Posts Tagged ‘vanilla’

Steel Is Real

April 22, 2009

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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