Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The feel of steel makes it real

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.”


Howard said...

I got me a steel-framed Fuji Touring bike and I've ridden it for over 6,300 miles this year -- so far. As I wrote on my own blog, "My Fuji might commonly be thought of as 'a beater' by the cycling cognoscente. But right now, I don't want or need easier. I'm comfortable where I am. I can go as fast as I want. I pass everyone when I'm in that kind of mood. And yes, climbing 8% grades that go on forever hurts like hell, but I accept that."

A better bike [ie: lighter] would not necessarily make me a better cyclist.

Anonymous said...

Hey Dave,

I agree with everything you said. I still ride my steel bike. I met you back in the 80's in your shop where you reluctantly measured me for a frame I'd purchased through Paul Deem.

I just wish I could drop 7-8 pounds of weight when those other old farts my age blow by me on our local hill climb.

When I can beat everyone to the top with my "old school" bike, then I'll buy a Litespeed.

John Natiw said...

Another great article. Although I have a great aluminum framed bike (LeMond), I recently purchased a steel framed bike from a garage sale It is a double-butted steel frame with Ishawata tubing. I don't know much about that sort of thing, but folks in my local club who do say I got a great deal on a great bike. Funny thing is, this older bike is only a "couple of full water bottles" heavier than my newer ride.

Now, to speak to what Howard said in the first comment, I agree! I took my first real ride on the new (old) bike last night and was able to ride just as fast on flats (and hills) as when riding my newer bike. I was even using TOE CLIPS (the horrah!). Upon returning to the parking lot, one of my mates (riding a $7000 Colnago) said in jest (mostly) "are you trying to make us look bad???"


Anonymous said...

I used to ride for SJBC as a junior back when Shaw's and Slough's were at peace. A few teammates ended up with Fuso bikes in special San Jose Bicycle Club livery while I "enjoyed" the carbon/aluminum Vitus/Peugot my misguided father had bought for me.

Never again. There's nothing like steel in terms of feedback, handling, comfort, and longevity. I've owned a n RB-1 and now a Tomassini Sintesi, each giving away about 1.5 - 2 lbs to the top-tier carbon bikes. It just makes it more satisfying to clobber them.

Noel said...

Thanks very much Dave. I have 3 steel bikes and just recently got a frame made by you which I will build up in the summer. My favorite ride is a Peugeot, an oldie that doesn't have a seat tube clamp instead a plug holds it down. It is now set up as single speed and it is a joy to ride. I've been able to get it up to 23 mph and hold it on flats and mild terrain. My other ride is an older Bianchi Pista which can climb well and finally a rebadged Cinelli when the first virtual sloping frame were introduced. And all of them set with steel forks. Just recently got a trek to see what I m missing -- not much. I think the trick to climbing is to just stand up.... Even though I have old 36 spoke mavics -- I beieve that the other trick is a light wheelset for climbing not a light bike, and the formula to a stable descent is really body position not carbon. The ride of a good steel bike can never be replicated.. or imitated.

No wonder Kirin and NJS never budge from steel.

Ben said...

When beginning my new life as a daily bike commuter, my dad was generous enough to give me his 1982 Trek 900 series road bike with Columbus tubing. I was quite grateful to have something more appropriate for road riding than my bulky mid-90s Schwinn mountain bike.

His statement when handing it over after we put new tires on and lubed up the chain was, "It's not nearly as light as newer bikes, but I think it'll work."

And worked it has. Its ride is amazing and, having stripped it of most ancillary components, it's just the right weight.

Bujiatang said...

I have a Peugeot Uo8 my UNcle bought in NYC in the early 70s when my folks moved out there. I found the frame hiding in a shed without wheels, and the leather seat half rotted away. I've built it back up, loaded with panniers and everything it weighs in around 30. But I ride it every week, and in all weather.

Noel is right, those old steel Peugeots rode well. I had a mountain bike in the mid ninties that always always felt muddy. I hated riding it.