Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Steel is Real

There is a low frequency vibe spreading out across the cycling world; silently building its momentum. Like a seismograph reading the first stages of an earthquake, web 2.0 is broadcasting loud and clear. If you listen carefully you can hear the resonance; the carbon bubble has just popped. I know this may sound radical and even senseless, but from inside the eye, it is still and calm and the vibe of the people has been sent. You've heard it here first. Sure, carbon will stick around and companies will continue to throw millions into R&D, the materials will continue to improve, they will get lighter, stiffer and stronger. Yet, the cycling world is preparing to ask for more.

The next frontier (ironically enough) will be steel. Steel delivers a fantastic ride, with beautifully sculpted lugs, perfect brazing materials and temperatures, and buttery smooth tig-welded joints. Steel is predictable in its ride, comfortable over the roughest of roads and delivers a message from the BB directly into your body which unmistakably conveys that you are one with your machine. Now if that was not enough, throw in a beautiful paint job. Most of the bikes on the road have a natural carbon finish with the only color being the occasional decal. Steel is truly an artisan's product, with decades of perfected building techniques.

If steel were a new material, recently engineered to be the ideal replacement material for bicycle frames, it would be the hottest thing to hit the industry. Comfortable, resilient, serviceable, light and delivers a ride like no other. In fact the ride is so wonderful that exotic materials often try to imitate.

Steel is real.

Photo Courtesy: Seven Cycles

32 comments:

chiefhiawatha said...

no.

Baughb said...

Steel............... is the new Black

gewilli said...

(to be argumentative)
Steel is Real.... HEAVY

esp for some 6'6" freak...

:-D

its real for the short masses (oops) i mean average sized cyclists out there ;)

Anonymous said...

Right now steel is the domain of artisan builders (Sachs, Vanilla, etc.) Will a big company start producing high-end steel frames? Seems unlikely.

esthetecyclist said...

Steel has many pro's.
1) The environmental impact that its production has is markedly lower than that of ti or aluminum, and carbon fiber heavily supports the oil industry.
2) The craftsmanship of brazing lugged frames or tig-welding welded frames keeps artisans in business and the frames are altogether more handsome.
3) It absorbs shocks well and will not fatigue and break as quickly as carbon.
4) Wanna save weight? Ride more and shave of yourself. Or don't throw a second bottle on your ride.
5) Carbon fiber is good for aircraft and cars.

Seriously.

Radio Freddy said...

The bicycle industry is built on the trickle down effect. Take the component manufacturers for example. Last year's top range, high-tech becomes this year's middle level hot feature. I am not saying the revolution will come in the form of your local bike shop only sells steel bikes. I am saying that slowly, the dedicated cyclist will feel that carbon no longer gets them excited and the allure of steel begins to grow. Soon, the hot bike on a local group ride will be a truly handmade machine, with made to measure geometry and a deep, glossy paint job. I have seen the trends first hand in years past. Then, and to answer your question; yes, the production companies will offer a steel bike as a response to the $3000-$5000 piece of the market share that is lost to small artisans. Look at it this way, once the influential (eg, the passionate cyclist) begins to drive the desire for steel it will be warmly welcomed. It is cheaper than any of the current "hot options" (at least in the begining) and there are currently no supply issues with alloyed steels (eg, Airbus, Boeing's use of the world's carbon inventory) and the factories in Taiwan, (where they will build your steel frame) already have generations of experience with tig-welded steel. I give it 24 months.

jason said...

You know, I agree to a certain extent, don't think it will take over the industry, but I do think it will return to a point when the diehard, enthusiast, whatever you want to call it, will realize that he or she can get a real work of art that will last multiple seasons, or something really light that may last one. I mean, look at last year's orbea orca. Last year it was fine, but now it just looks old....

Frank said...

Damn Straight. I've been building steel frames the past several years. Simple, well crafted, lugged road bikes. It is on a hobby basis, but I am tooled up like a professional : )
pun intended


Between my trips to the NAHBS, and participating on Frameforum.net with the pro framebuilders willing to share their knowledge, and the joy of building my own bike... I've reshaped my view of the bicycle.

I've always known bikes can be special. A bike tuned for you really enhances the experience.

More importantly:
Owning high-end steel detaches you from the rat race. Its more than a luddite, retro fashion.

E-Ritchey once remarked in a forum: "Are you going to ride it, or benchpress it?"

Make no mistake: no property intrinsic to carbon fibre or aluminum makes a faster machine than steel. Consider a stat from a recent Pez bit; "the fastest Paris - Roubaix ever, was in 1964 when Peter Post won over 265 kilometres at 45.129 kph. Moser's last win, in 1980 was at 43.108 over 264 kilometres. Fabian Cancellara won last year at 42.240 over 259 kilometres"

I do work in the cycling industry, and have some pretty neat-o carbon bikes... but steel sure makes me smile.

david g said...

As a working aerospace engineer, I have three technical comments to make in regard to the steel/carbon bicycle argument.

1.) This part is for the people that actually buy their bikes unlike the PROs.

The entire industry working with carbon fiber is still looking for a reliable method of evaluating the health of composite. Most people know about ultrasound testing of carbon fiber to find any inconsistencies and cracks. No cyclist will have their frame undergo ultrasound testing before hard rides. "Condition-Based Maintenance" methods exist that allow you to visualize damage to composite without special equipment, but that technology has not made it to bicycles yet. Since you cannot evaluate the condition of carbon fiber visually, you run the risk of having your equipment fail when you think it'll be ok (case in point, the broken carbon forks and steer tubes of the Paris Roubaix).

The ductility of steel implies cracking, buckling, or bowing that will hopefully give you time to react to the situation. Similarly, a dent or crack in steel will not propagate or fail the way it would in carbon fiber.

BKW did talk about the cost of carbon fiber molds, and yes, that can be a hinderance to getting a production bike that fits you.

2.) This part is for everyone, PROs included. Composite theory and composite practice have not exactly converged. The theoretical strength of composite is difficult to match by any fabricator. The quality of a composite structure depends on the orientation of the carbon fiber plys, the impregnation of those sheets with resin, the temperature/pressure of the curing, and whether the person designing the structure took all the expected forces into account. Steel is pretty homogenous and there are very many welders who can join steel tubes in such a way that the weld is basically as strong as the material.

3.) On the opposite side of the argument, steel corrodes and carbon fiber doesn't (well, not readily). It is nice to have a pretty paint job, but paint doesn't make you any faster. Paint goes on steel bikes to prevent rust, not because only steel bikes are allowed to have handsome paint jobs.

Sorry for the diatribe, but just thought I'd put it out there. Thanks for the site!

Radio Freddy said...

David G - Thank you for your great comment and thank you for bringing a PROfessional perspective to our discussions.

strangelife said...

Dunno about the fickle masses, but for me steel has always been "real". An uber-alloy seems to me the most likely material in the future. The S, M, L, XL, sizing of most carbon bikes is lame and I'd like to see it go. Regardless, the cyclical nature of retail says that what's old becomes new again. Steel may entice some to turn away from the dark side, but most people don't buy bikes because they have nice paint, a supple ride, or beautiful lugs. Performance (what the computers tell us is 2% stiffer/stronger!) and weight are still king of the marketing room. And we all know what a convincing lot they are.

Guy WR said...

Good call, Freddy. It would be a shame, though, if "steel is real" became a mass-marketing tool. I'm quite happy with the status quo where PRO bikes are objects of envy for their lightness, stiffness and fantasy factor. For those of us looking for something reliable, individual, and customizable, the boutique steel frame remains the ride of choice and there are plenty of great options already.
And if you really want to ride faster, two simple steps: good wheels; train harder.

Anonymous said...

Why do so many of us focus on frames before wheels. Wouldn't a steel Strong (for example) with Lightweights be a better bike than a Parlee with Kysriums?

Radio Freddy said...

Anon - That is a great question and I feel the right answer is that the ideal bike is defined differently by different riders. For me, I think the LWs would be too stiff based on the reviews I have read. However, if the Strong was built to suit me and my intended use it would be a great ride. I have owned many steel bikes, many ti bikes, 1 great aluminum bike and many carbon bikes. I would say that all have great characteristcs but none of those bikes have ever been the end-all, be-all. My custom ti bikes are by far the finest in overall construction and fit but when the carbon bug bit me, the ti bike had no response. The wheels do go a long way to making the ride of a bike. The finest riding wheelset I had the pleasure to use were King hubs built on a tubular Reflex rim with a Vittoria CX/CG combo. I feel those wheels could have made any bike ride nicely.

Bobke Strut said...

I think the current generation of pro cyclists have forgotten the old pro adage "You can't win a race if you don't cross the finish line". Or maybe it's more a factor of their equipment sponsors forgetting. It seems the quest for lighter, lighter, and lighter still carbon equipment is verging on the point of racing truly disposable bikes. Bikes that knowingly won't last a season of hard riding plus the dings and scuffs which afflict any machine which travels extensively.

I think there's a disconnect between the bulk of the cycling public who actually pay cash for the latest carbon wizardry and the reality of what goes on behind the scenes of a pro team. Mr. Cycling Public sees his Euro heroes riding some tricked out equipment and seeks to emulate his favorite riders, but he doesn't see how many frames/wheels/handlebars etc. are destroyed and replaced throughout the season. I remember recently reading about Team CSC and reps from Zipp testing Zipp carbon wheels on Roubaix cobbles last fall and the team destroyed about 15 pairs of wheels in an afternoon! This person may not have the technical know-how to properly maintain his 14 lb. carbon bike (torque wrench?...why do I need one of those?) and will pay the price when his carbon fork or carbon bars explode.

At the height of my fitness and racing prowess in the late 80s/early 90s I was racing a steel rig with a total mish-mash of componentry which today would be deemed a "tank". But I bet if my earlier self (and bike) were teleported to today's domestic peloton I don't think my results would be appreciably different. Fitness and smarts will take you pretty far, even if you're on a 22 lb bike that's in good working condition. And if you ever get to the point where grams will make a difference, it's highly likely that you'd be racing for a team where that equipment would be purchased for you and maintained for you (relatively) worry-free. Although I bet there's some Gerolsteiner pros who are a bit skittish about riding their carbon bikes on pave.

Radio Freddy said...

Bobke - What a treat to have your voice among the comments. Thank you for stopping by. I am in agreement with you. As a team mechanic in the 40s and 50s my father developed a saying that sticks with me whenever I hear a casual cyclist reference what the PROs do. My father's reply would always be: "the only thing you do like a PRO is piss". I think that sums it up nicely.

BoyWhore said...

953 is where its at.

FannyPackOfCourage said...

That's not the Bobke you're thinking of...

Anonymous said...

my steel bike weighs 15lbs.

Heavy? I don't think so

Radio Freddy said...

Fannypackofcourage - Its not Bob Roll, its Bobke Strut. I am regular reader of his blog and Bobke Strut was the first blog to link to BKW. BS is a great blog, you should drop by and read his piece "Oscar Freire - “I Jam Econo” Hi-larry-e-us.

Tim Jackson- Masi Guy said...

Steel is decidedly real... for real. As long as I'm the guy responsible for Masi in the US, we'll always have steel bikes in the line- that's a promise.

The best frame I've ever had, in 25 years of racing and riding; 2005 Masi Speciale Carbon. Dedacciai lightwieght steel with a carbon rear triangle. My 60cm built up at just over 17 pounds too. I love steel.

All frame materials have their place and their strongsuits. (David G did a great job with his analysis.) Carbon is no more the one and only true frame material any more than steel, aluminum, Ti or bamboo. New materials are on the horizon and they promise to make cool frames. Will they last like steel? Don't know yet. Will they ride like steel? Don't know yet. Will it be as cheap as steel? Not likely... dollars to ounces, steel is still one of the best values available.

Artisan builders can make any material look good and ride great. That's why we love them so much. Richard Sachs could make balsa wood look amazing. Brian Baylis could make frames out of plywood! Artisans are artisans, so the material is really relevant there... but they sure can make some really amazing steel bikes.

Pro bikes are a thing of fiction; designed for one season and in some cases one race. Many of the bikes ridden in Roubaix these days will never be ridden again. If I were a pro, and I wish I was, I wouldn't feel too keen to race a modern frame after racing Roubaix. A steel frame though? No problem.

Excellent post... I could ramble for days on this.

The Sporting Life Society said...

I have never ridden carbon...wait, a Kestrel (circa 1991), but I don't remember it, other than I wasn't impressed, but I'm sure they've changed a lot since then...and I've ridden a few AL bikes, road and mtb., but I have never ridden a bike that I enjoy more than my fillet brazed Bontrager Cross.

I liken well-made steel bikes to a pair of Gucci loafs or a croissant from La Pain, and the rest of the frame materials something along the lines of a serious make-out session with your middle school girlfriend in her parents basement...uncomfortable and unpredictable..but the idea is nice.

Anonymous said...

I have been riding a carbon bike for several years and a ti bike before that. I rode a vintage steel Colnago recently and was struck by the liveliness and responsiveness of the ride. I am awaiting delivery of my new steel Della Santa right now. It's all good.....

Anonymous said...

Why is the Photo at the top of this blog called "titubes1.jpg"? (right click and check for yourself... from Seven Cycles, no less) Are these tubes steel or ti? Does it matter?

Radio Freddy said...

The tubing shot is indeed a ti set from the Seven site. I love the composure of the raw tubes and felt the image captured the essance of the artisans materials. A cool note about Seven is that their very first frames were steel and they continue to produce beautiful tig welded steel frames.

fannypackofcourage said...

I know this is an old post, but I had a thought while reading through all the comments: why is steel only real for frames? Couldn't you extend all the same pro-steel arguments onto stems, seatposts, rims, bars, etc?

Aluminum seems to be accepted as the best material for bars and other components for certain technical reasons. Shouldn't the same reasons apply across the board to frames as well? Or vice-versa: if steel is so great for frames, shouldn't some of the reasons for that apply to other components, too? Steel frame fans should be lobbying and promoting steel use in all metal components, no?

Just a thought I had.

Radio Freddy said...

Fannypack - I hear you on the steel thought. I can clearly remember the days of steel components, rims, seat posts, cranks, etc... The problem with steel in these areas is its strength to weight ratio. It simply becomes heavier that its counterparts for like applications. There remains a number of beautiful steel stems out there; just take a quick peak at the Vanilla site.

Anonymous said...

Okay - this post is old - but couldn't help leaving a response.

I agree with RF - think steel will return as the "new black". After a few more years of the carbon fiber craze, what's next?

The industry needs something to hype to sell new bikes - and you can't tell me carbon will be it forever.

Being the old school guy, have a few steel bikes hanging in the garage, one aluminium(full suspension mountain bike), and one carbon fiber bike.

I didn't want to like carbon, but after a few test rides on various bikes - it's too damn nice not to like. It rides great and is stupid light. I still laugh when pulling it off the ceiling hook.

Also, why do so many nice steel bikes have carbon forks? Or even carbon rear ends? Think about that one.

Even so - if I had to own one road bike, it would be steel - frame and fork. I admit it. There's a feel and history to it that can't be denied.

The weight deal is overblown however. Having a 3 and 7 year old at home, 99% of my riding is commuting. I've done the same route hundreds of times and time each ride.

Even though my 16 pound carbon Ibis feels faster and snappier - overall - I'm riding no faster then I did on my 21 pound '91 steel Bridgestone RB-1 or '97 steel Ibis Hakaluggi 'cross bike.

Sad but true - or maybe I'm just slow....

Dan O

John said...

All these comments seem to consign steels future as a vision of the past, repeated. The peoples lowly metal. Nothing could be further from the truth. The new Reynolds 953 is as space age as any material can get, and when this phenomenal metal is finally discovered by the "masses", will consistently build the most unbreakable frames ever made that will be corrosion proof, have the feel of steel, and the light weight of the best Carbon and Ti frames. I plan to be building my share of those too. I have waited for this material ever since I first discovered the concept of "mar-aging" steels 30 yrs ago while studying steel heat treating, when dreaming of the ideal material that I would wish for if anyone ever gave me the wish, and now it's here.
Check it out. And with a redesigned fork/stem arrangement, we will have all stainless bikes, for sure the frame and fork, then rims, spokes, handlebars, seat rails, hollow cranks, just about everything. They will go faster because they will help isolate the bike and rider from the rolling resistance factors better than other materials. Not to mention the smaller tubes having less wind resistance.
It's coming, and it's underestimated, and it is definitely real, so quit yakking about the past, Steel is here for the long haul! Period! Start saving though, because it is not cheap. John M. CCW.

Mapei58 said...

Wow, what a great thread. I have beenn riding for about 20 years, consider myself a "serious non-racer". I work at a Bike Shop so I buy bikes pretty often. I have 2 carbon road bikes, Parlee and Calfee, and a lugged Della Santa. I tend to roll the most on one of the 2 carbons, for no real reasons. When I take the DS for a ride, I am always surprised at how heavy it feels coming down off the wall. As soon as I am under way though, it is all good, very good in fact. I smile on that bike. I know how little I spent compared to the other 2 frames! I agree with the previous post; for most a steel bike with great wheels would be a better combo than a carbon bike with Ksyriums.

What a great site; I need to register.

rockabema said...

first 'good' early 70's era Peugeot PX-10; now I ride a steel Waterford with Campy Chorus--older 10 spd w/o plastic thank you--and a Brooks Pro. Could afford lighter but wanted the ride wanted the reliability wanted the cachet and the feel of steel.

At my age it is easier and more affordable to lose a pound (or 10?) of ME than it is to buy a pound less bike weight. My suggestion? Get off the plastic kick and go for the real--you'll come around and be glad you did.

By the way, it is a rare cyclist that really can tell the difference and identify WHY the plastic might be what she needs--but for 99 and 44 100ths of the rest of us something like my Waterford is it--art and artistry and my bike.

Cycle Design Group said...

Freddy Parr says >>
Steel is re-emerging in Aerospace also.
Fact is that experimentations are being conducted worldwide not just in Mojave.
Our Super X steel teatment consists of first a cryo treatment to make the grainstructure receptive to a chemical saturation which converts the carbon to a metal bearing secret alloy, then by heat treating at very low and short duration the once very rough and loose grain is fully uniform without spaces.
Thus Excalibur is re born.
Handing the newly strengthened material is the future problem as skin thickness being 2-300% tougher can be drawn to thickness never even considered in the past.
Also with the bonus of zero Hydrogen or disolved water/gases in the grain structure (Yes ther is water in there normally)
Other Research being done in California is the re-think Howard Hughes and the Giant Presses are laminating tri and quad metals at diamond forming pressures, problem once again is handling the result.
No current mills can form such Super Metals into tubing and if preformed a large loss of improvement is a factor.
Newer to cycling the SS's from the tube co's such as the mystery 953 are very modest compared to alloys over 65 years old in High Performance Aircraft and Space Vehicles, Just in the lower 10% of high tech, much more is there already to work with.
Our last year of developing joiners for cycle tubes aimed at 953 have brought total success as the most practicle and universal joiners but do to the small mill orders and the constant battle with overseas shipping being closely monitored by Customs it is only getting started into the endusers hands, very slow process?

Bottom line is old Steel was Real, and it's offspring is really amazing stay tuned
Freddy Parr
Cycle Design Group