While aluminium enjoyed a brief period as the material of choice for professional road racing bicycles, the same can’t be said for steel; it was the dominant frame material during much of the 20th century for bicycles of all descriptions.
In the world of professional cycle racing, each of Eddy Merckx’s 525 victories was aboard a steel bike, but the last time the Tour de France was won on steel was in 1994. That was Miguel Indurain, who won his fourth of five Tour titles on a Pinarello bike (though it was reportedly actually built by Dario Pegoretti).
You might well think the advance of carbon fibre would have rendered steel obsolete, but that has never happened. Steel is (and always will be) a really good material for building bicycles frames, because it’s light, stiff and durable - your local blacksmith will be able to repair a broken steel frame… just try getting a broken carbon frame easily repaired.
Some cyclists refuse to ride anything but a steel bike, so enchanting is its ride quality. It’s not as widely available as it used to be though, but that is changing as it has become more fashionable in the past few years, with the new wave of bespoke framebuilders choosing to work with steel.
If you want a custom bike, steel is the most versatile and affordable option. Bespoke carbon fibre will cost you a fortune and good luck trying to get a bespoke aluminium frame, leaving steel to become the main choice in the growing bespoke framebuilding sector. Aluminium has now become so cheap to manufacture that you can now get it on bikes costing from as little as £165.
Steel tube manufacturers, such as Columbus and Reynolds, thankfully haven’t given up on steel, and in fact the opposite has happened, they've been investing in new tubesets. The latest steel tubesets, which include the latest stainless offerings, are now lighter and stiffer than anything Eddy Merckx used to race, and a viable alternative to carbon and aluminium.
Here then are 15 of the best steel road bikes.
When it comes to iconic bicycle brands, there are few quite as iconic as Cinelli. This is the Italian company’s XCr Stainless Steel frameset, which it describes as the “jewel in its range”. We can see why. Handmade in Italy, the TIG-welded triple butted XCr wonderfulness with laser etched graphics has a claimed frame weight of just 1,420g.
London’s Condor Cycles is both a bike shop and bike brand, and its Fratello touring bike is its most popular model, showing that there is a lot of demand for a sensible steel frame. The frame has been carefully refined over the years, and the latest update is a move to Columbus Spirit tubing with some custom shaping taking inspiration from Condor’s racier Super Acciaio. And it’s available with disc brakes now as well, making it the ideal winter training, Audax or commuting bike.
Tom Donhou is one of the new wave of young framebuilders specialising in steel and his bikes have been well received, with a particular focus on disc brakes that led to the development of the DSS1 Signature Steel. It’s an off-the-shelf bike with a frame made from Reynolds 853 and an Enve carbon fibre fork and tapered head tube.
The modern steel tubesets are a long way from the skinny steel tubes of yesteryear, and the Enigma Elite HSS is a fine example of how good a contemporary steel bike can be. It uses the latest Columbus Spirit HSS triple butted tubeset with a beefy 44mm diameter head tube and combined with a carbon fibre fork, it displays the sort of ride that would make you question all other frame materials.
Even though Brit brand Genesis Bikes now does carbon fibre, it has partly founded its reputation on fine steel bikes. It’s also responsible for raising awareness of race-ready steel bikes, with its Madison-Genesis team racing its Volare model at top level races.
The Equilibrium, an all-rounder with room in the frame for mudguards, and rack mounts, has always been the mainstay of the Genesis steel range, with the latest version of the entry-level Equilibrium 10 now a wallet-friendly £999. It uses a Taiwanese made double-butted steel tubeset with a 44mm head tube, carbon fork and Shimano Tiagra groupset.
Britain used to boast many local independent framebuilders, and Holdsworth used to be one of the most famous names in British cycling and framebuilding. The shop closed down in 2013, after 86 years, but the brand has been resurrected by Planet X and it now offers a range of heritage frames. The Professional Italia is the top-end model and features Reynolds 531 tubes, brazed in the UK by master Framebuilder Mark Reilly.
It’s not just British frame builders that are bringing steel back into fashion, there has been a similar increase in popularity over in the US too. Independent Fabrication was founded in 1995 out of the ashes of mountain bike company Fat City Cycles, and now offers a range of steel road bikes. This one, the Club Racer is a traditional road bike with all the fitments for light touring, making it an ideal winter bike, commuter or Audax choice. It’s available with disc brakes as well.
The Roadhouse is Canadian company Kona’s classic steel road bike, with a Reynolds 853 tubeset and thru-axles front and rear - making it one of the few steel road bikes with thru-axles we’ve ever come across. A tapered head tube and carbon fibre fork beefs up front-end stiffness and it’s bang up to date with flat mount disc tabs and, of course, it has mudguard mounts.
New Brit brand Mason debuted with two frames, and chose Columbus Spirit and Life tubes for its Resolution. There’s nothing much traditional about this bike, with internal cable routing, disc brakes and space for 28mm tyres and mudguards.
Started in 1946, Mercian Cycles is another long-running UK steel framebuilding business that is thriving today, using traditional framebuilding methods and building each frame to order and made-to-measure. Choosing a frame involves using the company’s online frame builder tool, which lets you chose a model, tubeset, geometry and other details you want on your future bike. The Professional (pictured) has been selling since the 1960s, when it used to be a flagship racing bike. It can be built from a choice of Reynolds tubesets including 631, 725 and 853.
Legendary bike brand Ritchey Cycles has introduced the new Ascent for 2016. A little bit of history. The Ascent used to be a mountain bike back in the 1980s, but the name has been reintroduced as a do-everything steel touring bike, with space for big tyres and eyelets for all racks and mudguards, perfectly suited to the latest gravel bikes trend. It’s a versatile bike, including the option of taking a 650b wheel with 2.1in tyre (a bit like Cannondale’s Slate).
We were impressed with the carbon fibre Ace from US bicycle brand Ritte Cycles, and the company also produces frames in metal, including the Snob. It’s constructed from stainless steel tubing with oversized profile tubes and a tapered head tube, and compact geometry. You can choose between a regular rim brake or disc brake version.
Rourke Framesets offer a wide choice of steel bikes with a selection of tubesets available to meet different budgets. The custom frame business is headed up by Brian Rourke who has 25-years of road racing experience, and uses this expertise to provide a full bike fit service, to ensure your new bike fits perfectly. Rourke offers framesets in a choice of flavours, from road race to Audax, and complete bikes built to your exact specification.
Shand Cycles is a Scottish frame manufacturer and produces a number of different models, but the Stoater is its do-everything frame designed to be as versatile as you need it to be. Like the modern crop of cyclocross/gravel bikes, the Stoater has space for wide tyres and the frame is bristling with mudguard and rack mounts.
Portland-based Stoemper takes a lot of inspiration from Belgium for its Stoemper Taylor, a frame made from TIG welded True Temper S3 tubing and a classic road bike geometry. The tubes are oversized but not by the same measure as some more modern steel bikes, with a non-tapered head tube providing a classic appearance.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.