had to be subcontracting for Schwinn. And racing bicycles had to be lightweight so therefore they must be made of aluminum.
I would have to go though the motions of explaining that the frames were made of lightweight steel. My customers at the time were knowledgeable people who knew that a high tensile steel was the best material for a quality frame for a road bicycle.
The serious road bicycle never caught on with Joe Public. Those dropped handlebars were uncomfortable, and the tight shorts and little white socks? Now that wasn’t what you call manly. Then came the Mountain Bike revolution. The Mountain Bike was the SUV of the bicycle world. Big, chunky, and very manly.
The truth is to enjoy a road bicycle to its fullest extent requires a certain amount of dedication. It is like the difference between jogging, giving the appearance running but taking tiny steps and moving at the speed of a brisk walk, and serious running, taking long and high strides, moving at a fast pace. If you hop on a road bike only once a month it will always feel uncomfortable.
Unfortunately it is the masses, Joe Public, that keep manufacturers and retailers in business. Manufacturers of MTBs found that aluminum was cheap and easy to weld together. Forget the ride quality; the people buying these bikes were only going to ride them once in a while anyway. Aluminum was an easy sale; in the eyes of Joe Public buying a bike for the first time, aluminum was lightweight so it must be good.
Then there is titanium. The cold war came to an end in the late 1980s and with it came an end to making armaments and a subsequent world glut it titanium. Russia dumped tons of the stuff on the market; I remember people calling me nearly every day trying to sell me cheap titanium tubing. Today titanium is something like $30,000 a ton, making for some very expensive bicycles.
How about Carbon Fiber? Wow, that’s the stuff they build Stealth Fighter Airplanes out of; you can’t get any more high tech than that. And it’s super lightweight. But again the manufactures of the carbon fiber materials look after their biggest customers first; in other words the aircraft industry. Bicycle manufactures are small fry in their eyes and so get charged a premium for the material; making the finished product very expensive.
“Steel is real,” is a catchy slogan being banded about by people in the know. Why? It is all about ride quality; a steel frame is like a very strong steel spring. It absorbs a certain amount of road shock and when the rider makes a sudden effort it has just the right amount of give, but at the same time quickly transfers the rider’s energy directly to the back wheel. It is called responsiveness.
Many people who ride road bikes do not race but simply ride for exercise and the pure pleasure of riding. Let’s face it you can burn just as many calories on any old bike, but if you make the experience pleasurable it is no longer a chore that exercise can become. If you ride a bike for pleasure, then why not ride a bike that is a pleasure to ride?
Even so steel is a hard sell. To those looking at the latest carbon fiber; steel seems like ‘old tech’ and therefore inferior. There is a whole generation of road riders who have previously ridden mountain bikes made of aluminum and carbon fiber, and have never experienced the feeling of a quality steel frame.
Steel has other advantages like longevity and reliability. Case in point; the frames I built in the 1970s and 1980s are still being ridden and enjoyed. A steel fame will not fail suddenly and dramatically; it will not disintegrate in a cloud of dust as some CF frames have been known to do.
You can crash on a steel frame and you can straighten it out or repair it and safely ride it again. Crash on a CF frame and you have no idea what damage you have done to fibers inside the frame that you cannot see.
Will steel make a come back? I believe so, but slowly. And it may not be steel’s ride qualities that bring it back, but rather law suits and warranty problems brought on by failures of other materials. If and when that happens manufactures will not state that as a reason, but will sell the ride quality of steel.
I am just an old fart who used to make bicycle frames so why should I care? No reason really; except for the satisfaction of being able to say, “I told you so.”