Steel Is Real

In 2007, Wired magazine (among others) noted the resurgence in steel bikes in an article titled Cycling Purists Rejoice: Steel is Back.  Now, two years and trade shows later, the question remains: has steel finally “arrived”?

Truth be told, steel never actually went away.  But it’s market share sure did.

What has changed in the last 20 years is the inclusion of other worthwhile framebuilding materials.  As widely discussed, and beyond the scope of this article, each frame material (or combination thereof) has a it’s own positive and negative attributes.  Make a brave stand for your preferred frame material(s) on one of the more popular online cycling forums and you’ll see what I mean.

However, there is one important thing that separates steel from the competition … it remains to be the choice of artisan framebuilders.  Here are a few visuals to emphasize the point:

  • Ellis Cycles — Dave Wages might be the “new kid”, but he’s been on the block for a while.
  • Cicli Polito — Award winning handcrafted steel by Dan Polito.
  • Vanilla Bicycles — Sacha Whites’ instant legacy.

As you may already know, none of the three builders above fit into the stereotypical “retro-grouch” archetype.  Rather, they (and others like Sam Whittingham of Naked Bicycle and Design) are young, hip, savvy, and likely to write a blog or two.  More to the point, these steel bikes are a youthful stand against the bike mass-ufacturers — a symbol of individuality and appreciation of hands-on craftsmanship.  This movement against the mainstream is what has really spurred the revival in steel … especially lugged steel bikes.

The other somewhat obvious contributor to steel’s “comeback” is the fixie (fixed gear) factor.  Prior to the development of the specialty niche fixies, like Milwaukee Bike’s Bruiser, the common fixie was a used lugged steel bike with horizontal dropouts.  In other words, the vintage steel bike made the perfect platform for an affordable urban bike that could take some abuse, provide simple transportation, and allow the Mission Hipster a platform for self expression.

Of course, the growing popularity of these handmade steel and simple transport bikes is not lost on the major manufacturers.  So in an effort to expand this “new” market niche, the manufacturers have gone back to what originally brought their success … steel bikes.  The reason for the latency into the market is the slow churning cogs of mass production.  Tim Jackson, the brand manager of Masi Bicycles recently wrote / blogged / Facebooked / Tweeted that Masi already wrapped up their 2010 model line-up specifications before the 2009’s even hit the stores.  Obviously, having to anticipate trends, production, and materials almost two years in advance is a tough task.

That said, Urban Velo recently published a brief list of commonly available steel road bikes.  When combining this list with the hundreds of a custom frame builders, and the hundreds of thousands of vintage steel bikes still on the road, it is reasonable to speculate that steel still dominates the bike industry.

Three other highlights that may, depending on who you ask, contribute to the allure of steel:

  • Early versions of carbon fiber bikes are literally “coming unglued”.  Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done about frames like this, but thankfully the industry has improved and refined the carbon frame construction process.
  • Steel is both repairable and less likely to have a catastrophic failure.  Using my personal steel commuter bike as an example, I have crashed it hard AND (I can’t believe that I am admitting this) I have driven my car into garage while the bike was still attached to the roof rack.  Sure the frame has a small ding in the top tube … but I have ridden it 1000’s of miles since.
  • Steel manufacturing techniques and materials continue to improve and evolve.  While other materials currently receive more coverage from the cycling media, the makers of steel haven’t been dormant.

Steel is a great medium for creating bicycles … it is plentiful, affordable, easily welded, stunning in the right hands, and has a handcrafted appeal like Grandma’s apple pie.  Contrary to the opening statement of this article, steel has never really been in a “comeback” position, rather it has simply lost some of the mainstream spotlight.  But like anything worthwhile, consumers will eventually eschew the latest-and-greatest in favor of the time-tested favorite.

Bryan @ Renaissance Bikes bio coming..

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15 Responses to “Steel Is Real”

  1. Renaissance Bicycles » Blog Archive » Steel is Real(ly Making a Comeback?) Says:

    […] This article also appears online at http://thecyclistsite.com/ […]

  2. dave Says:

    Very cool article. Don’t like the headline, but great article. I still love my carbon roadbike, but for everything else, steel is my choice. All of the builders you mention plus others have me seriously considering a custom steel rig.

  3. Alex Says:

    Steel…

    Not Steal.

  4. grannygear Says:

    “But like anything worthwhile, consumers will eventually eschew the latest-and-greatest in favor of the time-tested favorite.”

    That I have to disagree with. There are reasons that things are the latest and greatest…they ARE truly great. Steel frames in the MTB world(hardtails)were nearly singlehandedly (word?) brought back into vogue by 29ers and the single speed guys…but…carbon/composites are not a fad and will continue to improve. Hydroformed aluminum FS frames will never go back to steel construction. SO if you are riding in the narrow lane of commuter bikes, fixies, or nostalgia based, lugged, hand pinstriped frames, then yes…steel will always be real.

  5. Slow Joe Crow Says:

    Since I just bought a steel framed road bike I guess I am in a good position to comment. I side with grannygear, steel is fit for some purposes, but not for others so we will still see alloy, carbon and who knows what down the road. I do think steel was unfashionable for a while and I am glad to see it becoming more popular because steel does do some things better than anything else. I chose a steel frame for ride quality and long term durability, as well as some nostalgia. My other bike is an aluminum framed full suspension mountain bike and its ride quality is a function of the fork and shock, so weight and stiffness are key and aluminum was the right material.

  6. electric Says:

    Steel is real, cheap.

    In my experience steel never goes the distance. Of all the bikes I’ve had to retire(rusted in bb, rusted through frames and other small annoyance like rust peeling off the paintjob), they’ve all been steel. perhaps my commuting in salt, snow and rain isn’t a fair source for judgment… but my aluminum frame is still tickin’

    Steel *does* have it’s benefits, it’s cheap, easier to work with and readily available.

    But i think your steel should keep it real at mega-mart, because if you’re dumping wads of cash on a expensive steel frame that is actually going to be ridden anywhere besides a desert you should know your frame won’t last as long as an aluminum or titanium or even magnesium frame.

  7. a.lo Says:

    Yep. Told you were prolific. anyways…

    I’d agree with just about everything but that there can be little done about the bikes that come unglued. Sure there is still the crash, which would suck, BUT companies like Trek, as you know since you work at a Trek shop, are totally going to take care of the original owners of these bikes. Plus even in the current models [staying with the Trek line] I know that they can and will fix ‘broken’ US made carbon frames of once again the original owner.

    With that said though, I really don’t forsee myself ever riding full carbon frames. Only carbon forks and if I can help it on steel frames.

  8. Kid Riemer Says:

    Steel is just one choice of frame material. Depending on the frame design, and the frame design goals, there will be other materials that are more or less appropriate for a job.

    Electric: Every type of frame material will eventually fail with enough use.

  9. nate Says:

    What year is it?
    2004?
    Why is everyone so pumped about steel all of a sudden?
    Why does this read like ad copy?
    “Vertically compliant yet laterally stiff. . .”

  10. The state of Steel road bikes - RoadCycler.com Says:

    […] Read Related Articles:Bianchi Brava ReviewViner launches 2008 road bikesThe best and worst states for biking in America, how does your state rank?Felt F65 ReviewProduct Spotlight: Onguard Bulldog Mini U-Lock […]

  11. Fritz Says:

    You guys saw that Breezer is reintroducing the steel Lightning later this year?

  12. Fritz Says:

    Breezer Lightning: Here it is.

  13. John B. Says:

    Recent steel convert here. For my purposes – non-competative recreational and transportation riding – 4130 chro-mo is awesome. Seems the increase in popularity of steel bikes is coinsiding with an increasing interest in transportion and utility cycling. Makes sense to me. I think my Surly povides a great blend of comfort and efficiency. Better than most alum-framed mass marketed “comfort”, “commuter” or “city” bikes, especially the ones with those cheapo, heavy (and unnecessary on this sort of bike) suspension forks. I also appreciate the intangible qualities of steel – the visceral connection with cycling heritage and even the great tools that humans have wrought from iron ore for three thousand years. Not the mention that those slender straight tubes in a classic diamond frame just look so ‘right’. Glad to see steel frames back on the uptick.

  14. electric Says:

    @kid
    Yes, it all breaks eventually but this doesn’t mean everything lasts/wears the same. We know steel bikes break significantly faster(vs aluminum) if one lives near an ocean or anywhere where snow falls. At least steel is cheap and you can buy another one.

    @JohnB
    I don’t know why they slap those forks on… oh wait yes i do it’s because the masses once upon a time wanted them, in fact, maybe they still do. Anyway, please be careful, you shouldn’t mix nostalgia and “intangible” qualities it might have unintended side-effects.

  15. ciocc_cat Says:

    Two old (and still timely quotes) come to mind:

    “An ounce off the wheels is worth two off the frame.”
    – and –
    “You have to finish to win.”

    Major pro-teams have support vehicles with fresh bikes in the event of a catastrophic carbon-fiber failure. Does the average U.S.C.F. racer or club rider enjoy such luxuries? No.

    At 54, I think I’ll stick with my 20-plus year-old Columbus SL Campy-equipped Ciocc road bike. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ll take my (slightly) heavier steel frame’s resilience and durability over something that can shatter or come unglued. Besides, I seriously doubt I’ll be invited to ride in the Tour De France anytime soon.

    Did I happen to mention that I still prefer down-tube shifters as well?

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