In an age where modern, high-tech frame materials like carbon, aluminum and titanium dominate the cycling scene, you may wonder why I would choose to ride steel.
The archetypal frame material, steel has been around since the earliest days of cycling and while riding a steel frame bicycle has a certain romanticism to it, the steel bikes of today are a far cry from their heavy ancestors of yesteryear.
Today’s steel frame bikes embody a perfect balance of ride quality, durability, repair-ability, environmental sensitivity, design flexibility and aesthetics. For many – from everyday cyclists to hardened race snakes and intrepid adventurers – they are the ultimate dream bike.
Steel is easily customized making it the material of choice for frame builders and designers who create custom and hand-built bicycles. With steel tubing available in a variety of diameters and wall thicknesses, it easy to fine-tune the design and optimize ride quality, performance and utility to create a bike for exactly the kind of cycling you intend to do. For example bikes intended for hauling heavier loads have a stiffer main triangle, making them stronger and more rugged than bikes intended for speed. When it comes to performance, a well designed steel racing bike with ultra-thin high quality tubing will have no trouble keeping up with carbon racers – and may well outshine them, especially when it comes to handling, reliability and all-road capability.
Steel is strong and elegant. As a material, high quality steel is more fatigue resistant and stiffer for a given volume than titanium or aluminum, enabling steel tubing to be more slender. This not only makes for very elegant looking bikes but also means that steel chainstays take up less of the valuable space between the tyre and cranks.
Steel is also easy to bend and shape. Chainstays can also be indented or bent slightly to curve around wide tires and create even more clearance. Steel forks can be made with lugs and shaped into beautiful slender curves, a process that can’t be achieved in other materials. In my opinion, few joints can match the sheer elegance of a lugged steel joint.
The biggest advantage of steel is its toughness. Most steel bikes can survive dings, bends, scratches and still be ridden safely for many years. Steel also tends to fail relatively slowly, giving you chance to fix a crack or a bend before it becomes dangerous. This makes it the perfect frame for challenging adventures – whether you are cycle touring across the African continent fully loaded or dashing out on a mid-week micro adventure. When newbie adventurer Teresie Hommersand was looking for a bike for her ride home from Cape Town to Norway, choosing a steel frame SOMA Saga, was a no-brainer: comfortable for long days on the road, tough enough to take on varied terrain fully loaded and of course, easy to repair when things go wrong.
Traditionally, steel frame bikes were heavy, but thanks to today’s hi-tech steels and lightweight components it’s possible to build a steel bike that would be so light that it wouldn’t qualify for professional racing (6.8kg is the UCI’s minimum weight for a professional race bike)! The thing is, all steel weighs the same, but with modern high-end, high-tech steel the wall thickness (in the middle of a double butted tube) can be reduced to almost Coke can thickness making these bikes really light.
Having said that, a really light frame, even if you’re racing, is not nearly as important as most people think. Consider the fact that the average enthusiast-level steel bike probably weighs about 2-3 kg more than the equivalent carbon bike. When you add to the bike the weight of your phone, water bottle, snacks, wallet and yourself – the difference in overall weight usually ends up less than 3%, so unless you actually stand a chance of being on the podium, this difference in weight is really insignificant. Especially considering the fact that the lighter bike is usually far more expensive, less durable, far less practical and often not really any faster because they’re usually less comfortable and far more fatiguing for the average rider.
Ride Quality. Many people, myself included, rave about the ride feel of a steel frame bike – a delicate balance of stiffness, comfort and liveliness, it’s very hard to beat.
As steel frames are strong and flexible, their ride experience is very comfortable and easy on one’s joints. Steel dampens vibration better than aluminum and doesn’t transmit as much shock through the frame to the rider, creating a smoother ride feel. While some simple things impact how comfortable you are on your bike e.g. riding position, handle bar height and tyre pressure, having a well designed frame that fits you and matches the kind of riding you will be doing is essential.
The biggest challenge with steel bikes is that the really good ones aren’t easily available in local bike shops. Luckily there are some great options for sourcing steel frame bikes in South Africa:
The ultimate way to order a steel frame is from a custom builder like Dave Mercer who will design and build your frame exactly to your needs. Frame builders select high tech steel tubing to match the frame size and ride characteristics you’re after and build the frame with any special features you may want. You then get to select the components and to personalize the paint job. While there is usually a fairly long waiting list with good frame builders and the costs can be quite high, at the end of the day it’s usually great value for something that is truly handcrafted to the highest specifications.
Alternately, if you don’t have the time or the money to commission a custom steel frame, or if you’re not 100% sure of what you want, it may be easier to buy an off the shelf steel frame.
Fortunately there are a handful of manufacturers who make high quality handcrafted steel frames – Soma Fabrications is my favourite as they use top quality tubing and have a great selection of models in a wide range of sizes, so it’s as close to custom as you’re going to get.
Regardless of which route you take, buying a frame allows you to customise your build, which is a key advantage for buying a frame instead of a full bike. It is probably one of the most rewarding ways of buying a bicycle as you get to create a bicycle that reflects you, your needs and your lifestyle.
If you’re spending your own hard earned money on an enthusiast level bicycle that you’d like to own, ride and enjoy for many years, high quality steel is the material I would recommend for 99% of riders. As a strong, safe, repairable, beautiful, practical, and rugged frame material, it is still the best. Steel is Real.
By David Malan.